The right to free speech at Speakers Corner has ghoulish roots. It is the site where those condemned to die on the gallows at Tyburn were permitted to speak their last words in front of the crowds who flocked to see the hangings.
A brief history of Speakers Corner & Tyburn
Tyburn, meaning ‘boundary stream’, held court at the junction of two great Roman roads and first became a site for public executions in the 12th century. Crowds paid well to watch their fellow mortals swing: in the heyday of Tyburn up to fifty thousand people might attend an execution. Snacks and souvenirs would be sold: hangmen would even sell pieces of the rope used to dispatch the more notorious criminals. Ever wondered where the phrase ‘money for old rope‘ comes from?
In 1571, Queen Elizabeth had the gallows rebuilt into a spectacular three-sided structure, nicknamed the ‘Tyburn Tree’ (think Tudor multiplex cinema). Nearly 200 years later, in 1759, Catharine Knowland became the ‘last fruit of Tyburn Tree’ when she was hanged there for robbing a man of his silver pocket watch. Thereafter the gallows was replaced with a smaller ‘portable’ structure: last used to hang a highwayman in 1783. The wealthy locals eventually became tired of the raucous crowds lowering the tone of the neighbourhood, and from 1783 public executions instead took place outside Newgate Prison, in the lane known as the Old Bailey. This practice ended in 1868: thereafter hangings were carried out on the gallows inside Newgate. The last woman to be hanged in Britain was 28 year old Ruth Ellis in 1955, after she shot her violent husband dead. The final hangings in Britain took place in 1964. Nonetheless, technically you could be hanged for piracy with violence or treason until as recently as 1998, and HMP Wandsworth retained a working gallows, tested every six months, until 1992.
Now, a plaque and three oak trees mark the space where the gallows stood for so long: close to the busy traffic junction at Marble Arch, used by up to 6,000 vehicles every hour at peak times.
On one side of the Arch is the entrance to Hyde Park, just a minute’s walk from Marble Arch tube station, and it’s there that you will find Speakers’ Corner.
Established under pressure from the Reform League, in 1872 the Parks Regulation Act officially set aside this part of Hyde Park for public speaking. As long as your speech is lawful, you can turn up any time and speak on any subject.
The Royal Parks website informs us:
“From 1906 to 1914 the suffragettes held large and small meetings in Hyde Park as part of their campaign for votes for women. In the summer of 1906 they had a meeting every week near to the Reformer’s tree. During the Women’s Day of 21 June 1908 250,000 women marched to Hyde Park to hear 20 different speaking platforms. In 1913 the Police banned the Women’s Social and Political Union from meeting in the park, but the suffragettes defiantly continued to do so.”
The Museum of London article ‘Photographing the Suffragettes‘ tells us, “At the ‘Women’s Sunday’ meeting in Hyde Park, Christina Broom, who was less than five feet tall, managed to manoeuvre a tripod and a heavy half-plate box camera through the packed Hyde Park… and captured the earnest camaraderie of the speakers and their supporters.”
So, following a great tradition of women who just won’t shut up, Standing for Women invited women from all over the country – and beyond- to have their say at Speaker’s Corner on Sunday 8th March 2020.
We didn’t have the elaborate hats of the Suffragettes photographed by Broom; but for much of the afternoon our heads were covered by umbrellas, as London’s impetuous weather decided to douse us with rain for an hour of the speeches.
I met with the organisers and helpers in a nearby café (no, not a Starbucks) a few hours before the meeting began. We planned and drank a lot of coffee. Lesley bought me a probably-not-very-vegan almond croissant which was absolutely delicious.
A pile of bags, flags and signs had piled up in the corner when Venice arrived, accompanied by a large silver step ladder- which I’m assured is the preferred contemporary rostrum for the 21st century Speaker- and a box of beautifully made Suffragette ribbons with safety pins to hand out to attendees.
I could have sat in the cafe all morning, drinking coffee and listening to tales of feminist events and happenings from around the globe, but soon it was time to move out and head to the meeting point by Marble Arch itself, from which attendees would be directed to Speakers’ Corner.
I had made a placard myself for this event, a large vulva/vagina crafted from drapes of pale pink lining material, enshrouded by an elipse of black wool and sporting a satin magenta rose-clitoris.
I was absurdly proud of it as it was temporarily attached to the railings by the Arch.
The sky overhead was grey: rain had been forecast for around 11am but that time had been and gone and I was hopeful that it would stay away. The time was approaching noon and we were almost ready to begin.
