Women Talk Back! Statement on the Bristol SU
Women Talk Back! was created as a forum where women can discuss issues relating to our experiences of being female under patriarchy. Our consciousness-raising meetings scrutinise women’s experiences to generate a wider structural analysis of the status of women. This, in itself, could be a challenging endeavour for some of the women attending as they might not have otherwise spoken of the male violence (such as rape, domestic abuse and sexual harassment) they have experienced before joining us.
Our attendees have repeatedly stressed how important it is that we protect their rights to privacy, safety and dignity when discussing such sensitive matters. Therefore, when affiliating in 2018 to the Bristol SU, we consulted with discrimination lawyers to help us explain why we utilise the single-sex exceptions in the Equality Act 2010. These exceptions state that groups are allowed to be women-only when this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Over the past three years, Women Talk Back! has explained multiple times to the Bristol SU that our priority is protecting our members’ right to safety, dignity and privacy, and that they have stated the group would not work for them if it was mixed-sex. Therefore, to have our consciousness-raising meetings women-only represents a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim, in accordance with the law. We welcome the fact that there are hundreds of student societies open to everyone, including another feminism-themed one, inside the University of Bristol but we proudly centre women’s lives and experiences in ours.
Since our inception we have experienced resistance, rejection and attempts to infringe on our right to single-sex spaces from the Bristol SU. After we became affiliated, Bristol SU changed their policy to include "gender identity" into their Bylaws in 2019, so it now states: "No Club or Society can put in place any Membership requirements that discriminate against any Member as a result of their ... gender identity." Our membership was restricted to women, as a sex and as defined in the Equality Act. There is no legal definition of "gender identity." Single-sex spaces are legally allowed to operate on the basis of sex, not "gender identity" since this concept doesn't exist in any law.
The Bristol SU defines ‘women’ to mean:
“All who self define as women, including (if they wish) those with complex gender identities that include 'woman', and those who experience oppression as women.”
This definition is not in accordance with UK law. The Equality Act 2010 defines “sex” as meaning “man or woman”. “Man” is defined as “a male of any age” and “woman” as “a female of any age”. Neither “gender” nor “gender identity” are protected characteristics under the Act. There is no definition of the word ‘men’ in the Bristol SU bylaws.
Incident on 1 March 2020
On the evening of 1st March 2020, Women Talk Back! held a consciousness-raising meeting titled ‘Boundaries and Feminism’. A couple of student trans activists, including a self-identifying transwoman, turned up to the session. The male student admitted being aware that Women Talk Back! operates under the single-sex exemptions of the Equality Act 2010, but said they thought that by showing up in person and “being nice” to us, they could violate our boundaries.
We recognised these student trans activists from their previous targeting, from 2018 onwards, of some of our larger public events, and their targeting of feminist events hosted by other student societies. This targeting included an occasion, reported in the local press, when the male trans activist student demanding access to our women-only space had to be removed by security after hijacking a meeting. You can observe the sustained pattern of unnaceptable behaviour trans activist students are encouraged by the University of Bristol and the Bristol SU to inflict on feminist students on campus on this Mumsnet thread.
The President of our student society reiterated that it is legal to hold women-only meetings in order to benefit women. They refused to accept that and this instigated a 45-minute standoff between our President and the student trans activists, in which she had to continuously repeat the aforementioned point. As retaliation for establishing and maintaining our boundaries, they reported us to the Bristol SU claiming that women saying “no” constituted “extremely harmful psychological injury.”
Following the 1 March 2020 incident, the Bristol SU retroactively claimed that we were never single-sex to begin with. They opened an investigation and Women Talk Back! provided three witness statements (aside from our President’s separate account) from women who were present that night. We detailed the intimidating and forceful nature of this incident and how we felt we were being threatened into weakening our boundaries for fear of retaliation from student trans activists. The result of this investigation was that the Bristol SU validated the trans activists’ account and sanctioned us. The Student Union ordered:
Mandatory “diversity and inclusion” training regarding accepting males into our single-sex female space
Our President, Raquel Rosario Sánchez, must step down from her role and cannot run as a committee member on any other society’s committee for two years
The group is not allowed to be female-only and we must make it clear on our social media pages and our page on the SU website that our group is ‘open to everyone’
We want to be clear, particularly to young women who might be intimidated by peer pressure, that all women have a right to say “no” and refuse the coercive tactics of any male who makes them feel intimidated or threatened, which are sentiments that we all felt that night. We also want to stress that no amount of emotional manipulation, blackmail or institutional coercion justifies the erosion of women’s boundaries around ourselves.
It is important to note that at the time this incident and subsequent sanctions were imposed on us, the Women Talk Back! leadership was entirely made of international students from Latin America and the Caribbean. Why should it fall on immigrant women within UK academic institutions to uphold UK law?
No woman should ever have to spend 45 minutes repeatedly asserting her boundaries when dealing with a male person who refuses to take the word “no” for an answer, as Raquel did that night in March 2020. No group of female students should ever be punished and coerced into weakening our legally protected boundaries as retaliation, as is happening to us in March 2021.
These are not lessons women should be taught in academia.
We stand with Raquel. We will not request her resignation. She will remain in the post as President until we, collectively, decide otherwise. We will not submit to any training that seeks to coerce us into ignoring the legal rights that protect us. We will continue holding our consciousness-raising meetings online, and expect to hold our in-person public feminist events as soon as it is safe for all of us. We look forward to seeing you at our next public event.
Women Talk Back! has spent the past three years cooperating amicably and in good faith with the Bristol SU. We are saddened and disappointed to have reached this point in our relationship. We are carefully considering our options, while being mindful that the treatment we have received is unacceptable, and this issue is about protecting women’s right to freedom of speech, freedom of association and the single sex exemptions in the Equality Act 2010.
Our case has been featured in The Telegraph on 14 March, 2020:
You can read testimonials from women who attend our consciousness-raising meetings, describing what the society means to them and the impact it has in their lives, here: https://www.womentalkback.org/post/attendees-experiences-of-women-talk-back
Please read the letter we sent to the Minister of Education Gavin Williamson regarding this matter here: https://filia.org.uk/latest-news/2021/3/13/open-letter-to-the-minister-of-education-by-feminist-student-society-women-talk-back