Million Women Rise – Reflections

A rising of 5,000 women may seem like an eminently newsworthy issue, and you’d assume it would get some coverage.

But thousands of women, many with banners and placards, some playing in bands or drumming groups, who marched through central London in the rain and the cold on 8 March to make a call for an end to violence against women, got none of it. The press stayed away.

Or rather they didn’t – there wasn’t a step of the march (it felt like) without a photographer running alongside and taking pictures. But none of them ended up in the national press. Nor was a word written or spoken about Million Women Rise in the mainstream media.

Around the same time, the press managed to cover 5,000 protestors at Aldermaston, a threatened protest outside the new Banana Republic store, organised by War on Want, two men scaling a crane to protest in favour of a referendum on the EU, five men climbing onto the roof of the Palace of Westminster to protest against a third runway at Heathrow and 250 pig farmers protesting about low meat prices. Spot something, well, unequal about this?

What was it about MWR that meant it didn’t get coverage? Was it too small (apparently not, it’s a lot bigger than some of the protests that did merit media attention)? Was it too remote (I assume Trafalgar Square isn’t too far from journalists’ offices)? Was it too frivolous, or too specific an interest (but I’d argue women’s rights are rather less niche than pig farming)? Was it just too, well, un-masculine? Would we have fared better if we’d scaled some building or phallic outcrop. Probably. As a journalist said to me the other day: “If it isn’t sexy and it isn’t weird then it isn’t newsworthy.”

Even as a steward, I was swept up in the sheer triumphalism of feeling – we were there, we were making a stand

As an interesting aside, if you search for “Million Women Rise” in the broadsheet archives you get articles on Canadian policing, complementary medicine and Britain’s crumbling schools (The Guardian), hormone replacement therepy, breast screening and the Budget (The Times), and premature babies, lilac coloured vodka and the Budget (again) (The Independent). Even in its 8 March round up on International Women’s Day the Guardian managed to almost totally avoid a mention of MWR, except for a letter from Carole Bernstein.

The only two mainstream outlets to mention of MWR was The Guardian’s sister site Comment is Free, where Cath Elliot wrote about the march, and Yahoo’s Eyewitness site which has photos. It seems women are held to a different standard of newsworthiness than men – after all, war and European politics and runways are all areas of typically masculine involvement. The rights of women to not be subject to violence apparently isn’t interesting, sexy or weird enough.

Interestingly Luckynkl, on Women’s Space, says something similar about the March for Women’s Lives in the US:

In 2004, I marched in The March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC. We were 1.15 million-strong. It was the largest march in American history, yet there was barely a peep about it in the media. I’ve spoken to many people across this country. Outside of feminist circles, no one had heard a word about it and had no one had a clue that the event had even occurred. The largest march in American history and no one heard about it? WTF [what the fuck]?

The media is keen to declare feminism dead, decrying the lack of protests as proof, and yet when feminist action does meet their rather restrictive expectations, it is ignored. Why? Maybe because the ‘malestream’ media can’t see the purpose of protesting: after all they are one of the guiding forces pushing the idea “we’re all post-feminist now”. I’d love that to be true, but if there is still discrimination against women then there are still feminists – and until I earn the same as male counterparts, have the right to go where I want, when I want without fear of rape or sexual violence, until I see women like me represented on TV, and whilst female models are all forced into the same emaciated physical appearance then there is still an issue.

The incident shows us that we have to be more aware and more vigilant about embracing the differences within feminism – should the stewards have focused less on protecting the stage and more on defusing the situation? Or protecting the protestors from crowd members?

The march was an absolutely wonderful experience. Even as a steward, I was swept up in the sheer triumphalism of feeling – we were there, we were making a stand. The gathering point was a riot of questions, colour and admiration – people’s t-shirts, banners and their sheer enthusiasm. The marchers ranged from around the age of six to more than 60, able-bodied and disabled, from a whole range of different backgrounds, diasporas and experiences. And we were all together to protest violence against women and to do our bit to make it stop.

