Chapter 4

From Brussels to Leeds, San Francisco, Delhi: The global march of Reclaim the Night

In this chapter, I will outline the herstory of the RTN protest and its European roots. I have gone back through the archives to navigate the path the protest has taken, from its inspiration in Brussels to West Germany and then to the UK in Leeds in 1977. This path is not without twists and turns and I shall also endeavour in this chapter to explore some of the controversies that surround the beginnings of RTN, namely the charge that the march is racist. I will also tackle the assumption that RTN began in Leeds influenced purely by the murderous actions of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. There were many reasons why the march began where and when it did, and it followed the example of international feminist activism as well as feminist theorising and organising on rape in the UK which was burgeoning in the mid-1970s. I will now take a look back at that period and at the start of our most recent feminist activist past against rape and sexual violence.

Where did Reclaim the Night begin?

RTN is now a global movement; it has been growing under the current resurgence to the point where the marches are now bigger and more popular than they ever were before. But, like so many great things in activism, the protest seems to have had relatively humble beginnings. Those beginnings can be followed back to a conference held in Brussels, Belgium in March 1976. The conference itself was not humble; in fact, it was huge and very significant, but in the history of RTN, it was what happened after the close of the conference, on the last night that resonated with so many and put this method of protest into action. The conference was the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women and it was held to mark International Women’s Day 1976. Taking place from the 4th to the 6th of March, it was attended by over 2000 women from 40 different countries. Delegates provided testimonies of the extent, impact, nature and form of male violence against women which they were resisting in their own countries. This was essentially a catalogue of brutality, a global snapshot of the various bloody ways which patriarchal governance impacts on women’s bodies. Outraged and united by what they had heard and shared, in candlelit procession the women delegates decided to take to the city streets on the evening of the last day of the conference to loudly and visibly demonstrate their anger and resistance to all forms of male violence.

Returning to their own localities after the conference, taking news of the gathering with them, the delegates also recounted their experiences of claiming the night-time city streets to make their protest heard, and the tactic inspired others to do the same. Only a few months later, in Rome, Italy, a similar night-time march was held; this was in protest against a reported rise in rapes in the city that year. This march appears to be the first time the title ‘Reclaim the Night’ was formally used for the protest. Early the following year, on the 1st of March 1977, women in Berlin held the first Take Back the Night march in Germany. The torch-lit march was in protest against the rape and murder of a 26-year-old local woman, named Susan Schmidtke. Soon after this event of course, Germany became home to the first-ever synchronised RTN march, taking back towns and cities across West Germany on the night of the 30th of April 1977. Since at least 1976 then, with the event in Belgium, women’s night-time marches through cities have been an organised form of protest against male violence against women. Throughout the late 1970s, this protest tactic grew in popularity, being held around the world in America, Canada, India and beyond. The phenomenon marched onto the shores of the UK in November 1977.

The first-ever British RTN marches were held simultaneously across several cities on the night of the 12th of November 1977. Lancaster, Brighton, Bristol, York, Newcastle, London, Bradford, Guildford, Salisbury and Manchester all took part; but the marches were born in Leeds. This industrial metropolitan city in Yorkshire in the North of England was at that time in the 1970s a hotbed of political activism and home to many important developments in the herstory of the UK WLM. Leeds was where the first national Women’s Liberation newsletter, WIRES, was founded and published for example, it was home to some of the first revolutionary feminist organising, as well as WAVAW and Angry Women direct action. Some of the first feminist and lesbian feminist communes sprung up here in housing cooperatives and the cheaper housing available in areas between the city centre and the suburbs. The city was therefore ideally placed to take up RTN as a new and dynamic tactic of feminist protest, but not just for the reasons above; another more sinister influence lurks behind the birth of RTN in that city and at that time.

Leeds: Birthplace of the British Reclaim the Night

News of the coordinated RTN marches across West Germany in April 1977 had reached activists in the UK courtesy of journalists at the national WLM magazine Spare Rib, who had picked up on news coverage in the German magazine Courage. Founded in 1976, and running until 1984, along with another magazine called Emma, which is still published to this day, Courage was one of the key periodicals of the New Women’s Movement, the WLM of West Germany from around the mid-1960s. With the headline ‘Germany: Reclaiming the Night’, a relatively small news item relays accounts of the various marches in West Germany in Issue 61 of Spare Rib, published on the 21st of August 1977. It was thanks to the language skills of the international reporters at Spare Rib, such as Amanda Sebestyen and Jill Nicholls, that this news item got picked up at all, and the team at the magazine at that time could not have known what much bigger news RTN was to become, in only a matter of months.

Hundreds of miles away from the Spare Rib HQ in London, activists up North in Leeds were working on news items for the WIRES newsletter. The Women’s Information Referral and Enquiry Service ran for a decade, from 1975 to 1985. The newsletter was founded when Leeds feminists in an important local group in the city, the Chapeltown Women’s Liberation Group, suggested the need for a national newsletter to share information around the movement. Chapeltown is an area in the North East of Leeds, around a mile from the city centre and it had a high concentration of feminists at the time; it was also one of the locations for the start of the city’s first RTN march, and this will become important later on, as I shall explain. The Leeds women took their suggestion for a national newsletter to the National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester in 1975; their idea was enthusiastically received and agreed, and activists in Leeds produced the first 45 issues of the national news and listings newsletter, before responsibility passed to women in York from January 1978.

