Sheila Jeffreys recently guest posted an excerpt of a speech which she delivered at the alternative conference which my partner, Amazon ManCrusher, and myself organised in response to the bullying, harassing and intimidation that radical feminists were facing from pro-sex industry activists and queer/trans activists. In brief, the Melbourne Feminist Collective formed to organise Feminist Futures which was “a conference that aims to provide a safe, supportive and active space for discussing different strategies to create a feminist future. It is an open environment for anyone interested in imagining and creating feminist futures in our community.” The conference organisers were well-intentioned but politically naive, obviously having no idea of the hot water they would be jumping into, trying to organise a conference in which “participants will have the opportunity to critically engage with issues across a broad range of feminist perspectives and agendas.”
They invited Sheila Jeffreys, Kathleen Maltzahn (founder of Project Respect) and Melinda Tankard-Reist to speak and listed them as panellists on their website. The shit hit the fan first with Melinda being axed from the program, apparently because of her ‘pro-life’ sentiments. As far as I am aware Melinda is against abortion from a feminist perspective, believing it to be violence against women. She is certainly not the only feminist to be critical of abortion. However, she was not going to be speaking about abortion, but about the objectification and sexualisation of women and girls. Then queer/trans activists and sex industry activists began a facebook and email campaign against Sheila, demanding that the organisers take Sheila off the program and platform queer and pro-sex industry speakers instead.
The organisers did not fully capitulate to these demands, however, to appease the bullies and harassers they platformed Elena Jeffreys (from Scarlett Alliance) and Jez Pez (an F2T, member of an organisation called Still Fierce) and to make it worse they put Jez Pez on the same panel as Sheila Jeffreys. Upon initially being asked to speak, Sheila had specified that she would not share a platform with anyone who was opposed to radical feminist ethics. The organisers blatantly ignored her wishes and then came up with a Participants Agreement which I, and many other radical feminists, could only read as being purposefully marginalising of anti-sex industry and trans-critical feminists. Among other things the Participants Agreement required us to refrain from being ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’, which are contested terms within feminism. The Participants Agreement did not contain any reference to misogyny or the hatred of lesbians. I found this to be particularly telling.
For all the talk from the organisers about creating a safe space, they did very little to ensure a safe space for radical feminist voices or for survivors of the sex industry. We emailed the organisers about the Participants Agreement and also about their decision to put Sheila on a panel with a member of Still Fierce. We had over 40 signatures on the letter but no action was taken by the MFC to ensure the safety of either radical feminists or survivors of the sex industry. Sheila, understandably, decided to withdraw from the conference, which left AM and myself with a bit of a quandary. We had plane tickets booked and time off work, but we were quite uncomfortable with the idea of attending a conference that was obviously going to be incredibly hostile to actual feminist politics.
And then AM came up with a brilliant and inspired plan. With less than 2 weeks before the start of the conference AM booked a room in the same building as where the workshops for the other conference was being held. She organised speakers; including Sheila Jeffreys, Renate Klein, Susan Hawthorne, myself (the star attraction obviously!!!) and various other incredible lesbian feminist speakers and put a program together for a REAL Feminist Futures Conference. Watching AM in action is awe-inspiring. We sent out the word and printed off tons of leaflets then got on a plane.
Friday afternoon we went to Spinifex Press and printed off a whole bunch of posters and I bought loads of books. On Friday night we had the privilege of seeing Gail Dines interviewed on the last day of her book tour of Australia. AM leafleted her audience! The next morning we got up early and met a few friends (more radical lesbian feminists!) to leaflet outside the Feminist Futures Conference as women (and way too many men) filed through to register. After the conference started we were too full of nervous energy and too hungry to attend the first session, we headed out to brekkie and AM tried to finish her speech.
Our conference started at 11:00. We arrived at the room early to put up signs and set up. We set up about 25 chairs in a circle, thinking that that was probably overly optimistic but just to make sure. We started… the chairs were filled… more chairs were set up… more women kept coming… there were women in all the chairs… sitting on the floor… coming in and standing sheepishly in the doorway. It was amazing.
It was a charged environment. The power of women-only space was palpable. We were women of all ages, many races, both lesbian and straight, both child-free women and women with children and our discussion was moving, honest, open, political, and radical. We were talking revolution. And we were making revolution. For an incredibly detailed documentation of the conference please visit Sazz’s blog and read her very inspiring and moving descriptions: Real Feminist Futures Conference and Real Feminist Futures Conference (continued).
We also attended some workshops of the other conference. The difference in the feeling and the atmosphere was stark. Men’s voices dominated the workshop run by Project Respect. Participants attempted to disrupt the discussion which was being run by a survivor of the sex industry. The coordinator of the outreach program for Project Respect, is an incredibly brave woman and she did not allow them to take over the workshop. It was disappointing that there was not safe space to have genuine discussion around women’s experience of prostitution. These discussions could *never* happen in spaces that include men.
Kathleen Maltzahn decided to speak, despite being aware that it was not going to be a respectful audience. We were unable to attend to show our support as our conference ended up clashing with her panel. We heard that a group of sex-industry activists, many of whom were men, stood and turned their backs on her. When question time came they all rushed to join the comment queue and laid into her. It is apparent that the Feminist Futures Conference could never have been a safe space for radical feminists.
We spoke to one of the women from the MFC after the conference. She said that they would never take on a project like that again. I think that it was obvious from the start that the conference organisers had very little understanding of the herstory of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and had no idea how to create a safe space for real feminist dialogue and debate. (Hint: NO MEN!) They were in way over their heads, and to be honest, by the end of it, I felt quite sorry for them.
But our conference was an unequivocal success. I learnt so much from having been a part of making it happen. I am usually so cynical about the state of feminism… even though I believe in women passionately, with every beat of my heart. But this has given me new hope as to the future of feminism and the future of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Both AM and myself are very excited about organising our SCUM Conference in September. It feels like The Women’s Movement is finally starting to come alive again after a period of dormance.
I want to end by paraphrasing what Gail Dines said in response to a question asked at the end of her interview on Friday night. She was asked, “how do we engage young people in critiquing and analysing the woman-hating, destructive media and pornographic culture we are immersed in?” And she answered, “Give them radical feminism. Don’t give them the queer and gender bullshit… that will just send them to sleep. When I give my students women like Andrea Dworkin to read they come alive and are immediately engaged. They get it.”
The fact that our conference drew so many women, from so many age groups, proves that radical feminism speaks to women of all ages. We are far from dead and buried, sisters, we have only just begun…