This is the text of a speech given by Julie Bindel at our meeting co-hosted by Portsmouth University on Thursday 16th September 2021, A Woman’s Place is asking big questions.
The event is part of the “Big Questions” seminar series and seeks to create space for ongoing conversations about feminism, sex, gender and sexuality in the 21st century by inviting speakers and organisations who seek to shape public policy from a range of different – and sometimes diametrically opposed – perspectives.
The University did not allow the event to be filmed.
Julie Bindel: All women need single-sex spaces
I’d like to thank the University and I’d like to be really honest about this. If someone had told me ten years ago that we would have to qualify why we are having a meeting to defend women’s sex-based rights, and also to then have to reassure everyone that there will be another meeting that is going to oppose women’s sex-based rights, I would have said “nah”.
The anti-feminist backlash today
I’ve been a feminist since the very end of the 1970s and I was lucky enough to become involved when I was seventeen years old, when I met the feminists in Leeds after leaving home. So therefore I’ve seen more than four decades of the Women’s Liberation Movement and I’m here to tell you that I’ve never seen such a vicious men’s rights movement backlash as today, and it’s very clever because they’ve got some progressives to go along with them.
What’s very, very clear in terms of the framing of this event, of all the events at universities that we’ve managed to get to by the skin of our teeth – and I do appreciate that this university has stood by this event – is that feminism has become a dirty word. It has become akin to bigotry in terms of the way it’s meant and understood. It’s called a dog-whistle for fascism. This is feminism, that you all know the basis of.
Finding feminism. Finding women and girls like me
When I was sixteen years old, before I met feminism but when I had been outed as a lesbian (did I mention I was a lesbian at any stage?!) – and that really does change your life because of the misogynistic bullying that lesbians get because we are women who have rejected men and are resisting compulsory heterosexuality – I didn’t know that I wanted to find feminism particularly. I was from a working-class background, we weren’t particularly political: we were Labour voters, that was it. But I knew I had to find women and girls like me, because I was being terrorised: by the boys on my estate, by men in clubs who understood what and who I was.
And during that time I was raped. It was just, I’m afraid, an everyday rape, because this is what happens to us doesn’t it? Many women in this room will understand exactly what I’m talking about, and every woman in this room will understand the fear of it. So that is what bonds us, as women and girls globally. Now, I don’t say this to go into a big discussion about the trauma of it because, again, we all understand that. But I mention it – which I very, very rarely do in public, I never talk about this stuff – because when, a year and a half later, two men attempted to rape me, I’d already found feminism.
Now when I think about the difference between how I felt aged sixteen – blamed myself, hated myself, questioned my sexuality, felt sorry for him, felt desperate, felt on the verge of taking my own life: dark, dark moods – and then contrast it with how I felt after the second [time] (during that period of course. Let’s not even talk about the usual flashing and harassment we have all experienced as women and girls), that second time was entirely different. I blamed the men. I sat and talked to the women in the group I was involved with: Women Against Violence Against Women [WAVAW]. I shouted out my anger and distress on the pickets outside the porn cinemas. I told a few men where to go in the streets. It was the best therapy I had ever had: it’s called feminism. And feminism is for women – it is the only movement worldwide that centres women and girls.
Women-only spaces are for all women
As my friend, the great feminist, lifelong feminist Sandra McNeill said – and I met her when I was seventeen in Leeds – she said: “If oppression made us into nice people, there’d be something to be said for it”. What she meant by that is that some women are really difficult people. Including women who are raped. Including women who are beaten and prostituted by men. And when I volunteered in a refuge, when I was nineteen years old, some of those women were appalling.
They would come out with racist stuff, they would hit their kids, they would tell me I was a filthy dyke and to get out of their way – and that’s because some of those women weren’t nice women. It didn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to these services. We told them “you can’t say this stuff”, we challenged them on it. But we didn’t do what is expected today, which is to tell them “you can only have access to services that save your life and the lives of your children if you tick all the boxes and say all the right things.” And we know what I’m talking about here. It’s outrageous.
What are we going to do? We start just having refuges and rape crisis centres for progressive left-wing women who’ve been through anti-racist training? Right: I wish all of us would, all white women: great, perfect. That isn’t how the world works. It has to be on offer for women who are a nightmare as well as those we want to hang out with.
‘Alright girls, you can have your lesbian line’
When I was twenty – along with an older friend, they were all older than me – we set up the very first lesbian line in the country. We asked the gay boys to give us one night on their phone line. They were very nice about it and said “alright girls, you can have your lesbian line”. And what happened there? Well, what you would expect probably in 1982. Which is that because we had no laws to protect us, because women were having their children taken away by violent men because they were lesbians, and courts were allowing that; because we were regularly sexually assaulted, punishment raped, we lost our jobs, we lost our families; it was horrendous. It’s like being a heterosexual woman with added misogyny: it’s the only way I can explain it.
And what actually happened was that women would ring up and they would say – yes, some of them would say “hi, I’m lonely, I’d like a girlfriend, where is the women’s disco?” And we’d say, “It’s at the Dock Green every two weeks, come along and it’s great”. And some of them would come along, and they were terrified, it was new, they were nervous – it was a big deal to be a lesbian in those days and to be out. And they would meet other women to talk to, and it wasn’t a dating club, they’d meet other women to talk to – and sometimes they’d meet a girlfriend there. Fabulous. We were doing a great service.
But the majority of the women who called wanted to talk about their girlhood and what had happened to them as girls. And they wanted to talk to another woman who understood. They didn’t put it like this! Most of the women were poorly educated, like me they were working class, they didn’t have the language to articulate but what they were saying was “we have been groomed all our lives as girls into compulsory heterosexuality. We don’t want to be with these men – we’ve been in abusive relationships, we’ve always liked, we’ve preferred other girls, other women”. And remember: one of the seven demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement is the right to self-determine our own sexuality.
Men have the world. We have women-only spaces
So yes, most women are heterosexual. But if we don’t have women-only groups, how on earth do we ever talk about sex, about abuse, about men that violate us, about our love for other women? It just goes. And I know, as a lesbian, that every single woman on the planet who is looking for that women-only space, to talk about their sexuality – which is massively stigmatised to this day – if there were transwomen in those groups they would not go. They would go, and they would never go back. Who is this supposed to be for? Men have the world. We have women-only spaces. So please – let’s keep them.
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Other speeches from Portsmouth
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