The women in the WIRES Collective saw the news item in Spare Rib on the German RTN, and decided to copy the idea. A suggestion had actually already been made to bring a similar style of protest to the UK – slightly earlier this had been mooted by a then London-based feminist activist named Sandra McNeill. McNeill had been inspired by the same coverage of the German marches in Spare Rib herself and raised the idea of a replica protest while she was attending a conference on revolutionary feminism, held in Edinburgh, Scotland in July 1977. This discussion in Edinburgh had two significant consequences. One was that shortly after that conference, Scotland became home to the first-ever RTN march in the UK, apparently a fairly small protest held in the Meadows, parkland South of the city centre of Edinburgh. The second consequence was that the discussion sowed the seeds for the first organised, synchronised UK RTN marches, as Leedsbased activists, present at the Edinburgh conference, took news of Sandra’s suggested protest tactic back to their women’s groups locally. So it was that the news was carried back to the Chapeltown Women’s Liberation Group, already enthused by reading of the success of the exciting marches across West Germany. The idea of going out at night, en masse, with flaming torches and banners and physically taking back the streets against male violence against women appealed to activists at the time. The appeal was not just because it was new and exciting, but because women in Leeds had a particular interest in taking back the streets of their city.

Leeds, Yorkshire, the North of England generally and indeed the whole of the country was at that time intently following the search for Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe. At that time still an unknown attacker, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, as the press dubbed him, murdered 13 women between 1975 and 1985, overshadowing the North of England. The response of the police included telling women to stay indoors if they wanted to be safe and encouraging women not to go out at night, especially not on their own without a man to escort them. This impractical advice was viewed as a curfew by feminist activists, and thus the notion of reclaiming the night and the streets held particular resonance. The chosen routes of the Leeds RTN were also influenced by Sutcliffe’s crimes, passing places where victim’s bodies had been found; I shall discuss this in more detail later, as the route of the Leeds RTN was to go on to become somewhat controversial following the event, influencing long-held assumptions about the protest march to this day.

Sutcliffe’s crimes were not the only reason that male violence against women was in the public consciousness and in the news at that time however. Influential American feminist Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will on the history of rape was published in 1976 in the UK, and the year before, in 1975, saw the Morgan legal ruling set a precedent of ‘honest’ belief in consent, focussing legal attention on the mental motivations of those accused of rape, no matter how unreasonable their ‘honest’ belief may seem. The issue of male violence and feminist responses to it had also long been discussed in the movement, and was the subject of numerous items and articles in both WIRES and Spare Rib prior to 1977 when RTN was born. The first Rape Crisis Centre in the UK had been founded in London for example in 1976 and rape was a formal conference topic at the National WLM Conference in Islington, London in April 1977. This conference focus actually motivated several women’s groups to set up action groups on the issue around the country, including in Bristol, London and Manchester. The crime of rape was not only being discussed by insiders in the movement at feminist conferences, however; in the late 1970s, the crime and legal responses to it became a major news item in the national press due to the case of a young soldier named Tom Holdsworth.

Holdsworth was convicted of a brutal sexual assault in March 1977 and initially sentenced to three years in prison for his attack on a young woman. During the attack, he penetrated the woman with his fists causing her severe internal injuries, partly due to the large sovereign rings he wore on his fingers. Later, in June, at his subsequent appeal, the three judges hearing his case noted that the young woman could have avoided such serious injuries if only she had ‘accepted his advances’. Given such an attitude, it is perhaps unsurprising that these judges then reduced the initial three years custodial to a six month suspended sentence, on account of Holdsworth’s previous good character and promising army career. The judgement was widely reported and denounced in the national press; it also caused outrage throughout the WLM. ‘How can we organise against rape?’ asked Spare Rib writer Jenny Hall, in a news item on the appeal verdict in Issue 61 of the magazine. In the days immediately following the verdict, women did organise. To demonstrate their outrage, graffiti was daubed on the streets outside the law courts in central London on Chancery Lane and also on military monuments along the Mall. Activists were arrested for demanding justice for women and defacing army careers offices throughout the country, including in Bristol and Manchester where anti-rape groups had earlier already been set up.

The Bristol Anti-Rape Group wrote a report of their actions and campaigns following the Holdsworth appeal, calling for more creative protest against rape; this was published in Issue 36 of WIRES in July 1977. It was actually in response to this article, just underneath it, in a small subtitle, that the idea of a national UK RTN was first aired to the movement. The idea was obviously informed by the earlier West German marches, and it was initially put forward by ‘the WIRES Collective’, as follows:

Women in West Germany demonstrated for the right to walk unafraid and unhassled on the streets at night (See Spare Rib 61) . . . Women in Britain are afraid to walk home at night, especially with the all the recent rape reports fresh in our minds. Couldn’t we organise similar national demonstration, to help turn our fear into anger and action (sic).

WIRES 36, July 1977:16

Those who blinked might have missed this small item, in its square block typeface, never quite in a straight line and complete with grammatical errors and a few more extra commas than necessary. But it was this short addendum to the preceding article which actually marked the beginning of an organised RTN Movement in Britain.

