February 28, 2020

In 1968, a group of American feminists in New Jersey threw mops, lipsticks, high heels and bras into a “Freedom Trash Can” as part of a protest against the racist and sexist Miss America pageant.

The idea was to discard items that symbolised women’s oppression. Passers-by were invited to join in, and at some stage, rumour has it, one of the bins was set alight — but the organisers have always denied this.

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Not only did those women galvanise a movement, they gave birth to one of the most enduring myths of early feminism: that women literally ‘burned their bras’.

The Miss America protest sealed the beginning of feminism’s second wave: the Suffragettes had won the right for some women to vote, but true liberation was still light years away. I can safely say, as someone who found feminism as a 17-year-old in 1979, it still is.

The chance for British feminists to make their mark came shortly after. In February 1970, a small group of young women organised the first national Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conference at Ruskin College, Oxford — a landmark moment in the second-wave of feminism.

The idea for the 1970 conference came from Sheila Rowbotham, now a noted historian, and Arielle Aberson, a Ruskin student from Switzerland who was tragically killed in a car crash only months later.

The organisers had expected a crowd of around 100 — but over 400 turned up. The venue had to be moved to the bigger Oxford Union, where delegates covered the statues of men by draping them with women’s shawls. The crèche of 60 children was run entirely by men.

Feminist publisher Sue O’Sullivan describes the 1970 event as a weekend filled with the new discoveries of women’s liberation:

“We looked at what ‘patriarchy’ meant and how to challenge it. We listened to stories of equal pay struggles and examined questions of women and class. With toddlers in tow, mothers, fathers and others addressed questions of childcare, contraception, sexuality, and more.”

The ‘minimum demands’ of the conference were equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries. And such was the energy created, several campaigns for legislative change, such as the Equal Pay Act, were kick started. Following the event, newly-invigorated feminists began setting up the first domestic violence refuges and rape crisis centres.

Sally Alexander, another Ruskin student, also helped organise the event. It certainly inspired her into direct action: a few months later, in November 1970, Alexander orchestrated the now world-famous disruption of the Miss World pageant in London. Dozens of feminists bought tickets to the televised event, and (in front of millions of viewers) threw flour bombs, putting a dramatic halt to proceedings.

One criticism of the early WLM is that it was dominated by white, middle-class women. But feminism is not, and never has been, just for privileged women. The original conference in 1970 included trade unionists and working-class women and was held at an adult education college.

The Equal Pay Act became law in 1970, but according to the Fawcett Society, equal pay is still ‘a distant dream’. The majority (60%) of women in workplaces across the UK believe they are earning less than men who are doing the same job.

The Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1970 but did not become became law until 1975. It was hoped by early feminists that it would serve to protect women from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status. But today it is as likely to be used by men claiming they are discriminated against — for example when free drinks are offered to women in bars to promote ‘Lady’s Night’ — than it is by women facing real sexism.

We have come a long way since 1970. At that time, FGM (female genital mutilation) was not a crime, women were denied anonymity when reporting rape and sexual assault, domestic violence was considered to be a ‘private matter’ between husband and wife, and no laws whatsoever were in place to protect lesbians from discrimination.

During the 1970s through to the 1990s, lesbians were in danger of losing custody of their children, often to abusive ex-husbands, for no other reason than their sexuality. Today, lesbians can foster, adopt, marry and have joint custody as same sex couples.

But sexual violence is still a global pandemic. Despite decades of effort from feminists such as myself, in the UK only 1.4% of reported rapes in 2019 will result in a conviction — a significant decrease from a decade ago.

‘Women’s Liberation at 50’ will see women of all ages interact and learn from each other. In today’s climate of a feminism that better suits men that women, many young women in universities are much more likely to be picketing outside of our feminist events, shouting ‘blow jobs are real jobs’ and ‘trans-rights are women’s rights’ than demanding equal pay, maternity leave or an end to male violence.

But the tide is turning and a genuine, grass-roots feminism is enjoying a revival, as attendance of the recent women’s liberation conference in London indicated. One thousand women (and a few men) were there. And the message was that feminism is a collective movement, not about individual women breaking through the glass ceiling.

“We can challenge sexism, and the likes of Harvey Weinstein. We don’t have to stand for this shit anymore,” says one of the organisers of tomorrow’s event, Tracy Walsh. “In the 60s and 70s there was some fantastic activism that needs to be revived today. Imagine turning up at Miss World and disrupting it in the way that Sally did.”

I hope passionately that the conference does inspire and invigorate — just as I was inspired and invigorated in 1979. For, despite 50 years of campaigning, young women are, in many ways, worse off. Feminism is the only social justice movement on the planet that prioritises women and girls. We must inspire a new generation to take up the mantle.