What is a Woman and Who Gets to Tell Her-Story? Censorship, Dissention & Disruption at the People’s History Museum.

Manchester People’s History museum attracted a rather more raucous crowd than its usual weekend visitors on Saturday afternoon, as two groups of protestors set up outside its entrance, complete with megaphones, banners, signs and flyers. On the side on which I stood, around a dozen other women, young and old, gathered with me, dressed in T-shirts bearing the messages, ‘Women Will Not Submit,’ and ‘Woman: Adult Human Female’ under suffragette style sashes. Our banner and signs proclaimed, ‘Women’s Rights Matter,’ ‘Manchester People’s History Museum Censors Women,’ and ‘Manchester People’s History Museum: Stop Erasing Women’s History!’

Opposite our group, a mixed sex counterprotest double in size, sheltered under the museum roof edge round a ‘Transphobia Kills Women’ banner and signs saying, ‘Non Binary is Valid’ and ‘Sex Work Is Work.’

The protest, organised by myself, along with other members of grassroots feminist activist group Greater Manchester ReSisters, was held in response to the museum’s removal of a Standing For Women sticker bearing the inscription, ‘Woman: Adult Human Female’ from its ‘Protest Lab’ exhibit back in May.

You can watch the video of our protest here:

The protest themed exhibition, put on to commemorate 200 yrs since the Manchester Peterloo massacre, invites the public to come add their ‘everyday objects that tell a story about protest.’ A tweet by the museum previously stated they had ‘been made aware that the sticker in this image we re-tweeted is associated with hostility,’ and, that ‘any such images/materials’ will be removed, an announcement which was met with widespread condemnation on the platform.

Local socialist historian Michael Herbert had commented, ‘on this basis you will have to bin your entire collection as every political movement you display e.g. reform of Parliament, work of Mary Wollstonecraft, Chartism, trade unions, Votes for Women was considered ‘hostile’ by the government, employers, the Church, male voters etc.’ Meanwhile, women’s campaign group, ‘Woman’s Place UK,’ responded, ‘Sex is a protected characteristic. It really looks like you don’t care about women or women’s rights.’

Amanda Bickerton, social entrepreneur and activist with an interest in local history added, ‘I would like to know what is so objectionable to the museum about women seeking to protect their legal rights and protections under the Equality Act. I would also wish to know whether the museum would have silenced and excluded the Suffragists because men at the time (and many women) were hostile to them and their cause. Finally, as a museum, isn’t it their responsibility to accurately reflect events and conflicts, showing the positions of all protagonists, to aid an understanding of history? They claim to be the curators of ‘people’s’ history — does that not include women? Surely, if they were really historians and archivists they would not be manipulating the narrative to suit a narrow dogma: as someone with a background in philosophy/history the idea that they would do just that is very distressing to me.’

The ability to self define as ‘adult human females,’ that is, ‘woman’ as signifier of biological fact and not an intangible feeling, impacts massively on women’s lives and rights. Being able to hold onto the word exclusively for us, ‘woman’, translates directly into how we live in the world and whether the safety, privacy and dignity of male free spaces remain part of it. The shocking case of Jonathon Yaniv which has been all over the news this past week demonstrates the dire consequences of sex self ID when taken to it’s ultimate conclusion. Yaniv’s argument that poor marginalised immigrant women should be forced to handle male genitalia in the name of advancing human rights for transgender people, reveals the abuse of women that this reality denying rhetoric can engender. Court transcripts describe the mental and economic suffering that the multiple defendants have endured from being dragged through court for the ‘offense’ of refusing to perform a service involving intimate touching of a member of the opposite sex.

Rebekah Wershbale, who submitted the ‘woman: adult human female’ T-shirt that got her banned from her local pub in Macclesfield earlier this year before the protest began (decision whether item will be accepted to exhibit is pending at time of print) commented, “the legal change to sex self ID remains under consideration in the UK. Sex self ID policies mean that any man can simply declare himself to be female and gain access to single sex spaces including female only rape and domestic violence support services, female prisons, changing rooms and hospital wards. We came and braved the rain today to bring the message to the People’s History Museum that women’s rights matter, and that our voices need to be heard on the issue of sex self ID. The museum hosts many suffragette themed exhibits. We believe we are the modern day suffragettes and our campaigning deserves a place in history.”

This perception of ourselves as the legacy bearers of centuries of feminist struggle and resistance to female oppression, is evidently not shared by Sisters Uncut Manchester, who posted on their Twitter in the lead up to the counterprotest they organised on saturday, ‘there are no legitimate concerns around trans self determination.’ Details about our protest were leaked to the group, whose twitter bio describes them as a ‘feminist group. . .taking direct action for domestic and sexual violence services.’ Prior to the protest they posted, ‘if you are a trans person who wants to come today but is concerned about your safety, please message us, likewise if you do decide to come but want to make a quick exit then let us know and we can help you with transport and escort you if need be.’ They went on to describe our protest as, ‘the first show of open Terf aggression in Manchester.’

However the demeanour of counterprotestors at the event didn’t quite match up to their narrative of a frightened and persecuted group. Rather, the male heavy crowd appeared to have no fear of any retaliatory response from our group of so called ‘Terfs’ as they strode over aggressively to block our attempts to photograph our protest.

They intercepted women’s interactions with members of the public throughout, warning passerby’s not to communicate with us. One male individual even shouted at and physically shoved a middle aged protester, in disregard of Sisters Uncut’s own guidelines on the conduct of protestors. Notably, Green Party activist Owain Sutton looked on in apparent approval, as the Sisters Uncut crowd chanted, shouted and jeered over our speech about the abuses and fears women are suffering right now in prisons, domestic violence services and lesbian communities because of self ID policies.

In the aftermath Sisters Uncut posted online, ‘Who’s streets? OUR STREETS. Thank you so much to everyone who came and demonstrated that Terf bigotry is not welcome in Manchester. . . We made them stand in the pouring rain while we stood strong and shouted down their weak attempts at protest. Thank you to everyone who turned out in support of Manchester’s trans community. The struggle continues!’

Nevertheless, neither the relentless rain nor the threat of male intimidation could prevent us from turning up to speak out for silenced women on Saturday. As our speaker defiantly pronounced over the megaphone, on behalf of all British women fighting to retain our sex based rights, ‘we are on the right side of history. The right side of Her Story.’ For the sake of future generations, we can only hope our story gets told.

You can read a more in depth account of the protest here: http://resistersunited.org/greater-manchester-resisters-protest-peoples-history-museum/?fbclid=IwAR1_qFAf7u-UXwNSuCh9qp6TIDBiBKT-ealChXTOUzz8ESaud3ClDxrFopA



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Emily G

Emily G

Radical Feminist, grassroots campaigner & poetry writer & blogger.