Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s

This post was contributed by Charlotte Knowles, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.

Thursday 15th May 2014, Birkbeck Cinema.

This film screening and Q&A, held at the Birkbeck cinema, was the first part of a two day event celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder, a BBC mini series first aired in 1974, which told the story of the early women’s suffrage movement in Britain (1890s-1919). The event began with some reflections from the event organisers on the enduring importance of the series, and a screening of the second episode entitled ‘Annie Kenny’. The episode explored the involvement of northern mill girl Annie Kenny in the suffrage movement, reflecting on the central part the working classes played in obtaining women’s suffrage.

The event enabled reflection on the representation of the historical imagination in the media, as well as considerations of the way in which women’s voices still remain unheard today. The event sought to reconnect women’s voices from across history, exploring the way in which the suffrage movement resonated with issues of second wave feminism in the 1970s when the programme was aired, as well as questions of feminist liberation still alive today.

The episode screening was followed by a Q&A with cast and crew from the original series, chaired by Joan Bakewell. The discussion explored the changing face of the BBC, as well as developments in film and production technique – not all positive. There was keen agreement about the enduring importance of this series, celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder as a key text made for and by women. The fact it has only been aired twice on British television (both screenings taking place in 1974) was lamented, and a rallying cry for the BBC to issue and distribute this landmark series on DVD was endorsed by all.

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What might feminist policy look like?

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research

On 5 July 2013 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research hosted the third meeting of the Feminist Policy, Politics and Practice Forum. Janet Newman, Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University, opened the meeting and tracked the linkage between feminist activism and policy change. Is there an alignment between feminist debates that occur in non-state spaces and policy changes that are introduced by governments? What do these alignments look like, and how do they happen?

She tracked four different moments in the linkage between activism around feminist issues and governmental policy. The first period she argued was from soon after the Second World War till the Thatcher years. This was a period of the early equality campaigns around causes that we would now describe as liberal feminist issues. The policy changes introduced by the governments at the time were a result of people in government who were sympathetic to feminist causes.

The second period was in the ’80s during the Thatcher years, when politics acquired a certain charge, and became more confrontational and aggressive. The feminist campaigns at the time, perhaps responding to governmental attacks on the welfare state, also acquired this confrontational edge. By and large, feminist policy came to a standstill during this period.

The third period, with the New Labour government, saw the expansion of some kinds of state practice. There was a focus on partnerships with non-governmental organisations, and other forms of public participation, and as a result policy formation became dispersed. But with New Labour, the assumption was that the problem of gender inequality had been solved – meaning that one could do feminist policy, but one couldn’t use the word ‘feminist’.

At the present moment, in which there are significant welfare cuts, there is significant feminist activism outside government, but very little of it gets translated into governmental policy, according to Prof. Newman.

Joining the discussion were Anna Coute, who worked on issues relating to child poverty, and Lisa Harker, who worked on healthcare policy. Both these speakers reflected on their work inside and outside government, and the challenges and pressures they both faced while framing policy.

The meeting was opened for discussions and questions. The comments ranged from concerns over everyday issues of working mothers, to bigger questions about how to ensure that feminist policy continues to happen even in times of government-imposed austerity. Several of the participants reflected on their own experience of working in between government and campaigns. Others spoke of their disappointments with certain feminist allies in the political parties, while some spoke about the need to build links with emerging feminist players within party structures.

While, this was the last official meeting of the forum, Prof. Newman hoped that more conversations and spaces to push for feminist policy would emerge from this meeting.

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After “Beyond the Fragments”?

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

A book that brings together over three hundred people on a Friday evening, 34 years after it was first published has truly passed the test of time. Either because its authors have written an extraordinary piece of work, or that our times yearn for alternative forms of political organisation. In the case of Beyond the Fragments, I’d say, it is both.

The publication of a new edition of Beyond the Fragments was hosted by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research. The book’s authors Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright came together to speak about the ‘after’ and the ‘beyond’ of four-decades of feminist scholarship and political activism. Chaired by Melissa Benn, the authors addressed the fraught question of how to consolidate diverse upsurges of rebellion into effective, open, democratic Left coalitions.

As Professor Sheila Rowbotham explained: “When we wrote Beyond the Fragments we were preoccupied with the process of organising for change. We took a whole of things for granted then that we can no longer take for granted now.” Surely, times have changed since the ’70s – both for the better and the worse. Today, we encounter deepening recession, environmental pollution, growing inequality between women, falling real wages, rising unemployment, continuing sell-off of the NHS, and savage welfare cuts. And, as Lynne Segal pointed out, the politics of austerity are also reflected on an individual level. Living under corporate capitalism gives rise to all sorts of fears and hostilities: fear of economic decline, fear of foreigners, hostility towards those on benefits, fear of weakness and dependency and a sense that we have to be stronger and more competitive if we want to succeed. However, the protests of the last couple of years have shown that there is opposition to the politics of austerity.

And feminism, according to Professor Segal, is on the rise again as austerity hits women first. If the Left wants to succeed, Dr Wainwright emphasized, activism needs to saturate all spheres of political life from grassroots movement to state politics (as recently demonstrated by Syriza in Greece who take legislation and government as a resource to bring about social change).

There was certainly no room for pessimism last Friday evening. On the contrary, the speaker and the participants agreed that new forms of resistance are possible to build stronger bonds of solidarity across class, race, gender and sexuality. Pragna Patel from the Southall Black Sisters (SBS), an organisation struggling for women’s human rights and against gender related violence, stressed that her activism within the SBS was always driven by a desire to be part of a wider left, democratic, emancipatory project. Rosie Rogers’ lively response set the mood for the rest of the evening. She reminded us all of the new exciting ways of engaging in protest, such as UK-wide Stop the Cuts Coalition movement, that require people to work together and to “put their barriers away and stop tribalism”. At the end of the evening, the answer to the question of what is to be done, seemed less complicated than one might have supposed in the first place. All agreed: Come together, mobilize resistance and enjoy the protest.

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Age Spots and Spotlights: Celebrity, Ageing and Performance

One-day symposium on Friday 9 December 2011

This post was provided by Kim Akass, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.

According to Dr Janet McCabe (Birkbeck) and Dr Deborah Jermyn (Roehampton), co-organisers of Friday’s Age Spots and Spotlights one-day research symposium: ‘We live in a culture where youth is revered and envied, while ageing remains feared, even repugnant.’ One thing is clear, living your life in the glare of the media may bring its rewards, but once the glow of youth begins to fade, living those autumn years under the media’s microscope isn’t always so pretty.

Chaired by Dr James Bennett (Royal Holloway) the first panel of the day, ‘Celebrity, Ageing and Performance’, comprised Birkbeck academics on a variety of topics. First up was Dr Tim Markham, whose paper, based on interviews with BBC war correspondents, looked at the careers of Martin Bell, Jon Simpson and Kate Adie, and their younger colleagues’ opinions of their aged and gendered (in)appropriate behaviour. Concluding that age both undermines and supports war journalism, Markham’s paper argued that, in the end, Simpson, Adie and Bell function as repositories of our own projections. Prof. Mary Wood looked at the life and career of Franco Zeffirelli and pondered whether, in the twilight years of his long career, he could be considered an auteur or merely a celebrity.

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