You can see the livestream of the speakers here, on Posie’s YouTube channel.
I noticed that a couple of police officers had wandered over towards the gathering and were talking to Posie. It was a very civilised exchange.
“‘We’re not saying you can’t have the flags at all,” one of them told her. “Just not inside the park.”
A couple of women repositioned themselves ten feet or so from the entrance.
“Hello women!” DJ Lippy took to the step ladder to start off the speakers, reminding us that the hastag for the day was #womensay and that Julia Long was collecting the names of those who would like to speak. She noted that it looked like being a peaceful event: several of us had commented on the fact that there were no transactivists present, which I did think was a little surprising.
Retrospectively, of course, we know that they were saving their energy for yelling at women and chucking smoke bombs around in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower at the ‘defend me or expel me‘ meeting the next day, but that’s another story and one that I was not present to chronicle.
Julia began by wishing everyone Happy International Women’s Day, encouraging other women to take to the steps and share their own views and experiences, and thanking Venice and the women of Make More Noise for organising the event at the iconic venue of Speakers’ Corner where we could “stand in the footsteps of the Suffragettes: for whom Hyde Park was an absolutely key place for their campaign.”
Long pointed out that male power is at the heart of the issue of transgender rights and that talking about and acknowledging the reality of this is vitally important. She referred to two of Dworkin’s ‘seven aspects of male power’. Under patriarchy men have the Power of Self, and are ever wishing to expand it. These men see woman as a costume that they can use to expand their definition of their self and so violate ‘every space, every right, every aspect of language that we have fought hard for’. When women talk, Long asserted, we need to talk specifically about male power and domination and not start with a stream of apologies.
“No matter how small women shrink to be, what we have is always too much and will be taken away from us and we need to understand transgenderism in that context, with those insights. The small little patch of ground that we have is now being framed as too much.”
Dworkin also spoke about the male Power of Naming, and Long pointed out that if you control the language you control perception. A man claiming to be a woman is not only trying to force women into accepting his reality but also trying to control the way women perceive him. Long said she saw a lot of women falling into the traps set by male power and warned us to be aware that the transgender power over language had taken over all our institutions.
“In the words of Dworkin,” she concluded, “as Prometheus stole fire from the gods, we have to steal back the power of naming from those men.”
Maria greeted us all and told us that Speakers Corner, where she was assaulted by transactivist Tara Flick Wood in 2017, was, “one of my favourite places in the world, a place of many good memories and one or two bad ones.”
As a teenager in the 70s she said she would look at the people on the soap boxes and think, “they’re insane… I never thought I’d be one of them.” How, as a teenager, she saw a man staring at her, ‘with his penis proudly poking through his raincoat’. walking past him and into the underpass she said she was ‘terrified’ when she found herself trapped on the island. When transactivists shout outside feminist meetings she said she is always reminded of ‘entitled willy wavers who get off on trying to intimidate women.’
Maclachlan referred to the number of female senior politicians who were ‘supporting, excusing, enabling and even participating in… trying to silence other women” adding, “the one thing they have in common is their support for a policy that would reduce womanhood to an idea; a feeling, a performance.”
She spoke of the ‘harassment so many of us have had to endure’ and concluded that she might sometime feel despondent but that she never, ever felt like giving up.
“You only have to use a pronoun they don’t like for them to be blubbing into their babycham, talking about violence and murder – we use evidence and they do not… we stand for the truth and they do not; we are on the right side of history and they are not. Stay strong sisters!”
Dr Em wished us a happy International Women’s Day ad said she was exercising her Article 10, acknowledging the history of the Suffragettes and that women ‘had a long history of righting wrongs in this country‘. Who takes umbrage, she asked, with children having the right to grow up unmoslested? The current climate offers a perfect opportunity for grooming. Children with low sexual boundaries are talking with strangers online, being offered binders by strangers, handing out their addresses- and these strangers are being cheered on by our councils and education system.
“I am going to speak loudly and I will not shut up about how children are in danger and it is not ok.”
Less than a minute into Kara’s speech, the wind picked up and it began to rain. Someone moved behind her and held an umbrella over her head to offer some protection as she was wearing only jeans and a short-sleeved ‘WoLF’ T-shirt.
Seemingly unbothered by the elements, Kara told us that the title of her talk was ‘Women’s speech is a threat to male supremacy and that is a very good thing’. Men certainly knew what a woman was for the thousands of years during which they excluded women ‘from all aspects of civil society‘ and men did not pretend to be women when women were not allowed to vote. She said that as an American she appreciated the first amendment and acknowledged the importance of Speakers’ Corner in giving free speech to women in the UK.
