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Festival of Ideas

Forty Years a Feminist

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Forty Years a Feminist commemorates Bristol’s feminist activism with a panel discussion, the launch of Miriam David’s book Reclaiming Feminism, and a party to celebrate four decades of achievement.

The Bristol Women’s Centre opened in September 1976 at 44 The Grove. Focus for many feminist campaigns, the centre offered pregnancy testing, and advice on legal issues, accommodation, contraception, domestic violence and rape.

Chaired by Helen Taylor, the panel – Liz Bird, Miriam David, Helen Dunmore, Ellen Malos (pictured), Pam Trevithick and Jackie West – represents various campaigns and activities within the mid-1970s Bristol Women’s Liberation group.

Audience Member Review

Written by Imogen Serwotka

I was very curious as to what celebrating ‘feminism in Bristol, 40 years ago’ would feel like because it was not something I had experienced. Despite this, I felt a strong compulsion to be at this event. Anything regarding 40 years of feminism struck a chord with me and in this instance my curiosity had brought me to the right place.

It was the anniversary of the opening of the women’s centre in Bristol, and the ground-breaking advances in women’s rights that had followed. The discussion brought together members of the Women’s Liberation Movement who had been active during the pivotal year of 1976 to celebrate their achievements. This involved looking back at a time where ‘immense structural change’ had occurred, purely from ‘a group of people getting together and talking’. According to one member of the audience, it was ‘so energy creating’ it would be ‘a long while’ until we saw it again.

Arriving in the Wickham Theatre, the first thing that struck me was the generational difference. About 100 people were gathered in the space and at 21, I was the youngest. The reason for this was clear. Between me and them was four decades of activism and with that a breadth of knowledge and experience that was far beyond my years.

For most others in the room, the purpose of this discussion was to remember and celebrate the past achievements of the movement. For me, it became a different experience entirely. It was one that was centred on learning, and learning from the people that history had taught me I was indebted to; second-wave feminists who had won the rights I could take for granted. This evening, then, I was privileged enough to be a listener, an observer, catching on to stories that did not include me but held great influence over my life all the same. It was as though I was overhearing a conversation from years ago, as it fondly recalled pioneering revolutionary change: those’many firsts for women’.

As I listened to each member of the movement recall their stories, my sense of admiration progressed into full blown awe. These were women who had defended the national abortion act; set up the first lesbian politics group; defied their mothers by going to work whilst simultaneously maintaining a domestic life; set up the rape crisis line; campaigned for the re-housing of women experiencing domestic violence and volunteered at the centre for homeless women, all whilst carrying out much needed pregnancy testing, to name only a few of their achievements. Incredibly, they had managed to do it all and have the best times of their life in the process. It was Liz Bird who was to sum it all up so beautifully: ‘the sisterhood is powerful’, she established, that is why ‘we have always felt powerful . . . even when we were vulnerable’.

Listening to this, I couldn’t help but feel like the Women’s Liberation Movement was very much alive, and that my generation of women had something to learn from its story. I left the talk that evening to tell my female friends about it, and on the way home I called my mum to urge her to listen to the podcast, which is available to download on SoundCloud via the Bristol Festival of Ideas website. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how comparable my grandma’s experiences were, as a woman of the same generation in a different part of the country. Crucially, these were the stories that affected us all, told by the pioneering women we forgot to say thank you to.

It seems appropriate then, that I should use this opportunity to say thank you to the Women’s Liberation Movement of 1976, both in Bristol and elsewhere. I was struck by how intensely I felt the presence of solidarity amongst you, where 40 years on, you seem to remain irreversibly bound by feminist ambition. I encourage the women of my generation to learn from the community you have built, using it as a source of inspiration in the feminist battles of today. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, the strongest lesson we must learn from you is the power of solidarity. We can only re-establish that ‘the sisterhood is powerful’ when we learn first and foremost, that togetherness is key.

After being at this talk, I can declare with confidence that I take pride in celebrating the Women’s Liberation Movement and I thank the festival for making this celebration possible.

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