Written by: Emma Thomas
On Saturday 27th August, I joined well over a hundred women at The Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath in support of #LetWomenSwim, a new campaign to restore the pond’s women-only status by 2025; a hundred years after it was designated as women-only. Three years ago, the pond was opened to men identifying as women.
The weather was lovely, bright and sunny but not too hot. As we approached the pond, we heard the women before we saw them – lots of laughter and chat. The sound of sisterhood.
I handed out some WRN badges and met many members; lots from London. Hello to the Camden WRN - you need to wear special badges or something so you can find each other, there were quite a few of you! What a lovely group. It was lovely to see Kellie-Jay Keen (@StandingforXX), Venice Allan (@roseveniceallan), Maya Forstater (@Mforstater), Sheila Jeffreys, Julia Long, Maria McLachlan (www.peaktrans.org) and many others. It felt like a significant event, particularly as it was so well attended.
There were some rather eccentric trans activists present – mostly women – who were surreal to say the least. I spotted one trans-identified male wearing suffragette colours (because the act of violation is always a thrill, I suppose). One woman claimed that Kellie-Jay Keen was violating her privacy by filming her on a public highway (oh, the irony) and had a tinfoil-hat-theory that Kellie-Jay was going to have her ‘targeted by the Far Right’. A woman wearing a homophobic sticker berated a group of lesbians for telling her that ‘lesbians don’t do dick’ by saying something like, “How dare you say such obscenity to a pregnant woman?” Another walked up and down the protest saying, ‘Shame on you.’ Had the sun gone to their heads?
Eventually we set off past the men’s pond (men were at the gate, looking worried, but we didn’t go in). Quite a few men were sunbathing on the bank by the pond and we got some shouts of support. Chanting things like “What is a woman? Adult human female!” and “Stand up for women! Especially when we’re swimming!” we marched on to the Stone of Free Speech, where the picnic blankets came out and we sat down and enjoyed various speakers and a fun competition judging some of the swimwear.
The Speakers - Let our sisters swim
The speakers included Catherine Heseltine (@cath_heseltine), who announced a new campaign called LOSS (Let Our Sisters Swim) and a petition to require swimming venues to maintain single-sex or private changing facilities (Require swimming venues to maintain single-sex or private changing facilities - Petitions parliament.uk). Muslim and Jewish women are having to self-exclude from swimming not just in Hampstead but in facilities across the UK. All women – and they don’t need a particular reason – should have access to single sex swimming. However, it should be noted that older Muslim women have very poor health outcomes. Taking away access to women-only swimming will force millions of women to exclude themselves. This action today is the beginning of even bigger campaigns.
Maya Forstater (@Mforstater) followed, and she talked about growing up locally. There were flashers outside her school, including a man who showed his penis to her primary school class as they passed by on the bus. Incidents like this were in her statement for the court, about why women need some spaces for ourselves, but the judge wasn’t interested in that; he was only interested in how she would address a trans person. She finally won the right for women to speak truthfully and say that we do not want to share a space with a man. Employers have been misusing the Equality Act against women and Edward Lord (Deputy of the City of London) is a good example of that. He needs to work by the Nolan Principles for public office. When Sex Matters surveyed women about sexual harassment many respondents ended by saying, “I never went back.” Maya lamented how women’s lives are limited by this kind of behaviour. But fortunately, things are much better than when the Man Friday protests began at the Women’s Pond in 2018.
(Sex Matters writes about the issues with Lord here: Who is Edward Lord? — Sex Matters sex-matters.org) More about Man Friday here: Female protesters break into a men-only north London lido | Daily Mail Online
Sheila Jeffreys spoke next, highlighting the sexual, fetishistic nature of the men who want to invade women’s spaces. These are difficult topics to discuss but it’s vital because these men are forcing women to participate in their sexual activities.
Janice Williams from OBJECT! (@ObjectUK) said that she was local and had been unable to use the pond since it became mixed sex. She added that it’s vital that we do something about this.
Carina (@Carriedenne1) spoke as a member of WRN and shared an apology from Heather Binning (@hb29Q) who wasn’t able to attend. Carina noted that swimming is a powerful experience but it can be fraught with anxiety if men are around for all kinds of issues. Women do not need a reason to say no to sharing especially when they have chosen to be in a female only pond or pool.
Julia Long read the poem ‘Disabled Woman Swimming’ by Miki Byrne. (Byrne reads the poem here: Poem Disabled Woman Swimming By Miki Byrne - YouTube). Julia talked about all the limitations on women that restrict our freedom, including economic and cultural limits such as beauty expectations. For example, she had seen recently a woman who did not go in the water with her friends at the beach because she did not want to lose her false eyelashes. Julia added that Mary Daly said that we learn to swim by swimming and we learn to courage by couraging. So long live swimming and long live couraging!
The last speaker was Aja (sadly no longer on Twitter but Venice Allan @roseveniceallan has tweeted a video of her poem.) Aja also read out a recent tweet thread by a man identifying as a lesbian who used the women’s pond as a site for accessing lesbians. Aja was clear: women want our own spaces.
A joyfully silly costume competition followed and we sadly had to leave before the prosecco came out.
It was a very jolly event; male partners and children were also there as well as a lot of lovely dogs. A lot of laughter and cheering and feminist resistance to those who would limit our freedoms.
During the afternoon, news started filtering through about lesbians being told to leave the Cardiff Pride march, so Aja’s words seemed even more poignant. Lesbians are being pushed out of our own spaces. It’s in these gatherings of women that we have solidarity and hope. This is what inclusion really looks like – women of different sexualities, beliefs, backgrounds, ages, abilities and experiences, uniting to reclaim our spaces.
This amazing event was a reminder that we fight for liberation for all women, whatever circumstances limit our access to such joyful and freeing activities as swimming. Say it together - LET WOMEN SWIM!