Women’s Right to Write

Audre Lorde

Raquel Rosario Sánchez spoke at Feminist Writers Talk Back! at the University of Bristol’ event on Tuesday, May 28th. Read this and you will have some idea of the hurdles that gender critical feminists have to face when they want to meet.

Thank you very much.

Thank you to our venue, the University of Bristol, for abiding by the law and respecting the fact that a group of overwhelmingly women do in fact have a right to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and perhaps more relevant to our event tonight, freedom of thought.

These rights have been enshrined in law through the Human Rights Act 1998, and women’s right to self-organisation is protected by the Equality Act 2010. Meaning that if we had wanted to have a female-only meeting, we were perfectly entitled to do so. However, I did check the attendees list and we have some men among us. Thank you for joining us.

Thank you in particular to the amazing Campus Security Services and other security present tonight for their thoughtfulness in helping us prepare for this event, for the respect that they have shown to us, as a Feminist Student Society, and to the safety of our attendees. We are very grateful.

Thank you to every single one of the women present here. Thank you for participating with us in this celebration of women and their rights to think, talk and write. In the women’s liberation movement, we need women willing to step up and put these events together in spite of opposition, but we equally need women willing to engage and participate. Neither side can exist without the other, so thank you all very much.

Most importantly, I would like to thank the women from Women Talk Back!. Women who only attended one meeting and those who have become regulars participating in every single one of the consciousness-raising meetings. Women Talk Back! meetings are held almost every Sunday at the Multifaith Chaplaincy, here at the University of Bristol.

This event exists to honour the women sharing a panel with me today and also to honour the courageous women of Women Talk Back! Several of them are with us tonight (some are home studying hard and preparing for exams but they are with us in spirit). I would like to ask you all to please give a massive round of applause to these fantastic young women who have achieved something quite remarkable.

Who are these women? What is Women Talk Back!?

“The Feminist Student Society at the University of Bristol, Women Talk Back! provides a space for women to engage in lively discussion and debate. We are in pursuit of global liberation from all forms of patriarchy. We therefore centre all women who experience misogyny, but who may also face racism, anti-lesbianism, classism and other forms of structural discrimination that arise from male domination. Women Talk Back! are committed to the power of sisterhood and believe that it is only through an understanding of our similarities and differences that we can liberate ourselves from patriarchy.

We believe that dialogue with each other is the first step towards liberation from oppressive structures and practices. We welcome women from all backgrounds to join and take part in all aspects of the group. We aim to foster a culture of collective responsibility, care, and honesty with ourselves and one another.”

I have always loved the fact that Women Talk Back! meets at the Multifaith Chaplaincy here on campus. It is an affirmation that it is perfectly legitimate to share ideas and disagreements, as long as our common denominator is respect for one another.

Aside from that, it is quite a feat to get a group of young women to voluntarily dedicate three hours of their busy weekends to talk about the oppression, discrimination and collective liberation of all women and girls, worldwide.

When I attended the meetings, I would often look around and ponder how many professors right here on this campus wish they could keep their students’ attention for one hour… once a week! And here we have this feminist student society doing student-led teaching and activism; drawing fellow female students in to discuss their struggles and the fight against patriarchy.

If I have to spell it out: these young women weren’t dedicating 3 hours of their weekends to gossip about boys and booze. Even though, you know, that’s totally cool too! But they have created this space and nurtured it with love, respect and kindness for each other, and perhaps most crucial, for themselves. And when the pressure came, they stood their ground with remarkable poise, broadcasting to fellow students and feminists who were watching how to properly live their feminist ideals with dignity.

During the planning stages of officialising the group, I thought that maybe we should name it something fun and cool to get “the kids” on board. Something like ‘Feminism and Cupcakes! to attract a wider audience of university campus students. Evidently what I was doing with that proposal was just showing my age! (A couple of days ago, I sent May an email with the sentence “would it be okay if we livestream and live-tweet the event?” and I’ve never felt older in my entire life!)

The leadership of the group decided on something else: Women Talk Back! And how right they were to stand their ground on that front.

Who knew that in the year 2019 we would have to be grateful to academic institutions in the United Kingdom for allowing women the doubtful freedom to exercise the rights that have already been enshrined in law? Who knew that in the year 2019, women talking back and asserting their boundaries would be of note?

But it is. Same as it ever was.

