A still from Pride, the 2014 film about the Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners campaign.
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What today’s activists can learn from the Lesbians Against Pit Closures campaign

Their triumph came through recognising that although their own oppression was important, it didn’t mean they couldn’t recognise others’ struggles as well.

“I loved it. I had a very emotional response to it,” says Wendy, when I ask her about the Bafta-nominated film Pride. She’s a member of the group whose story it tells: Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners (LGSM), the London group of activists who banded together to support a Welsh mining community through the 1984 strike. From the time I’ve spent talking to its members, I gather that Wendy’s response is common. The film is close to their hearts, perhaps because the majority of events it depicts are true.

But there’s one aspect of the story it doesn’t do complete justice. It presents Lesbians Against Pit Closures (LAPC), the women-only campaign formed by some of LGSM, as little more than a punchline. “What part of this space is unsafe?” asks one incredulous character when his comrade says the lesbians need their own group. Neither Wendy or Leonie, the other LAPC activist I spoke to, are bitter about this. “In real life,” says Wendy, “when I told people about LAPC they often snorted with derision, so [the film] was accurate!”

But their role in the campaigning and activism which surrounded the miner’s strike needs recognition. As Leonie states, it “can provide a model for how effectively different people can organise as one, and how empowering it can be for women to organise on their own.” Women activists today face abuse and death threats simply for voicing our opinions: this story is one we need to hear.

LAPC came into being when a number of LGSM members decided they needed a women-only space. The society of the time dismissed their voices and casual misogyny was rampant. Even within the friendliness of LGSM they could feel talked over. Ray Goodspeed, an LGSM member, admits frankly: “The men in the meetings were generally like men in most meetings.” A space of their own was one way of getting past this.

There were practical reasons too. Some like Wendy found it difficult to be confident in as group as large as LGSM, where things could become “party-political”, while others just found it easier to organise alongside friends: Leonie got involved with LAPC partly because “they were often in the clubs, cafes and bars where I had spent time”. Their aim, whatever the reason for it, was simply to create an atmosphere where women were able to organise.

They had similar methods to LGSM: rattling buckets outside bars and clubs to raise money for the miners and putting on two women-only benefits. As one member explains in the LGSM-produced film All Out! Dancing in Dulais, they also tried to “involve other people in what we’re doing”, collecting in spots other than gay-friendly ones, and going outside supermarkets with their buckets.

Campaigning wasn’t always easy. Leonie says “outside the supermarkets we were often shouted at”, but the supportive atmosphere provided by a women-only space meant this could be dealt with and brushed off.“If you can laugh about it together, that takes some of the pain out of it,” says Wendy. “I learned to ignore people who treated LAPC with derision, which toughened me up.”

Support didn’t just come from other members. Although they organised separately, LAPC’s aim was anything but segregation: it was total solidarity with the miners. They attended pickets, and organised a day at a Kentish Town community centre for themselves and mining women, many of whom were experiencing the same battle to overcome a sexist society. LGSM too were still allies, as were people from other groups organising on their own terms - people of colour, disabled people, other women, gay men. “I met people from other groups who became life-long friends,” Wendy says. “Through them I gained strength and insight into their struggles.”

This is the key to understanding what the lesson is modern activists can learn from LAPC. It’s not simply their method of organising within a “safe space” which sets an example, although that proved a brilliant way of giving women the confidence to voice opinions and gain experience as activists. Their – and LGSM’s – triumph came through recognising that although their own oppression was important, there was no reason on earth which meant they couldn’t recognise others’ struggles alongside their own.

That mindset from groups like LAPC, LGSM and others, meant that despite the miners’ defeat, 1984 ended with new bonds forged. 1985 saw the National Union of Miners block vote at Labour conference to commit the party to gay rights legislation for the first time.

Solidarity may seem difficult to find now, with the left and indeed feminism splintering into various ways of hand-wringing, but the women are adamant about how important it is. When asked if she still supports causes other than her own, Leonie states proudly: “Solidarity with people outside of my own ‘groups’ is even more important than it was during the strike. If ever there was a time where people needed to stand up for fairness, it is now.”

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.