But Cath Elliot, in Comment is Free, also raises another element to the day, and this has become the focus of post-march reflection. I refer to an incident involving a small protest group and a speaker who didn’t get to speak. In her piece, Elliot describes it like this:

While I was standing in Trafalgar Square listening to the speeches and soaking up the atmosphere, I noticed a small disturbance off to one side; the English Collective of Prostitutes had shown up and were attempting to take the stage. Complaining that sex workers were being denied a voice at the rally, the ECP seemed determined to disrupt the entire event. A row of stewards barred their way, then tempers flared, and before you could say “prostitution degrades and oppresses women” a scuffle had broken out and a woman had been seriously assaulted by an ECP supporter.

My recollection is a little different. The ECP didn’t turn up late as is suggested here, but were on the march, so this wasn’t a last-minute attempt to get involved. And the speaker who wasn’t able to speak was from the Transport and General Workers Union, rather than the ECP (although the two are working together on representation for prostitute women). That said, some facts seem to not be contested. There was a vocal protest by some women over the fact that one speaker was removed from the schedule, and that protest at some point degenerated into verbal and physical violence. Seemingly one member of the protest group was attacked by someone from the crowd, and one member of the stewarding team was attacked by a member of the protest group and needed medical attention. No-one can condone those acts of violence.

Various reasons for Teresa Mackay not getting to speak have been put forward. The Black Looks blog says it was because: “Two of the organising committee members did not approve of her speech and rather than challenge the two women they agreed to their decision.”

In a post-event statement, MWR said:

We are disappointed that an incident involving a speaker who failed to get her contribution lodged in time has been misconstrued as an attempt to prevent her speaking about prostitution and violence. The speaker was invited in her capacity as a trade union official and we welcome the support of trade unions that share our aims and key message.

(For people questioning why speeches had to be in beforehand, there were sign language interpreters present for deaf protesters, and signers need, wherever possible, to see the text in advance. The issue, as Ruthanna says below, wasn’t one of timing alone but that the speech was provided as bullet points rather than continuous prose). I suspect this is a debate that will rage and rage.

Some protesters have claimed that Mackay was prevented from speaking in an attempt to silence and dismiss sex workers concerns. MWR have responded that:

As a coalition we recognise that women who work in prostitution experience some of the most horrendous violence and abuse, and to them and all women who have experienced such violence, we offer our unwavering support and solidarity.

From the outset, MWR organisers laid out their position on sex work as a form of violence against women in their list of demands:

Violence against women and children is widespread in society and includes child sexual abuse, domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault, sexual commercial exploitation, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Most violence against women and children is perpetrated by men.

In such a morass of information, what can we learn? Where does all this leave us?

Well, MWR set out their stall, taking a radical feminist position that sex work is a form of exploitation and violence against women. The ECP/TGWU speaker would have been a powerful addition to the day, reminding many women that sex workers are on the receiving end of male violence day-in and day-out, highlighted not least by the murder of the Ipswich women. It reminds us that feminism is not a homogenous group, and that there must be space for all opinions to be heard. But that there also needs to be respect – both for multiple viewpoints and for organisers of events to make decisions.

It reminds us that sometimes we won’t agree, but that we have to find respectful ways of dealing with that – feminism must ensure people are heard, but that doesn’t mean people can demand that right without responsibility.

And it shows us that we have to be more aware and more vigilant about embracing the differences within feminism – should the stewards have focused less on protecting the stage and more on defusing the situation? Or protecting the protestors from crowd members? Was there a way to manage this without it being seen as further harassment of the protest group? What is the best way to ensure multiple viewpoints can be heard?

A lot of questions remain unanswered, but I guess the biggest one is age old – how do feminists form coalitions despite fundamental differences in opinion? Can coalitions be formed in that circumstance, or is the only viable response for both sides to entrench and demand capitulation from the other?

Teresa Mackay’s Speech

At end of 2006, five young prostitute women were brutally murdered in Ipswich. The sense of horror and anger was very apparent, as the five were seen as very vulnerable young women, forced into prostitution because of their drug addiction. This was very different in the 1980’s when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was murdering prostitute women. There was no interest by the police or media until non-prostitute women were murdered.