Women in the WIRES Collective and the Chapeltown Women’s Liberation Group took on the organisation of RTN. Several of these women went on to become members of another important group, which would actually prove to be internationally significant: the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. They were inspired by a then London-based feminist named Sheila Jeffreys, now a feminist academic and activist living in Australia. Jeffreys presented a paper at the 1977 National UK WLM Conference in London on what she saw as a liberal takeover of feminism; she called for a more revolutionary movement and, in so doing, founded a new school of feminism called revolutionary feminism. Rooting the UK RTN firmly in this fairly recent and UK-specific school of feminism, it was the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group who made the first official call for, and took on the coordination of, the first synchronised RTN marches, thus inaugurating this type of protest method in Britain. Their plan for a UK-wide RTN was formally announced in Issue 38 of WIRES, published on the 24th of September 1977:

Torchlit demonstration: The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group wants to hold a womenonly midnight demonstration on the theme of ‘every woman has the right to walk alone at night without fear’ and ‘fight rape’. We want to hold ours in the Chapeltown area of Leeds where a Jack the Ripper type character has murdered several women over the past two years, and to get as many women as possible on the march. We thought it would attract a lot more publicity and have more effect if women in as many different towns as possible all over Britain could demonstrate on the same night, which we have fixed for NOVEMBER 12th. We’ll give more details next newsletter. In the meantime, please contact WIRES if you are interested in planning to put a demonstration in your area, so that when we tell the press we can tell them exactly where the demos are going to take place (sic).

WIRES 38, September 1977:9; emphasis in original

More details then followed in Issue 40 of WIRES, and by this time, the organising group had changed their name to the more neutral ‘Leeds Reclaim the Night Group’, no longer organising under ‘The WIRES Collective’ or ‘The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group’. In a short message, the organising group congratulated all the women who had contacted them with plans for their own local marches around the UK. The Leeds organisers had not exactly been resting themselves, badges had been produced to fundraise for the Leeds march and thousands of flyers printed to give out in the city, particularly in the local areas where the march routes were to begin. Not to be outdone by the German protest, prominent local feminist activist Al Garthwaite had been busy scouring local telephone and business directories to source suitable flaming torches, eventually placing a bulk order for some outdoor garden-style candles. In the same issue of WIRES, in the events listings section, the national march was advertised again and several cities already confirmed to be holding marches. RTN was only advertised once in Spare Rib, shortly before the date of the protest, which was the 12th of November, and the event is credited here to the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group again. In a listings section for upcoming events, the march is advertised in Issue 64 of Spare Rib as follows:

12 November. Torchlit women only midnight demonstration in the Chapeltown area of Leeds, organised by the local Revolutionary Feminist Group on the themes every woman has the right to walk alone at night without fear, and fight rape. They hope women in other towns will do the same on that night in order to attract publicity.

Spare Rib 64, 1977:24

Following the event, the synchronised marches were reviewed as a huge success, with at least ten cities taking part. In January 1978, RTN took up the whole front cover of Spare Rib, emblazoned with a photograph of marchers, faces painted with women’s symbols, carrying flaming torches and across the photo the headline: We Will Walk without Fear. The magazine carried reviews from most of the cities involved, with reports of up to 400 women marching on their city centres. In that blaze of flaming torches, the UK RTN was born and the protest tactic grew and continued regularly, often being held several times a year in some cities and being a common response to particular incidences of male violence against women or perceived legal failures. As highlighted, the first marches were held in many different cities, but Leeds is often wrongly seen as the site of the first-ever marches and the routes of the protest through that city have since become seen as controversial. In the next section, I will look more closely at these Yorkshire routes of RTN.

Practical influences behind the emergence of Reclaim the Night

It is important to look in more depth at some of the practical influences behind the founding of the RTN march, particularly the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper and the feminist activist response in Leeds. These crimes were partly behind the decisions on which routes the march would take through the city, but the choices over routes became controversial because one section of the march went through a predominantly BME or Black and minority ethnic area in Leeds. In the years following, several commentators have assumed that this was the only march in Leeds, and that it was the first UK march and concerns were raised that the birth of the UK RTN was rooted in racism, conscious or otherwise.

Just as RTN marches in Rome and Berlin were partly motivated in response to particular rape cases in those cities, this particular crime was also significant in the emergence of RTN in the UK. As already noted for example, the issue of rape was a specific theme at the 1977 National Women’s Liberation Conference, held in Islington, London, the same year that RTN began. This national focus at the conference is credited with mobilising women’s groups around the country to set up local theory and campaign groups on rape. For example, at the London Women’s Liberation Workshop Women’s Centre, called ‘A Woman’s Place’, at that time situated on Earlham Street in Covent Garden in central London, a ‘rape group’ was set up.

Following the workshops on Rape at the National Women’s Liberation Conference we would like to see the debate on rape growing all around the country. One, for discussion at the next National Conference; two, for women to become active on the issue (sic).