“We need international solidarity on the issue of women’s free speech,” she asserted, whether those restricitions are being enforced by governments or by private entities like social media. Men know that if women are permitted to speak freely ‘the gig will be up’. She referenced the film ‘Iron Jawed Angels‘ about the American suffragettes and Alice Paul, who ‘learned a great deal from you British radicals‘.
‘Never stop speaking, women. Our speech is a threat to male supremacy and men know it. That’s why they are so afraid of our voices- and they should be.”
In closing she offered a message from WoLF co-founder Lierre Keith: “Never surrender!”
The rain let up slightly for Marcia, an American woman who, inspired by her visit to the British Museum, had compiled an alphabetical list of goddesses into a poem. You can hear her recite the poem 24.45 minutes into the livestream.
Jess from Norwich
The rain returned for Jess from Norwich, who told us she is facing a disciplinary by the Green Party for co-organising a women’s meeting. Referencing her ‘adult human female’ hoodie, Jess said that when she realised “the dictionary definition of woman had become … a political act of defiance, I bought the bloody sweatshirt.”
Jess’s daughter ‘came out’ as gender queer aged 15. Now in her early 20s she has written about her experiences on the blog ‘Incessant Sentinel – Surviving the Cult of the Queer’.
As Jess finished speaking, our ears were assailed by a loud, high-pitched buzzing sound which continued for a few minutes.
“Some idiot’s trying to drown us out!” somebody called.
Unperturbed by the noise or the rain, Anne stepped up to the ladder and loudly informed us that she was going to talk about periods.
As a bus driver in London in the 80s, Anne, a Trade Unionist, spoke of the problems facing female bus drivers when public toilets were closed in the late 80s. Unions, mostly run by men, were unaware of the problem until it was brought to their attention. The stigmatising of women because of their bodily functions, she said, increases when women are told they must share their toilets with men.
“That’s it, really,” concluded Anne, as the crowd applauded and her umbrella turned inside out.
Ever the optimist, she observed, Posie took to the stand with her sunglasses still on her head. Mine had fallen to the ground some time ago: I suddenly spotted them lying sadly beside a huge soggy plastic bag- a bag containing my giant vulva/vagina! Someone had brought it back from Marble Arch when the speeches began. I wondered if I could lean it against the railings behind the speakers. I sidled towards it, keeping one eye on the bags and space I was watching over, but it was no use. On top of it were several boxes and bags: short of tipping people’s stuff into a puddle I would have to leave it where it was.
“It’s not complicated” began Posie, “to recognise that someone with a penis is male and doesn’t belong in women’s issues, women’s rights and women’s spaces.” She continued that she was sick and tired of those who placated ‘porn-sick adult men’ who wanted to go into schools and corrupt children’s minds.
The wind blew even harder and Posie, confronted by the torrential rain and the crowd of drenched onlookers, broke off for a moment and laughed.
“It’s so awful!” She gesticulated at the weather, “I’m so sorry…”
“Just carry on!” someone called out.
“You need to take a stand, you need to stop being afraid,” she advised, assuring us that wanting to keep such men away from children and out of women’s spaces, ‘doesn’t make you a bad person’.
“Keep naming men as men, never submit and never surrender!”
“Happy International Women’s Day!” Suzy greeted us.
Suzy is so concerned with gender identity teaching in schools that she has removed her primary age child from school and is ‘worried sick’ about her lesbian daughter’s ‘spaces being eradicated and her language being taken away from her’ when she goes off to university next year.
Kate told us that she had been training horses for 40 years.
“I have never come across a mare who has turned into a stallion, because they are mammals and it is impossible for mammals to spontaneously grow the sex organs of the opposite sex.”
In theory it would be possible, Kate speculated, to persuade a vet to inject her favourite mare with testosterone, slice of some of the horse’s flesh and form a tube to attach to her urethra. The result she said would be “an incredibly messed up horse- but she would not be a stallion.”
In practice, a vet would not do this, she concluded, and the RSPCA would prosecute her for animal cruelty. So- why are we doing this to children?
Rachel showed her ‘mother’ T shirt and said she wanted to talk about the conflict between women who are mothers and women who aren’t.
This conflict, she said, is created by living in a man’s world where everything we do is wrong and we are always made to feel inadequate, whether we are mothers or not. We should think about that and go forward in sisterhood. While not all women are mothers, she concluded, all mothers are women and you can’t be a mother if you’re not a woman!
