32 YEARS OF RECLAIMING THE NIGHT
How did it all begin? A personal account by Al Garthwaite, Leeds, 2009
The first Reclaim The Night (RTN) marches in England took place on 12th November 1977, an initiative of the Leeds Reclaim The Night group. I was a member.
Our inspiration came from West Germany, where on the night of April 30th 1977 feminists marched in many different towns and cities against men’s violence against women. Spare Rib, the UK feminist magazine, reported it; we reprinted it in the WIRES newsletter (internal newsletter of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement). Sandra McNeill suggested having an RTN at the Towards a Radical Feminist Theory of Revolution conference in Edinburgh in June. “There was some discussion at the conference, but the Edinburgh women were not keen.” (However, there was an RTN in Edinburgh later that same year.)
Leeds feminists at the Edinburgh conference brought the idea back, and I suggested we hold one here.
Then as now, the media was full of stories of rape and murder of women by men. Such a man was Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, but due to police and media sexism about his focus on women working as prostitutes, not a lot of attention was paid at first. Nor was there, at that time, any widespread police and media message to women to stay home at night. On 25th June 1977, however, PS killed a 16 year old. This gained a lot of media coverage. But the murder of Jayne Mcdonald wasn’t why we decided on action.
We all knew what it was to be harassed and to feel vulnerable when walking at night; some of us had even worse experiences.
Our group organised two marches, to meet in the city centre: one starting at Chapeltown Community Centre, the other at Hyde Park. Many students and young independent women lived around Hyde Park, and Woodhouse Moor, just beside it, was notorious as a place where men lay in wait for women. At that time, too, many active Leeds feminists lived in the Hyde Park / Woodhouse or general Chapeltown area, another reason for the choice of venues.
I then suggested that, like the German women, we encourage feminists throughout the UK to march on the same night, to attract as much media coverage as we possibly could. We wanted to fight back against the widespread acceptance of women as fair game for abusive and violent men, including on the streets during the hours of darkness.
We wrote to women’s centre and WIRES with our suggestion. Women from all over the country took it up, and there were RTN marches throughout the country on November 12th 1977. Spare Rib (issue 66, Jan. 1978) carried reports of RTNs in Leeds, Brighton, Bristol, Lancaster, London, Manchester, Newcastle and York, together with a short report of how it began. All this is also documented in WIRES and local Women’s Liberation newsletters held at the Feminist Archive North at the University of Leeds Special Collections. Local press coverage varied; the journalist Polly Toynbee met some of the London RTN organisers, along with Chris Joyce from Leeds (producer designer of the popular Reclaim the Night badges), and wrote about it in the Guardian, not favourably, before it happened. (The following week saw a page of letters putting a different point of view).
Leeds’ two marches, each 60 strong, were very successful. We set off around 10pm. As I recall, the sole police officer who turned up at the Chapeltown march rapidly radioed for assistance when she saw our numbers, and our flaming torches. We marched down Chapeltown Road shouting, “Women Unit – Reclaim The Night”, across the Sheepscar intersection (smaller then) and up North Street, a dark and seedy place compared with today. Men coming out of a North Street pub shouted obscenities and tried to harass, but reeled back in alarm as we advanced on them, flaming torches at the ready: a satisfying moment. The Hyde Park contingent had similar experiences in Woodhouse Lane.
We reached City Square around the same time and held a rally, with fiery speeches. I drove some women home in a minibus, and also children from the creche we’d organised, before joining a celebratory RTN party in the Woodhouse home of one of the organisers.
32 years of Reclaim The Night
Once underway, the UK tradition of RTN carried on, and remains to this day. Women all over the country have kept right on campaigning and asserting our right to walk where we want, when we want, without fear of attack and assault from men. Much of the credit for keeping RTNS going in the from the late 1980s to the early 2000s goes to the Women’s Officers in Universities. On 30th November 2006 the Leeds University’s Women’s Officer organised a 60-strong RTN march down the Otley Road (the notorious “Otley Run”).
In London, Finn Mackay re-started up the RTN tradition in 2004, and marches there have attracted over 1500 women, with union delegations and inspirational rallies with speakers, stalls, music and dancing. Now there are RTNs all over the country again, marching for the old reasons, and for new ones. We won’t stop until we’ve finally Reclaimed The Night for Women.