Written by Dr Ruth Livingstone
It was cloak and dagger stuff. I’d signed up (through Eventbrite) to attend the Women’s Place conference in Manchester on the 24th March, 2022. I had a ticket. I had the program. But I had no idea where the meeting was going to be held. Why? Because of the fear that protestors would try to close down the event before it even started.
We had seen a post on Twitter advertising a “Manchester Protest Against Transphobia” to protest against our meeting, which was apparently going to be about “the exclusion of trans people from public spaces”. So, tension was running high.
A few hours before the meeting was due to start, details of the venue were released via an email sent to all the attendees. It was to be at the Mechanics Institute, a place with a proud socialist history and where the inaugural meeting of the Trades Union Congress was held, in 1868.
I wasn’t particularly nervous as I got ready to leave home for the meeting, but I did hesitate over what to wear. I’d been planning to wear my “This Witch is Not for Burning” t-shirt, with my “Woman: Adult Human Female” hoodie on top. But I was travelling on my own, to a place I didn’t know well, to meet some women who I had never met in real life before… and I was worried about wandering around the streets of Manchester with such an obvious target statement written across my chest.
In the end, I wore non-descript clothes.
Luckily, when I arrived, there was no sign of protestors. They hadn’t worked out where the venue was yet, but somebody said they were congregating in a nearby square.
Just before the meeting was due to begin, a noise started outside. I had heard the phrase “a baying mob” before, and this is exactly what it sounded like. A chorus of aggressive chanting was relayed directly at the windows through a megaphone. It was hard to make out the words, but we heard the word “hate”, repeated many times, along with plenty of jeers and boos.
The speakers were a little flustered initially, but soon regained their confidence. They spoke about the need for safe spaces for women, and the need to protect women’s sports from men who say they are women. The final talk moved me immensely. It was given by a young Zimbabwean woman who spoke about the need for safe spaces for refugees, free of men - a place where women and girls who had been the victims of sexual violence, of FGM, and of forced marriage, could find the courage to tell their stories.
All this happened against a background of boos and shouts. The protestors may have thought they were on the side of inclusion, but they were actively trying to exclude women from talking about their needs, and actually made the point for us. Women really do need safe spaces.