So I went along to Sarah Browne’s session at the Radical Book Fair, launching her new book which is a history of the women’s liberation movement in Scotland.
The book is based on Sarah’s PhD thesis, research which involved the interviewing of many women across Scotland who had participated in the movement in the 1960s and 70s. Several of these interviewees attended yesterday’s launch event, and shared snippets of memories with the audience.
One memory involved a demonstration in Aberdeen (outside a beauty pageant??) in which women dressed up in suggestive costumes to highlight various women’s issues, and wore corresponding sashes with names such as Miss Demeanour, Miss Used, Miss Laid and Miss Conceived. A timely anecdote, I thought, given my own musings the other day exploring what we mean by ‘misbehaving.’
Another woman described a campaign that she and “a gang” of other young women had conducted at the University of St Andrews, in which they stationed themselves publicly outside the student union for a week, catcalling and whistling and commenting on the appearance of any men that walked past. A male fellow student had later confided to her how terrified he had been to go past them, how uncomfortable and unsafe it had made him feel. Point made.
She also described the experience of being in a packed lecture hall, listening to a male professor refer continually to the human experience as “his” and the human person as “he.” When she finally gathered her courage and raised her hand to point out that she felt alienated by his male gendering of humanity, and that this was interfering with her learning, the entire hall of fellow students burst out in laughter.
What struck me most about the reminiscences of these women, and the collective heritage of the movement they had participated in, was the relative intimacy of their interventions. Long before social media, and mainly outwith the attention of public media, they questioned and challenged the assumptions of those around them. They donned the sash of Miss Behaving, and stirred up conceptual trouble among their own peers. Following on from her story about publicly questioning her male professor, this woman invoked, with deep feeling, the connection between the personal and the political. Politics isn’t just marches and slogans; politics occurs in our most casual and daily and intimate interactions.
I left the session both disheartened and encouraged: disheartened by the enormity of the sexism still rampant in our lives, even these many years on from that mid-20th-century movement; but also encouraged by the path forged by these women, and their good example of collective activism. Overall, I felt comforted to recall that I reside within a sisterhood, and that when I stir up wee storms by speaking my mind, I’m part of something far, far larger than my own small life. Keep on keeping on, as my mother might say. Yes I do keep on misbehaving, I think – for my daughter’s sake, and her daughter’s too.