London 2012 opening ceremony inspires performers to become modern-day activists and join UK Feminista in rights rally
When Gail Collins stepped out in front of the deafening 80,000-strong crowd watching the Olympics opening ceremony, wearing a high-neck Edwardian blouse and the purple, white and green sash that marked her out as one of Danny Boyle’s 50 suffragettes, she couldn’t hear the noise, just the beating of her heart. “It was one of the biggest days of my life,” she said. “Getting married, having my children and being in the opening ceremony. I felt proud, really proud that we had got there.”
In the months before the ceremony, the women forged a particular bond – with each other and the women they were representing. So when the experience ended, what did the Olympic suffragettes do? They kept marching.
Dozens of suffragette performers, led by Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, plan to march on parliament, at the vanguard of a major feminist rally organised to urge MPs to stop “eroding erosion of women’s rights” and make more progress on women’s equality.
Some of the suffragettes had no experience of campaigning and some younger cast members knew little about the women they were representing, but many now want to use the experience as a springboard into modern-day activism, starting with UK Feminista’s rally on 24 October. “Coming together was a gift and it would be such a wicked waste to not carry on and we can’t let people down by not continuing,” said 37-year-old Collins, a stay-at-home mother of two.
No longer under the guidance of Boyle – who included the suffragette section in the ceremony after becoming enthralled by the memorial plaque to Emily Davison, found on the back of the broom cupboard door where she once hid in the House of Commons – the group may treat observers to a scaled-down version of their performance. It may even include the critical moment, which to the annoyance of many wasn’t featured in the TV coverage, when the women formed a human scaffolding to carry a Christ-like Davison above their heads.
Another suffragette, Lesley Covington, a 57-year-old who gave up her job as a designer 20 years ago to look after her children, had never thought of herself as a feminist activist. “I’m not sure I would even now,” she said. “But why shouldn’t we take this opportunity? Women are still under-represented in parliament and the upper echelons of business; childcare is a huge issue. I want to get involved and I want to make a difference. You can change things – you have to believe that, or you would never try.”
The opening ceremony and the Olympics as a whole, which involved women from every nation participating for the first time, as well as huge success for female athletes, could inspire many more women to campaign for gender equality, said Pankhurst, an ambassador for the global anti-poverty charity Care International.
“When we see things like women’s boxing it is important, because it starts to shift perception about what women should and shouldn’t do. The Olympics is a real platform to make it more than just symbols and this rally is really building on that.”
While Pankhurst said political struggle was “in her veins”, other women in the group had become “interested in the issues as well as the fun”, after keeping in touch via Facebook. “Modern technology is allowing us to organise as suffragettes much easier than they did in the past – it unlocks the potential,” she said. “Until we are on an equal footing and [while] unnecessary problems remain there will continue to be a need to speak out.”
The suffragettes – who hope to track down Edwardian costumes for the rally – will join a broad coalition of groups that includes the TUC deputy general secretary, Frances O’Grady, and the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, and organisations including the Fawcett Society, Southall Black Sisters and the anti-objectification group Object.
Many protesters are requesting meetings with their MPs, while others will remain outside parliament to highlight issues such as a lack of progress on tackling violence against women, and making more women visible in parliament and in business. Other demands include measures to tackle the objectification of women – also put to Lord Justice Leveson during his inquiry into the ethics of the media – childcare and the protection of Sure Start centres, justice for female asylum-seekers and the protection of women’s reproductive rights.
“The time is right for this. There is anger, injustice and potential, and that all comes together in 2012,” said Chakrabarti.
Britain is witnessing a resurgence of feminist activism as hard-won rights come under threat, said Kat Banyard, the founder of UK Feminista.
“Too often, issues relating to women’s inequality are put to one side and seen as an add-on, but tackling this injustice is absolutely central to building a good society.
“People are sick of the attacks on women’s rights and are fighting back. At the lobby, women and men from across the country will be making it clear to their MP that we can’t go on like this, it’s time to move forward.”
For Collins, taking part in the opening ceremony has given her a voice, and she is determined to use it.
“It’s not fashionable to say you are a feminist, but women need to stand up,” she said. “I’ve always had these beliefs but this has pushed me to do something about it. It just feels like I’m not on my own.”
Theresa May wants to put patriotism at the centre of British identity. Doesn’t she know our national spirit is more about pasties, panto and Keith Chegwin?
What does it mean to be British? We’re citizens of a weird and eclectic nation – and, by nation, I of course mean group of nations. Sorry, what am I saying?! It’s more than that – it’s a family. A happy family. No, marriage. An unhappy marriage. A failed marriage of nations that’s only staying together for the sake of Wales. No, I don’t mean that, I mean gangbang. An orgy of nations, all joyfully thrusting away in a sexy romp of cultural difference and mutual respect. I’m getting all this from the citizenship blurb.
