UK: The personal becomes women’s base for leadership in campaigns for truth, justice & social change Print E-mail
 London ~~ Sunday 13 September 2009

Women at war: On the campaigning frontlines

From fearlessly standing up to the IRA and taking on the military, to raising awareness about the horrors of domestic violence and battling against climate change, increasingly it is women who are making the most noise. Elizabeth Day joins the frontline activists to hear why successful campaigning is now women's work

The new Suffragettes: campaign group Climate Rush disarm the police with Edwardian dress and cucumber sandwiches. Photograph: Suki Dhanda

Paula McCartney was once an ordinary woman. She lived in a modest terraced red-brick house in the Catholic enclave of Short Strand, East Belfast. She was a mature student at the local university, a wife and a mother of five. Apart from her immediate group of friends and family, and the neighbours she said hello to each morning, no one in the wider world knew Paula McCartney's name.

But that was before her brother got into a fight in a pub and had his throat slashed with a broken bottle. That was before he was stabbed and then beaten unconscious with a metal bar. That was before Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two, was left in the street to die in January 2005.

The subsequent police investigation into Robert's death came up against a wall of silence: his murderers were rumoured to be members of the Provisional IRA and none of the estimated 70 witnesses came forward with information. Frustrated by the lack of progress and driven by a profound desire to bring her brother's killers to justice, Paula McCartney found that her grief transmuted rapidly into fury. She became determined to speak out.

"The initial instinct was to protect my brother," she says now, four years on. "Seeing that I failed to do that in life, I certainly was not going to let it go now that he was dead. You just wish you had been there that night. If there had been one person on that night on that street who had spoken out, he might have been saved."

With her four sisters, she mounted a formidable public campaign designed to prick the bubble of silence surrounding Robert's death. Five days after his murder, the sisters held a candlelit vigil, attended by 600 people, as a protest at the cover-up. They appeared on television chat-shows and radio phone-ins, and took their campaign to the highest levels - in March 2005, they were meeting President George W Bush in the White House, and by December that year Tony Blair was expressing his support.

The public relations magazine PR Week gave the McCartney sisters their Communicators of the Year Award for focusing media attention on a story that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. They faced threats and intimidation - Paula had to move house; another sister lost her job - and yet they remained undaunted. Four years on, Robert's killers are still at large and the McCartney sisters are still fighting.

Had they had any previous experience of political activism before Robert died? "No," says Paula. "We weren't thinking about a campaign at first. It all sort of evolved, and we found the fact we were women highlighted the issue, because it was unusual and people wanted to speak to us. For us, personally, we didn't see it as bravery. We were in the depths of grief and we found it was a natural response. We didn't see how you could not do it."

In recent years, the female campaigner has become a prominent figure in the public consciousness. She comes in many guises: grieving sister, career woman, political activist or celebrity with a cause. A recent Vogue spread was devoted to the rise of the female eco-warrior, and earlier this year, the actress Joanna Lumley forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn on the rights of Gurkhas to settle in the UK.

Crucially, Lumley, like McCartney, had a personal connection to the cause she was espousing - her father fought alongside the Nepalese warriors in the Second World War. The personal touch, the sense that women are "speaking from the heart" and encouraging us to empathise with a cause rather than simply agreeing with it, is one of the particular potencies of a female campaigner. According to Professor Anne Gregory, the director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, Lumley was thus, "the perfect figurehead... She's not doing it for the money or self-promotion and people feel she has the right to speak on the Gurkhas' behalf." And, of course, the obvious visual appeal of a fragrant blonde issuing rallying cries like a modern-day Boudicca ensured several days' worth of media publicity. Lumley got her way.

But the personal connection can often be more acute. Bereaved mothers and sisters such as Paula McCartney are propelled into action because of a devastating family loss and the sense of injustice that accompanies it. In many cases, the campaigning urge comes from a need to fight for one's sibling or child; to protect them in death because they felt unable to in life.

For Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in a roadside bomb in Iraq five years ago, because of a lack of proper military equipment, the first reaction was to fight. "I don't think I had any time to grieve because it's just been sheer anger," she says now, sitting in the front room of her house, one wall dominated by a large painted portrait of Gordon in his fusilier's uniform. "I promised Gordon that I would find out what happened. It was anger that made me fight. I had the right to know because it was my son."

Gentle became one of the most high-profile campaigners against the war in Iraq. In 2004, shortly after Gordon was killed, she set up a protest group, Military Families Against the War. Today, it has more than 300 members and regularly campaigns to provide troops with better equipment. In the same year, she addressed a crowd of 20,000 at an anti-war demonstration in London and walked out of a meeting with the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, accusing him of "talking rubbish". In the 2005 general election, she stood - unsuccessfully - against the armed forces minister Adam Ingram. More recently, she has flown to Egypt to address the fifth Cairo Anti-War Conference, and to America to join forces with similar campaigning organisations. Had she ever spoken in public before Gordon died? "No," she says with a throaty laugh. "I didn't know what I was doing, but the more I did, the more I picked up and I kept pushing myself. I still get nervous [before speaking], but I have a cigarette, I don't look at anybody and I just focus on the rest of our boys out there. I never imagined I'd be doing this, but it's just the anger that gets the better of you. Any mother would do the same."

According to Paula McCartney, there is also a sense in which women like Gentle are seen as somehow existing outside traditional areas of conflict. "When you see women, people feel initially a sort of comfort. I do think if we had been men we would have been in a hell of a lot more danger. We didn't feel so helpless when we were campaigning. And, for me, that [campaigning] keeps Robert close."

For similar reasons, grassroots anti-knife or anti-gun crime movements are frequently spearheaded by the mothers or sisters of victims. Brooke Kinsella, the former East-Enders actress whose brother Ben was fatally stabbed by three youths last year, marched in the streets after his death. Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, became a prominent human rights activist in the area of racially aggravated attacks and police misconduct. Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter Sarah was murdered by a paedophile in 2000, was awarded an MBE for her attempts to introduce better safeguards against sex offenders.

Beyond the personal sphere, there is also an extremely successful circle of professional campaigners - women like Kate Allen, the head of UK Amnesty, or Marjorie Wallace, the founder of mental health charity Sane, or Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, whose operational nous is gleaned from years of experience within the political arena. These are career women adept at playing the game, at plotting the course of a campaign with a precision designed to produce maximum impact.

Then there are the celebrity campaigners who use their ubiquity to highlight a particular issue. "I still feel myself to be something of a suffragette," says the writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who campaigns for the elderly as the government-appointed Voice for Older People. "I grew up in an idealistic, high-minded, post-war age and I marched against everything - against Suez, against the bomb, against the war in Iraq. It's an instinct. I absolutely believe in the power to influence events.

"I have a natural soft-heartedness, a tenderness to the world's problems. I'm less fired up by ambition and greed. I don't want to be too absolute about gender divides, but it's quite easy to ensnare my sympathies. I'm a soft touch, but I don't mind."

While there are historical precedents - Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes, Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement, Elizabeth Fry and social reform - in the past these women tended to capture the imagination because they were the exception to the rule. For centuries, the arena of political agitation has been dominated by men. Now, however, the balance has tipped - it is a sphere overwhelmingly shaped by women.

Clare Algar, director of Reprieve. Photograph: Suki Dhanda

According to Clare Algar, the executive director of the human rights charity Reprieve, which represents 33 of the 240 prisoners in Guantánamo Bay: "In the NGO and charity world, there are many more women than men. I used to be a lawyer in private practice and it was a lot more sexist. Someone once said I'd make a good air stewardess. This, by contrast, is a great sector to work in as a woman. I go to meetings with 10 women sitting round the table and one man. It is literally the inverse of the commercial sector."

Why are women particularly attracted to this kind of work? What drives a woman to protest, to speak out? Is their gender instrumental to their success, or is it a distraction, a by-product of the simple drive to protest against an unjust status quo? Put simply: does being a woman make you a better campaigner?

