When Finn Mackay came to London in 2002, she found herself disappointed at the lack of feminist activity in the capital, “I was looking for lively, angry and practical feminist activism when I moved to London, but instead, I found little activism around and most of it online only.”
Two years later, she began exploring the idea of an activist network for London, sending an email advertisement to the few feminist online lists she knew of, requesting any interested activists meet up. Six women turned up to an initial meeting in the cafe at The Royal Festival Hall. She acknowledges that spreading the word was tough, “at that time, the online presence of feminism was nothing like it is now.”
But still, the advert was passed around. At the next meeting, twelve women. Word spread further. The meetings grew until, only months later, a large enough group was built to require an identity and The London Feminist Network was born. Eleven years later, the network boasts over 1,000 members and is a vibrant connection point for women all across London to engage in face-to-face activism, which is where, in Finn’s experience, “the magic happens.”
This current resurgence of feminism has been astounding and powerful. I’m immensely proud to have played a small part in it.
The London Feminist Network revived the Reclaim the Night march in the autumn of 2004. The first march had only 50 attendees but is now a nation-wide event which receives a diversity of press coverage, some marches seeing 5000 women walk through the capital’s streets to demand an end to all forms of violence against them.
“Back when I started, organisations wouldn’t even use the phrase ‘violence against women’. I remember the first time I went to Unison Women’s Conference and asked for their support, I wasn’t allowed to give out flyers in the venue and I had to stand outside in the rain. It took several years to get to the point we’re at now, where it is simply quite routine for Trade Unions and large organisations to support Reclaim the Night.”
Finn’s dedication is still paying off emotionally too. “To get emails from women saying how it was the first time they’d walked through London feeling safe and powerful, or to hear women say it was the first time they’d been out at night since an assault, or to see women marching with placards for friends and loved ones lost to male violence, all of these things were humbling and I’m in still in awe of all of that.”
In February 2015, Palgrave published Finn’s first book Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement. It’s a remarkable work which explores the revival of the Reclaim the Night marches alongside a study of radical feminist activism in its historical and contemporary contexts. Always deeply informative and insightful, the text investigates the challenges and successes of the movement, as well as its future aims. It’s a powerful, refreshing read which combines academic, critical and evidence-based thinking with a warm, open approach. It’s a clear call-to-action.
“Feminism is still a niche movement and feminism is still seen as a dirty word,” Finn says. “Every time someone rolls their eyes or says ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ or ‘I’m not one of those kind of feminists’, dangerous myths about women’s liberation are further entrenched.”
It is there, hidden between the lines, the assumption that everybody already knows and accepts that not being focused 24/7 on one’s perceived sexual attractiveness to men is the most weird and outlandish thing a woman could do.
Finn’s engagement with the Women’s Liberation Movement began at a young age. In her book, she reports her childhood fascination with the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common. “I listened to vinyl records of Greenham women’s peace songs, I designed my own Greenham Common supporter tee shirts and waited for the day I could be part of it myself.” At 17, she got involved in the Menwith Hill resistance, living on a women’s peace camp for a year.
“Empowering is a clichéd and often overused word, but it is a fitting term to describe my experiences at peace camp,” she says. “It felt like all of us together were taking power into our own hands, we weren’t signing a standing order to a charity or campaign group, we were actively campaigning ourselves. We were taking our protest right to the very gates of the US military industrial complex. It was quite clear that the police and security forces at the bases found us threatening, which sounds ridiculous as we were only few, but I genuinely think they were completely phased by the way we worked. The fact that we only reacted to them with humour, without fear, made it difficult for them because it was clear that we were challenging them on some level as human beings.”
She talks of fixing vans, waterproofing caravan roofs, building a disabled access toilet and concreting floors, chopping fire wood and surviving outdoors in all weathers. “This was all done on top of the business of running our own and collective court cases, writing articles and speaking to local groups. This really put paid to those hateful myths that women can’t work together, that women are ‘bitchy’ to each other, that women are the worst to work for etc. The sense of empowerment also came from seeing women leading, physically.”
Words cannot describe what that experience did for me as a young person and as a young woman.
There’s no question that the Seven Demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement, born from the Second Wave, are going to be hard won under the UK government’s austerity plans, and that budget cuts predominantly affect crucial women’s services. “Defeating austerity has to be a priority,” Finn states. “Ideally a government would prioritise rearing children, building communities, caring for others, health care, teaching, the environment, sustainable jobs, youth services etc. Ideally, crimes against women and children, by those they should be able to love and trust, would be seen as the most heinous of crimes against the community, and would be dealt with appropriately. Ideally, children would be raised free from harmful gender stereotypes that teach boys and girls, but boys especially, that power is something you have to get over others and hold onto with force. This kind of world is called ‘idealistic’, whereas the outrageous, destructive and expensive system we have now, spreading its tentacles around the whole world, is somehow seen as acceptable and normal.”
The publication of Finn’s book feels particularly important under these contexts. She is keen to explore options with activists about protecting services in the women’s sector in the face of the government’s cuts. “Just generally, I feel the pressure is on at the moment to build and be part of collective action against the Conservatives and their hateful policies,” she says. “I would say a really important thing for women to do is to create women’s consciousness raising groups. It is crucial that women learn to plot and plan together, face to face. I think building those spaces, however small they start, are the paving stones of liberation.”
The Heroine Collective highly recommend Finn’s book, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement which is available from all good bookstores for £14.99.
If you are interested in meeting with other activists and hearing Finn speak, The Feminism in London Conference, born from The London Feminist Network, is one of the key events in the UK Feminist calendar. It’s a wonderful melting pot with a brilliant organisational team behind it. Tickets here.
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