Women Speak Out in… Manchester

23 September 2010, The Pankhurst Centre Pankhurst Centre, Manchester

After a bit of a break, Women Speak Out set off again, this time to Manchester.

Joining us at The Pankhurst Centre (former home of the female suffrage campaigners and now a community centre for women’s groups), was Rebecca, who works with women exiting prostitution; Sam and Louise, organisers of Manchester’s forthcoming Million Women Rise march & members of Manchester Feminist Network; Caroline, who works at a hostel for young homeless people; Joan, an active feminist in the ‘70s when living in Sheffield and now a member of Manchester Women’s Design Group, who promote women’s equality in the design of the built environment; Beverley, a single mum, and Lorraine, an arts and media graduate.

Again, we took in a whole range of topics and heard a variety of views and personal experiences. And just like the other cities we’ve visited so far, we found that Manchester is home to plenty of activity aimed at addressing women’s inequality.

What are you most concerned about?

Caroline: I’m most concerned about the lack of specialist services there are for young homeless women with alcohol problems. There’s a lot of support available for young men but no equivalent for women, and yet it’s needed. There’s currently no support there for young women.

What is feminism?

Joan: It gives women heart.

Beverley: What is a feminist?

Louise: Feminism to me is about equality between men and women.

Sam: Men and women are different, but they should be equal, they should be given the opportunity to do the same things.

Rebecca: I think you have to appreciate the differences between women.

Caroline: But I think women do have a common bond created by shared experiences.

Sam: What is equal anyway?  There’s such a difference between theory and practice.

Some of our participants felt some women did not call themselves feminists because it brought to mind stereotypes of ‘strident women’ they don’t want to be associated with. However, there was also a feeling that feminism could also be detached from the issues affecting many women’s lives, explaining other women’s choice not to identify as feminist.

Rebecca: A lot of feminism is quite elitist, especially that which comes out of the UK and USA. ‘Great feminist books’ don’t cover the day-to-day matters, job cuts, a living wage, access to welfare, disability benefits. Feminism doesn’t care about all women. A lot of the women I work with, exiting prostitution, don’t want to speak out, don’t want anything to do with feminism.

On prostitution

We spent some time discussing our views on prostitution, and listened as we welcomed Rebecca to share her experiences.

Rebecca: When I was working as a prostitute, I didn’t want anything to do with feminism, I didn’t think they understood. But when I saw a Reclaim the Night march go by in London a few years ago,  that planted a seed in my mind, that I don’t have to be in this brothel, I don’t have to die.

Rebecca felt a ‘sex-positive’ brand of feminism was currently dominating, particularly in Manchester.  

Rebecca: To make out that sex work is cosy and fine is basically to say that you don’t care that people die. But I don’t want to give up on those women, the women exiting prostitution.

Caroline: A lot of young women in care are groomed into prostitution. What would making prostitution legal do?

Rebecca: Prostitution is practically legal now anyway. If it’s legal then the police leave it all to the sex trade and that makes it more dangerous for the women working in it. Anything goes. And in countries where prostitution is legal, there’s more underground prostitution, it’s allowed to happen more. The sex industry has lots of money and it will always find loopholes, regardless of whether prostitution is legal or not.

Louise: We have to believe prostitution can end. What is it saying about humanity if we say we can’t end it?

Rebecca: People say they’re against slavery, trafficking, genocide, but won’t come out against prostitution. If you’re against slavery then you should be against prostitution.  Prostituted women are dying all the time.  I don’t believe in giving up on it.  I’m anti-slavery and anti-genocide. But I think there is a sea-change, a lot of people do disagree with prostitution, which is why I think the pro-prostitution lobby are so vocal at the moment, because it’s being given attention. There was even something on Women’s Hour about it recently.

Rebecca: There’s a difference between erotica and porn, I think we should have erotica. Porn is about power, about abusing the other person.  People talking about porn never mention the impact it has on the women starring in the porn – it’s always about the partners of people using porn.  But these women are going through hell, and in order to do it they drug themselves up or drink a lot, or just completely detach themselves.  If you can look at the women in the porn film as human beings then you won’t be able to watch the porn, you can’t be pro-porn, you’ll just see what they are going through for your pleasure.