WIRES 36, 1977:13

Groups against rape were also formed in Manchester in the North of England, Nottingham in the Midlands and Bristol in the South West of England. These groups were then able to organise quickly in response to events such as the Holdsworth case as introduced above, as well as take part in revived campaigns for the criminalisation of rape within marriage for example; a long-running feminist campaign carrying on from the First Wave, which was not successful until as late as 1991 in England when rape within marriage was finally recognised as a crime. Bristol was to become particularly significant in the anti-rape campaigns due to the presence of two anti-rape groups in the city, one aligned with the nonpartisan Women’s Centre, which opened in 1973 in the home of activist and academic Dr Ellen Malos in the North of Bristol, and the second aligned with the national organisation Wages for Housework (W4H). Disagreements with the latter, aired in letters and articles in national WLM newsletters, usefully serve to highlight the main theories on rape and male violence generally, which were being explored and debated in the movement at that time. These were the debates which formed the backdrop to the founding and popularity of RTN in the UK; they also expose some of the stark theoretical differences within feminist theory on male violence, particularly differences between radical/revolutionary feminism and socialist feminism.

W4H was formed in July 1975 by writer and activist Selma James. She and another feminist, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, had written a paper three years earlier calling for wages for housework to be one of the formal demands of the UK WLM. This proposition was presented to the 1972 National Conference, where it was rejected, and continued to be so whenever it was raised. W4H spawned numerous sub-groups to tackle a huge variety of issues, from prostitution to lesbian oppression and immigration law. Many of these groups are still in existence today under several different names, such as Global Women’s Strike, Wages Due Lesbians, English Collective of Prostitutes and All Women Count, and they are all run from the W4H premises at the Crossroads Women’s Centre near Kings Cross in North London. Historically, W4H were also involved in the famous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s, where they are accused by some scholars, such as the academic and Greenham woman Sasha Roseneil (1995), of attempted sabotage. Amongst their many campaigns, in 1976, W4H also formed Women Against Rape or WAR in Bristol, which was later launched as a national campaign with groups all over the UK. Although WAR was therefore already known to activists in Bristol, this group leapt onto the national stage and into the media spotlight too, through their controversial organised response to the Holdsworth case.

WAR resistance

On the 28th of June 1977, several days after the Holdsworth appeal verdict, a picket was held outside the Court of Appeal on the Strand in central London, as Judge Eustace Roskill, who had presided over the Holdsworth appeal, was sitting there that day. Numerous feminist groups and individuals attended the picket, including the Spare Rib Collective for example, Camden Women’s Aid and the newly formed London Rape Crisis Centre. WAR also attended the picket and afterwards they stormed Judge Roskill’s courtroom, calling for him to be sacked. An article in Spare Rib asserts that shortly after this action, WAR got a great deal of press attention and allegedly claimed sole responsibility for organising the picket. Following this, WAR formally called a public demonstration in London to be held on Saturday the 16th of July 1977. This was to include a march from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Trafalgar Square in central London where a ‘speak out’ was to be held. A speak out has a history in the WLM, the first known one was reportedly organised by the New York Radical Feminists in January 1971 in America. They are usually women-only events where survivors of sexual violence are supported to speak about their experiences, in defiance of a culture which silences, shames and blames victims of male violence. The Bristol Anti-Rape Group explained further at the time:

Speak-Outs against rape have a certain herstory, they were originally women-only events in which we confronted the damage by rape, spoke of it, asserted our anger and decision to take action – by strategies for growth, in both the personal and political sense (sic).

Spare Rib 62, 1977:28

The WAR demonstration caused some deal of controversy, elements of which can be followed in both WIRES and Spare Rib. Complaints about the protest ranged from the practical to the theoretical. One practical complaint was that allegedly the demonstration was announced only two to three weeks before the planned date, giving other women’s organisations little time to contribute or arrange their involvement. Spare Rib journalist Amanda Sebestyen reported on the WAR protest in an article titled ‘Rape Rally Wrangle’. She recounted that some groups did attend the protest, but later left in anger, including National Abortion Campaign supporters. This actually highlights another very specific practical complaint, as apparently these particular supporters left in protest at the participation on the demonstration of an anti-choice group called ‘Women for Life’, whose banner is clearly visible in Sebestyen’s photographs from the event printed in her Spare Rib coverage. The North Camden branch of the National Abortion Campaign alleged that ‘Women for Life’ was allowed to carry their anti-abortion banner on the march, and participate at the rally, despite reports that WAR demanded there be no political banners at the event at all, aside from their own. On a more theoretical level, the Bristol Anti-Rape Group meanwhile had earlier decided not to attend at all, citing local problems with W4H over at least two years and also opposition to the WAR analysis that rape is a result of women’s inferior economic status.

This WAR demonstration also crystallised apparent concerns that were already arising in the movement over the ‘ownership’ of campaigns and also over communications with the media. ‘We hope that the issue of rape does not become the partisan “property” of any one group’ explained the London Rape Group in 1977 for example (Spare Rib 62, 1977:28). It is important to understand that this discussion was occurring at a time when the UK Movement was really only just taking up the issue of rape. It was a period when new analyses were being formed on the causes and impact of this type of sexual violence and its role in women’s oppression more broadly. It was also a period when the new Rape Crisis Movement was growing in the UK, with other cities and towns following the example of London and opening their own centres. As mentioned earlier, due to the focus at the 1977 National Conference, the local anti-rape groups had also been spreading. Each were taking their own kinds of action, from delivering school talks to organising vigils for example. In short, rape was fast becoming a key issue in the movement at this time and it was also being taken up outside. Scottish women from the Glasgow Women’s Centre explained at the time that, ‘[e]very woman knows that rape is becoming increasingly fashionable’ (WIRES 41, 1977:14). So fashionable was the subject that a group of men in Glasgow had actually announced their plans to open a Rape Crisis Centre for women in the city. This plan was receiving widespread coverage in the Scottish media at the time, much to the consternation of established groups such as the Glasgow Women’s Centre.

