Exeter Herstory: An Unfinished Fight for Women’s Rights

*trigger warning: sexual assault, violence against women*

Returning to Exeter after an incredibly formative year abroad at Vassar College, NY, where gender politics is the bread and butter of the student population, the reticence surrounding LGBTQIA+, gender identity issues and safety was deafening. I’d left the U.S. inspired, motivated, and equipped with the terminology and confidence to elucidate key matters when a conversation came up with friends and family. In many ways, Exeter Herstory, a creative storytelling collaboration between Libraries Unlimited, Poet in the City and the British Library, invites a space for these dialogues to evolve and become a part of the day-to-day narrative of Exeter.

Excited and expectant chatter bubbled up to greet me on 28 September, as Exeter Herstory held its launch event at Exeter Library. A well-attended occasion, Herstory is inspired by, and seeks to continue, the public conversation that the British Library exhibition ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights’ participated in. The event planted the seed that will culminate in a festival of late-night events, library takeovers, panel discussions and poetry busking around the central theme of women’s rights in March 2022.

Sadly, the necessity for creative schemes like Herstory is at the forefront of the nation’s mind after the highly publicised trial of Sarah Everard’s murderer, Wayne Couzens, concluded, and is once more compounded by the recent tragic murder of Sabina Nessa.

Closer to home, the frankly worrying increase in posts over the past two weeks on Urban Angels Exeter, a private Facebook Group that provides a safe space for women to share alerts of potential dangers they have experienced, and seek solidarity and support, has demonstrated the predatory behaviour that endures and needs to be challenged within our own university community.

Exeter Herstory described itself as ‘the launch of a storytelling series diving into feminist histories to consider new pathways for change,’. The first half of the evening introduced the new writer-in-residence for Exeter, Shagufta K Iqba, as well as activists Josie Sutcliffe and Nicci Wonnacott, who both have twenty-five years worth of activism under their belts. The women briefly explained their experiences and the inspiration that drew them into the unfinished fight for women’s rights, sharing successes and future local campaigns they were enthused about.

I found myself marvelling at the sheer number of feminist and women’s rights organisations, charities, arts foundations, and events that Exeter is host to outside of the university bubble. From the Exeter Phoenix’s current exhibition ‘Cleaning Up The Patriarchy’ which runs until 7 November 2021, to the annual Occupy The Airwaves campaign on International Women’s Day, Exeter is awash with change and challenge—and a creative streak to underpin the two.

The second half of Herstory was more discursive, encouraging the audience to participate and help shape the festival to suit the unique needs and questions that Exeter had surrounding gender issues. The topics discussed ranged from the homelessness crisis and the lack of support for primary caregivers, to the safety of women during the twilight hours and the relative lack of community in Exeter for non-binary and transgender people.

Of course, the launch of such a scheme exists in an echo and interest chamber and, with a 90 per cent female and non-binary turnout, there was strong recognition at the event itself that wider engagement from all members of society is necessary for any meaningful change to be enacted. However, with the hope and promise of Exeter Herstory Festival next March, the richness of conversation will be accessible for more people to participate in.

Tabitha Hannam

These services are here to help if you need support on the issues covered in this article:

  • Samaritans – 116123
  • Exeter Nightline – @exeterstudentnightline, 01392724000
  • SAFE For Survivors – @safeforsurvivors
  • HOPElineUK – 0800 068 4141
  • Exeter University Wellbeing Services

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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