My first public protest was at the age of 18. I stormed a local branch of WH Smith with a bunch of other women and cleared the top shelves of all the porn mags, chucking them across the floor. Outside, there were more of us, waving banners and placards declaring that “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice”, and “Women are not for sale”. It was thrilling, even though it was a relatively small gesture. But it did make a splash.
The police eventually turned up and moved us on, but not before we had made our point and incited curiosity and solidarity from passers-by. Our demonstration was even reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post. Our message had been heard.
That sort of in-your-face feminism was — alas — a bit sidelined by the internet. Along came the rise of keyboard activism, whose warriors prioritise sending out petitions and messages of condemnation on Twitter over taking to the streets alongside their sisters. Partly that’s convenience but partly it’s because the internet is where a lot of the violence is incited and savage verbal attacks take place.
Take the particularly vicious campaign against Milli Hill. Last November, Hill, founder of the Positive Birth Movement and the of bestselling books including Give Birth Like a Feminist, was the victim of an online pile on when she took issue with the phrase “birthing people”. She wrote: “It is women who are seen as the ‘fragile sex’ etc, and obstetric violence is violence against women. Let’s not forget who the oppressed are here and why.”
On they piled. Slowly at first, but then harder and faster: “anti-LGBTQ”, “transphobic”, “toxic” “dangerous”… And people she had worked with dropped her. So she laid low for 8 months and then wrote a blog about her appalling experience.
At which point it all kicked off again. One trans activist tweeted at Hill: “Milli, you obviously haven’t learned from the response JK Rowling got from her post. You aren’t incorrect that obstetric violence is sex-based. But how difficult is it to acknowledge that not everyone who is capable of giving birth, identifies with the female or woman label?”
Rowling shot off a blinder in support:
Judging by the tsunami of supportive emails and letters I've received, if women learned anything from the response to my post it wasn't that they should sit down and shut up. Solidarity to the brave and fabulous @millihill (and I love your books, by the way!) pic.twitter.com/dLdsYR73Qd
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 15, 2021
The response from women everywhere was amazing. As I write, the tweet has been ‘liked’ more than 24,000 times.
Rowling’s refusal to be cowed by the bullies is giving strength to other women to stand up and speak out. Rowling keeps going because she knows that thousands upon thousands of women have her back.
This feels like a significant moment. Feminists are rising up.
And as this brilliant sisterly solidarity plays out out on the internet, it’s filtering out on to the streets again. More and more women are putting down the keyboard and picking up the loudhailer — some for the first time.
Earlier this week, more than 300 women and a smattering of men gathered at Glasgow Green in protest at the ongoing case against Marion Millar. The Scottish accountant was arrested, interrogated and charged under the Communications Act for sending six tweets in 2019 which were deemed to be offensive. One tweet included a photograph of a bow of ribbons in the green, white and purple colours of the Suffragettes, tied around a tree. According to the complainant(s), the ribbons represented a noose. For her crime, Millar faces six months in prison, away from her young family.
Even though the hearing was postponed, the protest went ahead, with supporters congregating on the green, waving banners and placards reading, “#WomenWontWheesht” (wheesht is a Scottish colloquialism meaning ‘shut up’) a hashtag that has come to symbolise the feminist refusal to be silenced.
They chanted, sang, and made a fuss. It was excellently old school. And they were full-throated in outrage for police and prosecutors targeting women for supposed “hate crime” when convictions for rape and male violence are at an all-time low.
For as long as there has been male violence and oppression, women have protested. The very first women-only direct action on record was in Manchester in 1905. Christabel Pankhurst and millworker, Annie Kenney, disrupted speeches by prominent Liberals Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey, asking where the men stood with regards to women’s political rights.
In November 1910, suffragettes stormed the House of Commons to protest against the hostility of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to women’s voting rights. The police responded by attacking the women with truncheons, and many were beaten, sexually assaulted and humiliated.
Thus was the women’s case proven. The women hit back and rampaged through Westminster smashing windows and attacking property. They were arrested, but this particular direct action went down in history.
Feminists threw flour bombs at the Miss World competition in London in 1970; invaded the Ideal Home exhibition in protest of lesbians having their children removed by the state in the 1980s; and spray painted buildings and stormed churches during sermons in the campaign to criminalise rape in marriage.
It is only visible action that will shame governments and other state agencies into change. Social media could never replace standing outside a court building and shouting our demands in full view of the public. That’s why I’ve helped organise hundreds of public demonstrations across the UK against domestic abuse and injustice towards women.
It’s important we are heard because there is currently a concerted effort from both the Left and the Right to silence us: the Left won’t let women talk about their sex-based rights; the Right is stripping resources from the places were abused women find shelter. And something is shifting. Women are getting noisier. Women are making a stand. Just look at the masses who turned out to express their anger and grief over the Sarah Everard murder.
And those who stand up inspire others to do the same. Just like Milly Hill, who told me: “Other women made me feel braver, and I wanted to in turn help other women to feel braver.” And JK, too, standing up to the bullies and facing down the death threats.
I have interviewed 50 young women over the course of two years for my forthcoming book on feminism, in order to explore cross generational understanding and cooperation, which recently has been lacking between young feminists and the Second Wave, like me.
But each and every interviewee told me a similar story – that they are rising up against the liberal notion that everything bad that happens to them is “empowering”. They are getting angry about the global sex trade, about forced marriage, FGM, and daily sexual harassment. That is why more and more younger women are taking to the streets – to reclaim them.
Like Marion Millar and her supporters, feminists young and old will not be intimidated into silence or capitulation. It is the antithesis of our movement. Feminism exists because women have been under the cosh patriarchy for centuries. My favourite chant, constantly heard at feminist rallies is, “Women’s tradition: Struggle not submission.”
I will never forget the exhilaration of my early public protests and direct actions. I was even held in a police station on one occasion, having been accused of public order offences. I was finally released without charge the following morning, and I recall feeling the sweet sense of freedom. I want all women and girls to feel that freedom, but every hour of every day.