Women in the UK: back to the future

Britain’s Olympic summer is over and now it’s back to reality. Marion Bowman looks at how a ground-breaking play on the murder of five prostitutes links to the struggles against the vulnerability of women and renewed attacks on women’s lives, rights and living standards

A brief, intense and happy summer of sporting drama in London has concluded with the welcome coda of cloudless blue skies and baking temperatures, unimaginable earlier in the year when week after week of rain mirrored the chilly gloom descending on austerity-hit Britain. From Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, with its love letter to the National Health Service, to the crowd's jeering of Chancellor George Osborne at a Paralympics medals ceremony in the Aquatics Centre, the Olympics and Paralympics of London 2012 have been an enjoyable distraction from the worsening conditions that increasing numbers of people are now facing in the UK.

Kicking off with June’s Jubilee weekend all the way through to the Notting Hill Carnival of late August, people have been looking for entertainment while there is still a chance.

A quiet hit of this extraordinarily rich cultural and sporting season in the capital has been a musical tackling the true story of the serial murders of prostitutes in the town of Ipswich, a port on the Suffolk coast north east of London. ‘London Road’, at Britain’s top theatre, concerns the murders in 2006 of five prostitutes by a resident of Ipswich’s London Road and largely focuses on the impact on, and responses of, other residents of the street, recorded and reproduced verbatim by authors Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork.

‘London Road’ provides a fascinating insight into a range of attitudes about sexual politics, misogyny and the touchstone position of prostitutes in modern society. When the bodies start to be discovered, the women of the town begin to suspect the men around them of potentially being the killer. Eventually the perpetrator is caught, tried and imprisoned. One of the key characters, a single woman who has become the moving spirit in the area’s new Neighbourhood Watch group, then elicits gasps of shock from the audience. She says she would shake the killer’s hand and thank him for ridding the area of the ‘girls’. 

However, possibly the most powerful elements of the play are the brief contributions from prostitutes still working in the town. They remain near-ghostly figures but in one gripping scene bristling with a kind of pathetic bravado, accusation and defiance, three of them stand at the front of the stage staring silently out into the darkness of the auditorium where the punters are sitting, for minute after increasingly uncomfortable minute. We are reminded that they are people too and that we are complicit in their complex reality. They are mostly involved in prostitution because of drug addiction – certainly each of the murdered women was an addict - and, as one says, no-one had the slightest interest in them until the murders began.  Finally we hear them say they avoid the street now but their regulars keep them going.

The question of who those regulars might be is left hanging in the air like the baskets of flowers in the final scene that are the centrepiece of the London Road in Bloom flower competition.  A bourgeois sense of propriety is restored, or perhaps created for the first time in a street dubbed by the media as Ipswich’s red light area that is far from the classic village environment for this most British expression of the importance of appearances. The other victims of the crimes – as they see themselves – find restitution in self help and a kind of mutual policing of shared standards of decency that barely acknowledge the sex workers as part of their community.

The play took me back to 1975 when I was a trainee journalist in Leeds while also caught up in the energy of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the city. One morning we were all sent out of the newsroom to cover a murder. Wilma McCann, a 28 year old sex worker and mother of four young children was the first woman to be killed by Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe had attacked women before and went on to kill another 12 women over the course of five years. He was nicknamed the Yorkshire Ripper.

The Ripper murders had an electrifying effect on feminist analysis of society at the time.

Unlike the Ipswich case which lasted less than two months from discovery of the first body to arrest of the perpetrator, the Yorkshire Ripper case was renowned for the mess made of it by the police. Thirteen women lost their lives and several others were attacked before Sutcliffe was caught.  An atmosphere of fear spread amongst women across the north of England. And as in Ipswich, the police were inundated with thousands of phone calls raising suspicions about all kinds of men.

Public discourse during the years of the Ripper murders revealed the uneasy relations between women and men in ‘normal’ life.  To a new generation of women sensitive to patriarchy as a system of the control of women by men, the evidence of these uneasy relations came as no surprise. Misogyny within the police, as in society, was widespread and undoubtedly hampered the Ripper inquiry. Appeals to women to stay indoors after dark enraged feminists who called for a curfew for men and marched to Reclaim the Night. Domestic violence was a widespread but totally unacknowledged phenomenon and, indeed, accepted both by the police and other public authorities. Rape within marriage was still legal. Feminists refused to maintain these taboos and began to speak out, set up new services for women and demand changes to the law.

In other areas of life in the UK, the picture was the same. Gender bias was the legal norm. The earnings of married women who worked were treated as part of their husband’s income for tax purposes.  Pay differentials between women and men were huge. Job discrimination – the natural order of things – was only just beginning to be challenged. Safe, legal abortion on the NHS had been legalised in 1967 but was under constant attack in Parliament. Men-only bars in pubs were widespread, and women - and of course their children - were deterred from using public spaces freely. 

This was a mere 30-odd years ago. The systematic nature of patriarchy was finally being mapped and, if prostitutes were the ‘professionals’, the women in the sex industry were included in, and shone a light on, the topography of second class citizenship for all women. 

There have been successful challenges to patriarchy in the intervening years of course but too many women remain vulnerable and the new direction of travel is alarming. The Ipswich murders gave rise to a flurry of debate on Britain’s still antiquated sex industry laws and its catastrophic drugs policies (95% of street prostitutes are problematic drug users -  but human trafficking has made a global trade of women’s bodies). The Coalition government programme is turning the clock back. Public spending cuts are having a disproportionate effect on women,  female unemployment is the highest it has been for 25 years,  abortion rights are under serious attack again and the voices of renewed deregulation of the workplace are gaining traction in politics. To cap it all, David Cameron’s reshuffle has put Maria Miller, who has a negative voting record on abortion and gay marriage, in charge of policy on women and equalities.

So as the summer and the joys and pleasures of London 2012 come to an end it feels like back to the future.  50:50 is pleased to be providing much needed public space for the reporting, debates and analysis that will focus on the changing face of patriarchy. Feminism is once again on the rise as the failures of free market capitalism take their toll and women bear the brunt. A new season begins along with the cultivation of a thousand flowers blooming on the road to global gender equality and social justice.      

About the author

Marion Bowman was director of One World Media before joining openDemocracy 50.50 as a Commissioning Editor. Marion worked for many years in broadcast journalism at Channel 4, ITV, and the BBC. She has written for numerous publications including The Guardian, Sunday Times, Observer and New Statesman.