Sheila said that after two decades of ‘bad times’, she felt she finally had a feminist family again. “Here you all are and it’s absolutely brilliant to see you.”
Sheila has been involved in fighting porn and paedophilia since the 1970s and recalled the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and the push to remove the age of consent, which was successfully fought. She spoke of fetishes and paraphilias as the ‘strange forms of abusive behaviours that cause terrible harm to women and children‘. These fetishes have became super-charged by the internet and the growth of online fetish communities has helped to normalise such behaviour.
Some men are masochistically excited by wearing women’s clothing and want to do it in the presence of women and children. “These men decided they wanted women and children to witness and to actually help them express their fetishes.” Others want indecent exposure to be legalised and objecting to it made a hate crime. Paedophiles are re-naming themselves ‘minor attracted persons’ (MAPS). She spoke of ‘communities of ‘rights bearing men’ who have the right to wave their willies at women’.
But you are all here today, she concluded and we are fighting back ‘hugely and very successfully’.
“Men have been silencing women for thousands of years and telling us that our voices don’t count and our words aren’t as valuable as theirs and we have to sit down and listen to them and let them define our reality … we will not be told by men what a woman is and we will not be silenced by those lunatics over there…”
Here she gesticulated towards a small group of noisy men’s rights activists that had formed to the right of us.
“…and we just won’t shut up and we won’t go away and we won’t sit down and,” she concluded triumphantly, “WE WON’T MAKE YOU A FUCKING SANDWICH!”!
Lynne introduced herself as ‘a lesbian grandmother’ with two grandaughters. She spoke of how teachers were being forced to teach gender identity in schools. Of young lesbians she said, “they’re being told that any girl who looks like a dyke is really a boy.”
She and others had applied for a grant to set up a young lesbian group but were turned down because they would not agree to admit boys who called themselves lesbians. The group was considering a crowd funder.
“Lesbians don’t have penises.” she affirmed. “Allow young lesbians to exist and not be erased.”
“If you get kicked off Twitter, get out into the real world, because this is what it’s really about!”
She’d wanted to do some comedy songs but no entertainment is allowed at Speaker’s Corner, so she told us a joke instead.
Cries of ‘more’ were met with another:
Now I have to talk about something more serious, she told us, and read out the ‘Make More Noise’ Manifesto.
You can read this and more at the ‘Make More Noise’ blog.
She also mentioned the existence of some stickers… if anyone has any photos of those in situ I’d be very interested for a forthcoming blog post.
The next speaker described herself as a trans widow and thanked The Trans Widow’s Escape Committee for their help. You can view the website started by TWEC here.
She spoke of the father of her two children who ‘changed from being an intelligent, considerate, professional man into a raging, cut-off, incredibly isolated, rebellious teenager on a bad day… I have never seen a mental condition like this. I think the world needs to know about it, it is not something you would wish on your worst enemy. I think we should let children know what they are letting themselves in for when they read online about gender fluidity.”
Shelley urged us all to fill in the Consultation on the Scottish Gender Recognition Act, calling the reform “a terrible, terrible proposal” which would lower the time of self ID to six months before application and lower the minimum age to sixteen. She reminded us that there was help filling it in, for example from Transgender Trend, and that if the changes are passed in Scotland, there may be a knock on effect here.
“Ban the Bill!”
Peggy is from Vermont and is a founder member of the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF). She thanked the women of the UK for their feminist work.
“Woman is not an empty category… feminism is something with a history and a reality.” She compared American collonianism and the current collonisation of women; speaking of the war against women and of men’s “appropriation of women’s culture; even appropriating feminism for the sex desires of men.”
This issue, she said, is the most divisive thing she had ever seen in the women’s movement, destroying women’s organisations
“I do not cede the word woman; I do not cede the word lesbian. I do not cede feminism to transactivism that defiles the word, the history, the culture, the institution… these people had no part in building that movement, they’ve never built anything on their own they just want to take over women’s shelters, women’s places, women’s everything. It’s a parasitic movement and I’m sick of it and the authoritarianism it has brought!”
Elaine informed us that a transactivist who calls women ‘TERFs, maniacs and an infestation,’ has written trans guidance which has been adopted by policy making groups for the NHS. The guidance, she said, doesn’t address the needs of women and advises that patients who don’t want to be on a ward with someone of the opposite sex should be ‘educated’, claiming the only reason for objecting to this would be because of ‘transphobia’. The guidance was supposedly passed with no risk assessment by Bristol NHS.