These murders put the whole issue of prostitution on the map, so much so that the government were going to use the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to introduce compulsory rehabilitation for prostitute women, as well as the criminalisation of clients. There was a feeling that this was not the answer. The government were looking to the Swedish model as the way forward rather than to New Zealand, where criminalisation of prostitution no longer exists. Just as in England, sex workers in Sweden were not consulted, whereas in New Zealand they were. Sweden has seen an increase in pimping. Clients that are robbed cannot go to police for fear of prosecution. The same applies if they witness violence against a prostitute by her pimp or anyone else. Sex workers feel much more vulnerable to violent clients, making it more dangerous for all. Those who are only interested in consenting sex disappear, leaving the women vulnerable to the violent clients. Whilst these women are criminalised they have no protection and violent men think they can and do get away with attacking with no comeback from the law. It is generally accepted that sex workers remain in the industry for between three and five years. If they are criminalized how is that going to help them out of the industry?

A campaign opposing this was initiated by the English Collective of Prostitutes, with the support of National Association of Probation Officers, Royal College of Nursing, John McDonnell MP, Lord Faulkner and many others. The government have now decided to delete these clauses from the Bill. This has to be seen as a real victory, but there is no room for complacency as they may try and bring it back under another guise at some stage in the future.

A report by the Economic and Social Research Council found that two thirds of sex workers had been violently attacked by clients, with street prostitutes at greatest risk. 28% had suffered attempted rape. Sex workers, especially street prostitutes, are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse. One study found that they were 40 times more likely to be murdered than other women. This is just a reflection of the society that we live in, where violence against women is endemic. 90% of street prostitutes are hooked on drugs. Many are forced into selling their bodies by pimps, traffickers and economic necessity.

Since the murders, the Ipswich & District Trades Union Council have been active in campaigning for the decriminalising of prostitutes. We recognised that the community and trade unions had a duty to debate issues such as legislation, decrimalisation and tolerance zones if we were to lift the violent lid on street prostitution. We took a motion to the Annual Conference of Trades Union Councils, where it received unanimous support and was later supported by the TUC. We called for decriminalisation not legalisation. We also saw the need for a massive expansion of voluntary drug rehabilitation schemes as well as support services such as counselling, safe houses; help with housing, training and jobs to provide a route out of prostitution for those wishing to leave. Increased public funding in health, housing, childcare and other related services was also necessary for all women. We recognised that sex workers are workers and have the right to join a trade union though they should not be forced to sell their bodies to survive.

In February of this year, we invited Catherine Healy from New Zealand to talk about the effects that decriminalisation of prostitution had had since 2003. Catherine was appointed by the Minister of Justice to the New Zealand Prostitution Law Review Committee, she is a founding member and the national co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective and, in 1993, she was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal for her services to women. She explained that there are now fewer women on the streets because they are allowed to work from brothels. Living on so-called ‘immoral’ earnings has been repealed as has soliciting. Sex workers can now talk openly about their industry, have rights and don’t have to work seven days a week. They are covered by health and safety legislation, labour inspectors and can join trades unions. They have employment contracts that aren’t always perfect, but they can now be challenged under law and legal contracts with clients and sex workers have the right to say NO. Brothel keepers are not as happy, as the sex workers have taken control of their own lives and have employment rights and health and safety guidelines. There are no more arrests for soliciting, which reduces the barriers to leaving the sex industry by allowing immediate access to unemployment benefits. Decriminalisation allows women to leave prostitution voluntarily.

The continued criminalisation of sex workers benefits no one. The number of women in prison has doubled in the past years and imprisoning women for non-violent offences goes against recent recommendations of the 2007 Corston Report. As women are society’s primary carers, prison destroys families and punishes the thousands of children who are separated from their mothers’ love, guidance and concern. Over 70% of prostitute women are mothers. Sex workers work to support themselves and their families. The most effective way to deal with this situation is to provide resources to address the poverty, debt, low wages, rape and domestic violence, homelessness, drug use, depression or a combination of these, which drive many people into prostitution. The government’s recent proposals to take drug addicts off their benefits payments if they do not take part in treatment programmes is a further attack on the most vulnerable and must be opposed at all cost.

