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This is my own personal write up and, as ever, views expressed should not be taken as representative of those of The F Word as a whole or of other bloggers. Thanks!

Jess, zohra, Catherine Redfern and myself all attended the 500 strong national FEM08 conference at the University of Sheffield’s Student Union this Saturday. For those who weren’t there, the structure of the conference was pretty formal, consisting of a number of plenary talks in the main auditorium as well as a variety of smaller seminars and workshops on a range of topics. There was also an exhibition area featuring stalls run by various feministy groups and organisations, a feminist book sale and a map of feminist and women’s groups across the UK to allow delegates to locate their nearest collective of like-minded people.

My day started at the ungodly hour of 7.30am (can you tell I’m a student?), when I headed down to the Union armed with fairy cakes, No to Hooters leaflets and a bag of ShefFem goodies to set up our stall in the exhibition area alongside the lovely people from Anti-Porn London. Throughout the day we signed up new recruits, made the tidy sum of £50 for Sheffield Rape Crisis from our cake sale and met feminists from around the country, including bloggers from Feminist Philosophers and nectarine and Winter of Mind The Gap. Other stalls included Object, WILPF, White Ribbon Campaign, Fawcett and the Feminist Activist Forum, and the exhibition area was definitely a great resource for getting involved in feminist activism and in touch with other feminists.

The conference itself started at 10.30 with a welcome speech by FEM conferences’ founder, Kat Banyard, followed by the first plenary session on the rape conviction rate. Kira Cochrane, editor of The Guardian’s women’s pages, and journalist Julie Bindel highlighted the myths and attitudes that contribute to the appalling conviction rate, which currently stands at below 6% for reported rapes. Julie Bindel focused in particular on the role men must take in challenging these attitudes, demanding to know where all the men against rape groups were and asking what men in the audience were going to do to stop rape.

Fittingly, the next session, entitled ‘Rejecting destructive masculinities’, featured Damian Carnell of the Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum and Chris Green of the White Ribbon Campaign, which encourages men to stand up and put an end to violence towards women. Both spoke of the importance of challenging patriarchal masculinity, which, by encouraging power, strength, toughness, aggression and lack of emotion, is one of the root causes of violence against women. While this session was interesting, and certainly required listening for the men in the room, I do think it would be beneficial to run a men-only workshop where, instead of just listening, the men could get together and help each other to deconstruct masculinity and figure out exactly how they can support feminism’s aims. I imagine most male pro-feminists, or boyfriends of feminists, rarely talk about these kinds of issues with their male friends, let alone mobilize around them, so if we’re going to encourage them to come to feminist conferences, let’s enable them to get together in a space where they know they will not be mocked or laughed at and let them get on with it.

12pm saw us split off into various workshops and seminars: a showing of the film Hardcore, sessions on ethnic minority women in public life, the female face of poverty, defending a woman’s right to choose, refugee women, how to organise a reclaim the night march and (my new favourite word) femiknitting, in which participants crocheted or knitted squares to represent women unnecessarily killed by child birth, ready for a giant blanket which will be handed in to the government in September (get involved here). I was on the Shef Fems stall at this point, but my friend Amelia went to the ethnic minority women session and found it very interesting. As one of only a handful of ethnic minority women at the conference, she found herself in the position of representing this diverse group, a particularly bizarre situation for her as she feels she has had a very white middle class upbringing. Of particular note were non-ethnic minority women’s attitudes towards the lack of ethnic minority women in government: religion and being stuck in “their communities” were cited as potential causes for their absence. It seems clear that more needs to be done to get ethnic minority women involved in the conferences, both in the audience and on the panels. Similarly, inclusion of LGBT, class and disabled perspectives is necessary to ensure the conference addresses the needs and experiences of all women.

A second round of seminars and workshops followed lunch at 2pm, focusing on prostitution, pornography, grassroots feminist media, women and international development, sexism and the city, feminist networking and Shef Fems’ session, Resisting Hooters. I thought our session went rather well: we had an excellent attendance of around 40 people and got everyone talking about the arguments surrounding the Hooters expansion, and I hope our tips on campaigning were useful. The feminist media session got a number of Shef Fems all excited about zines, and all agreed that the sessions they went to were interesting.

But what many felt was absent from the seminars, and the conference in general, was the opportunity for debate and discussion. We’d like to see sessions in which women can share and listen to personal experiences and dilemmas, offering advice and support. The potential for this was certainly there: at the end of the masculinity session, a woman in the audience asked for advice on dealing with street harassment, and a number of women began to reply, particularly in response to the male speaker’s controversial suggestion that she take self defence classes, but the beginnings of a discussion had to be cut short due to time limitations and the format of the session. The lack of diversity of opinion on the panels was also noted: we’d like to hear a number of perspectives on tough issues such as pornography and prostitution.

Following the second workshop and seminar session, delegates returned to the main auditorium to hear a short speech on Oxfam’s work on women and international development, before the second to last plenary, ‘Challenging lapdance clubs’. I was desperately trying to get our stall packed away in time to see Germaine Greer, so I missed this session, but it focused on Object’s campaign to get lapdancing clubs licensed as sex encounter establishments rather than in the same way as any other bar. Lucy Brown, a former stripper, gave an account of her experiences, the harassment she faced as a dancer and the difficulty of making money when faced with the reality of the way in which strip clubs are run. At the Shef Fems meeting last night, one member said her boyfriend wished as many men as possible could have heard Lucy speak and change their minds about strip clubs, so it must have been moving.

Finally, we were treated to a full hour of Germaine Greer. She covered a huge range of issues; from the tide of pink drowning our girls to her rather controversial take on the HPV vaccine (she supports those who choose not to involve their daughters in the vaccination programme, asking: why should we be preparing girls for sex at such a young age? where are the real methods to protect women’s health and bodily integrity? are women yet again being used as guinea pigs?). But what really stood out, and drew the biggest cheers from the audience, was her focus on the importance of female solidarity. Men have had each others’ backs for centuries while we’ve been split apart by patriarchal society: it’s time to start supporting each other again. Imagine, she said, if women actually got together in the streets and rioted. Imagine if the police had to mobilise to deal with us like they do when faced with male football fans. Imagine if men were scared of us. They’d have to start taking us seriously: would they really keep Spearmint Rhino open if it created social chaos?!

More practically, if we begin to support and listen to each other, we can stop trying to fit into a world created by men, and change social structures so they fit in with our needs. Greer openly said that she may well be viewed as an essentialist, but she believes that women are different, that we would create a different world, a world where mothers and children are respected and play a full role in society, a world without war. I’m not sure that I buy the women as peaceful procreators line, but I certainly agree that we need to make society fit for women, be that demanding free childcare in all workplaces or free tampons in public toilets. Finally, to the delight of the many supporters of women-only space in the room, Greer gave the concept a resounding thumbs up.

Challenging, inspiring, and at times controversial, Germaine Greer’s speech had us all pinned to the edge of our seats, providing a grandmotherly kick up the backside to get out there and be the change we want to see in the world.

Kat Banyard rounded off the conference with a similarly inspiring speech, met with a huge round of applause, and we all stumbled happily off to the nearest public house to get gently sozzled and reflect on the day’s events.

HUGE congratulations go out to Kat and the organising group for putting the conference together, and to you for getting to the end of this mammoth post.

Comment away!