As the issue was becoming debated more widely both in and outside the movement, the theory around it also grew, emerging mainly from CR groups within the WLM itself and then being formulated, fought out and refined through conference papers, newsletter articles, letters and periodicals. The group who brought RTN to the UK, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, were just one of the many feminist groups, who, like the Bristol Anti-Rape Group, did not share WAR’s theoretical stance on rape. This stance from WAR was as follows:

Every woman must have the financial independence she needs in order to leave a situation where she feels in danger of rape. She must have the money and therefore the social standing to defend herself from a husband or individual man and from any judge, police officer or doctor biased against her.

Jenny Hall, 1977:14

This was the demand on the WAR flyer which they distributed at their July protest in 1977. Women should not expect the police or courts to solve the problem of rape WAR maintained, condemning any calls for higher rape conviction rates or increased prison sentences. These were not the answer, stated WAR spokeswoman Ruth Hall, in an article for The Guardian shortly after the July demonstration. Although the state was identified as being responsible for preventing rape and also for financially compensating any woman reporting rape, the only real solution was through the ‘organised refusal of rape by women ourselves’ (Ruth Hall, 1977:14). No advice was offered as to how this could be achieved though, aside from increasing women’s incomes.

Bristol Anti-Rape Group, in efforts to put clear theory between themselves and the Bristol-based WAR, emphasised that they did not support this analysis that ‘if women had money they could not get raped’ (Spare Rib 62, 1977:28). They branded the WAR stance ‘misleading and naïve . . . the oppression of women cannot be fought by paying women in and for their oppression’ (WIRES 42, 1977:19). An anti-rape group in the Midlands of England shared this view; the Nottingham Women’s Liberation Group wrote in WIRES that no amount of money could rape-proof any woman and that being financially independent ‘is no guaranteed defence against a rapist’ (WIRES 41, 1977:12). Agreeing with this theoretical stance, the London Rape Group also formally disassociated themselves from the WAR analysis. All of these dissenting groups identified rape instead as part of a continuum of sexism and a product of male supremacist society. ‘Sexism is how male power operates against women; rape is the inevitable brutal expression of that power’ summarised the London group in 1977 (WIRES 36, 1977:14).

Taking a position that will be familiar from our previous explorations of feminist schools of thought, these groups identified strongly with the radical and revolutionary feminist perspective on male violence against women. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group identified men, rather than lack of money, as the cause of rape: ‘any man can be a rapist’ they asserted in 1978 (WIRES 47, 1978:13). They were not arguing that all men are rapists though; they were pointing out that any man could be a rapist and that women cannot know who is and who is not a potential attacker. The threat of rape then affects all women, whether or not they have been directly affected. The threat was seen to have broad ramifications therefore on women as a group. ‘Men keep us in fear of going out on our own – we all carry with us all the time the fear of male violence. All men gain by these things and all women are weakened and rendered easier to control’ (Seven Revolutionary Feminists, 1981:7). Obviously, there was also a heightened consciousness around women’s fear of using public space, particularly at night, due to the much-publicised crimes of Peter Sutcliffe and the inappropriate police response. Against this raised consciousness and the brutality of the crimes being reported, it is perhaps unsurprising that the reductionist claims of WAR, maintaining that rapists could be fended off with finances, appeared glaringly hollow to many. There was already then a certain level of contention and disagreement around activism against rape; this was then aggravated following the Leeds RTN when the march was accused of racism. It is important to note that such accusations and the discussion which follows them take place in a context. That context is one of structural racism, a racism which marked Britain in the 1970s and which still scars our society today. As I shall discuss in the next section, there are many valid reasons why Black feminists may have had concerns about this new type of protest in the birth of the early RTN marches.

Routes of conflict: Reclaim the Night and racism

In the initial call for a UK RTN from the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, first advertised in WIRES in 1977, the route of the march in Leeds was said to have been chosen due to the recent murders of several young women, suspected victims of the Yorkshire Ripper. The bodies of Wilma McCann in October 1975, Emily Jackson in January 1976, Irene Richardson in February 1977 and Jayne McDonald in June 1977 were all discovered in Chapeltown in North Leeds. It was for this reason that Chapeltown was chosen as one starting point for the Leeds RTN march, but there was also another second sister-assembly point in Hyde Park. The latter is a popular student residential area, close to the University of Leeds and also in the North of the city. Unfortunately, at the time, it was an area affected by high crime rates, including muggings and assaults, particularly on a large piece of parkland called Woodhouse Moor. RTN founder Al Garthwaite explained to me in an interview in January 2012 the decision to use the two starting points:

We decided to have two marches in Leeds, one setting off from Chapeltown community centre and one setting off from Hyde Park going across Woodhouse Moor, because there was lots of harassment and rapes and attacks on students around Woodhouse Moor, it was a notorious place.

