Photo by Emma Bailey
It’s taken me a long time to write about the Women’s March London for several reasons. Firstly, I was ill (at this stage, I’m not sure I remember a time where I haven’t been hacking my lungs up). Secondly, it’s been hard for me to pin down my thoughts because, well, I’m not quite sure yet what those thoughts are. I’ll try my best to sort through them as we go, but I will be writing more at some point, I’m sure.
I was looking forward to the march, but also had a sense of trepidation. On the train ride up to London, I folded my sign in half and stowed it in my rucksack. I wish I could say that was for practical reasons, to ensure it didn’t get damaged before I met up with my friend. It wasn’t. The truth is that I was a little afraid. I wasn’t afraid of the police (and more on that later); I was worried about the glances of others.
To be exact, I was worried about the judgement of others.
Because people do judge you. I’ve heard and read a lot the last few weeks and days about why on earth women feel the need to march, whether we understand what we’re marching for, and so on. I’ve even heard women discuss feminism as a dirty word, proclaiming that they have never been treated differently for being a woman.
By the way, my answer to that is, how would you know? How do you know, for example, that you haven’t been passed over for interview because a male member of the short-listing panel didn’t want to hire young women “in case they get married and pregnant, and then have to go off on maternity”?
That’s a real-life example, by the way; stunned when I heard this from a now-former colleague a few years ago, I politely reminded him that to exclude anyone based on their marital status or pregnancy was discriminatory and he could get our workplace sued under the Equality Act if that ever happened. I told him that these things were irrelevant to whether someone could do the job. He had looked surprised, before shrugging a reluctant acquiescence. I was still quite young at the time and in a new role, but I wonder whether I should have challenged this more besides just mentioning his remarks to my manager; I also wonder how many interviews he had conducted over the years.
I don’t work there anymore, thankfully, but those thoughts come back to me now and again.
I’ve also heard women talk about how things are much better than they used to be, that we have made progress and what are we complaining for?
I’m sorry to break this to you, Janet, but things being better is not the same as equality, and excuse me if I don’t excitedly clap in glee that things have “improved”. Marital rape, for example, was only recognised by UK law as an actual crime in 1991. It still happens and will not decrease unless we push for better education that women are not objects, not property, not the subject of anyone; not unless we push for the eradication of the laissez-faire, everyday sexism that litters our schools, workplaces and homes; not unless people accept that rape is caused by rapists, not whether a woman “deserved” it or not.
My point is that just because things get better, it doesn’t mean the job is finished. That’s why I was marching; to remind and highlight there is still work to be done.
When I arrived in London, I met up with my friend and grabbed a coffee from a place that insisted on describing cup sizes in terms of colours rather than, well, sizes (a grey or a yellow size? That is some Dali-esque bullshit, right there). Pink-hatted women holding signs wandered past, smiling and joking. Eventually, we joined them and headed off to the march. The atmosphere was jovial, almost party-like. I was rather proud of my sign and, taping it to the stick I’d dragged along, waved it high above. It prompted quite a few smiles (although one French guy did stop me in confusion to ask what Star Wars had to do with the march). It also acted as a talking point, and a woman with a similar sign started speaking with us.
It turned out she was an American, and I offered my condolences. “My husband is a Brit,” she said at one point, “After Brexit, we kept telling ourselves it was impossible that both our countries would lose their minds.” She later grinned and wondered aloud why she hadn’t married a Canadian. It was a funny coincidence to me, as I’d suggested earlier to my friend that Canadians would now be worth their weight in gold to Americans wishing to emigrate.
The woman was white and her family came from Florida, half anti-Trump and half pro-Republican (“an important difference to being pro-Trump”, she told us), and that the election had divided them. She added that she was telling people she wasn’t there to protest, but to march in solidarity (“because it’s called a march, y’know”), to show that we were not alone.
I found it odd that she didn’t want to be seen as protesting; I guess protesting may have negative connotations to her.
We parted ways. She seemed like a nice woman, but I wondered whether she had any such inclination to stand together before Trump had appeared. He is fast becoming a figure of hatred, unifying people in a way only a villain can.
I wasn’t sure it mattered (there’s not much to be achieved by adopting a “I was into feminism before it was cool” mentality), as long as the new marchers took the time to acknowledge the work already started and fought for by the feminists before them, the women of colour and LGBTQAI+ women, the women who’ve had to fight for far longer than the women who had just woken to the facts of oppression. It didn’t matter to me what time they arrived to the cause, as long as the march wasn’t just treated as a pat on the back to make people feel better that they had taken part somehow, a cause abandoned when it was just getting started.
Mostly, I wanted this march to mean something, to shake people out of their cosy routines. Some people I knew seemed concerned when I said I was going on the Women’s March in London. One told me, “Careful they don’t kettle you!”
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, kettling is a method used by the police to confine a group of protestors to one area. It’s not fun. I went to the Mayday 2001 anti-capitalist demonstrations with a friend; she was and is a photographer. She’s also the friend who came with me to the Women’s March (we’re like little protest buddies).
