In 2018, during a robust defence on Twitter of the ‘right’ of male bodied sex offenders to be placed in women’s prisons, Novara Media personality Ash Sarkar dismissed my critical response to her with a tweet that encapsulates everything about political posing from the confines of an armchair:
What a surprise. These anti-trans bigots don’t actually care about women in prison, unless it serves their agenda to exclude trans people from public life.
The ‘anti-trans bigot’ to which the proponent of luxury communism referred was me: Sarkar had come to her brave and stunning conclusion by doing a quick name search on Twitter, to see if I had ever tweeted about Sarah Reed, a young Black woman who, in 2016, took her own life while on remand at Holloway women’s prison, London.
Sarah had suffered from profound mental ill-health, had been viciously assaulted by a police officer, and sexually assaulted whilst on a secure mental health ward. It is a case with which I was very familiar. I had attended a protest about Sarah’s incarceration and death outside Holloway prison in 2016, and the following year I was on the press bench at her inquest. Justice for Women (JfW), the organisation I co-founded in 1990, two years before Sarkar was born, supported a public meeting calling for a full public enquiry into Sarah’s death.
But because she couldn’t find a tweet linking my name and Sarah’s, she concluded not only that I hadn’t written about the case, but that I actually didn’t care at all about the issue of women in prison. Extraordinary arrogance and ignorance.
Through Justice for Women, I have campaigned on behalf of women in prison for decades, and have written dozens of articles in the mainstream media about miscarriages of justice and the disgrace of the prison and wider criminal justice system, but Sarkar wouldn’t be aware of my campaigning work in this area because she doesn’t turn up at one of the many public demonstrations in support of women such as Sarah Reed to offer her assistance.
As I write in my new book, there is nothing to beat public protest and making ourselves visible in order to elicit change.
It would appear today that actual, in-your-face, public protest and action for change has been replaced by virtue signalling and slagging off your opponents on social media. It is possibly why the lesbian and gay movement of today is so lame. We could take some lessons from the women’s liberation movement, in which I have been involved in since the end of 1979. As I write in my new book, there is nothing to beat public protest and making ourselves visible in order to elicit change. Many people disagree with some of my points of view, but at least I do not speak to an echo chamber. The feminists I work alongside are very keen to debate, discuss and dissect key issues that affect the lives of the most disenfranchised women.
As a feminist, I support and promote women-only spaces, activism and consciousness-raising as methods to achieve the goal of women’s liberation. The lesbian and gay movement need to think about ways in which it can achieve the change we so urgently need.
The resurgence of feminist activism, in particular in relation to campaigns against male violence, is a response to the unbridled misogyny on both the left and the right. The lesbian and gay movement is also experiencing a nasty backlash, this time from so-called progressives that appear to be upset that we define as same sex attracted and say things like ‘lesbians don’t have penises’.
The women’s liberation movement can teach the lesbians and gay men who grew up during a time where we had achieved legal and social equality, that not all is yet sorted.
Direct action and visible protest have a notable effect. It is more than 50 years now since feminists threw flour bombs during the Miss World final at London’s Albert Hall, an action that ended that competition’s unquestioned popularity. Then there were the successes of the JfW: we would gather outside the Home Office or the Old Bailey in our lunch hours carrying fold-up placards and banners. Whenever a man got away with murdering his partner on the grounds of her “nagging”, or a rapist was given a non-custodial sentence, we would gather together, whatever the weather and despite our many other commitments.
How is it that so many lesbians and gay men just wish to conform to heterosexual standards and lifestyle choices? What has happened to result in so many swapping activism and loud, colourful protest for meekly asking for ‘acceptance’ and to be ‘tolerated’? Whilst it’s our youth that’s still bullied at school, thrown out of their families, preyed on by sexual predators, and marginalised from mainstream society, let’s make a noise and not accept the status quo. The women’s liberation movement can teach the lesbians and gay men who grew up during a time where we had achieved legal and social equality, that not all is yet sorted. There is still so much to do before we truly achieve liberation. Let’s dust off those placards, get out the loudhailers, and return to visible campaigning.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author and feminist campaigner. She came out as a lesbian in 1977 aged 15 and has never looked back. Her new book Feminism for Women: The real route to liberation is out now and published by Hachette.