For Dr Jill Liddington, an honorary research fellow at the University of Leeds and the author of Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote, the historical experience of having to fight against sexual inequality is key to understanding the effectiveness of any contemporary female activist. Without the suffragettes, she suggests, women would not have developed such an intimate understanding of how to mesh the personal with the political. "From the mid-19th century onwards, women developed distinctive political agendas because every single woman was disenfranchised and so they necessarily had to campaign in different ways," says Dr Liddington. "By the time of the Edwardian Votes for Women campaigns, this became highly visible. One key example is the suffragettes' resistance to, and evasion of, the 1911 census - when the privacy of the domestic home became a political space. The Votes for Women campaign, and others like it - Greenham, for instance - had a tremendous impact on the imagination of subsequent generations of women."

In a cobbled courtyard garden café filled with pot plants, a group of young women wearing frilly knickerbockers and floor-length dresses are seated round a table, deep in discussion. They are sporting crimson sashes emblazoned with various campaigning phrases. "Deeds not Words" reads one, "Pedal Power" reads another. At first glance, they look like a tableau of assorted French revolutionaries and Edwardian ladies. But then you notice that a couple of them are rolling cigarettes and that there is a constant thrum of traffic from the nearby north London roads. One of the women, sporting a high-necked, peach-coloured dress, is sipping on a cappuccino. When she puts down the cup, there is a glossy red mark from her lipstick on the rim.

These are the members of environmental action group Climate Rush, who style themselves as "new suffragettes". In June, four of their members super-glued themselves to a statue in the lobby of the House of Commons to highlight the problems of climate change, 100 years after the activist Marjory Hume chained herself to the same statue in protest for women's suffrage. In August, Climate Rush campaigners chained themselves to the railings of Peter Mandelson's London home in protest at the closure of the Vestas wind farm.

Their past actions have included an impromptu protest picnic in Heathrow's Terminal 1, complete with cup-cakes and cloudy lemonade, and a mass bicycle ride through central London. It might sound trivial, but they take their campaigns extremely seriously: four of them have been arrested a total of 17 times.

Members range in age from early 20s to mid-40s and come from all over the country. Most of them hold down part-time jobs to support their activism: they include social workers, town councillors, art students, secretarial temps and life models. Tamsin Omond, the group's 24-year-old founder, is a Cambridge graduate and the grand-daughter of a baronet.

It was a conscious decision to make the core membership female, not simply as a means of invoking the suffragette movement, but also because it proved a potent way of conveying the group's message. "There is a sense that it is the male way of doing things that got us into this in the first place," explains Marina Pepper, a 41-year-old Climate Rush member from Brighton. "In our group there is no sense of status, it is run as a co-operative, you share the jobs. We're very good at talking to each other. When you take the arguments away from the profit margins and women start talking about life, children and the future, you move away from the political and you make it personal."

Omond agrees: "We can make the issues relevant and relatable, and people are more likely to come up and talk to us. I think that is because women can be more creative about campaigning. All of our actions have a moral dimension, but they are also intended to be a lot of fun. Our ambition is to get people engaged rather than preach at them."

In the past, Omond believes that the environmental movement has been overrun by male-dominated campaigning groups whose main function seems to be to depress us into donating money rather than empowering us into action. Climate Rush deliberately seeks to be different, unconstrained by the limitations of the male status quo, and it is true that the overwhelmingly female membership base makes for a pleasant, sociable atmosphere in which ideas can be discussed and fizzed over with shared enthusiasm - every month, for instance, they run a creative day to screen-print banners and bake cup-cakes. Their demonstrations have attracted up to 1,000 protesters, many of them mobilised through Facebook and MySpace.

"A lot of third way feminism was 'We can be just like men'," says Deborah Grayson, 24. "What we do is different, it's about reclaiming some of that stuff and bringing our strengths as women to the fore."