The two marches, of around 30 women assembling in Chapeltown and a further 85 women starting at Hyde Park, later converged to march together into a central pedestrianised square in the city centre called City Square. Several members of the RTN organising group lived in the Chapeltown area and were members of the Chapeltown Women’s Liberation Group. There may therefore have been practical reasons to organise an assembly point in that locality, as well as the symbolic marking of the young women’s lives lost there in the run up to the march being founded. In an interview for Spare Rib, following the first successful RTN, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group stated that they had also been influenced by discussions on the issue of male violence at the Edinburgh Conference on Revolutionary Feminism in July 1977 and were looking for ‘a new area of action radical enough to really fire people’ (70, 1978:23). They also stated that they were ‘particularly concerned because there’d been a series of women murdered in West Yorkshire’ (ibid.). However, following the march, the organising group faced criticism for choosing the Chapeltown route, and the Leeds RTN was publically accused of racism; a charge which has frequently been applied to RTN generally and which has become widely accepted as a truism ever since.

It is reported in a letter from the Leeds RTN Group to WIRES in March 1978 that charges of racism were first raised, to their knowledge, by women at a Socialist Feminist Conference in Manchester in January 1978. Their letter recounted that unnamed women had suggested that one RTN march ‘unthinkingly went through a black area’ (WIRES 47, 1978:13). The Leeds RTN Group assumed that this criticism was aimed at them, as Chapeltown was, and indeed still is, a ‘multi-racial area’ (ibid.). Specifically, the criticisms made against the RTN march were firstly that the march only focussed police attention on an already over-policed area; secondly, that it called for increased policing on that area; and thirdly, that it reinforced racist stereotypes linking Black people with crime, and Black men in particular with the threat of sexual violence. The RTN organisers refuted these charges, stating that their organisation of the march was far from unthinking. They emphasised the amount of time they put into liaising with local community groups and distributing over 1000 flyers outlining the aims of the march; they also pointed out that on the day itself many women took part in the march, including Black women and that it was not only White women on the protest. When I asked her about it for my research in early 2012, Leeds activist and founder of RTN Al Garthwaite continued to question the charges against the protest. She maintained that it was just practical to organise in those locations, as that was where so many of the active feminists in the city were living at the time:

locations were chosen because that was probably the two biggest concentrations of active feminists in the area. We didn’t choose it [Chapeltown] because it was a Black area. We chose it because we lived there; we all lived there, and you organise where you live.

It is also a fact that, despite the charges made against them since, increased policing was not a demand of the original RTN organisers and this demand did not feature on any of the flyers which were distributed before the march and on the night itself. This was actually reported by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian coverage of the first marches, shortly after their inauguration in an article two days after the march: ‘They were not asking for a change in the law, or even for greater police protection. They were campaigning for a change in society’s attitudes to women, no less’ (1977:50). Indeed, the whole of the WLM at that time was largely working outside of the state, as founder of the original London RTN Sandra McNeill reiterated to me in an interview. She highlighted that the original marches did not seek or receive police permission

God no, we didn’t get police permission. I mean no, I mean that to us at the time would have been an anathema.

(21 January 2012)

This seems to be a feature in most of the reviews of local marches which were published in the January 1978 issue of Spare Rib celebrating the first RTN. Reviews actually highlight that women danced through their city streets and between traffic, that ineffectual police arrived and stood by not quite sure what to do, that women joyfully reclaimed space in what comes across as quite an anarchistic way; reviewers even comment on this atmosphere and the lack of police or formal stewards.

In their letter, the Leeds RTN organisers also stated again the significance of the routes chosen; namely, that victims of the Yorkshire Ripper had tragically been found in Chapeltown. ‘We chose the Chapeltown route because of several brutal murders of women in the area over the last two years. This was understood by all the local people we talked to, informed of the march, gave leaflets to’ (WIRES 47, 1978:13). The flyers which were printed and given out to passers-by on the night of RTN had only one simple statement: ‘we are walking for all women – all women should be free to walk down any street night or day without fear’. Even in the original call out for the march, months before in July 1977 and all the subsequent adverts following, only two formal aims were ever publicised for RTN: ‘fight rape’, and ‘every woman has the right to walk alone at night without fear’. A duplicate of the Leeds organiser’s letter to WIRES was also re-published in Spare Rib in Issue 70 in May 1978.

If the organisers hoped at the time that this would be the end of the matter, they were wrong. The charge of racism is one that appears to have stuck to RTN and which surfaces fairly frequently. In 1986, scholars Bhavnani and Coulson wrote an article for the academic journal Feminist Review, re-printed in a special 25-year review edition in 2005, in which they assert that the racism of the UK WLM can be clearly seen in the example of RTN. Their particular reference to RTN has since been much quoted. They describe ‘the failure of anti-rape campaigns to challenge racist stereotypes of the sexuality of black men’ and critiqued the UK RTN of the 1970s and 1980s.

Not only have these generally not taken up racism as an issue, nor seen how their campaigns against male violence are complicated in the context of racism, but by their actions they have affirmed racist ideas by marching through black areas and calling for greater policing.