Tonight, we celebrate women who talk back through their writing. I have no further commentary on the power of feminist writing than the events which have unfolded in the past couple of weeks, and in the past sixteen months.

If we want to test whether women do have the right to write, we shouldn’t look into the applause and the adulation they get when they write something that appears, on the surface, to be popular or formally acknowledged as the norm. We should pay closer attention to what happens when a woman writes what must not be written and what has not been approved.

Approved by whom? Evidently, by her superiors.

One of the struggles of feminists who want to organise events in university campus, is that if we tell women all the hoops that have to be jumped through to put on events, and the abuse that must be faced, then we might scare off women who are hesitant to engage. Yet, if we do not tell them, then we risk normalising misogynist dynamics and discriminatory processes which place far more scrutiny on peaceful women than on aggressive bullies who target women. Another struggle is having to deal with the many Dickhead SUs that operate within the UK! #SorryNotSorry

To use one example, we have over 100 women (and some men) here in this room tonight. Each and every single one of you had to be vetted. Oh yeah, we googled you and we cross-referenced you… We asked friends if they knew you and we looked up all your tweets! This was a security measure and we are happy to comply with whatever is required of us in order to hold this event.

But some nights, when I was alone in my computer, looking at your LinkedIn profiles and the pictures you took with your nieces on that trip to Barcelona, back in 2014, which you shared on Facebook… I thought to myself, how often are men required to do this? How many of the other student societies (there are dozens, if not hundreds) have to spend as much time, energy and effort as ours?

We are the only feminist student society in the United Kingdom which is female-only, and this is the price we have to pay for asserting our boundaries, as women.

I am sure each one of you is extraordinary but plainly speaking, we are just women holding an event to talk about our lives and the power of using pen and keyboards as a tool to fight back against patriarchy.

Tonight, we celebrate women who write. We celebrate Minna Salami, Victoria Smith, Jeni Harvey, Sarah Ditum, (our dearly missed) Beatrix Campbell, May Mundt-Leach and all the female writers who are with us in this room and in spirit, as well.

We celebrate them because a woman with a pen and keyboard is mighty.

A feminist writer commits the most grievous sin: the sin of assuming that she is entitled not only to hold thoughts inside her own brain, but that she has the right to express them outwardly and with other women. She is so brazen that she believes that her thoughts are so important, that other women (and men) may be interested in reading them. She truly has no shame!

A feminist writer with a pen and keyboard is a danger. I ponder: the 8-10 security men who are with us today are protecting whom and from what?

I suggest we end the section of these evening with the one and only Dale Spender, who gifted the women’s liberation movement with an almost 800-page volume singularly addressing the challenges that await feminist writers:

“We need to know how patriarchy works. We need to know how women disappear, why we are initiated into a culture where women have no visible past, and what will happen if we make that past visible and real. If the process is not to be repeated again, if we are to transmit to the next generation of women what was denied transmission to us, we need to know how to break the closed circle of male power which permits men to go on producing knowledge about themselves, pretending that we do not exist.

And this is to enter the realm of theory; not to mystify, intimidate or oppress, but to describe and to explain the experience of women in a male-dominated society which says that if such experience does exist, then it is of no account.

Into a context in which women have grave doubts about the potential of the intellectual, I am going to introduce the argument which contends that this is no accident; I am going to suggest that patriarchy has found it profitable to turn us away from the intellectual. We have been discouraged from formulating and building theories, for patriarchy finds this a dangerous activity on the part of women. This is why the theories we have constructed, again and again, and which show many similar features, have so effectively disappeared.”

But Dale Spender has not disappeared. She is alive in her writing, just like the women on this panel will live on through their work and will make company to the women who grab a cup of tea, pick up one of their articles or books, and reads them. 

We have not disappeared.

We are here, and I can see you.

If you look to your right, and to your left: you can see each other.

We are here, and the brilliant young minds of Women Talk Back! will guarantee that there will be many of us here, for years to come.

Dale Spender wrote that in 1982. She dedicated Women of Ideas (And What Men Have Done To Them) to her mother, her sister, her friends and herself. And I dedicate tonight’s event to the women of Women Talk Back!, to our speakers, to our audience, to my mum, to my sisters, to my female friends and to myself.

Thank you.

Raquel Rosario Sánchez is a writer and researcher. She specialises in ending violence against women and girls and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.