7:03am Feminist Work Begins

I woke this morning at 7:03 am. I was supposed to be having the lie-in I haven’t had for about 3 weeks. And I couldn’t sleep last night for thoughts replaying and rattling my brain.

I had made the choice to go to a different event instead of going to the DSK protest on the same night. I wasn’t sure I’d know anyone at the protest and I wasnt sure I’d be able to ‘keep it together’ in a crowd full of strangers if there was discussion of sexual violence, and then possibly have to deal with police and aggression. I am so glad there were many brave people there, and so glad that important written documents and accounts are being made of what happened and what was experienced. And that these come from the inside of a movement, out, and from inside of one person, out.

The event I attended instead was called ‘Why atheism needs feminism, and feminism needs atheism’ which was a talk given by comedian Kate Smurthwaite. It was held in Sidney Sussex College, at the same time as the protest. I literally stopped on Hobson Street, wondering which way to go. I had planned to go to the talk and not the protest beforehand, I had prepared mentally for the talk and not the protest. It felt strangely against my instincts, but I went to the talk. I had never found an event which was going to refer to atheism and feminism together- it might be a long time before another one pops up- I must take the opportunity I told myself.

I have lived in Cambridge since i was 8, but i still feel intimidated each time i go inside one of the colleges. I couldn’t find the entrance [thanks googlemaps] and stopped to ask a group of male students where to go. They were very nice but they looked me up and down. I was on the wrong street it seemed and had to go around. I saw a car driving out and snuck in before the gate closed. A woman was passing and i asked her where to go. She said was i a student? and i said no. The typical weird silence in response. But she was nice- she walked me through all these passages and archways in the maze of the building, right to the door of the talk, even though she was going in the opposite direction herself. As we went through the maze my apprehension grew for some reason, my discomfort grew. This isn’t the right way, i kept thinking. I should have turned to her then and said, look there’s this protest going on right now- do you want to go together? If we leave now we can catch up with it… but i didn’t.

I was met at the door by the head of the atheist and agnostic society- a nervous and slightly weird man.

I was asked, was i a student?


The look again- what is it? Pity i think- ‘not a student at Cambridge?… im sorry for your loss, you must be so very very deprived, we’ll see if we can get you some food parcels’. And confusion- why are you here? They don’t realise they do it, and he didn’t realise I’m about 5 years older than him.

I was asked: was I a member?


Theres a fee for non members.

I know…


well how much is the fee?


how much is it to get in?

It’s £1

here you go.

he stands there oddly…

can i just… go in now? [i crept past him]

I was eventually let in to what looked like an ancient smoking room. Chandeliers. Victorian oil painting. Stone fireplace. Wooden panelling. Bookshelves. Windows overlooking some parkland ive never seen before. It smelled awful and stuffy. It was filled by a small audience of white males, who appeared kind of odd and nervous and pretentious in that Cambridge-student way. There were 6 women in the room, including myself and Kate Smurthwaite.

Kate’s talk was good. She spoke eloquently and confidently. She told us she had given this talk several times before. She spoke about how hypocritical it is to have a panel of white Oxbridge men talk about how bad religion is to women and the situation in countries under sharia, how often she had seen this, and how it is not difficult to find a woman or person of colour to speak instead. She talked about the rampant sexism in stand up comedy, and criticised Christopher Hitchen’s blatant misogyny- especially that article called ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ from Vanity Fair. She recommended we read Cordelia Fine’s book ‘Delusions of Gender’ if we believed any of the bollocks science we’d read in the media. Crucially, she challenged the atheist community’s aggressive pro-porn pro-sex industry stance. This is the first time i have heard the porn-is-not-ok perspective voiced anywhere near atheism, and atheist men challenged about their promotion and support of the porn industry.

But, she was forced to bookend her talk.

