Mad Women on the March

The Fawcett Society believes that the UK coalition government has broken the law in not assessing the impact of budget cuts on women. Ray Filar marched with them last weekend to hear their reasons for protesting

Ray Filar
23 November 2011
Part of the Centrestage project.

‘Why are you here today?’ I asked the feminist marchers who had responded to The Fawcett Society’s call for a women’s ‘Day of Action’ last weekend. On 19 November, they assembled, two or three thousand, along London’s embankment to oppose the Coalition Government’s cuts package and, in particular, to protest against the impact spending cuts had on women in particular.

They responded with passion and, occasionally, precise detail. The government cuts explicitly failed to acknowledge women as a political class, argued some; jobs, services and livelihoods were under attack. A diversity of voices spoke, almost as one, of a sense of betrayal and anger at a government that knows the impact of its policies, but appears not to care

Demotix/James Howard

Many had heeded the organisers’ request to make the event an ironic ‘1950s dress-up’ occasion; it had been suggested that marchers don the rubber gloves and cutesy skirts of idealised white, middle-class 1950s housewives. The point was to ‘camp up’ the ‘retro-sexism’ of current government policy in a kind of Mad Men sartorial opposition to the political echoes of the Fifties.

Targeted cuts

But a large contingent of women hadn’t bothered with the fancy dress, maybe feeling it took too narrow a view of past gender roles and that substance risked losing out to style. All those I spoke to agreed on the substance: the hugely gendered nature of the cuts.

‘I think it’s really important that we stand up and take action against everything that’s happening,’ said Chitra Nagarajan, 28, who was marching with the Southall Black Sisters. ‘The cuts are affecting women, black communities, people living with disabilities - the most vulnerable, the most marginalised in our society. They’re affecting everyone, but they’re disproportionately affecting these communities. That’s not the kind of country we want to live in. We want to live in a country where’s there’s actual, real, equality, in practice as well as theory.’

Jane Franklin, 40, was walking with Mia, 5, and carrying Rudy, aged 2: ‘I believe this government is institutionally sexist, and when I heard that David Cameron was going to appoint a special advisor for female policies, or, you know, a “special female advisor”, I was just horrified that in this day and age, that that should be necessary. Surely he should just have more women in government? So I was furious, and that’s basically why we’re here.’

One of the chants taken up by the march – ‘Make equality your priority’ - was initiated by Leonie Taylor, 21: ‘I started it because I think equality’s the last thing on the Government’s mind at the moment. I think it’s time to get angry - we’re all really angry!’

Other younger women shared that energetic anger. Beulah Devaney is 24 and has always, she says, been a feminist. ‘My mum was very, very feminist, and read me all the feminist stories when I was little, rather than the “real” ones. At university I saw how vibrant and fun feminism can be.’ A graduate in publishing who now works for a scientific journal, she too uses strong language about the current government: ‘I decided to come here today because I don’t think women are a priority for the government. I think that something needs to be done to point out that it’s not ok for David Cameron to basically fuck us all over.’

I met Sarah Davidson, who wanted to describe herself simply as ‘middle-aged’, towards the tail end of the march. She was there to make a similar point. I wanted to send a message to the government that women are not going to take the cuts lying down. End of.’ Both Frances Vigay, 41, there with her son Jordan, aged 10, and Lesley Binks, 52, were both just glad to see that there was a march. ‘I’m just really encouraged to see a women’s march. The effect of the cuts on women goes largely unrecognised,’ said Vigay.

Binks welcomed the solidarity: ‘I’m here because I think it’s important to be part of a group. Trying to do it on your own is generally ineffective.’

She told me that she hadn’t been involved in feminist activism for very long. This is about the second thing I’ve been on. I used to work in engineering ... that’s enough!’ she laughed, fending off further questions.

Crystal Todd, 39, had been invited to the march by her friend Pavan Dhaliwal, 30, who is director of a consultancy and a board member of The Fawcett Society. Todd had a strong personal motive for protesting and recent experience of how cuts can hurt. She told me: ‘I’ve been ill for some time, and the changes that are going on in the NHS, and especially around ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and benefits, and all those things… it is very difficult now, if you’re a woman, if you’re a mother, if you’re single. I’m pleased I’m here today. I’ve personally felt the effects of the cuts and all the changes that are going on in the economy. I think we have to take steps quickly to say we’ve had enough.’

Dhaliwal agreed: ‘This is not the time to roll back equality for women’.

Decades and differences

Eileen Tipper is 75 and grew up during the Second World War; she was still at school at the beginning of the 1950s. I asked her why she was there and she answered plainly: ‘Because I am a woman’.

How long had she has been involved in feminism?

‘Probably since the 50s,’ she told me. ‘You start out and you think, “we’re equal”, because I went to a girls school as well, and then suddenly you find you’re not, in all sorts of subtle ways you are sidelined ... so you have to be more aggressive. Actually, you have to be assertive, but if you’re assertive the men say you’re aggressive.’

I asked her how she compared the feminism of today with the activism of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies?

‘Well it’s always been patchy. I think it’s gone quiet. That’s what I regret. A lot of women seem to think they can’t do it any more. Since feminism has gone on so long, and there’s been so little impact, then they think it’s not worth fighting for. But it is; you just have to keep going.

‘I think this government has done feminism a good service,’ she laughed. ‘I loathe them. But really, they’ve been ... a benefit, because they are so vile, and so awful. And the way they’ve carried out the cuts, you know, it’s all been directed at women.’

I asked Lesley Owen, 64, how long she has been a feminist. Twenty, thirty years? She laughs. ‘A long time. It’s nice to see activism. It’s interesting how it’s a repetition; it’s sad that it’s a repetition, because I hear things today that I heard 30 years ago. But on the other hand, it’s good to see another generation picking up and pressing on.’

‘Are we winning the fight? Or is it going backwards?’ I asked.

‘At the moment it’s going backwards. I hope the spirit of women will prevail.’

Just a few measures

‘We’re going to be pushing and campaigning for changes between now and the next Budget,’ said Anna Bird who is acting chief executive of the Fawcett Society and at 31 years old very much part of a generation of new activists. I caught up with her at the end of the afternoon and despite being clearly tired and flushed with cold she was enthusiastic about the way the day had gone.

‘Fawcett organised this march today because we’re particularly concerned that the cuts are turning back time on women’s equality. We feel that women’s voices have not yet been heard, ’ she told me.

The Fawcett Society had been concerned at the impact of budget cuts on women from the moment the coalition government launched its Emergency Budget in August 2010. The Society immediately filed for a ‘Judicial Review’ asking the courts to examine whether the budget had been drawn up in accordance with the law. In particular, the Society wanted the courts to decide whether the government had fulfilled its obligations to examine the differing impact on men and women of the measures proposed in the budget. They believed that the tax and spending proposals would hit women disproportionately hard and believe they have been proved right.

‘When we started our campaign 18 months ago, we called for the judicial review but we were aware that the cuts hadn’t yet started to bite, and women weren’t actually feeling the pain. Now they are, it’s really important that women are heard.

‘I think [the march] was a fantastic success,’ said Bird. ‘We saw, we think, about two and a half thousand people here today. We’re really pleased with the turnout. The speakers were fantastic. It was a peaceful protest, we had older women, we had children, we had men here. All joined in the same rallying cry, which is “don’t turn back time on women’s equality”.

‘What next? Well, over the next few months we will be continuing our fight. We’ve set out our demands for government, what we’re calling a “Life Raft for Women’s Equality”, just a few measures that the government really could make happen over the next few months.

‘We need to see the Chancellor take some action.’

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