On Admiring Women: IWD 2018

Despite the attack of the Beast from the East, women of all descriptions (and some men!) flocked to Bristol City Hall on Saturday 3rd March to partake in the International Women’s Day events orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice.

Sadly there were a handful of scheduled speakers who couldn’t get to us across the snow-bound country, including well-known suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and the women who were to lead the African Voice Forum Discussion –but the wonderful thing is that there were so many brilliant women on the programme that it easily took the hit.

I’m relatively new to Bristol, didn’t know anyone at the event and had sort of expected to spend the day weaving between the impenetrable faces of strangers; only it wasn’t like that at all. We collected in the foyer where Burning Brass, a collective of women drummers and horn players were very successfully turning even ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ into a rousing feminist anthem, and smiles of complicity met me whichever way I looked. I’m not generally given to waxing lyrical about ‘good vibes’, but I will say that a palpable atmosphere of cheerful co-operation seemed to unite the many women of diverse backgrounds and generations. I had been greeted at the entrance by a girl young enough to be my daughter and then fell into conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother: this felt precious. And the speakers were approachable in a way I hadn’t expected: suffrage historian, activist and comedian Dr Naomi Paxton granted me such a warm and stirring interview (read it here!) that I was left feeling like I’d been given a pep talk.

With all the will in the world I couldn’t wrangle being in three places at once but I did manage to take in a workshop on domestic abuse awareness by brilliant Bristol charity Next Link; some of Elizabeth Crawford’s talk on suffrage propaganda – read by Paxton; a panel on The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus; a talk on modern slavery and human trafficking from Unseen; a discussion on the concept of ‘Honour’ with the young people of Integrate UK (who work with other young people on issues around FGM and honour-based violence); and a final panel on fighting gender-based violence in Bristol.

One highlight I’d like to share is Next Link’s simple brainstorming activity on the possible ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ of leaving an abusive relationship, which provides a powerful rebuttal to the judgmental – and common – question ‘why didn’t she leave?’ The list of losses that we drew up together in the workshop was painfully long with items such as ‘the person you love’, ‘your home’, and ‘dreams’. The list of gains, though equally long, featured benefits that would have to be hard-won: ‘recovering mental health’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘new friends,’ ‘a healthy relationship one day.’ As someone who has had to leave the man I love to escape his escalating violence – the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and who met with painful incomprehension and judgment from those who thought it should be easy, it was balm to my heart to witness Next Link raising awareness of what is an all-too-common reality.

I didn’t get to attend the Wonderful Women Awards ceremony (BWV celebrating Bristol women who have been nominated for their contributions to the community), but as I sat, an eager beaver in the front row of the final panel of the day, with Charlotte Gage of Bristol Zero Tolerance (working against gender-based violence), Melissa Blackburn, CEO of Unchosen (working against modern slavery) and Alex Raikes of SARI (working against racist and now gender-based hate crime) – as well as Cheryl Morgan (who runs trans awareness courses) in the front row beside me – I was handing out the awards inside my own head. I had heard so many women speak that day about the work they were doing to make change and improve lives: hard-headed and warm-hearted women; women fighting, women leading. It seemed suddenly as though women were the ones turning the machinery of the world: driving it forwards.

That’s why we need International Women’s Day, I realise, and Women’s History Month, and as much noise as possible about the centenary of votes for (some) women, not to mention noise about the work that women are doing now across so many fields. We need to draw attention to the achievements of women, not as some kind of back-patting exercise but as remedial education. We are learning machines, we humans, collecting great banks of data and storing countless connections; but the dominant culture that most of us learn in does not teach us to associate women with courage, with hard-headed organising, with authority, with leadership. We’re deprived of the histories, of the news stories, even of the films and fictions that would teach us to connect the idea of ‘woman’ with the idea of ‘greatness.’

But just a day like this Saturday goes some way to redressing the deficit. So do books like The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus, which offers an A-Z of ‘250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton’ who had an impact on Bristol between 1184 and 2018. (In fact, reading books by women writers only is a good idea: I’ve been doing that for two years and it has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world.)

During the panel on The Women Who Built Bristol Duffus asked her panellists, who were also contributors to the book, what it meant to them to have these histories collected in print. I listened to Dr Naomi Paxton and Dr Finn Mackay agree that it was inspiring and that we can learn a lot from the strategies of the women activists who have gone before us. All true. But for me the book and their clear voices ringing out from the stage had, like all the events that day, one greater significance: they were lessons in admiring women.