A number of Reclaim the Night marches against violence against women will take place in the next year. The London march is planned for November. Jordan Savage reflects on her own experience of these marches and asks how socialist feminists can contribute to this important campaign.
Since its inception in the late 1970s, the “Reclaim the Night” movement has taken the form of evening marches, usually (but not always) for self-defining women only, in opposition to male violence against women.
So far, so good: the women's movement needs autonomous, women-only organisation to build solidarity, to build confidence and to establish a force fighting from the bottom up.
The demonstrations are intended to welcome all sections of the women’s movement, and as a result the over-arching politics tends to be bourgeois liberal feminism.
At the 2008 London march, this began to crystallise into a problem when sex workers and their allies formed the “red umbrella contingent”. Violence against women has a disproportionate effect on sex workers, and people on the contingent were there on their own behalf as victims and potential victims of violence, and to agitate within the women’s movement for changes to a policing and legal system that makes them vulnerable.
The route of the demonstration took protestors past a Spearmint Rhino club, where the Red Umbrella Contingent stopped to express solidarity with the workers at this club. But the contingent did not have the full support of the Reclaim the Night march in taking this action.
In Cambridge on 3 May 2009, Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) Women’s Officer Natalie Szarek organised a re-launch of Reclaim the Night after a three year hiatus. The 60-strong demonstration took the shape of a women-only march through town to a mixed-gender vigil at King's College Chapel.
An opening speech was given by former CUSU Women’s Officer Jo Reed. Like most of the demonstration, the focus of her speech was on the CUSU women’s community, but she did stress the need to link up Reclaim the Night with the gay rights and anti-racist movements, making it clear that the fight for emancipation must be fought on all fronts and cannot be locked down to a single issue. Following her lead, the march left the starting blocks to the chant, “Sexist, racist, anti-gay, you can't take our night away”.
But it was downhill from there (metaphorically speaking). The chants Szarek circulated included: “no means no, it don’t mean maybe, you can’t touch me, I’m not your baby” and “whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”. The slogans rankled with me because they assume blanket aggression on the part of all men on all streets.
This might be seen as pedantic over-interpretation were it not for the attitude of the radical feminist marshals on the march, who turned slightly cheeky, boisterous shouts of support from a young man, aged around 14, to embarrassed aggression by standing in front of him and freezing him out after he had shouted: “Stop violence against women? Cool! I’ll call my mum”.
The march culminated in a 100-strong vigil for people of all genders in King’s College Chapel. A minute’s silent reflection was broken by members of Robinson College Choir singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”, which lent a melancholic and worryingly religious and sanctimonious aspect to proceedings.
As the first speaker after the choir, I addressed the question of the relationship between the Reclaim the Night movement and the Red Umbrella Contingent, before moving on to talk about the negative impact that the introduction of “Swedish Model” legislation regarding sex work would have on a group of workers who are already so much at risk. I went on to explain to a baffled-looking crowd the perspective of working-class feminism more generally.
I focussed on the fact that much domestic abuse is exacerbated by economic conditions, and that the women’s struggle is worsened by the fact that a vast majority of low-paid and part-time jobs, particularly in the service industries, are occupied by women, leaving them on the back foot socially and financially even before you consider the stresses of what are considered “women’s issues” in society, and in particular by the bourgeois women's movement.
There were two further speeches, one on the endemic violence caused by socially constructed gender roles, by an anarchist, and another by Szarek, who kept largely to the facts, and revealed some shocking truths about the way that the reporting of sexual violence is managed by government initiatives. One report she cited had claimed that incidence of rape in the UK have gone down significantly over the last five years; this was directly contradicted by the figures in the report. When Szarek questioned this, she was told that the reports had to “keep certain people happy”.
The a-political, bourgeois “tradition” of the Reclaim the Night movement risk endangering it. The movement will inevitably take on the shape of the loudest political voices in any city or town. In Cambridge a pseudo-anarchist modus operandi meant it was easy for a “tyranny of structurelessness” to emerge in the planning stages.
Voting procedures were outrageously un-transparent, and Szarek was allowed to manipulate email lists so that members of her coterie who had not attended any discussions were given a vote on crucial issues, such as the composition of the march and what role men would play in the demonstration as a whole. This allowed militant anti-male feeling to come to the fore during the march, under the guise of defending the “democratically” decided shape of the march.
My speech was received with a mixture of confusion and encouragement and, in some cases, embarrassment: the ideas of socialist feminism are still alien to a majority of people, particularly in the overwhelmingly affluent University of Cambridge.
The growth of the Reclaim the Night movement should be encouraged, but the rallying cry of the movement should be issued to working class women. We are not fighting for a neo-Amazonian women’s protectorate and we will not let workers be excluded from our campaigns because members of the middle class find their occupation unsavoury, or think that voicing working-class demands may retract from their own small victories. Reclaim the Night, but know that you are reclaiming it not from men, but from a system that forces women down as part of its multi-faceted “divide and rule” attacks.