Beginning by explaining that: most of us are up to speed on atheism, but let me tell you where we are on equality- here’s some statistics and also some personal anecdotes of overt discrimination and hatred from my life to convince you, and also an explanation that feminism is not about women gaining supremacy over men…

And finishing with the reassurance that feminism helps men too, and challenging porn is not about taking away men’s orgasms.

After all this work to explain and pander and reassure and put things nicely so that men can understand and not feel threatened by the mention of feminism, a man in the audience asked this question:

”You mentioned the inclusion of women on atheist panels which criticise religion’s treatment of women; don’t you think it would be more convincing if a man represented this view so that you don’t have someone with a vested interest in what is being said?”

No one in the audience objected, or challenged him. As the talk and questions went on and on i felt like lead. More convincing for a man to say it… a vested interest…

I apologise, I do indeed have a vested interest in myself, and my sisters, and mother, and aunts, and grandmothers, and eventual daughters, and millions of other women, everywhere, obtaining full human rights and dignity and having lives worth living instead of scraping around for food and money and scraping out their insides and scraping off the dirt and degradation and scraping off their fat bits. I apologise for being biased in this way.

Unfortunately, if you are neutral on this topic you have sided with the oppressor and with all of the discriminations, degradations, tortures, rapes, genocides, imprisonments and slaveries that have been, and are being dolled out, right now, everywhere. You could not make it clearer that you are an enemy of women.

What is worse, this is entry-level oppression politics. This is primary school potato printing politics. People who are oppressed and their experiences of what oppression is like, are best represented by them. An objection to that oppression is best voiced by them because they are credible and qualified to speak. By right we have a place at the table, by right. Full fucking stop.

And here he sits casually, in a room with chandeliers and oil paintings, inside the maze of a rich Cambridge college-  gosh it’s best in the country remember- gosh it’s difficult to get in remember- amongst the brightest and best minds, with other privileged white men who will end up running things, and he plays mind games and linguistic games and philosophical games and debating games and even after Kate’s talk, he just doesn’t get it.

She answered his question- i could see her confusion- why doesn’t he get it? And her anger, and the answer she almost gave but hesitated to give. I knew from the rest of the talk [i could tell what she’d read by the words she used] that she was more radical than this, but she was forced to defend our inclusion in atheism on the grounds that it makes atheism look good and that atheists have to show that they are practicing equality, and how visually, with women up there as well atheism presents a contrast to the church etc, just to convince him and get him on side. So as not to have to explain and argue the basics… again.

And i thought: you’re wasting your time, sister. And so am i.

And instead of listening to the discussion continue, i imagined a lovely vision of me and her and the other 4 women there, and other women who are putting their effort and energy into atheism or socialism or anarchism, or religion, or political parties or any other man-made thing in which women are still the servant class, the sex class, the reproductive class, the second class, just leaving. Running out into the streets. Together. And calling a strike.

Red fist and 'STRIKE' in stencilled lettering



All women will down tools with immediate effect.

All GENDER-WORK and GENDERED-WORK will cease pending the negotiation of better Lives.

3 Comments on “7:03am Feminist Work Begins”

  1. KM says:

    Jeez, that sounds god-awful, what a bunch of idiots. The question about wouldn’t it be better to have a man talk about issues that affect women, since the man doesn’t have a vested interest, just boggles the mind with its stupidity. I was perfectly happy being an atheist before I ever heard of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and all the rest of those misogynistic fuckwits, I really resent the fact that they act like they represent all atheists, they really really don’t.

  2. Veronica says:

    Hurrah E-R! Especially for ‘primary school potato printing politics’. brilliance.

  3. murenne says:

    Thank you for writing this. Meanwhile at the protest a man was shouting on the megaphone “no matter what we wear, no matter where we go…”, and another one (actually, there were two of them), as I was carrying the megaphone while a sister was talking, came to me and proposed to carry it for me since, quote “he was taller”……………….. And I explained calmly that I thought it was better if a woman carried it. Striking makes perfect sense.

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