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Tracey Thorn: I’m nostalgic for revolutionary feminism and the whiff of patchouli

Off the Record.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a BBC4 documentary called Property Is Theft, about squatting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Great old footage of Villa Road in Brixton was intercut with present-day interviews with the former squatters, reminiscing about those righteous, ideological times. Pumped full of theory, living out their ideals of deconstructing the nuclear family and opting out of capitalist society, they were a beguiling mix of the inspiring and the nutty.

Their fundamental point – that housing is a basic right and a nexus of inequality – still rang clear as a bell. They had inhabited buildings that were earmarked for demolition, and saved them. A three-bedroom flat in one of those houses now goes for half a million-plus. So much for the revolution they all believed was imminent.

But other aspects of their thought and practice seemed too niche to catch on, too purist to accommodate human contradiction. Their living conditions were pretty squalid, which probably put off any working-class families dreaming of a better life, and so the community consisted of young, highly politicised graduates, most of them white – the Rastafarians apparently all living in the next street along.

The old clips made the past seem both familiar and strange. You could smell the 1970s: the lentil bake and patchouli, the dope and the wet towels, all mixed up with a whiff of bullshit – cranky theories, a houseful of primal screaming. I was hooked and, on enquiring, discovered that this programme was the first episode in a series called Lefties, made by Vanessa Engle in 2006. I waited in vain for part two to appear, but eventually found it on YouTube. Called Angry Wimmin, it tells the story of the birth of late-1970s revolutionary feminism, and again, it’s full of cracking stuff.

It opens with Sheila Jeffreys singing a revised version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – “Men grow bald as they grow old/And they all lose their charms in the end./All men are wankers,/Said Christabel Pankhurst./WIMMIN are a girl’s best friend” – and moves on to tell of how feminists broke away from the socialist movement, defining women as a class of their own and declaring, “Men Are the Enemy!”

There are scenes of women sitting around a campfire and making the vagina sign with their hands; in full karate kit taking self-defence classes; and in dungarees, doing DIY, resolutely sawing and hammering, manlessly happy. The women relate how the removal of the word “men” led to the new framing “womben” – or, more usually, “wimmin”, which was soon adopted as a term of mockery. I remember how, in the early 1980s, Ben’s parents had a party invitation from the playwright John Osborne propped up on their mantelpiece, at the bottom of which were printed the words “NO WIMMIN”. Even then it made me fume.

The language policing sometimes went too far, demanding, say, that instead of “Oh God!” you should cry, “Oh Goddess!” Separatism led some to establish all-women households, which were then taunted by local lads, one neighbour posting a nude photo of himself through the letter box in a kind of early, analogue trolling.

Male violence led women in Leeds to set up Women Against Violence Against Women. It was the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was in Hull at the time, just near enough to feel the chill of his presence, and I remember the Reclaim the Night protests, and the resentment at the police advice not to be out alone after dark, imposing a curfew on the victims, not the perpetrators.

The documentary ends with Vanessa Engle asking if they are all still revolutionary feminists, and they mostly are, many working in the field of domestic violence. One woman asks Engle if she calls herself a feminist. Momentarily nonplussed, she replies, “Yeah, I’ve always thought so, but no one really asks me any more.” They laugh and conclude that feminists are “on their way to becoming an extinct species”.

Well. We’ll see about that.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit