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Revolutionary Women - Imagining a New Organising Legacy

I delivered this speech on Friday 15th of March, at the Trinity Rooms - for the Stroud Imagines event celebrating International Women's Day. The full video is linked here - but there are edits throughout the text to amend things that I missed in the short amount of time I gave myself to write this. The full transcription can be found below.



I am imagining inheriting a more powerful feminist legacy. 


We’re sold through brands, history classes, and popular imagination a strand of feminism that starts with the suffragette and ends with the girlboss - the “complete, perfect emancipation of women”. Brands now use feminist ideas and slogans to sell us products to change our bodies, to buy into whiteness and support violent supply chains that exploit our siblings. 


This story also separates us from the rest of the struggle, labelling issues either “feminist” or “not feminist”- and prioritising individual choice and comfort over collective liberation. 


Now a couple of things I want to acknowledge before I begin. 


Firstly, the stories I am about to tell you are of white, European heritage women. Of course, we should be looking and taking inspiration from non-white women, who have been the backbone of many of our movements, but I highlight these because we are miseducated into believing that the people who look like us are overwhelmingly supportive of the white supremacist status quo. That is a lie. All of the stories I am about to tell you are of betraying white supremacy and working for global liberation, but they are all of European heritage - I chose this because I believe that as a town we are of majority this heritage and so these are the legacies we must be taking up. They prove to us that we can fight for more than this.


Secondly, I know mainstream UK based feminism is currently ripping itself apart trying to invalidate the experience and existence of trans people. I want to be firm in that I am uncompromisingly supportive of my trans siblings, and that anyone trying to bring this “debate” here, I would firmly suggest that you analyse your whiteness, your internalised patriarchy, and allow yourself the space to learn something. 


Who are the people the girls of the UK are told to look up to when we were younger? Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst? JK Rowling? Taylor Swift? 

I want to tell you another story. 


Elizabeth Heyrick was an abolitionist campaigner in the early 19th century. After the Slave Trade Act 1807, many prominent campaigners such as William Wilberforce (he actually really sucked, despite the stories we are told about him) believed that Enslavement would gradually die out, but a decade later it was clear that would not happen. In 1824, she published a pamphlet titled “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition” criticising the assumptions of other campaigners. She organised a sugar boycott in Leicester, going food to door, and encouraged other women to get involved, successfully involving a huge proportion of the population. She was a founding member of the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves in 1825, the first ladies’ anti-slavery society in the world. It is here that many women who went on to organise for the vote learnt their organising skills, setting up the women’s movement to take flight. And while I spotlight her, I do not want us pretending she leafletted all of Leicester alone - this was a collective effort of thousands, as the whole abolitionist struggle was.



Elizabeth Heyrick

 

(Edit note: What I failed to mention when I delivered this was that the inspiration for and the success of the abolitionist movement in the UK could not have succeeded without the many slave revolts across the world - such as the Haitian Revolution in 1791, or the Baptist War in 1831. This powerfully showcases the opportunity for Glocal connection and how it can mobilise people across great distances.)


I want to imagine a Stroud that is taking on her legacy to actively organise for solidarity with colonised people because we know that is how we will free ourselves - there is a boycott right now, on Israeli goods and other companies, like Coca Cola and McDonalds - I want to imagine a Stroud that in embracing this legacy, we make Stroud an apartheid free zone. In doing so we will learn the skills to meet our needs. 


I want to tell you another story. 


June Stephen was one of the “London Recruits”, who in the depths of South African Apartheid travelled from the UK to Africa to carry out covert missions on behalf of the ANC and other resistance forces. June only died in 2022, and in a letter to her daughter, Dr Snuki Zikalala, the President of the ANC Veterans League said she was “an expert driver in hazardous conditions… she showed immense fortitude, nerve and courage”. She maintained a safe house in Swaziland with her Husband, and was involved in the undercover transport of leaflets and literature and collection of enemy information. There are many June Stephens, both in the struggle with the ANC and in the nobel history of peoples resistance. Jessie Donaldson has a similar story, a Welsh school teacher who travelled to the US and set up safehouses along the underground railroad during enslavement, and taught newly free people how to speak English to evade recapture. 



Jessie Donaldson

I want to imagine a Stroud where we all carry the bravery of June Stephen and all like her, to betray our whiteness, our western privilege, and to join the resistance struggle with no illusions of what it will take to free ourselves and our whole global family from the shackles of imperialism. 


I want to tell you another story. 


Sylvia Pankhurst. Now you’ll recognise this name - I mentioned it earlier - but of the Pankhurst family she refused to stop her work at women's suffrage.



Sylvia Pankhurst


She, along with the East London branches of the WSPU she founded was expelled from the WSPU - the main suffragette organisation in 1914 for their labour activism. At the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917, she began to work in earnest for workers' power, visiting Italy, Germany and Holland to meet with other socialists. After disagreeing with Lenin on the direction that British socialists should take, she smuggled herself to Russia after the confiscation of her passport to confront him at a Convention for socialist and communist parties.  She championed Ethiopia's right to be free of colonisation when Fascist Italy invaded in 1935. She was active in the cause for Ethiopia’s sovereignty for the rest of her life and upon her death was honoured with and Ethiopian state funeral. The MI5 Archives hold a file from 1948 dedicated to “Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst” All of this was in defiance of her family’s views on internationalism. 


I want us to imagine a Stroud, a UK, a world, where every woman can see that the liberation of women cannot happen without class struggle, without victory over imperialism and sovereignty for all peoples. 


This very hall is, I believe, a good place to start. Reclaiming our collective spaces to be other in community is a very important first step. And this space was once confined to someone's imagination, and then today I came for lunch and stayed the afternoon with the toddler I look after, and then used the space and the quiet to write this. 


(Edit note: “The Hall” I refer to is the Trinity rooms, a truly invaluable community resource that has been steadfast in its support of our efforts and is run by the most delightful group of people. If you’re in Stroud on a Friday - do come and support at their community cafe and warm space 9-3!!) 


What next then? As all of the stories I have told you today demonstrate: we must organise.


I am imagining womens’ caucuses in a new democratic institution that seeks to engage everyone in the ultimate question of how are we living together. 


I am imagining women talking to women across divides within Stroud, and outside of - going and doing that work that June Stephens and Jessie Donaldson were doing.


I am imagining a Stroud, and a women's movement within it that knows that the way to emancipation is Planet Repairs - the nexus of Cognitive, Reparatory and Environmental Justice. Gender inequality and the ownership of women is one of the oldest disrepairs and that we have been handed a duty to repair.


Cognitive Justice, that tells us that we as women must discover the ways of knowing that were ripped from us during the witch trials and through generations of isolation. 


Reparatory Justice, that tells us to liberate ourselves from harmful systems that seek to control our bodies. 


Environmental justice that tells us to repair our relationship with mother earth and stop the plundering of her. 


I do not want us to look upon this work as a burden, but as our way of contributing to our human family - as the women of the Kurdish Struggle say, we have to initiate the revolution within the revolution. 


In January we hosted Akorfa and Dzigbordi, Ghanaian women who are organising for Planet Repairs with the ABLODENUNYANSA Communiversity. There are ongoing discussions about how we can work together to advance women’s organising in both contexts. This December they have elections and we will be organising with them to build a people’s observatory to prevent violence as the democratic process plays out. I am imagining a women’s organisation that is ready for this, to work with them and other women to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of their community. 


Later this year we will hopefully be hosting a study-visit of some women from the FENMURCARINAP in Peru, a women's union of indigenous and wokring women with over 126,000 women. I am imagining a women's movement that is ready to welcome them. And I am imagining a women's movement that is as powerful as them. 126,000 people? Can you even imagine it? 


This week SISTER member Robin has been with a powerful peoples-to-peoples delegation in the Sahel, brought together by PARISC - the Pan African Reparatory Internationalist Standing Conference. This Sunday we are holding a glocal conference to speak with the other members of the delegation on the last few days of their trip. They’ve been meeting with organisers, government officials and students, to discuss how we can be in solidarity with their revolutions. The new governments of the Sahel are taking on a legacy that is powerful and exciting - Thomas Sankara, the past President of Burkina Faso, stood powerfully with the women of the country as they emancipated themselves - and it looks likely that new leader Ibrahim Traore will be continuing these programs, and ensuring that the women of the Sahel are enabled to organise for power. 


Taking on this legacy is life giving. I am imagining a Stroud and a women's movement where we know that we are not isolated in this struggle, where we stand with our Kurdish siblings, our Palestinian siblings, our Peruvian siblings, our Ghanaian siblings, our whole global family. 


We have been given a narrative through our schools, through our society, through brands that use narratives of liberation to get us to buy things that we don’t need. When this is our narrative we miss our ties to liberatory movements that will truly bring about not only the emancipation of womankind, but the emancipation of humanity.


I want to imagine a feminist movement that is deeply rooted into liberatory movements, into our global family, and into what is needed to emancipate the world.

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