Sam: And yet the media say that these women are empowered.

Rebecca: They think they are empowered.  At the time, they think they are happy hookers.  But I don’t know anyone who has exited the sex trade who is pro-prostitution.

On politics & the impact of government spending cuts

Rebecca: I’m an anarchist, I don’t believe any political party cares about helping prostituted women. I’m disillusioned with politics.

Caroline mentioned the government’s plans to stop income support for parents once their children reach school age, and how this would discriminate against women in particular.

Beverley: Who’s going to look after my kids when I’m at work then? I can’t leave them on their own to look after themselves. What jobs are there? I’m not going to be better off.

Cuts to specialist services for women were also mentioned, such as those supporting BME women experiencing domestic violence and how some women-only services were now having to extend their services to men.

On gender roles in the home

Louise: For a lot of my friends housework is uneven.  Men don’t do the ironing.  Or they’ll do the washing up and then say: “I did the washing up for you!”

Sam: When I was married, I always used to come home and make a drink for my husband, make the tea, wash up. It was only when I was ill my husband would offer to do the washing up, and then only because I was ill, not because it was his dishes that needed washing! If he did do something, then for weeks afterwards he’d say, “but I washed up for you” as if it was a big thing.

Rebecca: People think housework comes naturally to women.  It doesn’t.  I can’t do it.

Caroline: A lot of it is about the parents and what they teach the children.  The children pick up what the parents do.  It’s the social conditioning of society.

Joan: Like map-reading, it’s social conditioning.  I asked a friend of mine to navigate while I drove, and she thought she couldn’t do it because she’d always had men saying “tell me which direction now!”  But she could do it.

On toys for children

Joan: Divisions between the sexes are still there – look at the Argos catalogue, with sections for boys and girls.

Louise: I played a game with my little cousins at Christmas… it was a Bratz game, and as you moved round the board you were putting your lipstick on and doing your hair and clothes.  And the winner was the one who was best dressed for the party at the end!  Girls are being socialised at a younger and younger age to place a lot of value on their looks. But boys are given guns and violent stuff.

Beverley: When my son was younger, he loved pushing a doll around in his pram, and when we would go out, the looks we’d get off other women! People used to say, “oh, he’ll make a good dad one day”, and there’s some assumption he’ll be gay. Well, not necessarily, maybe he just likes playing with dolls.

Joan: It’s nurture from the cradle.  I heard that experiments have been done showing that people react to male and female babies differently.  They coo over girls more.

On careers

Louise: I used to be good at maths and physics at school but was never encouraged at these subjects so ended up doing social science at uni. Now I’m interested in subjects like woodwork and physics and wish I had thought about doing these when I was younger but it never even crossed my mind as these are not subjects that women are encouraged to do.

Joan: Women tend to take time off work.  I took about seven years off, but I have a friend who didn’t have children and she certainly thinks it was one of the things that got her further in her career.

Louise: Managers who are women are always seen as bitchy, but a male manager acting in the same way is praised.

On representations of women in the media

Louise: Women are fair game for any comments.  Sexist comments in the newspapers.

Lorraine: Talking about that new breakfast programme, Daybreak, they mention the male presenter’s skill and training, but just concentrate on the female presenter’s looks, even if she has similar experience.  

Louise: Programmes that are popular with young people today such as The Inbetweeners treat women as sex objects. This programme shows boys talking about how they can get girls into bed.

Joan: I saw a programme where some school boys were asked to look at some images of women’s breasts and pick which they preferred. They picked the perfect ones. It’s what boys expect, and girls see pictures of perfect breasts and think that’s what they have to be like.

On domestic violence

Joan: I think attitudes have improved, police attitudes seem to have done.

Beverley: The police didn’t do anything when I was experiencing domestic violence 20 years ago.

Although, Louise, an activist campaigning to tackle violence against women as part of the most recent resurgence of feminism, still thinks there’s a way to go.

