On Saturday 27th July, a dozen or so women from Greater Manchester ReSisters and ticket holders for the evening’s Make More Noise talk, rocked up at the People’s History Museum, placards and megaphone in tow, ready to take the museum up in a literal manner on their invitation to ‘come share protests or campaigns important to you.’ The strange twist to our ‘street’ rendering of their ‘Protest Lab’ exposition, was that it was the museum itself we were there to protest.
Why We Protested
To commemorate 200 years since the Peterloo massacre the museum are currently running a ‘Protest Lab’ exhibition. The museum website promotional page reads, ‘on show until Sunday 23 February 2020, the museum’s exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest forms part of the national bicentenary commemorations and tells the story of the Manchester massacre, highlighting its relevance today, examining issues within our democracy that people are campaigning for 200 years on. The page encourages visitors to come, ‘add their own objects to our headline exhibition that tell a story about protest.’
Back in May, some women from Harringey ReSisters made the long journey up north to bring some Standing For Women ‘Adult Human Female’ stickers to add to the exhibit. After retweeting a photograph of said sticker/s, the museum quickly followed up with a tweet denouncing the stickers, stating ‘any such materials/images will be removed’ since they had ‘been made aware the sticker. . .is associated with hostility.’
This did not go down well on the platform, with around 200 critical comments included amongst them were messages from journalists and other Women’s Campaign groups . However, the museum responded by doubling up on their stance, posting a photograph of their sign which erroneously states ‘gender’ as a protected characteristic in place of ‘sex.’ This misrepresentation of the 2010 Equality Act persistently crops up everywhere from local council documents to medical, police and government forms, at the same time that self ID policies are being covertly introduced ahead of the law.
As stated in the flyers we handed out to the public, ‘this is an important distinction as increasing numbers of males claim to have a ‘female gender identity.’
But it is on the basis of biological sex that women’s legal right to single sex spaces rests.’ The museum also updated the advice on their website on permissible materials for the exhibit to warn against submitting any material, ‘deemed to show hostility towards individuals and groups, including those with protected characteristics and those facing persecution.’ Given that women’s groups organising public meetings have faced bomb threats from Trans Rights Activists, women have been assaulted by trans identifying men who oppose their feminist politics and Dr Julia Long has likened the situation lesbians are facing in the UK and beyond to cultural genocide, it might be prudential for the museum to consider who the genuinely marginalised and persecuted group/s are in this equation.
Feeling angered and let down by the museum’s decision to bow to an increasingly fascistic political climate, particularly as regards gender identity issues, and to censor women’s campaigns, we decided to arrange a demonstration outside. On the Friday beforehand I emailed the museum director notice of our protest informing them that we would be protesting:
‘to raise awareness of the silencing and censorship of women’s rights activism against sex self I.D, of which we believe the museum has unfortunately played a part.We consider the protest an informal contribution to your ‘Protest Lab’ exhibition, which we feel we have been excluded from participation in within the designated space. We will also be dropping off materials on some of our personal stories of anti sex self ID protest…We hope you will recieve this protest in the spirit of democratic values and freedoms which the PHM purports to champion.’
Planning The Day
The museum website advertises a list of dates for the public to drop off their protest objects with a personal story for potential inclusion in the exhibition and Saturday 27th was one such. Holding the protest then meant we could have another go at getting women’s stories of anti sex self ID protest into the exhibition, at the same time as reminding the museum why accepting these contributions was needed. That same Saturday also, happily, happened to be the day of local feminist collective Make More Noise’s premier public talk, which meant well over a hundred feminist women (and a smattering of men) were due to descend on the city centre that evening. So we decided to email details of the protest to all ticket holders to encourage a good turn out, thusly killing 3 birds with one stone. (And people say women can’t throw!)
When I finished my first ever and relatively successful attempt at banner making at 1 in the morning, I felt nervous but finally ready for the following days action.
We were aware there was a good chance a trans rights activist would have bought a ticket to the evening’s event, and would rally to organise against our protest in the proceeding 48 hours from the email notice of the protest.
So, when I received this screenshot in my inbox (from a friend) of Sisters Uncut counterprotest event, whilst waiting at the bus-stop to get to Piccadilly, my immediate thought was, ‘bring it on!’
The weather was as wet and dreary as the forecast had promised, which added an additional element of challenge throughout the day, in the form of trying to keep papers, electronic things and people as least wet as possible. Luckily our placards were laminated though.
When I arrived at The Oast House, our meeting point, I informed the assembled band of around a dozen women ( a few more later met us at the museum) that a counter protest had indeed been arranged. Despite the fact trans activism counterprotests have on occasion resulted in perpetration of male on female violence by trans identifying males, not a single woman lost her nerve on hearing this news and I felt proud and grateful for female strength and courage.
