I do think
been changes, otherwise I
would feel I had wasted
And I don’t
Words: Judith Sullivan
A rabble-rouser and feminist icon, Leeds councillor Al Garthwaite defies stereotype. Now 73 and a grandma, she is soft-spoken and measured.
In the 1970s, Al Garthwaite was at the early stages of the Reclaim the Night movement in the UK. Reclaim the Night highlighted the right for women to be safe after dusk and has been in the news again this year, following the disappearance of Sarah Everard in South London, and the arrest of a serving police officer on kidnapping and murder charges.
These events have nudged Garthwaite into the limelight, a limelight she would surely have not requested. Garthwaite has been campaigning and speaking out for nigh on a half-century. She remains an activist via her day job representing Hyde Park and Headingley as a councillor. As she explains, sometimes the most ordinary of activities can prompt social and mindset changes.
A scan of online interviews revealed a pattern in Garthwaite’s deeds and words. She is more interested in practicality and action than flowery phrases or rigid dogma. She is and has been one of life’s doers.
Never give up is what I would say. And get together with others. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away
Tell me about your early life. What were the seeds of your activism?
My father was in the army, so I moved around throughout childhood, in Germany and Turkey. After a peripatetic childhood, I went to university in Durham, and I think it was there that I first started - although not in an organized way - thinking about the unfairness and inequality experienced by women. The summer before I went to uni, I picked strawberries in Norway. At the end of the week the farmer told us all how much we had earned, and the boys got a higher rate for each pallet of strawberries than the girls did. The farmer said, “That’s the law here, that’s what happens.” This seemed incredibly unfair, but it was enshrined in the law. It was just very blatant and very obvious. Then I went to university to study English Literature and became totally aware of the ways in which women were regarded.
I started my career in feminism in Oxford and joined the women’s liberation group there. It was a relief to be among women, to be talking about all these things - the general inequality and unfairness. When a young boss interviewed me, he asked the salary I expected. I named a figure and he looked horrified. He said, “I could get
a man for that!” That spurred me on, really.
At the time, a married woman had no separate legal or financial entity, except as an adjunct to her husband. You could not fill in your own tax returns. It was no good being married. I was part of the formulation of the four demands that were part of the Women’s Liberation movement: equal pay; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and 24-hour nurseries.
For various reasons, I decided to move to Leeds in 1973. The group here soon split up into smaller groups. We campaigned for a local playgroup to become a nursery. We generally became more and more aware that women were not free to walk about at night the way men were. If we did and if something happened, it was our fault: Why were we in that place at that time, dressed in that way, having had a drink? Why didn’t we have someone with us to look after us and protect us? It was ridiculous. If women did go into a police station to report a rape, the experience was absolutely appalling. I think a real moment for me was watching a fly-on-the-wall type reality documentary. A woman reported a rape. Then you saw several male police officers in uniform shouting at her and doing their best to disprove her story. That was extremely consciousness-raising at the time. Then, in 1977, I was in the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. I read in Spare Rib magazine about women in Germany who “reclaimed the night”. Women going around in groups saying, “we’ve got a right to walk about at night and go where we want”. And we set up an event on 12 November 1977.
Why was the 12th November picked?
First of all, we thought the 31st October because it was Hallowe’en. And then we realised we wouldn’t be ready in time. Looking back, you couldn’t organise something like that instantly. It was a matter of putting it in our internal newsletter and writing letters – through the post. If you had a phone number, that was a bonus. Not everyone did. It just took a lot longer than it does today, where you can organise a massive vigil on Clapham Common in 2 days. But that wasn’t the case then.
But you still did it – and without social media!
We still did it. At least 12 towns or cities in the country organised a Reclaim the Night event. In Leeds, there were two groups: one in Chapeltown and another in Hyde Park, maybe 30 - 40 women in each group handed out leaflets. We marched into town. We had banners saying, “Reclaim the Night” and leaflets to give out to passers-by. Not that there were many passers-by. Unlike these days (in non-Covid times), when Leeds is really busy at night, and the city centre is packed. At that time, it wasn’t, it was pretty deserted. We had slogans: “However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!” and “Women unite, reclaim the night!”
When the group I was in got to North Street, the men were just coming out of the Eagle pub. It was closing time, 11pm. They saw a group of women – they came towards us, saying, “Let’s get them”. We were carrying flaming torches! We advanced towards them, shouting. And they shrank back. That was a very positive, empowering moment. We weren’t aware at the time that that would become a big movement that would carry on to this day. It was just something we did, and we went on to something else.
That was around the time of Peter Sutcliffe, wasn’t it? Tell me about how you felt about that.
We were very, very angry, especially at the police. It became a kind of contest between the Police Officer leading [the hunt for the killer] and this mythical man. It went to the extent that the crowds at Elland Road were shouting, “Ripper 12, Police nil!” and singing, “There’s only one Yorkshire Ripper.” It was really offensive. A lot of women were terrified, wouldn’t even put the bins out at night. Women gave up jobs, women gave up studying and left Leeds. Women were really scared to go out at night.