What are the answers? Listed below are some of the demands put forward by the ECP:

  • End the criminalization of prostitute women.
  • End legal, economic and civil discrimination against prostitute women and their families. Remove the stigma attached to prostitution which can result in women being deported, separated from their children, denied health care, housing, jobs, school education for their children, etc.
  • Sex workers to be recognized as workers, with human, legal, economic and civil rights, including the right to police protection, employment and health benefits, pensions, to form co-operatives and trade unions, etc.
  • Police time and resources used to arrest sex workers (and sometimes clients) used to deal with rape, racist attacks and other violent crimes.
  • Increase safety for all women. Rape and other violent crimes not to be dismissed on the grounds that the woman was “asking for it” because she was “loose” or a prostitute. Make it easier for prostitute women to report pimps and other violent men for assault, rape, kidnapping, extortion.
  • Undermine the need for red-light areas. Sex workers not to be prevented by law from advertising and working together indoors.
  • Separate consenting sex between adults, which should have nothing to do with the law, from offences of nuisance. This should be dealt with on the basis of what the nuisance is and not the person.
  • Prevent the introduction of legalized brothels which institutionalise women in prostitution. Prevent the introduction of “zones” based on “tolerance” rather than rights – which endanger sex workers by segregating them from the community.
  • Allow women to move in and out of prostitution, as their financial situation requires, instead of giving them a criminal record and the need to earn money to pay the fines.
  • Allow prostitute women greater control over their working conditions.
  • Allow prostitute women to dispose of their income as they choose without the worry that husbands, boyfriends or sons may be arrested for living off their immoral earnings.
  • End the police and courts’ policy of using possession of condoms as evidence to arrest and convict prostitute women and men for prostitution offences.
  • Allow sex workers to come out, speak publicly and challenge media stereotypes.

We need to have the debate on the way forward as well as making sure we are talking to the workers in the sex industry. Remember they are workers and have rights too. Prostitution and violence against women will continue whilst poverty and inequality in terms of power and wealth remain within our society breeding violence, abuse and economic and sexual exploitation. Some measures can make life less dangerous and harmful for women involved in prostitution but there will be no last solutions whilst poverty inequality and sexual exploitation continue to exist.

Teresa MacKay

Secretary to Ipswich & Dist TUC

Million Women Rise Post-Event Statement

There is a place, where words are born of silence,

Where whispers of the heart arise….

– Rumi

The Million Women Rise Coalition expresses its sincere thanks to all the women who assisted in making the march and rally on 8 March 2008 in central London a truly amazing, herstorical and successful event. Thousands of women joined the Million Women Rise to end violence against women and the energy, love and defiance certainly rose. This was and is, just the beginning from now until we meet again on 8 March 2009.

Our actions sent a clear message to decision makers that we are no longer prepared to accept rhetoric in the campaign to end violence against women and children.

We should all be proud of what we achieved on 8 March 2008. We will continue to work in solidarity with other women who share our vision for a world where women and children can live their lives free from the threat of violence. We take our strength from Maya Angelou’s words “Still we rise”.

We are disappointed that an incident involving a speaker who failed to get her contribution lodged in time has been misconstrued as an attempt to prevent her speaking about prostitution and violence. The speaker was invited in her capacity as a trade union official and we welcome the support of trade unions that share our aims and key message.

As a coalition we recognise that women who work in prostitution experience some of the most horrendous violence and abuse, and to them and all women who have experienced such violence, we offer our unwavering support and solidarity.

We also regret the actions of a few women, which resulted in violence, at the rally. As a coalition, we do not approve of acts of violence against anybody.

The Million Women Rise march and its related activities presents an opportunity for increasing dialogue between women. This we feel is the key to forging an indestructible unity between all women, which transcends all differences of nationality, ethnicity, religion, generation and social position. Through dialogue we can learn from one another’s experiences and perceptions, which can only work to strengthen this ‘rising’ movement of women. Only by having open discussions can we further progress women’s position in this society, and work together to eradicate gendered violence. To this aim then, we would like to facilitate open dialogue forums around the UK and encourage all women to consider how they could organise a forum where they live

Thank you again. To all the women and girls that marched and gathered on International Women’s Day 2008 in solidarity against male violence. Thank you to our stewards, women who had volunteered to be part of a movement towards a society that is free from violence, our amazing and inspirational speakers and comperes who shared their words and hearts, our three sign language interpreters, to the girl children, the mothers, sistahs, aunties and elders who led, held and followed the march, and to the millions of women who have been murdered through violence, whose spirits we carry in our blood and whose hearts we could feel through the drums. Thank you drummers, for swelling your hands to keep women on the march in rhythm with love. Thanks to the singers and musicians, artists and photographers, mobile movie makers, MWR crew. Thank you women past, present, future for giving us the strength and courage that made this day possible, because you inspired Million Women Rise, because some of us right now are free and we do this action because we can. Let’s meet again March 8 2009 hopefully and as one sister says: to celebrate the elimination of male violence against women in all its forms. It will happen in our lifetime.

