The FEM conferences (see www.femconferences.org.uk) have made a name of themselves as the feminist conferences to go to, particularly within the mainstream of feminism and with the media and public. Certainly they have the numbers, with the latest — FEM08 — pulling a crowd of about 400 people, in fact it was supposedly oversubscribed. However if you look at the way they are run and at the list of topics for any one of the conferences most women would be forced to say there is very little for them there.
The FEM conferences don’t hide the fact that their brand of feminism is firmly rooted in bourgeois ideals, with sessions such as “sexism and the city” concentrating the fight for liberation on achieving equal pay for high flying city workers — made worse by their patronising nod to the Justice for Cleaners campaign.
At FEM08 there was a prevailing feeling of meek contentedness — “we’re all very good feminists for coming to these events, lets all give ourselves a pat on the back”. Despite the many things to criticise about their approach to feminism (which would make a very long article) the main problem I wish to highlight about the FEM conferences was the absolutely stifling political atmosphere the event took place in; it was like a vacuum.
Not only was there no time for debate (being a one day conference, and running late, this I would slightly understand) it was positively discouraged. Sessions were conducted to the strict method of listen to a speaker, have other speakers comment, approximately two or three questions from the floor, a bit of a self congratulating summation and, well, that would be it. No debate, no discussion, no plans for action or link-ins to existing campaigns.
Several Workers’ Liberty women went as part of Education Not for Sale Women (as the conference is held at Sheffield University student union and is aimed predominantly at students and young “activists”). We had bulletins dealing with some specific issues, such as sex work, equal pay and political representation. We also devoted a section to the type of women’s movement we need, about open and democratic structures, an orientation to the labour movement and working women, and the importance of direct action.
Predictably they did not go down well with the organising group, who accused us of undermining the work the volunteers do for the FEM conferences and going deliberately to spread “anti-FEM08” literature. This highlights perfectly the way FEM08 deal with any view differing to theirs. Despite requests for a stall neither Feminist Fightback nor ENS Women were recognised nor allowed room at the event.
Although I can understand that FEM08 wished to accommodate many speakers and organisations, this does not excuse the lack of open debate. Apparently debate is not needed when you have such important speakers as Germaine Greer (who apparently made very transphobic comments... again) or Julie Bindle (who thinks prostitution will miraculously disappear overnight if we criminalise men for buying sex).
We have criticised the organisation and structure of the FEM conferences before, and I think if anything it has got worse. They are organised by a small set of people with a slightly larger section of volunteers. Appeals are put out on the FEMSOC website and within local Fawcett and FEMSOC groups for people to get involved and help. However at no point are other feminist groups approached, there are no open meetings.
There was supposedly an organising committee in Sheffield, and the student union women’s committee was at one time invited to get involved. However, after that I (as a member of that women’s committee) heard nothing more, although several members did get involved.
The lack of open structures and open discussion results in the atmosphere at the conferences, whereby discussion is dictated by the speakers invited and the propaganda distributed.
The movement for women’s liberation as much now as it has done throughout the decades should think carefully about where it orientates and how it operates. There is still the need to fight, yes, but not because some rich Tory women in the city face the 4% pay gap. Our women’s movement needs to be an open space in which politics can be discussed and ideas developed, not stifled and controlled by the well recognised academic feminists such as the speakers invited to FEM08 this year.