We got busy with painting faces in suffragette flag style for women who wanted it and distributing flyer packs to give out, whilst one of the team got out a hammer, nails and poles to put together the placards, in a fittingly feminist ‘no men needed’ fashion. After sending ahead our mini envoy of ‘protest object’ submitters; important to note, this was the only submitting any of us did that day, we set off around 2:45pm to the museum. Before the main group arrived, Rebekah Wershbale, handed in a ‘Woman: Adult Human Female’ T-shirt along with news articles and a blog of the sit in pub protest earlier this year following her ban from Five Clouds, Macclesfield and for wearing said T-shirt. The second submission, on behalf of Sofia Simonson, consisted of a placard and blog from a previous anti lesbian erasure ReSisters protest at Lancaster Pride.
Protest Meets Counterprotest
As we turned the corner onto Left Bank, we could hear the counter-protest to our protest on (censorship of) protest, in dizzying Russian doll succession, already in full swing.
You can watch a video of our footage of the protest here:
As it turned out, there was a ‘Support Tommy Robinson’ rally being held just minutes up the road from our designated protest spot.
Far right racists would have to wait however, because some women in the vicinity knew that sex exists and were about to announce it publicly. The greater threat was clear. Sisters Uncut relaxed their usual ‘Women Only’ policy, that is: women and men who say/think they’re women, to include men who say/think they’re men and women who say/think they’re men. Something serious was evidently about to go down with these kind of emergency measures in place.
On later reading Sisters Uncut Twitter wall, one could easily glean the impression that the counter-protest would comprise of a frightened and vulnerable (yet brave and stunning) group of individuals who, perhaps, were even putting themselves at risk of harm or violence from ourselves by attending.
It certainly is a worrying state of affairs when grown men cannot use their physically larger and stronger bodies to intimidate peacefully protesting women, without having to leave their house disguised as a yeti or Lilly Madigan for their own protection.
The be-yeti-ed individual told one of our protesters, when questioned as to why he was afraid to show his face, that, ‘I don’t want to be on Mumsnet.’
Perhaps a millennial update to the famous Margaret Atwood quote, ‘men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid men that will kill them,’ should then be, ‘Women are afraid men will kill them, men are afraid women will put them on Mumsnet.’
The competition winner of the Lilly Madigan Look-Alike Award at Labour’s Political Women of Excellence Event 2019* appeared so anxious at the prospect of a middle aged lady not responding to his pronouncements in an obviously submissive manner, his only recouse was to bellow in a deep & raspy voice invented statistics about homicide rates of Transwomen. The poor lamb. Thankfully The Manchester Yeti –Man was there to back him up, confirming that the Gang of (mainly) Older Ladies listening calmly to a speech on The Harms of TERFS were being violent, as, ‘your whole politics is one of aggression.’
Accounts From Our Protesters
Our videographer testified: “I was shocked (and amused in equal amount) by the blonde fella with face covering saying “TERFs” go to their homes and get them killed. That’s a very serious (and baseless) accusation. Stats tell us trans people get murdered at a lesser rate than other groups. They have very vivid imaginations/persecution complexes.”
Rebekah W added,
“the protest itself I feel was successful, and I think Brothers Uncut turning up was a gift – it really highlighted the difference in method and mood of our respective protests. Predictable crowd, one older slightly sinister beardy guy, (whom we later discovered was Green Party activist Owain Sutton
who rounded off the day with a spot of Twitter bullying of GP Councillor Rosa Shaw for attending the MMN talk.)
plus a load of shouty young males with aggressive stances and very little in the way of critical thought. Their attempts to frame us as angry militants straight from the mumsnet front lines fell a bit flat so they just yelled the same tedious mantras ad infinitum, inducing the fascinating assertion that lesbian rights are trans rights. They did not seem to be able to clarify what on earth was meant by that.
Leafleting was good, the kid with the green hair yelled at a few passersby whilst flailing his big sign, told them not to take our leaflets, and was roundly ignored because let’s face it, he didn’t look engaging or approachable. From what I saw we got interest from people walking past, I spoke to a few women going to the exhibition and they got it straight away. I feel we made an impact.”
A Somerset ReSister adds her account:
The shouts could be heard from quite far up the street and I had a feeling it wasn’t ‘our’ side as I approached.
Thought about turning around and heading the other way as it was genuinely intimidating. This is not my town after all and this was the first time I’d been involved in a genuine face off with protesters where they had been in the clear majority.
What struck me as I approached was the optics of the scene. The TRAs were facing out under the shelter of the museum, positioning themselves as ‘siding’ with them. There were many defiant and contemptuous expressions, and a kind of exultant victoriousness coming off them. But also an undercurrent of menace and, frankly, slightly unhinged, could kick off at any moment, feeling. I can’t imagine it felt good to anyone approaching the museum or just walking by.
There also seemed to be a lot of men on the other side. Men were leading the chants for a lot of it. Masked people. People in hardly any clothes which given the state of the weather seemed a bit silly. I also noticed that there was very little joy there or interaction or sense of ‘togetherness’ in their group as a whole.
‘Our’ side, however, were normal looking. Middle aged and younger women. Non-threatening. If that’s the biggest distinction I can draw between the two groups is that we were wholly non-threatening whereas they were not.