It is good!

Reflections, by Jennifer Drew

An unfortunate incident occurred during the rally following the MWR march. MWR subsequently issued a statement wherein they clarified why the speaker Teresa Mackay had not been allowed to speak. But this did not prevent some blogs from claiming MacKay had been prevented from speaking because her views on prostitution differed from some MWR committee members’ views.

Feminists are not a homogenous group and there are differences of opinion on a wide range of issues. But if one believes in women’s rights while simultaneously claiming it is acceptable for men to buy women’s and girls’ bodies for male sexual exploitation, we are effectively saying women’s human rights only apply to certain women, not all women and girls.

Male sexual violence against women takes many forms, but what reinforces and most certainly justifies male violence against women are the ever increasing normalisation, promotion and acceptance of a culture which dehumanises women by portraying them as men’s sexualised commodities. Contrary to dominant ideas, we are not currently living in a sexualised society, rather we are living in a culture which has sexualised and dehumanised women and girls only. Men and boys are not routinely represented as dehumanised sexual objects. Pornography, prostitution and the media’s obsession with representing women and girls as men’s sexual playthings all serve to normalise male sexual violence against women.

If we are serious about challenging and seeking to end – or at the very least reduce – the normalisation and acceptance of male sexual and physical violence against women, we must challenge society’s misogynistic attitudes and devaluation of women as a group. This means challenging dominant notions of masculinities. It also means holding men accountable and responsible for their violence inflicted on women and children, rather than obsessively blaming women and children for male violence against women. We must hold the media accountable for promoting and eroticising male sexual violence against women and children. Sweden has taken a major step in criminalising Johns who buy prostituted women, yet still we hear calls for decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution. Half-measures never work because we are in effect saying ‘yes it is right and acceptable, a certain number of women and girls must and should always be made available for men to rape and sexually abuse.’ (See the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution).

Prostitution is interlinked to men’s belief in their right to buy women for the purpose of rape and sexual exploitation. Prostitution, pornography and the sexualisation of women and girls all work together to normalise and make acceptable men’s violence against women and children. This partially explains why opposition is so virulent, because it challenges men’s belief in their right of sexual access to any woman or girl. Attempts to separate out prostitution from say, pornography, and/or sexualisation of women and girls are deliberate strategies designed to hide how male power and male sexual entitlement operates. We must resist and challenge all aspects of male sexual violence against women rather than treating them as separate issues in our fight for the right of all women and children to have lives free from men’s violence, control and sexual oppression.


As OBJECT, we were proud to march with 5,000 other women celebrating International Women’s Day and using the opportunity to call collectively for an end to violence against women. There is nothing more powerful and inspirational than to join forces with women across all divides to create a united voice which demands justice for us all.

As OBJECT we support the right of all women to live a life free of violence and oppression. In line with other feminist groups, we are against the criminalisation of women selling sex. Women should never be blamed or criminalised for the oppression that they face. We stand with Million Women Rise in calling for commercial sexual exploitation to be recognised as violence against women. For this reason, we support measures to tackle the demand for buying sex which creates this exploitative industry. This is in line with the ‘Swedish’ model which criminalises the men who buy sex, rather than the prostitutes themselves.

OBJECT works to tackle this demand by challenging the underlying attitudes which legitimise the idea that women can be bought and sold for sex. In order to do this we tackle the way that women are portrayed in society, which makes the buying and selling of women seem normal, acceptable, even glamorous, empowering and desirable.