The success of Climate Rush is perhaps attributable to this uniquely female brand, partly because they are extremely savvy about the media image they project and partly because the authorities are never quite sure how to deal with a bevy of polite females in Edwardian dress offering trays of cucumber sandwiches to members of the public. "There's a lot of assumption that there must be a really clever man behind us, machinating away," says Omond. "But it helps in a way that they don't take women as seriously as men, because the police are disarmed by us and, most of the time, they let our actions go ahead."

Climate Rush is already plotting its next protest: in December, just ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, it plans to storm Parliament and put wind turbines and seed bulbs on the roof. "We want to transform the House of Commons into a green space," says Omond, her eyes glittering in anticipation. "We like doing naughty things."

While it is difficult to avoid generalisation, almost all the women I talk to agree that there are certain predominantly "female" characteristics that help them as campaigners. The first is empathy, that twinge of fellow feeling that enables some women to reach out and communicate with strangers, rather than viewing issues through a purely intellectualised or philosophical prism. When Princess Diana was photographed shaking hands with Aids patients in the 1980s, she arguably did more to demystify the illness in the public mind with that single touch than any number of well-intentioned leaflets or campaign documents.

For the celebrity activist Trudie Styler, the late Princess was "a great role model for reaching out and showing her compassion; she showed her emotion and that encouraged people to do something about it."

Styler, who set up the Rainforest Foundation more than 20 years ago with her musician husband, Sting, and who works as a Unicef ambassador, says that her most effective campaigns come when she is "deeply moved or when something touches me that I feel personally connected to. For me, injustice provokes an emotional response, an anger and an outrage that is very useful because they are driving emotions and give you great energy to harness."

There is a maternal element to this, too, a belief that women are driven by the desire to safeguard the future. "A woman becomes a stalking tigress in defence of her child," says Joan Bakewell. "When I espoused CND, I did it out of self-interest, because there was strontium-90 in the milk and I had a very small child. I was defending my child, so it was self-interest, but it was also generalised into the defence of other people's children and in that way became a campaign."

Jenni Williams, founder of the underground activist movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise, describes herself in similar terms. "We speak from the moral authority that we are the mothers of the nation," she explains, "and if your mother cannot speak out on your behalf then you have no one that will speak for you. So that is why we are committed to doing this: because we want a better future for our children."

Domestic violence campaigners Southall Black Sisters. Photograph: Suki Dhanda

The second characteristic is the ability of women to organise, to think a campaign through on a practical level from beginning to end, and to deal with multiple tasks on a daily basis. "I can think of some great male campaigners, but I think there is something about women and mental toughness," says Pragna Patel, the founder of the west London charity Southall Black Sisters, which has fought against domestic violence and arranged marriage since 1979. "Maybe that stems from the fact that in the home, you get on with things, you have to multi-task, and women are less indulgent, have a more matter-of-fact approach in the domestic sphere. There's an element of that when campaigning. You know it might be difficult, you know what the odds might be, but you take it on one day at a time."

Bakewell attributes the success of female campaigners to a willingness to put politicking to one side, to look for ways around confrontation. "I do smile quite a lot when I want something," she admits. "Women have ways of getting their own way without people realising. I don't go in for confrontation; I go in saying, 'You and I must think this is terrible, what are we going to do about it?' I see it as sweet reasonableness and co-opting their interest. On the whole, saying, 'It's a disgrace,' doesn't get you very far; you need to say, 'What can be done?'"

Back in her front room in Glasgow, Rose Gentle puts it more plainly. "This is my son we're talking about," she says. "If I back down, they'll get away with it. I'm determined to get the answers." For Rose, that determination is the simple continuation of the powerful relationship that exists between mother and child: if she could not be there to protect Gordon in life, she can at least fight for him after his death.

And perhaps, in the end, it is this that gives these very different campaigners their common ground. However diverse their motivation, they are linked by the determination to right an evident wrong and to get the answers. A woman will go a long, long way to find the truth. Injustice has no tougher opponent.