Several other academics have made similar charges, often referencing the Bhavnani and Coulson article from 1986, but never citing which RTN march/es in particular they are referring to. For example, this statement from Grover and Soothill in 1996:

Although the bestial imagery of black male sexuality was at its height in the nineteenth century, it is an image which still exists. It is significant that the ‘reclaim the night’ marches in the mid to late 1970s focused on areas in which the communities had a high proportion of minority ethnic men.

These authors then refer readers to the original Bhavnani and Coulson article (Grover & Soothill, 1996:568).

In 1990, a similar statement is made by another academic, Cox, though this time the original claim in Bhavnani and Coulson’s article is not cited, in fact there is no reference at all for the following claim.

The ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches in the late 1970s demanded, amongst other things, greater police protection for ‘women’ (read: white women). Many of these marches were routed through the hearts of black communities. Not only was this interpreted as an invitation to exert greater control over these areas, but it reinforced the association of Afro-Caribbean youth with crime. This played into racist notions of the ‘coloured’ male rapist and white female victim.

Cox, 1990:239

Again, not citing any other references or naming a particular RTN march, scholar Tang Nain made similar accusations in an article in another academic journal in 1991.

There have, however, been problems with ‘reclaim the night’ marches in Britain, for example, when some white feminists marched in areas of black concentration. This had the effect of suggesting a link between black people and violence and was justly criticised.

Tang Nain, 1991:12

Whether all such references could be traced back to 30 women marching through Chapeltown in Leeds in 1977 is unknown. It should be noted however, that although the organisers refuted these charges when they were made at the time, that does not mean that the march was not perceived as racist by fellow political activists; or that RTN through Chapeltown, being a predominantly BME area, or what some people may refer to as, using a statistically more accurate term, a Black and global majority ethnic area, was not read as racist by the general public through media coverage. There are always such gaps between intent and reception and it is the job of political organisers to attempt to predict and traverse these, though that is no easy task.

Original RTN organisers claimed at the time that they did indeed understand how the march could be perceived by the public and by the media, and that this was partly why they conducted such a great deal of local publicity and community awareness raising prior to the event. It is possible that the critiques of racism made against RTN are perhaps linked to much more general critiques of the UK WLM and feminism as a whole. Whatever the background and history to these specific accusations against RTN, there were many reasons at the time why any concerns around racism were particularly highly charged.

Concerns over policing and police attention for example, at the time when RTN emerged in the UK, were understandable. Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s was fraught with racial tensions and marked by explosive clashes between the police and marginalised urban communities. Reflecting years of racist and inadequate housing and welfare policies, such communities were often made up of a high number of Black citizens and were areas ‘defined by urban decay and official neglect’ (Hernon, 2006:201). The imposition of stop and search powers, known colloquially as the ‘sus laws’, gave free rein to the police to accost, harass and question anyone they thought to be behaving suspiciously, a law which was used disproportionately in UK cities against young Black people, mainly young men. This discrimination did not stop with harassment however, with the police being implicated in numerous cases of racist violence, some of it fatal.

Leeds in 1971 had actually seen the first, and to this date, the only successful prosecution following a death in police custody. In 1969, the body of a beaten Nigerian man, David Oluwale, was pulled from the River Aire which runs through the city. Witnesses had reported seeing him dashing through the streets screaming, being chased and attacked by two police officers. The two officers, Ken Kitching and Geoff Ellerker, had waged a long period of sustained racist violence against Oluwale, the brutal facts of which emerged later at their trial for manslaughter. Such incidents of racist discrimination at the hands of the police eventually resulted in violent resistance across England, for example in Bristol in the South West, Toxteth in Liverpool in the North and also in Brixton, London in the ‘riots’ of the spring and summer of 1981. The disturbances in Brixton were later the subject of the Scarman Report, published by the Government in November of that year and recommending urgent action on racial discrimination, although tellingly, refusing to accept the existence of institutional racism within the police or any other part of the state.

Police harassment and biased stop and search exercises continued however, disproportionately affecting Black people, particularly young Black men; cases of assault and further tragic deaths in police custody also continued. In such a climate, the police, for many people, especially Black people, were not seen as a source of protection, but as a threat. Many women, in particular Black women, but also poor or otherwise marginalised women, may therefore have had understandable reticence towards a Women’s Movement or particular protest that they believed to be calling for increased policing. That is the structural context, a context of historic and continuing racism, which influences the critiques of the early RTN marches and the debate which followed.

Unfortunately, concerns over racist policing are far from history of course and remain key social justice issues today. Black males are still disproportionately represented in the statistics on deaths in police custody in the UK for example, and recent figures suggest that Black and Asian people in the UK, particularly young males, are still overwhelmingly the target of police stop and search exercises (Dodd, 2012). Men are by no means the only victims either, with some of the most infamous cases of police brutality over the years resulting in the deaths of women, for example Cynthia Jarrett and Cherry Groce in London in 1985, and Joy Gardner also in London in 1993; their families are still awaiting justice.

