Building a Modern Women's Movement
How one feminist group is taking old-school feminist consciousness-raising to the twenty-first century
Much like many women's organizations and campaigns that started in the last five years, the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC) began as a group of women talking about the current state of feminism. In 2018, four women—Sheila Jeffreys, Maureen O Hara, Heather Brunskill-Evans and Jo Brew—founded WHRC. Their task: to assert women’s rights with a declaration and campaign against female erasure due to the rise of gender identity ideology.
The Declaration of Women’s Sex-Based Rights is a manifest on the re-affirmation of women’s rights, including women’s rights to “physical and reproductive integrity, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls that result from the replacement of the category of sex with that of ‘gender identity’, and from ‘surrogate’ motherhood and related practices.”
The full text of the Declaration brings crucial points on the legislation already in existence to protect females (women and girls) from discrimination, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women—CEDAW, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995).
Jeffreys, O Hara, and Brunskill-Evans wrote the declaration, while Jo Brew set up a Facebook group and page, and made connections with women “from all over Europe at a Radical Feminist Summer Camp in Sweden in August 2018.” Brew also recounted how the group facilitated “input into writing of the Declaration from a wide range of women internationally via the Facebook page.” In September 2019, the campaign had already been heard and seen by many, and leaflets were being distributed at a three day Radfem Conference in London.
"We get living proof that women are not only united in struggle but in the deep desire to nurture each other's strength."
Not long after that, the world was caught by a pandemic. Lockdown measures to stop the spread of COVID prevented travelling and meetings. In March 2020, people across the world began adjusting to a new work-from-home schedule, and women were the most negatively impacted. Nonetheless, women turned to the internet to keep talking. In April 2020, WHRC started hosting webinars called “Feminist Question Time,” where panelists bring their perspectives on all women’s issues, specially “threats to women’s sex-based rights.” WHRC organizer Jo Brew told 4W the webinars proved to be a valuable way to provide a space for women “to network internationally.” These webinars have run now every Saturday for nearly a year.
Not only has attendance to the webinars increased each passing week - some panels have had 500 women attending - but there was also an urgency for women to listen, and speak, to each other. In November 2020, Feminist Question Time began providing attendees with breakout rooms. These virtual rooms are an opportunity for women to directly talk to the panelists who are available after the webinar, and also to talk to each other on a specific issue.
There have been breakout rooms to talk about women’s mental health, or for planning strategic communications. In one breakout room, attendees were discussing how to make a Feminist Library, after a British Library (a “feminist” one) posted that radical feminists were not welcome at their premises anymore. Other groups were welcoming Spanish speakers - the weekly webinars are in English, since it started in the UK. Another room gathered American women, discussing Joe Biden’s Executive Order, which instructs federal agencies to interpret “sex” as including “gender identity,” essentially eliminating federally funded single-sex spaces or services.
Ideas are floating around, new groups outside the Breakout Rooms are being created by women from the same parts of the world or by women connecting with women from all over the world. Women who have read Sheila Jeffreys’ books had the chance to hear from her about her next work, which apparently focuses on men’s fetishes with bodily functions and fluids, including “poo.” The next week, Jeffreys recounted tales of feminist activism in her youth. Breakout Room 13 was packed that day.
Some Breakout Rooms have had women from all over the world talking for six hours after the webinars, who then connect on social media and meet again online the next Saturday. The webinars start at 3pm (UK Time) and last about one hour and a half. The Breakout Rooms provide a space to those women who were on the panels and attendees to connect with each other on an unprecedented level of sisterhood.
"We see women of all races, from all walks of life, seeking and working toward freeing women from the political and psychic bonds of patriarchy."
The panels also have had women from across the globe, from Latin American countries to Algeria. Women are listening to many perspectives and building important alliances. Attendees and panelists were also talking about decentralizing everything - since all popular social media platforms are owned by men, and women speaking up on their sex-based rights are banned without mercy. Creating their own spaces, like many women did before them. Their own social media platforms, websites and everything else one can possibly imagine.
A regular attendee, Karen Davis, musician and Youtuber at the channel 'You're Kiddin', Right," who has also been a panelist for WHRC, spoke to 4W on her impressions about these webinars and following chat rooms. “The break-out sessions are invaluable,” Davies said. “It's a great opportunity to connect with women all over the world.” She argued that the meetings provide important support and solidarity:
“This shows us that we're not alone in our feminist ideas. We see women of all races, from all walks of life, seeking and working toward freeing women from the political and psychic bonds of patriarchy. It also provides an unparalleled opportunity for us to see, first hand, the wonderful work that other women are doing all over the world. We get living proof that women are not only united in struggle but in the deep desire to nurture each other's strength. Feminists are building a world in which women are allowed full expression of our humanity.”
This goes straight to the work done by second wave feminists in consciousness-raising. Kathie Sarachild, speaking at the first national Women's Liberation Conference in 1968, stated that the conference began as “a program among women who all considered themselves radicals.” She described the importance of hearing from other women on their lives and situations to connect and build understanding:
“Our aim in forming a women's liberation group is to start a mass movement to put an end to the barriers of segregation based on sex. We knew radical thinking and radical action would be necessary to do this... In order to have a radical approach, to get to the root, it seemed logical that we had to study the situation of women... One woman in the group, Ann Forer, spoke up: 'I think we have a lot more to do just in the area of raising our consciousness,... I've only begun thinking about women as an oppressed class and each day, I'm still learning more about it - my consciousness gets higher.' In the end, the group decided to raise its consciousness by studying women's lives by topics like childhood, jobs, motherhood... It seemed clear that knowing how our lives related to the general condition of women would make us better fighters on behalf of women as whole."
In Jeffreys’ latest book, Trigger Warning: My Lesbian Feminist Life, she desribes her experiences with various feminist groups, especially the Leeds Revolutionary Feminists, as instrumental to the development of her feminist analysis. It’s no surprise, then, that the new group co-founded by such second-wave feminists would bring this ethos into the modern-day.
The Feminist Question Time and the Breakout Rooms can be seen as a modern implementation of the consciousness-raising programs of 1960s, updated for the COVID era and twenty-first century where one’s sisters need not only be their neighbors. Thanks to today’s technology and the widespread adoption of video calling software during lockdown, women now have the ability to consciousness-raise beyond their own borders. Although the internet and technology have certainly worsened women’s position in many ways, in this case, at least, we just may be experiencing the next reincarnation of conscious sisterhood.
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