OBJECT believes that you cannot separate the fact that we are bombarded with sexist images of women in poses which stem from pornography, depicting women as always up for sex, no matter what, from endemic violence against women, low rape conviction rates, and the fact that nearly one in three people still think that women are at least partly to blame if they are sexually assaulted (Amnesty International Study, 2005). The media plays a fundamental role in establishing and reinforcing attitudes based on gender stereotypes. This obvious statement is supported by numerous studies, such as that by the Institute of Education from 2003 showing that two out of three young people see the media as a major way to find out about sex and relationships. These attitudes lead to gender inequality and legitimise violence against women. It is therefore crucial to scrutinise the media and hold it accountable for the messages it promotes.

Debates regarding the role of the sex industries are not even. Women’s groups which challenge the mainstreaming of the sex industries and highlight the links between the way that women are portrayed in society and the prevalence of violence against women, face a difficult task. Most significantly, they are up against a multi-billion pound industry backed by other supposedly ‘unrelated’ corporations and, of course, the media.

The multinational corporations who make money out of the sex industries dominate mainstream media outlets. Take Rupert Murdoch – owner of the News Corp International Group, which in turn owns both The Times and The Sun). As well as owning a large share of the influential mainstream media outlets, Murdoch also owns, and therefore profits from, Direct TV, which sells more pornographic films than Larry Flint’s Hustler enterprise. It is clear how the system works to perpetuate itself.

Take prostitution – a survey across five countries showed that 92% of female prostitutes wanted to leave prostitution. Yet the media-friendly story is still the ‘Belle du Jour’ fantasy of a successful glamorous, empowered call-girl. This is not surprising when we consider the amount of money being made by promoting, glamorising and normalising this ‘sex-object’ lifestyle.

When we consider these factors as the broader context of current society we can appreciate the absolute imperative to include commercial sexual exploitation as part of any definition of violence against women by the MWR and the overwhelming need to address the media’s promotion of this industry.

OBJECT supports the struggle of individual women within the sex industry to fight for an end to their exploitation. Furthermore, we believe that in order to put an end to exploitation and abuse of all women it is vital to tackle the societal institutions and attitudes which legitimise the buying and selling of women for sex. This means challenging the normalisation of ‘sex-object’ culture which depicts women as sexual commodities. It is the normalisation of this culture which legitimises gender inequality and violence against women.

Red Chidgey, a member of Feminist Activist Forum

Stomping through central London, shouting my lungs out with slogans and chants, my body knew this wasn’t any ordinary march. As a woman, I was marching directly for my survival. For recognition of the pain, harassment and abuse it had been subjected to through being identified as cunted and prone.

The rousing speech of organiser Sabrina, impromptu and passionate, brought something else home to me: while the march may not be ordinary for a white girl like me (being led at the grassroots by women of colour), we are all ordinary women. And there’s power right there in the ordinary women, coming together.

Blocking Teresa’s speech may be an act of censorship – particularly painful considering the death of the Ipswich women who’s memories framed the march – but there also exists ongoing acts of silencing and misinformation which occur between feminists themselves: where gossip and assumptions circulate to create reputations so forceful they repel women without ever coming into direct contact with the organisation/organiser in question.

I sincerely hope that between feminists, as an ethic of care, we can prioritise honest communication and shared problem-solving. For example, to not only turn to Teresa but to speak with the MWR collective themselves (beyond a website statement), to find out more about what happened and what the repercussions were.

The heart of a strong feminist movement lay not only in moving out of one’s comfort zone – be that having the courage to change or leave intolerable situations, or speaking out for the first time – but also committing yourself to the long-term process of building trust across differences and creating allies. We won’t all agree. We’re certainly not all the same. But we shouldn’t permit creepy logics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to kill us off before we’ve even begun. Perhaps the next question feminists can ask themselves is: what strategies and actions can we use – and make clear why and how we are using them – to address feminist differences (what common work can anti-prostitution feminists do with sex work unions for example? What organisational policies can be shared between women who believe in trans-inclusive safe spaces and those who don’t? What are our acts of communication, compromise and negotiation?)

Patience, transparency and coalition-work (building friendships so that your activism may strengthen organically, rather than lop-sided topple with white class guilt/tokenisation or internet anonymity) is perhaps our most pressing way forward.

Feminist Activist Forum is an intergenerational alliance of grassroots feminists – many of whom don’t agree on many things. Other FAF reports and photos on MWM can be found on the website.