Race, rape and racism

The context of brutally racist policing in the UK at the time of RTN’s emergence could then possibly explain some of the suspicions around the march and its perceived aims. Another possible reason for those suspicions may lie in the history of racist stereotypes linking Black men with criminality and sexual aggression. This linkage was not a construct of feminists however, let alone those organising RTN in Leeds in 1977, and it dates back to at least the period of slavery in both the UK and the US. Bourke (2007) for example, in her thorough history of rape, highlights that in the US and the UK there has long been more frequent and more severe punishment for Black men accused of rape as compared to White males. This was particularly the case when the alleged victim was a White woman. Black women meanwhile, as Crenshaw (1991) argues, rarely saw justice, and were often constructed in US law as almost un-rapeable, being subject to both racist and sexist sexual stereotypes, regardless of the ethnicity of any alleged assailant. These stereotypes associated White women with passive purity in need of paternalistic protection from White males who were seen as their owners and protectors. In contrast, Black women were associated with animalistic insatiable sexuality and Black men with sexual violence and predation. Early works such as the infamous American film The Birth of a Nation directed by DW Griffiths (1915) for example clearly reflect such racist assumptions, suggesting that Black males are biological rapists due to their ethnicity.

Such racist and patriarchal stereotypes connecting sex, race and rape have arguably not lost their impact. For example, in Britain in late 2010, in a well-publicised case concerning the grooming and prostitution of girls and young women in Derby in the Midlands region of England, certain elements of the media, and some politicians such as the then Home Secretary Jack Straw, chose to focus on the Asian ethnicity of the men charged, rather than the generic issue of male sexual violence against women or the male demand for prostitution. The media often search for connections between the perpetrators in such cases, clutching at similarities such as race or religion, instead of the most obvious connection of them all, that being that they all share a sex in common – the male sex. In 2013, similar racism was clear in commentary over a case involving the grooming and prostitution of girls in Oxford, in the South of England, where the charged perpetrators were Asian and allegedly of Muslim faith. Such racist coverage continues in the UK, for example around the scandals in Rotherham in 2014, and this is despite the fact that official reports show the majority of those charged with sexual offences against children are White men.

These recent cases above highlight how easily issues of male violence against women can be hijacked by a racist media to fuel racism; while the all too real facts of sexual exploitation and abuse are sidelined in the process. This was certainly no less the case in 1977 when RTN was founded in the UK. Therefore, there were indeed arguably justifiable suspicions around the pioneering and evolving politicisation of the issue of male sexual violence at that time, in a racist context where Black communities had for a long time already been stereotyped as not only disproportionately affected by such crimes, but disproportionately the perpetrators of such crimes. Public views of RTN may well have been understandably influenced then by these sorts of concerns, along with more general critiques of Western feminism. The Second Wave in particular is often critiqued for lacking in intersectional analysis and for overlooking race and racism. These critiques were highlighted by feminist writer Hazel Carby in her influential 1982 essay addressing White women, when she summarised that ‘[m]any black women had been alienated by the nonrecognition of their lives, experience, and herstories in the Women’s Liberation Movement’ (1982:211).

In the 1970s and 1980s, debates around who the WLM could speak for and concerns over the universality of sisterhood were key. Tensions around power relations between women, not only along the fractures of race, but also social class and sexuality for example, troubled the idea of a universal women’s movement which could act for all women. In turn, this troubled the possibility of a meaningful identity that could comfortably contain all women, in all their diversity. These tensions were present from the early days of the Second Wave and they were acknowledged and wrestled with in CR groups and at conferences throughout the UK as feminists tried to avoid and interrogate essentialism. This history reveals itself in published accounts as well as in letters and articles in periodicals of the time (Kanter et al., 1984; FAC, 1981; Freeman, 1975; Morgan, 1970).

The factual evidence proving that debate took place on these issues in the movement of the 1970s when RTN first emerged does not mean that the power relationships between women, or prejudice between and amongst women, were all eradicated, solved or resolved positively. Clearly, this is not the case, as these remain ongoing concerns for feminism as a movement today, with racism and ethnocentrism still troubling notions of sisterhood and solidarity. When RTN first emerged in the UK, it was therefore just one element of a wider WLM which had already long been justly critiqued for historic and ongoing racism and ethnocentrism. It is perhaps then unsurprising that RTN, as one highly visible and well-publicised aspect of that movement, also became subject to these valid and still pressing critiques. However, the specific charges being investigated here made against the original RTN rely on claims that the early marches called explicitly for increased policing and that they cynically targeted their protests in predominantly Black and global majority ethnic communities. I have endeavoured to highlight in this chapter that these particular charges are unfounded; while acknowledging the context in which they were made. There were very well-founded reasons for apprehension and distrust in a racist culture which permeated institutions such as the police and also social movements such as the WLM.

The issue of inclusion and exclusion on RTN is no less an important issue today for modern marchers and organisers. Representation in terms of ethnicity remains key, but current activists, especially activist organisers, are perhaps most publically exercised today over the inclusion of men on RTN and also the inclusion of trans- or queer-identified people. In the next chapter, I shall begin to explore some of these current fault lines in feminism and the fierce ongoing rifts which have formed a chasm over recent years between some transgender/transexual and feminist activists. To provide a background to this particular fault line I will have to delve into queer theory and point out where this meets and diverges from radical feminist theory on sex and gender.

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