Jacqueline Mulhallen explains how activists in one area have linked radical politics and history to the local movement
Lindsey German, How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (Pluto 2013), 272pp.
King’s Lynn and District Trades Council launched an important initiative in March 2012: a series of talks by women entitled Women for Change. We wanted to challenge the sexism we had noticed, even among trade unionists in the area. The initiative has done a great deal to link political ideas with local campaigning, and to connect the trade unions locally with the wider community.
Once a month, we invite a woman to speak on a topic on which she is an expert. Sometimes it is about a well-known political figure (Sylvia Pankhurst, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Olympe de Gouges) and sometimes it is on a topic such as Women in the Trade Unions, Women in Medieval Times or How Welfare Reform Affects Women. Audiences are between 20 and 30 and include some men.
The talks have all had an enthusiastic reception and a group of women are gaining more confidence and wanting to do more. They are discussing setting up a women’s group to combat the Welfare Reform Act. As a result of these meetings, some are also coming along to the Trades Council and Coalition of Resistance meetings. The talks have been noticed in the trade union movement; other trades councils have written to us for advice and Unison supported an extra talk in October 2012.
Linking politics and activism
Our first speaker this year was Lindsey German in the form of a book launch for ‘How A Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’. This particularly attracted local Stop the War supporters. In response to our press release, a woman who had worked in World War II came and told us about her experiences. There was absolute silence when she spoke.
In May, Cristel Amiss from the Camden Crossroads Women’s Centre brought with her an African asylum seeker, Geraldine, who explained what asylum seekers go through. The audience were shocked, with tears rolling down many faces. As a result a local secondary school invited them to speak to the students. Kate Connelly, who returned to speak about Emily Wilding Davison in April 2013, was also invited to speak at a local school and her talk there was very successful.
Helen Pankhurst, a women’s rights activist and the grand-daughter of Sylvia, daughter of Richard and Rita Pankhurst was our most recent speaker. Jo Rust, secretary of the Trades Council, said, ‘It can't be underestimated how inspiring it was to hear the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the leaders in the suffragette movement, speak in King's Lynn on Saturday. Dr Helen Pankhurst had recently spoken at Westminster Hall in front of people like Diane Abbott about the international issues which affect women, such as rape and sexual intimidation as a weapon of war’.
Helen spoke briefly on the same topic, and a very lively discussion followed. It covered issues such as whether men and women were innately different, gendered toys, whether equal numbers of MPs would make any difference, equal pay, child care, and the taboo subject of menstruation and the need for clean water and sanitation.
We have been lucky enough to hold these talks in beautiful medieval buildings on the quay at King’s Lynn and we begin with offering tea, coffee and biscuits to the audience. There is a warm welcoming atmosphere, quite different from the municipal bureaucratic feel which trades council meetings often tend to have. Each talk is at most half an hour, with the rest of the two hours given over to the audience asking questions, making contributions and having a good discussion. The initiative continues to both provide a space for political discussion and enable connections to develop between a range of local trade unionists and campaigners.
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