Lesley Woodburn, former MWR committee member

Leslie performed various tasks for MWR (helped organise the Day of Action on 1 March, obtained trade union sponsorship, arranged the stewards and first aid training), and has a different view of the reasons given for the violence between two women at the rally. MWR has seen this statement, along with the whole feature, before publication, and been given opportunities to respond.

I was a steward on the MWR demonstration, and I was on the organising committee of the MWR. I was surprised when I, along with other stewards who brought the march to Trafalgar Square, saw the fight between two women that marred what up to then was a perfect day. What led up to the fracas? What caused it? What led me and other stewards to down steward jackets and question what we were being told to do: to stop what someone considered a possible stage invasion. And most importantly what lessons can be learnt?

As usual, rumours are rife and the most common puts the blame on the ECP or (if the MWR statement on the issue is to be believed) invited speaker from the TGWU, Teresa Mackay, for not submitting her speech in time.

On the day of the demonstration I made my way as a lead steward to the side of the stage, where I saw Teresa and asked why she was not near the speaker enclosure, as she was due to speak. Teresa said that a MWR committee member had told her that she was not going to be allowed to speak. I then approached the MWR woman concerned, who refused to speak with me. The chair of the MWR committee said some members of the MWR had made a decision that Teresa was not to speak claiming “some members of the committee had concerns over Teresa’s speech”. I asked who were the MWR committee members who decided this and when did they meet? To which she only replied “we’ve decided it’s not happening”.

All the speakers had been confirmed two weeks before without dissent about Teresa. Moreover, as the MWR committee member responsible for confirming some invited speakers, I know that Teresa along with other speakers emailed her speech to the MWR for interpretation days before the march and that some other speakers were unable to submit their speeches prior to the rally yet were able to speak.

The MWR statement on the issue is completely misleading. It was the contents of Teresa’s speech, not the protocols, that a fraction of the MWR committee thought too damaging for our ears. Particularly that Teresa’s speech talked about the murders of the five Ipswich prostitutes and ways of involving prostitutes in decision-making processes to reduce the harm they may face at work. Another reason why the claim that Teresa never submitted her speech is false is if this had been so then the chair would not have been able to say that “some members of the committee had concerns over Teresa’s speech”.

The 8 March saw a few women on the MWR committee try to circumvent the collectivity and process of the MWR that had invited Teresa to speak. This was incongruous with the mantras devised at a MWR day of action on 1 March that spoke of a unity of women against the violence we face.

“It’s no secret hear our

voice sistas united

let’s rejoice”

The actions of these women also seemed to fly in the face of the MWR Terms of Reference devised in our initial meetings to ensure agreed process and clarity in MWR decision-making. These Terms of Reference were reasserted only a few days prior to the march, when a similar issue arose. The chair on this occasion reasserted the importance of collective decision-making, and I was particularly drawn to how she understood that as a diverse group of women we need to adhere and understand this process to remain united in our goal – to stop male violence against women. Unfortunately, on the day of the demonstration the MWR chair and (also an invited speaker), decided to replace this clear, democratic and process-driven decision-making with a moralistic, unclear, and undemocratic assertion to block Teresa from speaking and an attempt to shutdown the representation of a section of women. Again this seems to me to be going against the other MWR devised mantra that opened the rally.

“One woman,

One body,

One love,

One song”

The same by-passing and dissent to it was seen in the “commercial exploitation” section of the statement of demands, and was never fully discussed within the coalition and only later appeared without discussion on the statement. I, along with other members of the MWR committee, was uncomfortable when this statement for this reason.

By not allowing long-standing trade unionist Teresa Mackay to speak as previously agreed, confusion and hostility was created, and unfortunately this led to the fight in which two women hurt each other. Furthermore it created a risk to the health and safety of all women (and if this decision has been taken in advance of the rally, it should have been written into the Risk and Health and Safety Assessments).

What can be learnt from this? What can be ways forward?

