Sitting on the corner of poverty and activism, shouting on by @SianSteans

(Cross-posted with permission from Sian Steans)

This won’t be a post with lots of facts and figures to back up my experience. These things exist and each of us can access google. Some easier than others.

I’m typing this on my daughters iPad. I don’t have broadband or a landline or a PC. When she was approaching her 5th birthday and needed to regularly access mathletics for school I did what all poor parents do and thought long and hard on how I could juggle things to make it happen.

So you can get iPads on contract. Mobile data packages which are less than many broadband and line rental packages. The monthly bill I guess also includes the cost of the thing. So i needed a £100 to pay out initially. Luckily I have an overdraft, a remnant of a time I was slightly less poor. I was already into it but if I took it to close to the limit I could buy it. So I did.

Mathletics has an app plus a website so I was certain the app would be great. Plus my daughter has been playing on iPads since she was 3 because her nursery had them and she loved them there.

Well like much of what is available on mobile sites it’s not the same. Most of the activities are “not available on this platform”. So much for my super plan. Well one day in a tantrum my 5 year old threw her iPad. The screen is now cracked with some cellotape over one side. I’m not paying to get it fixed now because it means weeks of missing out on something else to do it. So she’s not bothered about playing with it as much and I turn it round and round to type and use the Internet because one edge doesn’t work.

But in what world is it normal to think of buying an expensive fragile gift for a young child who will naturally have tantrums from time to time? A world in which the pressures faced by poor women aren’t considered.

I see the truth of this world and how women like me are ignored and I feel I have to do something. I helped with a local women’s conference and the experience made me feel incredibly strong and much like the person I was before my daughter was born, before the years I spent living with her father.

It was the only feminist conference I have attended but it was amazing to be surrounded by women talking about women and not being attacked for that. There was a crèche partly funded from donations. A local activist upset at the Nottingham People’s Assembly not having a crèche donated a little, as did local trade unions. The volunteers who made the conference happen are amazing women. I joined late when they had done most of the hardest parts. They are amazing.

From the conference I took forward a desire to work locally against austerity but with a focus on women. Nottingham has a strong activist community with great work happening particularly against the bedroom tax but myself and a few others felt we needed a women only group to focus on how austerity is especially hurting women.

When one of the women involved in the group Rebecca, found out about the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity she shared it with us and her network Feminist Friends Nottingham (a lovely Facebook group for learning and growing within feminism). 3 of us from Nottingham decided we would go. Many more were interested but London is a long expensive journey and the conference itself wasn’t free (all free tickets had been allocated).

Having managed to get a lift and a place to stay I bought my ticket with a credit card. I’m paid weekly and if I use my debit card on the wrong day I won’t have money for the direct debits I know are due. I’m not the only woman who lives like this.

Rebecca had emailed to ask about a crèche but thee wasn’t a response. I had tweeted from our group account to say how excited we were to be coming but to remind the organisers London is really expensive so perhaps next time it could be held elsewhere. While I appreciated the response that they were aware London is expensive, which is why they were doing lunch for £5 it sort of missed the point. I’d paid for lunch along with my ticket on a credit card because what is a small amount of money to one woman is a large amount to another.

On arrival we signed in and signed up to our workshops. Rebecca and I mentioned to the organisers at the sign up desk that we were disappointed at lack of crèche facilities and that it would be something to have another time. I know how hard it is to put on a conference with little time, money and support so I was amazed at how well they had done. But this was important enough for me to mention it in as nice a way as I could. The response was defensive which is natural but I felt it became slightly hostile. Particularly as the day wore on.

The format of the day was great with much time spent listening to the audience as well as the speakers. I was keen to explain some of the great things happening in Nottingham with women like Becky Kent trying to fight the bedroom tax and winning her mums appeal. Although the chair taking questions from the audience seemed hesitant to allow me to speak. A woman next to me joked it looked as though I’d been blacklisted because I had my hand up pointlessly so often and for so long.

At one point I took the mic once a woman sat right behind me had finished and spoke of my own experience with the benefit system. How problematic it is for separated parents and my fears for women living with controlling partners once Universal Credit is rolled out. I explained that with cuts to services for domestic violence survivors particularly the cuts to specialised BME services it was doubly terrifying. I did speak with more detail about my personal circumstances than I am prepared to do here because I felt it was a very safe space. I was confused and angry by the gestures from the chair, fingers moving around each other while staring at me. I didn’t know if she was supporting me to go on or telling me to hurry up.

In the second workshop I felt immense relief upon hearing Zita Holbourne say what I’d been thinking most of the day. This conference was unaffordable for the women who needed it most. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate it as a first step but it must be that. A step to better,  more inclusive conversations where basic needs of women are the primary focus.

I attended the social and spoke with lots of lovely women. It was great. I had to leave early because some of the women I was with were tired (a long drive will do that, as will being pregnant)  and I had to meet the friend who had found me a place to stay (she lived in London but didn’t come to the conference). The organiser who had chaired the workshops I attended encouraged us to come back later after the two women who wanted to rest had gone home. I thought that was a lovely gesture but a bit odd as for most of the day I had got the impression she didn’t want to hear from us at all.

Returning with my friend Bex was in hindsight not a great plan. Most of the conference attendees had left by this point only a handful of the organisers were there. We stayed for one drink during which I heard some ridiculous things. Intersectionality is a load of bollocks which only matters to about 20 women in the country. Radical Feminists are just lesbian separatists and a bit weird. Strangely enough I heard that caring about individual women would not help change the world and activism isn’t supposed to be wishy washy counselling. Also that I most defiantly am not a Marxist feminist. Lovely to be told what you believe by strangers. Well I figured drunk people will say such things and decided not to stay for another drink. When we got up to say goodbye the woman who had been so keen for me to come back decided it was time to have a tantrum of her own. She didn’t crack an iPad with her tantrum. She shone a light on the cracks in the left, cracks that the woman who need the left most always fall through. I was told I had spent four hours this afternoon attacking her (I’d spoken to her on arrival at reception and for perhaps 45 minutes after the conference had finished including the time at the social). I was shouted at in front of my friend who is not a feminist and was not sold on the idea of being one. The other organisers at the table allowed this to happen suggesting only that this woman was tired and had a little too much wine and didn’t mean it. Also that they weren’t all like that.

I might have believed you weren’t all like that if the slip of paper you wrote your details on was handed to me. The woman who travelled down the country when she couldn’t afford it to attend an event she believed in. But you chose to hand it to Bex. A woman who told you she doesn’t feel especially political, likes to listen but has no interest in being involved and hadn’t committed her time and money to your event.


EDIT 9.45ish 24/2
Just want to clarify this was an overwhelmingly positive day and I met some great women doing great work locally as well as hearing a mixture of great speakers. I do think it should be an event to build from is all. Nothing is perfect but we can always work to make things better, even if we passionately disagree on lots we can usually find some common ground.


Sian Steans: is new to blogging and focuses on impact of austerity on women and intersection of poverty, class struggles and feminism. (@SianSteans)

One thought on “Sitting on the corner of poverty and activism, shouting on by @SianSteans”

  1. I hear you about struggling financially raising children and being forced to rely on credit to make ends meet. My two are young womyn now and I still have a credit card debt. I don’t think I’ll ever pay it off.

    It’s a shame feminist principles weren’t practiced at the London conference. That one organisers behaviour was unacceptable, unfeminist.

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