There’s so much to these islands: from London’s glittering West End to Wales’s renowned Eisteddfod to Edinburgh’s international festival. From the Gaelic speakers of the Highlands to the Welsh speakers of the valleys to people in Essex who say “amazeballs”, it’s a wondrous and incoherent mixture. There are Irish Presbyterians, metropolitan atheists and Anglesey druids; football enthusiasts, real-ale nuts, vegans, homeopathists and the employees of the Wyvern theatre, Swindon who, according to their marketing manager Richard Loftus, are in a cult of their own: “At the Wyvern we’re all huge fans of Keith Chegwin’s voice,” he announced last week.
So it’s complicated. Just ask Theresa May. She’s charged herself with the task of monkeying around with that test foreigners have to take if they want to become British. It’s currently a bit too leftwing: you know, stuff about the Human Rights Act and how to claim benefits. She thinks it should be more patriotic and less practical. More about our “long and illustrious history” than the current test which focuses on dealing with the council and reading the gas meter.
It sounds like they want to attract people like me: I’ve got a degree in our long and illustrious history and I never read the gas meter. I don’t reckon that’s my job. I’ll pay for the sodding gas but I don’t see why I should prepare my own bill. I wouldn’t go to a restaurant that refused to keep track of what I’d ordered. They’re supposed to send people round to read the meter, aren’t they? Isn’t that crucial to the plot of porn films? And it creates jobs – for recent immigrants, perhaps, who’ve learned how to do it in their citizenship tests.
But not for much longer. Instead, from this autumn, they’ll have to memorise the first verse of God Save the Queen, learn about some great Britons such as the Duke of Wellington, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Emmeline Pankhurst and face questions about what the Guardian recently referred to as “British inventions such as the structure of DNA”. What a patriotic newspaper! That’s a variation on the intelligent design theory that’s new to me.
There’s a problem with all this: British history, unlike the workings of gas meters and the welfare system, is a matter of opinion not fact. There are some facts involved but what the government seems to be planning here is an upbeat, self-aggrandising story of Britishness, a fairytale with the coalition as the happy ending – a long, simplistic boast to the world, probably not actually containing any factual errors but certainly not, merely because of that, qualifying to be called “the truth”. They want anyone joining the ranks of our citizenry to have dutifully swallowed all this, like a medicine whose efficacy is scientifically unsubstantiated.
The worst part of the process, and this is something which predates May’s changes, is when aspirant citizens have to attend a bullshit ceremony at which they swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and pledge loyalty to the UK and to democratic values. (The fact that such loyalties have on occasion been mutually exclusive, and will be again – when we next sign a trade agreement with Saudi Arabia, for example – is presumably not discussed.) I saw a picture of this happening online – a drab room full of people raising their right hands like Americans.
I hate the implication that, to be British, you’re supposed to believe certain things. That it’s a club with shared aims and values rather than a country which, as even its detractors might admit, has historically shown a better understanding than most that the semblance of consensus is usually a signifier of tyranny. If, in the very process by which we invite people to share in our ancient liberties, we’ve lost that understanding, then we’ve truly diminished as a civilisation.
Keith Chegwin must have had a similar sense of national decline when he tweeted last week: “How BBC Radio has changed. Sad.” He was responding to Marie Lennon, a BBC Wiltshire reporter, who’d tweeted: “Keith Chegwin’s voice makes me feel physically sick.” His was a deft rejoinder. Despite Lennon having stated in her Twitter biography that all views expressed “are MINE”, Chegwin was quick to pin the insult on her employer, the Daily Mail‘s nemesis. According to Chegwin, Lennon’s tweet showed an overall decline in broadcasting standards, not just that one woman found his voice annoying. Or maybe she doesn’t find it annoying? What she actually said was that it makes her feel physically sick. Perhaps it literally makes her ill? Would British Airways bemoan a sad decline in British baking if a Greggs branch manager blogged about nausea during take-off?
Because the BBC is involved, the retractions were soon flying, like champagne corks before radio changed. Lennon apologised “if anyone was offended by yesterday’s tweet” (I think she could have made a reasonably accurate guess at who might have been) and a BBC spokesman made clear that her attitude “doesn’t reflect the views of the station” because “BBC Wiltshire is looking forward to Keith Chegwin appearing in pantomime at the Wyvern theatre this Christmas.” It really needs to get out more. But how lovely for the Wyvern’s strange aficionados of the Chegwin timbre, all happily immune to its emetic qualities, that he’ll be giving his Wishee Washee there.
As a test of Britishness, what could be better than having to understand what the hell those last two paragraphs are about? Never mind Emmeline Pankhurst and DNA, the true test of a Briton is whether or not he knows who Keith Chegwin is: a man with an even greater fame to credibility ratio than Prince Edward but unheard-of beyond these shores. Speaking as a comedian, I don’t care whether new citizens understand human rights or the battle of Bosworth – I need them to get that, when talk turns to EasyJet, Ginsters slices or Keith Chegwin, someone is usually telling a joke.