We’re still not getting it, really, us white, cis, het, able-bodied folk. For starters, many of us still don’t like being referred to this way. “How ridiculous!” we think (privately). “Can’t they all see that we’re just ordinary?? You know, not black, not gay, not using wheelchairs. Normal. If you need anything else addressing, we’ll have to get round to it later on.
I recently had a discussion with the Bristol faction of the Women’s Equality Party about their choice of venue for their first meeting. They picked a well-known coffee shop which I actually quite like. Trouble is, it’s towards the top of one of the steepest hills in Bristol. With steps leading up to the door. And some more steps going up to the second floor where the meeting is happening. And then a whole bunch of steps going down to the loos.
I didn’t feel good about this, so I sent them a message and asked if they’d considered a more accessible venue. They said they already knew the venue is “not accessible upstairs” but they were struggling to find a free venue to avoid having a paying event for the first meeting. They then asked me if I knew of any accessible venues in central Bristol that I could recommend.
I did, but I knew that having absolutely no budget was going to be an issue (as it has been for the Bristol Feminist Network). Still, I messaged them back with a list of low-cost meeting venues put together by Voscur and also some details about Hydra Books which is cheap with an accessible entrance and shop floor but, sadly, no accessible toilet. I still figured it would be better than the original venue so I waited to see what they thought (while trying to swallow my irritation that they hadn’t really addressed the issue publicly so far).
They took a few days to get back to me to say that Hydra looked a good option but “the toilet is equally an issue” so they’d decided to stick with the original meeting place “purely for pragmatic reasons”. Then I was confused. How was it only theoretical that disabled women would want to join a women’s equality party? Why had they decided to stick with a completely inaccessible venue versus a partially inaccessible one? Why had they chosen specifically this coffee place when there was bound to be another commercial, accessible venue somewhere else in the city centre? And why were they now on Facebook, telling everyone how important it was that anyone attending the meeting “buy drinks and snacks” to support the venue when they specifically wanted to keep it non-paying?
They had at least, to their credit, addressed the issue of inaccessibility by extending “enormous apologies” and inviting anyone who cannot attend for this reason to send them a message. I asked them whether they would consider asking people to chip in towards an accessible venue instead of buying drinks. They said that wouldn’t be possible because they would have to “do ticketing and run a formal administration process”. They also said they’d spent two days trying to find a free, accessible and central venue and had now run out of time (no mention at this point of the low-cost alternatives I’d sent, including Hydra which is around £10 for an evening meeting).
I like to think that I always try and see everything in a fair and reasonable light. If someone is saying something I don’t understand, I usually assume there’s a good reason and I try and find that reason. Unfortunately, by this point, my brain was getting tired of being twisted in knots. The final straw came when they told me that they “need more people to get involved to get more stuff sorted” and that the agenda for the first meeting would be to “sign up people for different roles, one of them being someone who can invest time to sort this out.”
To which my brain just went “NOPE NOPE AND ALL KINDS OF NOPE. This isn’t an item on a list to tick off or some sort of specialist issue which you only need to bother with once you’ve got enough people. You’ve decided to set up a group to talk about women’s equality and you’ve decided there’s certain women who aren’t quite equal enough to be involved. They’ll have to wait on the street outside while you “allocate roles” to people from above their heads. And how on earth does it make sense that any decision about a future, appropriate venue will have to take place without those who actually need it?”
I’m not writing this to grandstand or to make people feel bad. I have every faith that this group is being set up with good intentions and that they’re not meaning to come across as exclusive. I’m writing this because I feel sad. I’m writing this because I’m sick and tired of being made to feel like some kind of revolutionary for thinking that equality means… you know, equality. I’m writing this because I feel rubbish about the fact that something which should be bringing women together could now very well drive a bigger wedge between us and make it less likely we’ll be taken seriously.