Louise: There’s a lot of violence against women.  It hasn’t gone away.  I worked in a women’s refuge and I don’t think police attitudes have changed that much. A lot of the time the police don’t come, or if they do, they listen to the perpetrator.  I’ve called 999 for other women and the police don’t come.  They’re not trained properly. I took a call from a woman, who also happened to have mental health problems, and contacted the police for her, but they wouldn’t go to her house. I also rang the police about four men entering a house, it was only later I found out it was a brothel, and the police knew, which is perhaps why they didn’t bother to go round.

Jessica: So how do we get rid of it?  Do you just have to wait until the sexism is bred out?

Louise: It’s the little things that will change attitudes. We need to get talking to each other, other women, and just keep going. We have to believe we can change things, that we can make a difference. Even if the headlines in the newspapers suggest something else… I wish I’d brought a couple, there’s one which says: “Soldier seduced by 13-year-old Lolita” and another saying: “Lesbian paedophile grooms 13-year-old girl”, and the difference… this highlights how the media is male dominated and even where the media comes down harder on women but goes easy on men for committing exactly the same crime.

Rebecca: Domestic violence is about power.  Like rape, it’s not about sex.  It’s power.

Sam: Sexual violence is becoming the norm.  Many people seem to expect it now. 

Louise: Someone told me that her daughter was raped, and she was very matter of fact about it, as if it was an everyday thing and her daughter had to expect it because she wore short skirts…

Louise: You think back to some near misses.  At school all we were taught was that if we have sex we should wear a condom, myself and my friend were quite good at school and did what we were told, so when older men , about 7 years older wanted to sleep with us we would have sex with them and wear a condom, we were both still at school at this time. We believed everything they said when they said they loved us when really they were just trying to get us into bed. I wish someone had taught us at school that men use women for sex and lie to get women into bed because we would have listened just like we listened about wearing a condom.  We were completely unaware of any of this and looking back it is frightening at how close we could have been to being lured into the sex industry. 

Joan: Young men target girls.  They tell them they love them, and then the girls become dependent on them.  There was a Radio 4 programme about a girl who got involved with an older man… it was well done, tried to send a message to all the middle-class parents.  Teenagers are vulnerable, it’s that time of life, and these men groom them, tell them they love them, drive them about in their fast car, and then the girls can’t get out of the relationship.  The men say, “if you loved me you’d sleep with my friend” and then they pimp the girls out.  They threaten to kill the girl’s family if they say anything, and the girl is stuck.

Louise: I think schools have a vital role to play in educating young women about relationships and what domestic violence is. When I was younger, I only thought domestic violence meant hitting and swearing, but it’s not. Sex education in schools promotes safe sex, but it also needs to send messages about exploitation and being wary of older men.

On activism in Manchester

Louise: There has been a resurgence of feminism in Manchester. A few years ago I was a member of a group called North West Feminists, which was just a few of us, and then it trailed off… But now there’s Manchester Feminist Network and we get about 20 women to each meeting. There’s also The Riveters (the University of Manchester’s women’s group), who hold an annual Reclaim the Night march here.

Louise and Sam are involved in organising Million Women Rise Manchester, a women-only march to be held in the city on 10 October 2010 calling for an end to violence against women. It’s a regional sister march to the national march which has taken place in London around International Women’s Day for the past 3 years.

Louise: Million Women Rise Manchester partly emerged as a response to the city’s Reclaim the Night march, which is mixed-sex, and we felt there needed to be something for women-only. A group of women from Manchester went down on the coach to the London march, and we decided a similar protest was needed in Manchester.

Louise: I think marches such as Million Women Rise do have an effect, even just in bringing lots of different women together. I’ve met a lot of women through working on the campaign, and it allows you to forge connections with one another, and gives individual women the opportunity to support one another.

This year’s London march attracted 8,000 women and Sam and Louise are committed to building on the momentum, wanting as many women as possible to join them on 10 October in Manchester. If you’re interested in taking part, then visit the group’s Facebook page or e-mail: mwrmanchester@gmail.com.

In the meantime, please carry on the conversation by commenting on what we discussed by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above. It would be great to hear from more women in Manchester, about the issues that are on your minds, and any work you are involved in with women in the city. So, why not speak out and put Manchester women on the map?


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