Women, as we know, are bearing the brunt of the cuts – as workers, carers (daughters, mothers, wives). For most of us the attack is coming at us from all sides. As the majority of carers (of course there are male carers too, but we are still in the majority) and as the majority of workers in the public sector (around 80%), we find we have to do even more juggling than usual, as day centres close, redundancy notices are issued, and housekeeping has to stretch even more creatively than usual.
In Oxford, over the last year, this has led to a number of events spearheaded by women
At the Oxford international women’s festival in 2012 we held an afternoon’s discussion on the role we faced – the all-women platform spanned trades unionists, speakers from the Communist Party and from Socialist Resistance We discussed health and welfare cuts, the problems facing single mothers, domestic violence and the history of local struggles led by women – a nursery campaign, women in the car factory – and emerged, stronger, feeling that unlike many other meetings, women had had a strong, co-operative, voice.
A women’s (only) conference followed directly from this, politically co-operative like the first, with workshops on women in trades unions, women and welfare, international women’s struggles – and women and health. Keep our NHS Public Oxfordshire were asked to arrange this workshop, and as a member of the Women’s Conference organisation group and a long term activist in KONP it was down to me to set the ball rolling.
The first thing was to focus on our membership in KONP. The chairs, treasurer, and the majority of speakers in the meetings, were male Although the active members include women – health visitor, physiotherapist, retired PCT planner, and lecturer in communications – meetings were almost always dominated by the men ( ‘experts’ on PFI, the law, welfare services in the council, general practice and campaigning practice and networks).
I suggested a small informal meeting with women attenders outside the main monthly meeting to plan the workshop. We met in a café during the day, and planned the event over coffee and peppermint tea – and quickly moved into a very lively discussion of much broader issues of privatisation. There were five of us – including the mother of one of the members – and one after another we relaxed into a respectful equal sharing of information, ignorance, determination to succeed, and a confidence that together we could mount a good workshop.
It felt very different from our monthly KONP meeting which can sometimes feel stifling, frustrating, and as if you have to ‘intervene’ to be heard; as we left the café we said to each other – that was so enjoyable! I learnt so much! – and we were full of confidence that each of our contributions was important to the success of the day.
As it turned out, the workshop was full to bursting and full of ideas; and the informal café format has been repeated to plan street events – even with the occasional man present – with equal success. We women have a stronger voice now as well on the executive committee and in the monthly meetings, and our joint expertise is clearly helping us on in the long term struggle we face with overturning the current break up and reduction of services in health and welfare.
Reflecting on this, it is easy to pinpoint some of the things it is in our power as women (and men) to change, once we are prepared to acknowledge them, though harder to work out the route to those changes. Most of us on the left, and in trades unions, are used to a ‘framework’ for planning activity which has often turned into the main ‘activity’ we undertake – the agendas and minutes of the 2 hour monthly meetings, chaired (well or less well) – usually followed by an informal chat in the pub.
In my own 40-year experience, these meetings are normally balanced towards the men – who speaks, who tells the stories, who debates the politics – except on those rare occasions that women are in the majority. And my experience is that women come to meetings – galvanised for a cause – and then (except for an old habitual like myself) melt away after a few sessions (along with some of the less habituated more timid men), never having ‘found’ their voice in that setting.
The blame for this in my view doesn’t lie with the individual men – most of whom would be only too pleased if the women in question came forward. It lies instead with the ‘framework’ we need to break out of; and in this we have much to learn from the younger mechanisms of ‘occupy’ and other such less hierarchical (patriarchal?) groups- and much to be gained from simple improvisation, ‘letting go’, supporting the newer members to take the initiative rather than expecting them to fit to an old mould.
What is certain is that more and more women will emerge, wanting to fight austerity, in our local groups – and that our challenge will be to really listen to them and to support them turn us upside down. It is the only way we will succeed. And in supporting such women (along with less ‘patriarchal’ men) to champion the cause, we will also be forced to confront old, patriarchal habits – and change them.
The latest action that has come from that first café informal meeting was a street action in Witney Cameron’s town in the lead up to the Lords debate on throwing out the privatisation clause. Fifteen people – the majority new to KONP actions – half of them women – confidently engaged members of the public in the issues As women we have energy and ideas – and if we act together our voices are more likely to be heard