As the participants for the Belfast event of the UK-wide art project Processions gathered at Titanic Slipway yesterday, it was clear that something exciting was happening. Thousands of women were mingling, hugging, photographing each other’s banners, even dancing a little in an atmosphere of celebration and fun.
Processions is a living sculpture artwork, that celebrated one hundred years of votes for women. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the first British women the right to vote and stand for public office. To mark this achievement, Processions was an opportunity for women and girls in Belfast, Cardiff Edinburgh and London to be part of a living portrait of women in the 21st century.
Artichoke, the creative team behind the large scale events, had been working hard for months ensuring that women’s groups on the ground were extremely involved. They had been able to fund an extensive range of workshops in community organisations and women’s centres, allowing them to commission artists to support the creative process as women made banners expressing what inspires them about the legacy of the suffrage movement.
This aspect of the project was essential to its success, as the march itself became a showcase event that women felt invested in and proud of. As someone who works to increase awareness of gender inequality and the feminist struggles to address it, I am delighted that the project engaged women and their daughters and grand-daughters on this kind of scale. I know many of the women who sat together in the workshops – researching, discussing women’s rights, ranting, arguing, stitching, painting, supporting and encouraging – have come away from this whole project with a new way of understanding themselves and the gendered world we live in. Some of them will have even developed the spark for activism themselves.
On the day itself, the turnout was huge and diverse. Stalwarts of the local women’s rights movement like Monica McWilliams, Avila Kilmurray and Lynda Walker marched; a reminder to the younger women of the legacy of hard work that has gone on in this place over many years. Girlguiding Ulster led the younger contingent with their banner stating ‘A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be’.
Rural women’s groups came out to showcase their work such as incredible quilt style banner made by the S.E.W. project (Sewing to Empower) based in Cookstown and supported by the Rural Community Network. There were also urban based groups like Greater North Belfast Women’s Network who worked with National Museums Northern Ireland to produce a beautiful, defiant depiction of a Belfast woman with the Maya Angelou quote ‘Still, like air, I rise’.
The most prominent banner from Derry bore the playful slogan ‘Ulster says NOW!’, called for reproductive rights, human rights, civil rights and women’s rights to be fully enacted. Complete with great imagery and a cheeky sheela na gig, it maintained the Maiden City’s ability to get a strong message across with a healthy dose of humour.
I was involved in the design of a banner with feminist collective Reclaim the Agenda created by local artist Deirdre McKenna, representing the key issues and groups involved in the contemporary feminist movement here. We are politically engaged and challenging state action and inaction when it comes to gender inequality. Welfare reform, childcare provision, funding cuts to women’s services, domestic violence legislation, and abortion rights are all in our crosshairs. The representation of this movement and all the things we’ve been fighting for in recent years felt like my entire feminist journey in a single image and brought me to tears.
Women and girls from arts groups, disability groups, political parties, environmental campaigners, even time travellers (long story) gathered themselves under their own particular identifying values and came together as a collective whole to articulate their shared identity as women. It was a beautiful thing. Everyone I spoke to used some variation of the phrase ‘I’m so proud to have been a part of it.’
By far the largest contingent at yesterday’s parade was the pro-choice movement. Dotted throughout the main body of the parade itself were many people wearing pro-choice t-shirts or with some messages about reproductive rights on their banners. But it was after the main body of the parade had passed that the abortion rights bloc became visible. Led by local activist organisation Alliance for Choice, this section was the part that felt most like the suffragette spirit was alive and well.
The energy was driven by local activists with chanting and fists raised high but the real beauty of it was in the hundreds of allies from the south who came up to join us. Together for Yes groups came from places like Leitrim, Galway and Dublin, alongside groups affiliated to the Abortion Rights Campaign or political parties like People Before Profit and Sinn Féin. Many individuals who had canvassed or marched alongside their northern comrades in the referendum campaign decided to get on a bus or a train and come to Belfast to show that they are serious about returning the solidarity. People shouted ‘North and South Unite and Fight!’
Even from within the heady atmosphere of our passionate rally, the volume and enthusiasm with which the public cheered this section along the route still came as a surprise. I had a recent conversation with some pro-choice organisers where we realised we are always surprised when things go our way, having been punching a brick wall for so many years. It wasn’t our expectation to be lifted on the cheers of a supportive crowd in Belfast city centre on a Sunday afternoon. It felt very much like a tide turning.
It has been noted that this part of the parade was kept to the back and slightly separated. The explanation for this is simple – as Alliance for Choice became aware that so many supporters from the south were planning to attend and rally for abortion rights they asked if men, boys and non-binary people could participate. Reclaim the Agenda, as one of the groups funded to participate in the project, took up this conversation with the organisers, but Artichoke had their parameters set for the project and did not feel they could accommodate this kind of rally as part of the event. The compromise we reached was to have a separate section at the end. I personally think we came to a reasonable arrangement, despite the fact that an Artichoke representative at one point made the highly ironic statement – ‘It’s an artwork; it can’t be political.’
To some it might look like we hijacked an arts event to make a political statement. But it would be extremely problematic to base an art project on one of the most radical political movements in the history of western civilisation and expect it to be apolitical. As Alliance for Choice Co-chair Emma Campbell pointed out to me, ‘We understand it was an art project and it wasn’t the same as a rally, but to be fair they harnessed the involvement of grassroots groups and a social movement, without thinking about the wishes of the movement. Sylvia Pankhurst was herself an artist, but her art was central to moving the political agenda forward for people’s rights, and not just women’s. We cannot ask buses of people to come up to march for abortion rights and have people’s partners and parents stand on the sidelines, when they may have in fact been the people who shared journeys to England for an abortion they weren’t allowed here.’
It is interesting that the Artichoke representative also told me they wanted consistency across all 4 UK events, and wouldn’t allow anything in the Belfast parade that wasn’t happening in the other cities. This perhaps points to a lack of appreciation of the magnitude of what happened on this island on 25th May.
In the end everyone had overwhelmingly positive experiences from Processions, whatever their involvement represented for them personally. We might have been part of a UK wide event as we marched on Sunday but we were also part of an all-Ireland movement for change, and those who oppose it might want to pay attention to the enthusiasm with which it was received.
Photo credit: Robin Price
Kellie Turtle is a Feminist Activist and PhD researcher at Ulster University.