Belfast Feminist Network: A reply to WriteNoise

One of our contributors Write Noise wrote a post titled Feminism versus Bernadette Smyth three days ago. Responding the Belfast Feminist Network Committee have asked for an opportunity to respond to some of comments made in this post

So feminism has been subjected to trial by Slugger courtesy of WriteNoise with the Belfast Feminist Network used as a focal point for debate. We at BFN have decided to respond by issuing an open invitation to all and sundry to join us and get involved.

Now given some of the things in the aforementioned post by WriteNoise you may have a few reservations so we’d like to address a number of inaccuracies and assumptions that have been made.

First of all, in response to WriteNoise’s assertion that discussions around what stance the Network should adopt on abortion hadn’t happened – they have; extensively and from the Network’s inception. We have been at this activism malarkey since 2009 and in our first ‘mission statement’ we actually chose to refrain from stating a pro-choice position. Instead we listed under the issues we would be actively addressing ‘reproductive rights and sexual health.’ The reason behind this was not that members at that time were in any way conflicted about our own commitment to seeking access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland but rather that we were aware we were a new group. We were attracting interest from young women who had never encountered feminism before and we did not want to alienate anyone who had not worked out what they personally believed and felt about abortion.

Jump forward to 2014 and the size and influence of the network had grown at least 10-fold. We invited all members to a weekend residential to revisit the core values and mission of BFN. What had become apparent in that time was that the idea of facilitating a feminist space in a country where women cannot access free, safe and legal abortions without adopting an explicitly pro-choice stance was not sustainable. It did not reflect the concerns and needs of the wider membership of BFN and it did not reflect the particular feminist voice that we as a group were developing in our own engagement with political institutions and cultural custodians. Therefore we officially put that lingering doubt to bed.
Does that mean we would not welcome women interested in other feminist issues who don’t feel comfortable with the fight for abortion access? Of course not. We hope they would not be put off engaging with the group on that basis. We would also hope that one of the products of their engagement with BFN would be that they might come to understand a bit more why the freedom to choose to end a pregnancy is as core a part of feminism as believing that rape is bad or women should be paid the same as men.

WriteNoise also suggests there’s no nuance to our conversations about abortion which is just totally inaccurate. There are a range of views in BFN about what abortion access would mean in NI, what it might look like and how to achieve the best outcome for women here. We’ve had discussions that draw in every perspective from the ‘it’s just a blob of cells’ approach to the belief that ‘the decision to have an abortion is the most difficult one a woman will ever make’. Some want the 1967 Abortion Act extended here, some think complete decriminalisation is the only way to uphold women’s reproductive agency. Some speak from personal experience of abortions, many don’t. This also comes to bear on how we handle the conversations. WriteNoise also wonders what would happen to women who don’t care to discuss this issue and would rather focus on other things. This one is a bit baffling since we discuss so many issues on a daily basis in the BFN Facebook group that sometimes we all struggle to keep up. Sexual violence, domestic abuse, media representations of women, women in conflict, workplace inequality and harassment, welfare reform, sex work, body hair, Gamergate, periods, vaginas…. Anyone who is a member of a Facebook group will know that the first few posts displayed on a group wall chop and change constantly and are dictated at any given moment by the volume of interactions members have with that post. So it is very disingenuous on the day that the media is full of discussion of the NIHRC’s judicial review of abortion law, probably the single biggest ever advancement at an institutional level, to make the claim that all we ever talk about is abortion.

So we reject the notion that there is no room for discussion of this issue at BFN. The discussion has been had and a position reached. Not everyone in BFN has to agree with it but that dynamic is not unique to this issue. Last year we reached a well negotiated position on the move to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland. BFN opposed the introduction of this clause and chose to adopt an approach based on the cry of the sex worker groups who urge all policy makers to pursue ‘rights not rescue’. If someone read the BFN Facebook page this position would be immediately obvious. What might not be so obvious is the fact that we know a considerable number of members disagree entirely with this position, in fact some were very involved with the campaign to have this law passed. And yet we still all engage together because we are grownups and because there is far too much bloody patriarchy to fight so we need to get on with it.

WriteNoise talks about the disconnect between feminist movements and grassroots or working class women’s groups and suggests that the key divisive issue in that is abortion. This is a gross oversimplification of a problem that has existed for the feminist movement since the very moment a woman decided to seek out a couple of other women to get angry with. No one is more aware of the lack of diversity in feminist groups than feminists. We stress about it. We berate ourselves about it. We read Bell Hooks and recite ‘There will be no mass-based feminist movement as long as feminist ideas are understood only by a well-educated few’ until it haunts our dreams. We’ve got the wonderful vehicle of social media to try and invite more diverse voices into our feminist spaces, to ensure that our feminist ideas are not just understood more broadly but also co-constructed with people that feminism had previously excluded. We are not perfect at this, we’re probably not even great. But we have some tools that can help us be better and we are constantly looking for more.

The first is intersectionality, the checks and balances that remind us constantly of our own capacity to oppress people either within or outside our movement if we don’t take account of how race, social class, disability, age, sexual orientation and gender identity influence our lived experiences.

The other is relationship. We don’t exist in a vacuum. Northern Ireland’s women’s movement is strong and diverse and based on a legacy of strong trade union women like Betty Sinclair, Sadie Menzies, Inez McCormack and May Blood; women who knew/know that feminism means nothing if it doesn’t mean something to women struggling to keep their families fed and clothed and to be free from patriarchal influences in their society and their own communities. We have an enviable network of women’s centres that have for 3 decades ensured there is space for women in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland. What has not always been present in those spaces is an attempt to connect those women to the broader context of feminist ideology – yes you’re accessing training in a women’s centre, but do you know why women’s centres exist? There is much work to be done in repairing that rift but BFN are involved in it, alongside another collective Reclaim the Agenda who have made great progress on some of these issues.

If WriteNoise really believes that working class women are put off feminist groups because they generally are more anti-choice then I would suggest she sit down for a chat with Mara Clarke of the Abortion Support Network to hear about the hundreds of women from Northern Ireland who come to her organisation every year desperate for money to travel to England for abortions. Abortion Support Network don’t hear from the well-off middle class women who can tell their friends and family they’re off to a conference in London for a couple of days. They hear from the women who have had to go to loan sharks or had the electricity cut off or borrowed money off their rapist (yes that actually happens) so it seems there are other conversations with working class women about abortion that maybe WriteNoise just isn’t having.

Finally there is the unfounded claim that members of BFN have participated in ‘personal attacks’ on Bernie Smyth. This is particularly frustrating as Bernie is subject to personal attacks in the comments sections of many an online newspaper article, usually on the basis of her gender or personal appearance. BFN does not tolerate that at all. Neither do we tolerate any ableist language (e.g. mental health related) being used to describe her or any other public figure we disagree with. What was so celebrated about the ‘feminist photobomb’ was that the print media had managed to capture in the image composition a wonderful juxtaposition of the spokesperson for the anti-choice ideology with the word ‘choice’ lingering in every shot. It was the undermining of the cruel and inhumane dogma of Precious Life by this simple representation of another view that we absolutely loved. Because for too long Precious Life have been able to convince the public that Northern Ireland is a place where most people care more about foetuses than women and slowly but surely that dangerous narrative is being unravelled.

And after all that, if you’re passionate about social justice and smashing patriarchy; if you’d like to join this slightly chaotic but always interesting and passionate feminist movement look us up on Facebook and keep an eye out for our forthcoming events as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in March. We always love to see new members and welcome the contribution of all views within feminism.


This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.