This year I joined the ranks at the Hilton Metropole in London for my first annual Feminism in London conference.
I don’t consider myself an ‘activist’ in the ‘I go on marches and subvert The System with my every action’ sense. If I had ever come up with a funny way of defacing those infamous Protein World posters, I wouldn’t have had the guts to actually do it. So I wasn’t sure this would be for me. But I am trying to nurture my feminist soul, and I am determined to get more involved with the events London has to offer this year, so I took the plunge. At £40 per day, it’s not the cheapest – I could only afford to go to the second half of the two-day conference, although concessionary prices are available.
The first keynote speakers, Bianca Jagger and Max Daschu, were greeted with enthusiastic whoops and cheers on Sunday morning (interrupting speeches for applause was a common feature of the day, and not one I particularly enjoyed). These opening speeches were followed by a series of smaller workshops. You had to choose in advance which to attend in each time slot, although this wasn’t policed so you could get away with a last minute change of heart.
I went to ‘Freedom of Expression: Online Misogyny’ with a panel including Connie St Louis, the journalist who broke the story about Tim Hunt, and Dr Emily Grossman, a science broadcaster who had to deal with ubertroll Milo Yiannopoulos on Sky News. Next up was a workshop on the gender pay gap with representatives from the Fawcett Society, Stemettes (an organization encouraging women to get into science, technology, engineering and maths) and a campaign for gender parity in pensions. Lastly, a workshop on sexist language in advertising, discussing examples such as the Belvedere ad below and how to tackle them.
The conference ended with poetry, more speeches, and the presentation of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prizes (awarded to women and organisations tackling violence against women).
I thought the workshops were great; I enjoyed every one, although I did speak to a few people who were disappointed by one or two. Sitting in smaller groups allowed us to really drill down into some key problems, like the silencing of women on the internet and the onslaught of misogynist advertising we all face on our commutes every day.
Max Daschu was a particular highlight. She told us about societies in the past where woman held various forms of power, and were respected and revered. Her presentation offered the conference something inspiring, interesting and a bit different.
But Daschu aside, I felt the keynote speeches lacked originality. They were dominated by a second wave feminism message that is now fairly well established, and relatively narrow in scope. I found myself wondering whether the cost of the conference, and its lack of advertising (it was £40 per day, and I only saw it mentioned in The Guardian) contributed to the demographic of the audience, which was less diverse than I had hoped, and thus the tone of the keynote addresses.
(I’m not saying everyone in the room was a white, middle class, heterosexual, champagne socialist. I just got the impression that there wasn’t enough diversity in the audience, and I think that was mirrored insofar as there wasn’t enough diversity in the programme schedule. Issues for those who do not fit into the gender binary, and challenges for women of colour, were notably absent).
I also thought the main speeches were too focused on analysis and not enough on solutions (although the workshops I attended balanced this better). I was disappointed by the number of times I heard someone say “we all know the statistics by now” only for them to spend the next section of their speech reciting them to an already well informed audience.
Personally, I found the conference too agreeable. I understand that it’s important to have safe spaces; I also tire of having to defend myself ‘out there’, and know that it’s vital to our success that we aren’t overcome by infighting. But feminism is a wide and varied movement and it’s important not to gloss over the disagreements.
Our disagreements are important, and they need to be aired, because it is only by challenging our views that we will strengthen them.
Next year I hope that Feminism in London tries to encourage more diversity, and I hope the keynote speakers encourage discussion and debate on the hard questions facing contemporary feminism.
But spending 8 hours surrounded by some incredible women who have spent their lives taking zero shits from anyone was inspirational, the award of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize was genuinely humbling. The workshops were brilliant. I’m glad there is a place where hundreds of feminists of different stripes can come together for just one weekend a year and talk about feminism, without the fear of kitchen jokes and rape threats.