Thanks to the notoriety of the Mayday 2000 demonstrations which had quickly descended into violence, she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to take photos of this potentially historic event. Arriving in London in 2001, we witnessed protesters held captive at Oxford Street and Regent Street.
At the time, when I explained to my father (a veteran of the anti-war and anti-racism protests in the 60s and 70s) that the organisers had announced their intended meeting location and time on a website to all and sundry (including the police), he had merely sighed and muttered, “Bloody amateurs”.
My friend and I had avoided the confinement and emerged unscathed, and she managed to get the shots she wanted. My favourite was of a guy protesting from the top of a lamp post, who clearly regretted not thinking through his idea of sitting up there for what would soon become hours, naked and wrapped only in a thin, white, slogan-splattered sheet.
So, when someone told me to be cautious of kettling during the Women’s March in 2017, a whole 16 years later, it’s not like I wasn’t aware of what that could involve, or how quickly it could descend into clashes with the police.
However, my reaction was to laugh at the suggestion, and say, “We’re not going to get kettled!”
At the time, I couldn’t quite work out why I was so confident. My first thought was that the police would have no cause to be so brutal. Unlike the Mayday demonstrations, there was no plan to fuck shit up on Regent Street, no outward intent to cave in a Starbucks’ window or two. A different kind of policing would be used; after all, riot gear and batons would look out of place at a march predominantly focused upon solidarity and equality.
As I stared around at the mainly white crowd, the odd smattering of anti-racism and Black Lives Matter placards dotted about, I was reminded of Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen and how a lot of the women there that day may have found themselves suddenly wading through ideas and concepts they hadn’t necessarily dealt with before.
It then occurred to me then that the biggest reason I was confident the march would go off without an arrest was that it was a march mostly made up of white women.
Before people start accusing me of blaming white women for something, let me explain. Yes, the rhetoric surrounding the march was firmly stood in the non-violent camp; the optics of a police baton crashing down on a women’s pink-hatted skull would have been less than desirable under those circumstances. But let’s not kid ourselves: if the majority of women on this march had been women of colour, we may well have seen a different approach by police. Words like radical and troublemaker get thrown around at women of colour if they take a stand. In comparison, white mum Sally, with her homemade sign about Trump liking golden showers, is just seen as a middle class woman on a day out. Replace that pussy hat with a hijab and the attitude towards her would have been markedly different from both the media and the police.
I’m not just bashing the police for the sake of it; they have a terrible record of treating marginalised communities badly, from tazering their own adviser on fighting racism (because they got him mixed up with a different black man), to spying on families of murdered black men, to the Met chief himself admitting there is institutional racism within the police force and that if you are a young, black man, you are “much more likely” to be stopped by police than if you were white.
The difference is that people of colour are perceived as a threat, much more so than white women in pink hats, and that’s because being white is seen as being part of the establishment, and thus not a danger to it. I don’t agree that’s right, by the way, that being white automatically makes you “one of them”, but tell me the last time we had a black prime minister, or a government cabinet filled mainly by people of colour, and I’ll shut the hell up.
During the march, a group next to us struck up a rousing version of the American gospel song, “When the Saints go Marching In”. I couldn’t help but frown; I was brought up Roman Catholic, now very lapsed and, as such, have an aversion to anything that exalts the idea of suffering to gain heavenly reward. It’s a narrative that tells people it’s fine to endure terrible treatment because at some point God will reward them, even though they might live horrible, miserable lives. It’s a narrative designed to advocate obedience, and I only shook myself out of it when, at 14 years old, I just could not reconcile the idea of a benevolent God with one who punished gay men and women simply for being gay. It seemed to me God ought to have better things to do than concern himself with two people who loved each other, and my whole-hearted abandonment of faith followed shortly after.
My friend noticed my reaction and asked what was wrong. I explained my issue with the choice of song at a march aimed at throwing off the shackles, and she grinned.
“You know,” she said, snapping away with her camera, “I think I can best sum up your view of life as ‘Well, that’s lovely, but -’!”
I shrugged and acknowledged this was a problem I had. “I just can’t seem to like anything for what it is on the surface,” I said, playfully bopping her on the head with my sign. “I find it really hard to just accept things for what I’m told they are. I need to question everything.”
It’s this trait, for good or worse, that makes me look at the Women’s March with perhaps a different perspective. Whilst many are celebrating it as a sign of defiance, of solidarity, I’m thinking about what we do next. I’m thinking of how we can do better, how we keep going with this. One march doesn’t solve everything; it’s what we do afterwards, the changes we make in our everyday lives, that solidify this as a more than just a nice day out. It doesn’t weaken us to ask whether we are showing the solidarity we should be during gay pride or anti-racism marches as well; it strengthens us. After all, acknowledging that you live a relatively privileged life is the first step in addressing the inequality in others’.
If we can do that by embracing the fact that we need to show up all the time for the disaffected and the marginalised, not just when it affects us, maybe that’s a start.