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I wanted to write something about the Women's Liberation Movement @ 40 conference I attended in Oxford the weekend before last. These are really just some rough thoughts, but i've been meaning to write this for a week now and i'm forgetting more by the minute! This blogging business is so not my thing.

But anyway, the conference. The "@ 40" is a reference to it being the 40th anniversary of the first WLM conference in Britain, which was held in the same venue (Ruskin College) 27 February - 1 March 1970.

I was very ambivalent about it from the start I have to say (but then again, whenever am I not about these things), because I'm really wary of things that sound like celebrations, in particular when it comes to dominant forms of feminism (well that is basically what i'm writing my Phd about so it's not surprising).

One of the things that seemed problematic from the callout onwards was a confusion around what the conference was supposed to be and who it was supposed to be for. The registration fee of £70 (£40 for unwaged/students) suggested it was an academic conference but the aim ("to bring together feminists and women's activists across borders (spatial, generational, political and demographic and others) to engage in debate and discussion around contemporary issues") suggested it was an activist conference meant to build on the original WLM conferences. Which made the high registration fee very problematic to say the least!

Unfortunately this confusion was not allayed at the conference itself. There were quite a few academic papers which sat uneasily with other discussions - and I also heard women say they felt excluded by the academic content because of the language and tone of the discussion. Of course i'm not suggesting that academia and activism doesn't or shouldn't overlap - of course they do all the time. But if you're trying to bring them together at a conference, you really need to give it a lot of thought.

Thankfully there was some room for critical reflection on the original conference - it wasn't all just a celebration. My favourite part was Gail Lewis' saturday morning keynote lecture 'Feminist Subjects' in which she talked about how the British women's liberation movement represented feminism in the image of whiteness (as a structure of power), and how the "origin story" of modern feminism is repeatedly claimed by white women even when the evidence is clear that women of colour have always been part of shaping feminist politics.

She ended her paper by saying that while some significant progress has been made in relation to race within feminism (I think this was specifically talking about academic feminist thought - I think this varies quite wildly between different spaces!) class has been more difficult to deal with. A very important point. But I thought it was interesting that the discussion which followed from the floor seemed to focus on this last point entirely - racism in the Women's Liberation Movement appeared to not be a topic the mostly white audience was as keen to discuss.

There was a good intervention on class issues and  the lack of childcare in  the form of a leaflet that was being handed out throughout the conference - it's available online here.

This whole idea that the legacy of the women's liberation movement is something which needs to be passed on wholesale to a 'new generation' is so problematic in itself. I was struck by the fact that the significance of hosting the event in the same venue as the original conference took priority over hosting it in a venue which was wheelchair accessible! (and this even though there was a paper on feminism and disability)

My problem with valorising the past is that exclusions, mistakes, ignorances get repeated because there isn't an honest discussion about them. And the second (and third, forth...) time a 'mistake' is made it cannot be attributed to innocent ignorance anymore. It becomes wilful.

This isn't some big attack on the conference organisers. But the fact that this conference repeated the same exclusions as the original WLM conference (and then some - at the first conference at least there was a creche) is just a sad, and made dominant forms of feminism just that little bit more irrelevant to the majority of women than it already is. 

August 2010

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