Written by Dr Ruth Livingstone
The local election campaign has kicked off in my area. When I say, ‘kicked off’, the local canvassers don’t seem to be trying very hard. Labour dominates the council and, in most wards, the result is a foregone conclusion.
Does this matter? No. We are not trying to alter the outcome of the local elections. We are simply trying to open the debate and make local politicians, and the general public, aware of what is at stake for women if our right to safe spaces is not protected.
Our Manchester branch of the Women’s Rights Network had a discussion online. What could we do? We can make a noise on Twitter, of course, but what about in real life? Was it enough to wait for candidates to call (although, I’ve never had a canvasser knock on my door) or could we do something more proactive?
Somebody suggested hiring a stall at a local market. Others said that this might attract a counter protest and even violence. We remembered the milkshake attack on the women holding a vigil in Manchester city centre. We also remembered the abuse and intimidation directed at those of us who attended the recent Women’s Place conference.
We had every reason to feel nervous.
Could we simply walk around and hand out leaflets? Yes. Being mobile felt safer than having a stall – better than presenting a static target. But it would be good to have some visual indication of who we were. A banner? Placards? Would that turn it into a march?
Then I remembered Billboard Chris in the USA, who stands as a human billboard and engages people in conversation. Could we do something similar?
Our group co-ordinator sprang into action. She magically produced large printed sheets with our message “Respect my Sex if you want my X” and somehow, miraculously, turned these into mini billboards. Somebody else printed out lists of questions that might be helpful for opening discussions with people, and sheets with information about the names of the local councillors in the area. I produced a board with the thorny question “Can a woman have a penis?”.
We had our billboards. We had official leaflets. We had clipboards. We were set to go!
There were four of us, and I guess we all assumed that the others in our group had done this sort of thing before. No! We were all complete novices.
Sunday is a quiet day. Even with the shops open, we didn’t find many members of the public in our local shopping precinct at 10am. We had better luck loitering by the pedestrian crossings, and even better luck intercepting people on their way into the local pub for a spot of pre-lunch refreshment. People at bus stops are also sitting ducks, so to speak.
I think we expected knockbacks, and we were anxious about possible abuse. In fact, most people were open and receptive. Nearly everybody took a leaflet and several stopped for a discussion. One young woman scowled and muttered, “Not interested in anything you bigots have to say.” But this was the only negative reaction we got. There were many supportive comments, some older women told us they had been active campaigners in the past, and some men talked about their fear for the safety of their daughters and granddaughters. A couple of cars tooted at us – making us jump, because we weren’t expecting that sort of support!
We discovered most people aren’t on Twitter (I know, unbelievable, right?) but many had seen the recent press articles about males in women’s sports and many had also heard the infamous question, “Can a woman have a penis?”
We didn’t really need the clipboards, although they did give us something to hold. I only used my board with “Can a woman have a penis?” once. The elderly gentleman I asked thought about it for a moment. Choosing his words carefully, he told me I could, if I wanted one. Not quite the answer I was expecting.
After an hour and a half, we felt we had done enough. We retired to somebody’s kitchen for a cup of coffee and a congratulatory pat on the back.
What did we learn?
It’s a good idea to keep moving. We felt less like targets and less vulnerable to abuse.
Billboards are an excellent idea. They are easy to carry, people found them intriguing, and we could be recognised from a distance and get those car toots!
Three or four women is a perfect number. Enough to feel supported, but not enough to present an intimidating presence to the public.
10am on a Sunday morning is a quiet time. Good for a practice run, but 11am would have been better.
We kept the focus on women’s rights to safe spaces, and most people seemed to understand and support that concept.
So, if you feel like getting out there and spreading the message, please don’t be intimidated. Grab a couple of friends, a handful of leaflets, and get going.