“This is happening secretly all over the country.”
Had it not been for Mumsnet, she said, this might have remained undiscovered. Now women have a meeting with the clinical commissioning group, and she will be speaking to them on behalf of the Lesbian Rights Alliance.
Elizabeth spoke about taxonomy, how we classify things into categories: animals, plants, organisms, so as to better understand them, but “for some reason women can’t have our own category”. This disassociates us not only from ourselves but from the earth. She also expressed concern for all those synthetic hormones that could be ‘pissed into the waterways and killing all the fish’. Last year, she suggested, the Green Party program had more sessions about being non-binary than it did about climate change.
Belinda stepped onto the ladder next. She said she hadn’t planned to talk, but what she wanted to say was she thought men could be ‘a huge ally in this fight‘. The vast majority of men, she said, are on our side and feel ‘as ashamed by it as we feel horrified’. She added “We need to forget our differences and come together with men and stop slagging them off.”
“They need to speak up though, Belinda,” interrupted Julia Long. “They need to be not quite so shy as they’ve been up til now..”
“But I have heard non-stop slagging off of men, not just men who like to dress up as women.. all the time I’ve been standing here… We need to take some responsibility ourselves for what has happened… we need to join together with men and fight this horror.”
“Thank you Belinda, thank you!” called Venice. “Paula?”
Paula told us that Women United had launched a petition calling on the government to protect the sex-based rights of women and girls. She spoke of the inspirational SNP pledge, and the Labour Party Women’s Declaration that was launched on the full moon in December.
This was met with much werewolf-style howling from the crowd and from Paula herself.
Women from all political parties have put together pledges, she told us, so she and others have organised a cross-party group, @WomenUnitingUK and established a petition to enshrine in law the words ‘woman’ and ‘sex’. She said she hoped men would also sign it.
“I’m Jan from OBJECT! We object to anything that uses a woman’s body as an object. We are not men’s punchbags. We are not men’s cum-dumpsters and we are not men’s territory to be colonised and erased as they have done to so much of the world. We campaign on porn, prostitution, sex clubs, surrogacy and transgenderism.”
Many of us, she says, don’t want children when we are young. “Funny how when you’re 36 you want to pop one out.” Surrogacy is already a $44,000,000 business and will be further expanded once the trans-kids who have been sterilised decide they do want children of their own after all.
“Please don’t stop fighting against the patriarchy – it’s a many-headed hydra!”
Teegan hadn’t intend to speak but said she felt she should. She studied genetics at university so understands the differences between men and women. Even in scientific journals she said, ‘gender’ is replacing ‘sex’ and no one is paying much attention. We need to speak to friends and family about these issues.
“Okay, I’m going to take a picture… a pano… everyone get on their happy faces!”
Venice climbed up the steps and took a picture of the attendees. The rain had mostly eased off now and the sun was breaking back through, though most of us were still pretty soggy.
“Okay. Thank you so much for coming here today. I’m going to read this from my speech…”
After Venice had finished she stepped down and went to slip her speech back into her pocket.
“Oooo, can I have that?” I asked her.
“Sure.” She handed it to me – so here it is in its entirety:
Huge applause met Venice’s speech and cries of “Brava!”
Her speech concluded, Venice told the crowd where we were going to warm up and have a few drinks. I looked around and was impressed at how many people had stayed right to the end, despite the terrible weather. Splitting off now into smaller groups, some drifted away, saying goodbyes, others remained chatting by the railings.
The handbags had been moved now and I slid my vulva/vagina creation out of the large plastic bag protecting it- thank you to whoever put it there, it was completely undamaged by the rain.
I was going out that night, to see Kate Tempest at the 6 Music Festival in Camden, so no pub for me. I had just enough time to pop home, drop my stuff off and change into something dry. Lesley and I decided to walk to Victoria together. We gathered our stuff and set off along Park Lane.
“That went well, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” I mused. “Really well. Although it’s a shame my vulva banner ended up with bags on top of it. I wanted to put it on display somewhere so it showed up on the live stream.”
“How many vehicles did you say drive around Marble Arch in rush hour?”
“About six thousand, why?”
“So, let’s half that because it’s a Sunday: let’s assume your banner was attached to the railing for what, forty five minutes?”
“Yeah. About that.”
“That’s 2,250 vehicles. I think quite enough people have seen your vulva for one day, Lily.”