Women’s Liberation Movement @ 40 – Reflections


Photo of the Women Against Fundamentalism panel by helen.2006 used with a creative commons licence

On 12-13th March I attended the Women’s Liberation Movement @ 40 conference held at Ruskin College, Oxford; the site of the original conference in 1970 at which several of the WLM’s original demands were developed.

It was a really interesting couple of days. Along with wearing my fingers down to stubs by obsessively live tweeting the conference for those who couldn’t make it, I enjoyed listening to various thought-provoking and challenging talks by various academic and activist feminists (although of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive!).

There was a good mix of ages and a pretty positive atmosphere, although many attendees were concerned that some people couldn’t attend as they couldn’t afford the conference fee; a problem not just for this conference but all similar events held in Universities nowadays. Whilst subsidised childcare was offered, some were worried that mothers would not be able to attend, although others raised their hands and said “we’re here!”.

Whilst there would be a lot of interesting points to pick up on and so much to report, I’m not going to attempt to review every session. Instead I’ll just mention a few general points and impressions from my personal perspective.

1) The topics covered were very wide-ranging, perhaps more so than some other feminist conferences I’ve attended. In particular, there seemed to be more of a focus on anti-capitalist politics and class issues. Maybe it’s just the talks I attended, but it was really refreshing to see feminist issues being linked to structural and economic factors in addition to sexism, and covered so extensively.

2) There was an interesting tension about different types of feminism. Earlier in the conference someone commented wryly about how many of the women who attended the 1970 conference were now academics. Later, a couple of people commented that some of the talks went totally over their heads due to the academic language used. But on the other hand, academic study is important and useful – is there a useful middle ground?

And in a session about transnational feminisms, Srila Roy spoke about how feminism in India has become institutionalised by being embedded in certain women’s organisations, and how this has led to a concept of a ‘career feminist’ and the tension between that and more informal activism like blogging, which some see as less valuable. This led on discussions I had with others questioning the idea that the two are necessarily in opposition, and in any case, what’s wrong with being able to survive financially when working on a cause that you passionately believe in anyway?

3) I felt a definite sense of frustration from some of the older speakers at the slowness of change; more than once an older feminist commented about wanting things to happen ‘in my lifetime’. It seemed that there was a sense of renewed urgency amongst the older women; let’s hope this will merge with the renewed interest of younger ones to create something truly explosive.

4) Older feminists appeared to be in agreement that life is harder for younger women now, which I found really interesting, given the tendency of some sections of the media to push the view that younger women have it easy and are ungrateful, bad feminists who don’t appreciate how hard it was back then.

On the Friday Kristin Aune and I presented a paper about the results of our survey, which will also be published in our book. At this event we chose to focus on how the survey shows conclusively that young feminists exist in large numbers.

In the past we’ve often found that older feminists seen unaware of the existence of contemporary feminist activism at events we’ve spoken at and have very little knowledge of the current range of feminist activity. Take Rosie Boycott for example, in this conversation waxing nostalgic about the old days (yay!) but seeming to imply that there is nothing happening now (oh… not again…).

We hope by constantly banging on about it we’re helping to push the idea of feminism as a living, active movement, not just a historical one. As the day started with Sheila Rowbotham talking about the 1970s and the original conference, it was such a privilege to be able to round off the day with our (hopefully) optimistic take on contemporary feminism.

5) There seemed to be a particular buzz about the session led by Women Against Fundamentalism (in case of any doubt, they are anti-fundamentalism, not religion per se). Religion, spirituality and feminism looks set to become a hot topic in the next few years; as we’ve seen from discussions here on The F Word blog, this certainly leads to some, let’s say ‘heated’ debates (and I’m proud to say we’ve covered this topic in our book!).

Over the weekend I had the privilege of listening to so many interesting discussions; whether consciousness-raising was still needed or appropriate (culminating in amusing reminiscences about speculums)… the value of fun in feminism… activism and feminism in Scotland… what can be done to encourage media literacy amongst children and empower them to question messages… the different interpretations of ‘post-feminism’ … rich families transferring ‘women’s work’ onto (im)migrant women… who to vote for in the next election… whether there needs to be more feminist input in the green movement… possible entries for the ‘name the knitted suffragette’ competition (winner: Ms Una Versalsuffrage).

There was definite interest in another conference; there seemed to be murmurings about Bristol as a potential location. And of course, there’s also the Breaking the Waves conference in Cardiff planned for 2011.

And maybe it was due to all the repetitive tweeting I did (… #wlm40 #wlm40 #wlm40…), but I definitely feel more connected to the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ as a term after this conference.

There may be some papers published from this conference – watch this space for news.