I can’t imagine this was entirely lost on any onlookers. We were talking calmly to each other and to passers-by. We had a very clear message of pro-women’s rights whereas their message was fractured, at times contradictory, mostly nonsensical. I still have no idea what that sign held by masked little man/woman was all about…something to do with non-binary and colonialism. I have at least a passing acquaintance with the vernacular thanks to Twitter etc but I imagine the average person wouldn’t have a clue. The same goes for their ‘Transphobia kills women” banner. To the average person, this would be incomprehensible.
And then we had the spectacle of a slender woman gamely trying to read out her protest but being shouted over every time she began to speak. If this isn’t silencing women, then what is? The chants to do with ‘fighting’ and ‘our streets’ just seemed like aggressive posturing and territorial pissing. How very masculine in nature.
Most of the people in attendance were very young. The typical misfit types. Nothing wrong with that in an of itself but they are allowing themselves to be swallowed up in an ideology that will chew them up and spit them out. Especially the young women.
The tall guy in the black hoodie was deliberately stalking one of our women giving out leaflets.
I spoke to a couple of gay men who didn’t seem to have much of an idea what has been going on in the name of ‘trans rights’ except in the most superficial terms. On that basis, one had bought a trans ally t-shirt to wear at an upcoming Pride event because, he said, they needed to know that people were standing by them. But as he told me this, his body language, tone of voice and slightly concerned looks across to the group suggested he wasn’t entirely convinced they were the ones needing the allyship and support. I tried to explain about the cotton ceiling and lesbians being targeted, as well as the threat to women’s rights in general. I also suggested that nowhere else had a civil rights movement gained so much traction so quickly. Historically, this has never been the case. I pointed out that this has come from the top down from people with a lot of money.
I tried to talk to a couple of the masked folk too. I asked why they had covered their faces and they said it was so we wouldn’t film them, threaten their identities, doxx them or lose them their jobs. I said that would be a terrible thing to do and that I’d never heard of that happening from our side of it, though it has happened plenty of times the other way. I said they had a right to free speech. Somehow we got on to what could be considered ‘transphobic’.
Biological facts could be. They insisted sex was a spectrum. Had I heard of intersex etc? Of course, I had. I explained that the rare occurrences of it did not negate the binary, only reinforced it, and that intersex people were not trans and weren’t keen on being used as examples of this ‘spectrum’. They quoted pseudoscience. And reacted as if my views were some of the most heinous utterances that had ever been voiced. I tried a different tack. Long and short gametes. Egg and sperm. I was promptly accused of homophobia. My argument twisted to mean that people of the same sex did not have the ‘right’ to have children. A bit like when Sharron Davies made the island comment on Twitter. She was pointing out biological facts too and got piled on for ‘wrongthink’. I remember looking at their wide eyed stares of incredulity at my statements of fact and reason and concluding: these children are lost.
I got called away then. To jeers and cheers. I’m sure they perceived it as a victory and on one level it was. We were outnumbered and outvoiced. It certainly was a defeat for reason and reality.
However, if the expressions on the faces of most of the people who passed by were anything to go by, outside of a ‘woke’ postmodern academic environment, or certain murky corners of the internet, this group have a long way to go to make a ‘safe space’ in the rest of the world. Most people, mercifully, are still oblivious to this. Most people are still reasonably in touch with reality.
We Head Home & Final Reflections
By around 4pm, some women were wishing to leave to go change and dry off before the evening’s event, so we decided it would be safer for the whole contingent to depart. At the time, I did feel deflated, as our speaker hadn’t managed to say all that we had prepared, and much of what she had said on the suffering sex self ID policies are causing women in prisons, domestic and sexual violence support service, sport and within the lesbian community, had been drowned out and spoken over.
On reflection, however, I realised the action had been an unqualified success. We came to demonstrate that women who refuse to renounce biological reality are silenced, censored and bullied. Sisters Uncut subjected us to this. At the very least the museum now cannot claim ignorance of the fact that the definition of a woman, IS a relevant and contentious issue today, and as purported historians of the people, they are duty bound to document this.
Following the protest I received a cordial email from the director, promising the latest submissions would be carefully considered for the exhibit. We really hope they come to the right decision. We believe our great great great daughters need to know that we were there and we were fighting the destruction of female’s sex based rights; for women, for girls, for a fairer world.
*The Lilly Madigan Look-A-Like Award is not a real thing, we think they should put one on for 2020 though.
Read more about this protest on Medium: What is a Woman and Who Gets to Tell Her-Story? Censorship, Dissention & Disruption at the People’s History Museum.
If you would like to let the museum know you want see our submission of women’s protests represented in the exhibition, please drop them a line on firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively if you have your own story of pro-women’s rights activism you would like told, the People’s History Museum accept submissions of protest objects until September, on “drop off” days. For a list of dates see the museum’s page: Have you Protested? We Want Your Objects.