  1. It be reaffirmed that representatives must be clear and transparent in their collective decision-making processes.
  2. That terms of reference, constitutions and governance procedures agreed upon must be adhered to, and reasoned debate must be preferred methods and valued above unclear maneuvers and undemocratic methods.
  3. The MWR committee should not continue to compound the mistakes made and admit it was wrong to stop Teresa Mackay from speaking. In doing so, for the MWR committee members who agreed the statement concerning the fight to reflect on its inaccuracy, lack of clarity and to withdraw it. For the MWR committee members who met to decide on the MWR statement to circulate the minutes of that meeting to all MWR members that show record of attendance and show the quorum required for such meetings.
  4. The MWR committee members who met and decided Teresa should not speak should accept their responsibility for provoking the fight, therefore distancing themselves from those women who value free speech. That these women apologise for silencing women.
  5. That open dialogue amongst all women seeking ways of combating violence must take place, and that must include all women and all voluntary sector women’s organisations regardless of their work, class, race, ability, age, sexuality, politics (except fascists).
  6. MWR should reconsider it is structure to ensure it is democratically elected (perhaps through regional and national MWR conferences) and adopts a constitution and terms of reference that enables it to be held accountable by its membership for its actions.
  7. For all women to value dissent, discussion, disagreement, indecision, agreement without resorting to unclear, undemocratic tactics that undermine and silence women. MWR, and all feminist groups, should rise to the understanding that dissent makes us strong not weak. Silencing women and the representation of women is a form of violence against women by women.

Ruthanna, speaker, steward and member of MWR coalition

Reflections on reflections

It is a shame that there was no news coverage of the rise. It is important to remember however, that the lack provides its own education to those who have not yet seen or noticed the silencing of women. My 10 year old daughter couldn’t wait to see the newspaper articles that weren’t there; my father, proud of his daughter who was given the honour of speaking in Trafalgar Square, was incredulous. They both now begin to connect the struggle, the aim to end violence against women, with the silencing and invisibility of those of us who speak out.

We shrug our shoulders and get on with the planning of the next one. The people who do not write about us, the people who do not want to read about us, are the same people who play a part in what we are rising against. It is not for them and the publicity that we rise – it is for the women in the march. Some had never felt the strength of a women only space before, others revitalised themselves by feeling it all again. Next year there will be more of us, and those same women spend the rest of the year, between marches, carrying on making a difference in their every day lives – maybe not with newspapers or television shows, but with daily contacts with ordinary people.

So, with very little written publicly about that wonderful day, we now have our second article which mainly concentrates on the incident that marred a part of the day. I witnessed part of it, I stopped stewarding at the time, and I have read some of the comments and allegations since the event. I very strongly resent this incident overshadowing the rest of the day.

I do not know the truth of exactly what happened. As with all events in the past, there is now no single truth, since everyone who attended (and lots who didn’t) have their own versions of what went on.

In an attempt to differentiate between facts and opinion, I know that speeches from all speakers were requested to be received by the 28th February so that signers could prepare, Teresa MacKay’s submission was sent in on 6th March and consisted of a list of bullet points, not the speech provided here and that the ECP arrived at the march/rally with a microphone and speaker system of their own.

I am a feminist without a fixed view on sex work. I do not have enough direct experience or knowledge of all of the relevant facts for all women involved, and would not pretend to speak for them. It is my view that MWR does not pretend to do this either. However, the comments in response to Cath Elliott’s piece provided some interesting background information on ECP, their links to other organisations (such as Women against Rape, Wages for Housework, Safety First Coalition, Global Womens Strike, Legal Action for Women) and their tactics which seem to consist of intimidation, shock and attempts to sabotage feminist meetings.

It may be that there was a direct attempt to sabotage this new coalition and united movement, in which case we are now all colluding with that attempt and assisting it to be far more successful than it would have been without our help. Alternatively, there was an incident which can never be condoned, from which we will all have learnt a lot. Even if none of the allegations regarding the silencing of a part of a community were true, we have learnt (again) that decision making should be more open, any problems and difficulties should be shared, discussed and listened to, so that we are united in dealing with the more complex aspects of our vision.

MWR is a grass roots coalition, attempting to step above the chasms that have appeared in movements through the years. We have a simple shared agenda – to stop violence against women, in all its forms. We can argue theoretically over what constitutes violence, or we can act to make some tangible changes. The march on March 8th made a big difference to the lives of many of the women who attended. Many more women intend to attend next year. Rather than allowing disagreements to ruin the force we have created, we now choose to harness this energy for positive change.