Cllr Sarah Field was born in Leeds in 1975. She is a single parent, ex-Labour Party member and is the elected Independent member for Garforth and Swillington in Leeds.
In July 2019 I woke up one morning and everything felt wrong. I couldn’t take in enough air, my face was almost unrecognisable and looked like a sort of pugilistic consequence. Within hours I’d been sent to A&E, had an x-ray, blood tests and a CT scan and was told I had a huge tumour next to my heart, which was almost certainly cancer.
I don’t feel sanguinely changed by cancer, by what Deborah Orr called “the tyranny of positivity”. Chemotherapy, and particularly Cisplatin, turned me into a grey parchment-like creature. I dreamed only in black and white as the platinum coursed through my veins. At times I felt almost like I had become metallic. The shrill cacophony of tinnitus. The nastiness of poison. The head and body as smooth as the alien robot. If there was a side-effect then I had it: evil nausea, nose bleeds, mouth sores, autonomic vomiting (every hour of every day for weeks on end), a feeding tube, fainting, blood transfusions, neuropathy so bad that I would frequently ask the doctors if amputation was an option. Then a sternotomy. Sliced open and my breastbone sawn in half, opened with a vice, the last vestiges of cancer sliced away along with much of my phrenic nerve. Stitched back together with wire.
I’d lost my mum a year earlier, four months after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I would often end up on the same wards or in the same rooms that she’d been in. Lying alone at night, retching, opposite the room where she died on the evening before her 66th birthday. And I thought about my own children. Because children need their mum. A child losing their mother is a timeless tragedy. My heart boiled and I wept on my knees not for myself, but for them.
But I do now feel I know something more of what it feels like to be touched by generosity of spirit and the tenderness of hearts. Which brings me to my job and the residents of my ward, who are absolutely bloody smashing. Aside from my friends and family, it was my residents and feminists who got me through cancer.
I’ve been a Leeds city councillor since May 2016, when I was elected to represent the Garforth and Swillington ward. I left the Labour Party in February 2017, along with my ward colleague Cllr Mark Dobson, and became an independent councillor. We set up our own political party, Garforth and Swillington Independents, and built it from scratch, from the ground up. And it swelled in breadth and depth because we live in our ward, we are grafters, because we have the kind of working relationship that’s symbiotic, almost telepathic, and we are nothing without the wider relationship with the community. So much so that in 2018 a third GS&I ward member was elected, the indefatigable Cllr Suzanne McCormack.
But here’s the thing: back in 2017 I wanted the Garforth and Swillington Independents to be a feminist party. Not in the sense of Justin Trudeau, a man who takes the most pedestrian route between two points and still manages to miss both of them. Nor what was then the emerging wokeness in the UK left, which was fast becoming so postmodern that its language could be neither learned nor understood. I think it’s largely deep insecurity which leads to the obeisance of the individual and the pure distillation of identity politics. And that has encouraged this new old left to see anything as radical as feminism as easier to double-check and censor. No, I wanted us to be a feminist party of two. And one of us was a man in his fifties, who likes a few pints in the Country Club and a quiet life. He was also the man responsible for signing off on the managed approach to prostitution in 2014, before I knew him, where offences related to prostitution are tolerated between 8pm and 6am in an area of Holbeck, Leeds.
And so Mark and I entered into a period of long exchanges, which were really me talking and him listening. I didn’t want us to be a half feminist party or a party where a man was indulging a woman for a quiet life. I wanted us to be clear that we were being run by a feminist and a feminist ally.
Leeds is the apogee of misogyny in the UK. It’s a tourist destination for punters, women have to fight to meet here, one’s sex is a tick box exercise, women as a sex class are routinely obfuscated or omitted from equality impact statements, we champion men’s rights activists as educators and entertainers, we encourage our girls to bind their breasts, stay out of the sun and avoid exercise. We hold aloft the word “vagina” in our council chamber, but are not allowed to talk about the biological reality of women’s oppression in the room next door. Our Civic Hall is where a man covertly recorded a woman talking about how she needs sex segregated public spaces because she was raped by a stranger in a park when she was a teenage virgin. It was then posted on the internet as an example of her bigotry.
My friend and my party leader listened to me. And when he’d listened he said sorry. He said sorry to anyone who would listen: for signing off on the managed approach, when he fully admits he didn’t really know anything about prostitution in any meaningful sense, least of all the feminist analysis he would come to share. We now campaign for an end to this blight on our city and for the Nordic Model to be introduced across the UK. When I was too ill in hospital, he sponsored and arranged for WPUK to finally be able to gather and speak at the Civic Hall. He fielded the worst of the accusations and threats I faced after the speech I made in May 2019 at the declaration of women’s sex based rights (1). He held a mirror up to West Yorkshire Police when I was hounded by complaints while having chemo.
And I’m not saying women should extol every man who gets it. Partly because feminism means the liberation of women from patriarchy and partly because I think it’s impossible for men to ever fully or truly get it. We are a sex class. Our only full commonality is our oppression, which is rooted in our biology. This is immutable and I will fight for our spaces and sports and language always. But I think there’s credit where it’s due. And I think it’s time more local councillors speak up, speak out and not shy away from feminism which isn’t the liberal atrocity espoused by the current incumbents in power at Leeds City Council.
Local councillors are ripe for epithets, and I think it is a job that can attract a very specific kind of parochial hubris. But I really hope that through our local diligence and our wider feminist work, I’ll never bear the shame of being an average one. Perhaps that is a consequence of the fearlessness that a cancer journey can offer and perhaps it’s a testament to friendship – a friendship that led to the UK’s smallest political party being a feminist one.
“Sorry”, writes Craig Silvey in his novel Jasper Jones, “is the crippling ripple of consequence…the metronome of a good heart won’t settle until things are set right and true.” So this blog is for my friend Mark. Because he has a good heart. Because atonement in politics is rare. And because in the end what will save us isn’t kindness, but truth.
Cllr Sarah Field
You can follow Garforth & Swillington Independents on Twitter @GandSIndeps
(1) You can also read the text of Sarah Field’s speech here.