CW: rape, PTSD, social exclusion
We all go through our ‘cool girl’ stage. When you’re young, a rejection of the societal image of femininity others you. It feels like a rejection of other women. ‘Not like other girls’ is a natural refuge. My first year of FE college I was the absolute queen of it. My pint downing, roll-up smoking ‘one of the lads’ persona was so perfect that I reduced a table of teenage boys to hysterics by mentioning I did yoga. The idea of me having even the slightest interest in something considered vaguely feminine was hilarious. I was a child then though, I grew up.
I became the woman who brings cookies to comic book club and talks about the gender representation in every book. The wife who not only keeps her own name after marriage but gives it to her daughters. The mother who complains to the school about the sexism in the Christmas play. The most passionate defender of the feminine and the female. I shared articles on Facebook about ‘cool girl feminism’ and I remembered myself at 16 but never for a second believed it could apply to me now. I still never quite fit with that feminine ideal, but I would rip you to shreds for belittling those who did.
In May 2015, the Tories won the general election. I spent two days in a pit of wine and despair and then decided to do something. One of the things I did was signing up on a large anti-austerity campaign’s website, offering to volunteer for them. A couple of months later, I spent my first day in their office, guillotining leaflets and clearing the email inbox. The only person in the office that day was an unassuming guy with a scruffy beard and a lost look in his eyes. He was funny and charming and we had a laugh that day. Over the next months, they asked me to do more. Within a year, I was one of their go to volunteers. I made friends within the movement. That man from the first day (henceforth known here as John) became someone I really trusted.
Somewhere down the line, I learned about the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In 2013, it came to light that the SWP had covered up the rape of a young woman in the party by a central committee member. A lot of people left the party over it. Some didn’t. As a survivor and a feminist, it bothered me that they were always there. John was the main reason I was able to put my concerns aside. He was so adamant that he hated them, that the organisation hated them, that nothing like that would ever happen there. Then I learnt that Stand up to Racism (SUTR), who we worked with closely, are, if not a front for the SWP, heavily linked with and controlled by them.
At the same time I started to notice the gender disparity between the volunteers picking up rubbish and the organisers and decision makers. I noticed how much disdain the organisers had for “identity politics” (otherwise known as any oppression that isn’t economic). When disability rights groups demanded more accessibility the national team made fun of them. When feminist organisations boycotted demos over the involvement of the SWP they were called sectarian. Smaller actions called by little groups who didn’t have UNITE giving them three grand a month and so had no office and no staff were mocked for being small. I wish I could say I spoke out or even that I stayed quiet, but I joined in, laughed and made jokes I’m ashamed of.
I made the case to others about SUTR, all regurgitated from my discussions with John. They’re not *exactly* the same organisation, there are great people involved, degrees of separation and squinting ’til it almost looks ok. I never really believed it. It was just political necessity and everyone hated them. I heard John call SUTR “parasites” once. I could put my worries aside and work with them. I was cool. Not like other survivors, not like other feminists, not like other girls.
My only justification is how important it had become to me. I slept on these people’s sofas and ate dinner with them. They were my friends. One night, during a 2am Facebook conversation with John he told me that the organisation “may be flawed and full of idiot men, but it’s your family too and it has your back”. God help me, I believed him.
One day a journalist publically attacked a demo we were doing with SUTR on the basis of the SWP’s rape cover up. John screenshotted the post and put it on his Facebook making fun of the journalist. This was the man who had called them parasites and said time and time again how much he hated working with them. Watching the comments on that post unfold you saw the truth of how the movement, my family that had my back, saw rape and rape apology. If it threatened them and their allies then it was a joke. My PTSD was triggered. I couldn’t stay cool anymore.
What followed was complicated (you can read more about my experience of being triggered here) and I firmly believe that the organisation took it seriously and is taking steps to manage its volunteers better, but it still sided with him. The people too, when someone with status didn’t want to see me anymore (and by his own admission I had done nothing wrong), with one or two exceptions, the people were just… gone. I would love to say I made a principled stand and left on my own terms but honestly, it took them rejecting me to give me the courage to speak out.
I don’t think I can make them change, evolution simply isn’t in their repertoire. What I can do is warn young activists dipping one toe into these organisations, they’re not your family, they don’t have your back. They say all the right things about women’s rights in public but you can’t stand for women when you stand beside someone who helped to cover up a rape, and they know that. I can tell those activists that there are better places to express their anger, a whole alternative left. Anti-capitalist feminists, smaller unaffiliated campaigns and performance protest groups. They’re not as big or as impressive (the unions don’t pay for us, we do it ourselves and we’re all poor) but there’s creativity and energy and compassion. They’ll accept you as you are and value your lived experience more than the words of dead Russian men. They may not tell you they love quite so quickly but, I promise you, when they do, they’ll really mean it.
To all the wonderful people I know who are still in that world, I say this: some of you might disagree with me on the politics but see that I mean what I say and be sad that I’ve been hurt so badly. Some may see the truth of my words but prefer to keep your head down and get on with things. I cast no judgement on any of you and I hope that we’re still friends. If, one day, you have a moment like this, it’ll be lonely and it’ll be hard. I hope you believe me when I say that however long it’s been and whatever has passed between us, I will be here for you.
And as for those who will, undoubtedly renounce me as mentally ill, liberal, sectarian, moving to the right or whatever else, well, once upon a time I would have offered them the biggest olive branch and tried to make them see that I was still just so very cool. We’re past that now though. I AM like other survivors, I AM like other feminists, I AM like other girls. Other girls are fucking incredible and I am proud to count myself among them. I once told John that by working with SUTR they had chosen the rape apologists over the survivors. I never really made my choice until now. So I guess my message to the brocialists is this – you can think I’m as uncool as you like. I’m still going to choose other survivors over you and, for the first time in a long time, I know that I’m doing the right thing.