We also knew it could be any man at all. There were large numbers of women who reported their husbands, brothers, even their sons, saying, “We don’t know where he was that night, you need to look into it.” But the police were off on the trail of a man with a Geordie accent. They didn’t listen. We were angry on many different fronts. Anyway, finally Peter Sutcliffe did get caught by uniformed police; a traffic offence. But Reclaim the Night marches continued, because the problem had not come to an end. We set up a group: Women Against Violence Against Women. That was a national movement. It went far beyond women on the streets at night, into all sorts of other issues.
Back in the 70s, feminists would be doing all this work and there was no support from the police, no support from the local authority, the city council. We wouldn’t have dreamed of going to talk to a city councillor about this sort of thing. As far as we were concerned the council dealt with potholes, not women’s rights.
How did that change? How did you help make your once-radical ideas become more acceptable?
Bringing women’s issues into the mainstream took some doing, but that began to change in the 1980s,
when first of all the Greater London Council set up a Women’s Committee. Other cities followed suit. Eventually, after campaigning from the Leeds Action Group we got one, in I think 1983. That was the beginning of Leeds City Council beginning to see this sort of thing as important. There was an Equality Unit – and a conference every year to elect women. It was a good force at the time.
Let’s bring things up to date. Recently, there was the Sarah Everard case - and talk about a 6pm curfew for men. What do you think about that idea?
Back in the 70s we were saying that there is, in effect, a curfew on women. We were being told to stay in at night, whereas men could go out and about with impunity. If something happened to them, it was unfortunate. Whereas, if something happened to a woman, it was our fault. I remember graffiti appearing on walls in Leeds saying, “Curfew for Men!” So, it was interesting to read Baroness Jenny Jones saying there should be a 6pm curfew on men – in 2021. It’s something that has come up over the years. Why shouldn’t men be questioned about what they’re doing out and about? I do know in Leeds there is increasingly a watch kept on potential predators. There are plans for the police to do more. The beginnings of reporting of sexual harassment. What we need is for misogyny to be made a hate crime, in my view. If men knew they could get a criminal record, they might think twice. Women would also be more inclined to report. I don’t personally know if a 6pm curfew on men would actually work. It would be very difficult to implement. But it is a good thing to be calling for as it highlights whole situation of how women are being punished and constrained for something that some men do – which is simply not right.
How far have we come in 40 years – and what do we still need?
I do think there have been changes, otherwise I would feel I had wasted my life. And I don’t! I think that the fact that a lot of men are saying they are “male allies” is a good thing. Back in the 70s, we didn’t want men involved in any way because that would have just meant men taking over. But now there’s the White Ribbon campaign, which has been set up by men, for men to join. Started by a male youth worker in Hebden Bridge. They pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent in the face of violence against women. We want men to be actively involved in challenging other men. Men talking to other men. They become White Ribbon Ambassadors. The Leeds United and Rhinos teams have joined the White Ribbon movement. The Rhinos made a short film where the players were filmed standing in the middle of the pitch and talking about how they would stand up for women. That was for the big crowd to see at a match - and that’s great. The more that men are seen as visibly talking to other men, the better.
I’ve also instigated training for club and bar staff around sexual harassment. This was sparked off by
a story a young woman told me about being in a bar in Leeds. She was at the bar and a man came up from behind and put his hands over her breasts. She turned round, said, “Get off me –and apologise!” And he refused. She was very angry, her boyfriend came up – and the man apologised to him. She and her boyfriend were outraged, they complained to the bar staff and said they wanted to call the police. The bar staff said, “Don’t make trouble”. But they did call police – and they were very helpful – but by that time the man had gone. But it made us think that bar staff really needed training. There are lots of initiatives like that. The Ask for Angela Campaign.If a woman is being harassed and experiencing any trouble from a man, she can go up to the bar staff and “ask for Angela”. This is code for requesting that a designated person to come over deal with the situation. Taxi drivers have to go through a certain amount of training before they can be licensed. Part of that is safeguarding. Most of that was around children in the past but we have included now an element about partner abuse or sexual harassment or abuse that might be going on in the taxi. Hotels are another issue. It had become apparent that men were taking advantage of women who were separated from their friends and the men were booking into hotels on the periphery of the city centre. Obviously, there is a need for training and awareness among hotel staff and for common sense.
These are the sort of things that we can embed into existing systems through everyone’s work. It is not a separate thing itself in a different place and a different time. It’s embedded in daily life.
What advice would you give to people who care about women’s safety?
We cannot sit back. Never give up, is what I would say. And get together with others. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away. Talk to the police, talk to local councillors.
Thanks Al for making the time for speaking to us. If you want to contact Al Garthwaite you can email firstname.lastname@example.org