Feminist Student Society Sanctioned for Being Women-Only

by Women Talk Back!

Feminist Student Society Sanctioned for Being Women-Only

by Women Talk Back!
Women Talk Back!
Case Owner
Our feminist student society was sanctioned by the Bristol SU for being women-only, despite operating in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Help us to protect single-sex spaces for women.
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Women Talk Back!
Case Owner
Our feminist student society was sanctioned by the Bristol SU for being women-only, despite operating in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Help us to protect single-sex spaces for women.
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Latest: Sept. 23, 2021

Thank you for helping us reach our Initial Target!

We feel humbled and frankly surprised by the confidence so many people have placed on us to take on this challenge to protect single-sex services and spaces. We were worried because you haven't s…

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WHO WE ARE

We are a group of students and former students and we represent the feminist student society Women Talk Back! Our group has been officially affiliated with the Bristol Students' Union (BSU) and we have been sanctioned for being women-only, despite being in compliance with the Equality Act. Please help us protect single-sex spaces from the Bristol SU's discriminatory practices and policies.  

Women Talk Back! was created as a forum where women can discuss issues relating to their 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. You can read testimonials from women who attend our consciousness-raising meetings, describing what the society means to them and the impact it has had in their lives on this page.

Our attendees have repeatedly stressed how important it is that we protect their rights to privacy, safety and dignity when discussing our experiences as women and sensitive matters relating to being female in patriarchy. Therefore, when affiliating with the Bristol SU in 2018, we consulted discrimination lawyers to help us explain why we explicitly wished to implement the single-sex exceptions under the Equality Act 2010. These exceptions allow for groups to be single-sex (in this case women-only) when being single-sex is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

We welcome the fact that there are hundreds of student societies on campus open to everyone, but in ours we proudly centre women’s lives and experiences. Our public meetings with leading feminist writers, academics and campaigners are open to everyone. However, our restricted consciousness-raising meetings are women-only so they can speak freely and without fear. Thus being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, in accordance with the law. 

We strongly object to the idea that women should have to disclose personal trauma or histories of male violence in order to "justify" our need for women-only spaces. We consider that there is a positive value to single-sex spaces, including solidarity and support among ourselves, and those benefits should be reason enough to have our boundaries respected. 

The four women pursuing this case are acting as representatives for the whole feminist society. Whilst we are proud to stand our ground, we are all young women at the start of our careers or in precarious circumstances. Therefore, some of us would like to remain anonymous for the time being.

This is a picture from one of our first consciousness-raising meeting after becoming officialised by the Bristol SU in 2018.

OUR STORY

Since our inception we have experienced resistance, rejection and attempts to infringe on our right to single-sex spaces from the Bristol SU. 

Over the past three years, the BSU would ask us to provide explanations as to why we wanted to be single-sex. Women Talk Back! explained that our priority is protecting our members’ right to safety, dignity and privacy, and that our members stated the group would not work for them if it was mixed-sex. The Bristol SU would reply saying they do not consider that to be a good enough reason and would shift the goalpost again and again and again to keep us justifying why we wanted to exercise our rights under the law. 

The Bristol SU modified their bylaws to include a definition of ‘women’ that reads: “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.” There is no definition of the word ‘men’ in the Bristol SU bylaws. Furthermore, after our women-only society became affiliated in 2018, the BSU changed their bylaws in 2019 to request all societies must accept people based on “gender identity”. There is no definition of the term “gender identity” in UK law and this concept is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The law defines “sex” (a protected characteristic) as meaning “man or woman”. “Man” is defined in the law as “a male of any age” and “woman” as “a female of any age”. This means the Bristol SU sanctioned us for using the law to protect something that is not recognised by the law.

On the evening of 1 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 transwoman (male) student admitted being aware that Women Talk Back! operates under the single-sex exceptions 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, of some of our larger public events, and their targeting of feminist events hosted by other student societies. This targeting was reported in the local press, and included that the male trans activist student demanding access to our women-only space had to be removed by security after hijacking a feminist meeting on the Bristol University campus. 

These students complained about Women Talk Back! being women-only and following the 1 March 2020 incident, the BSU retrospectively claimed that we were never single-sex to begin with. They opened an investigation and Women Talk Back! provided four witness statements 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 and emotionally blackmailed into weakening our boundaries for fear of retaliation from student trans activists. The result of this investigation was that the BSU validated the trans activists’ account and sanctioned us. The Student Union demanded:

  • Mandatory “diversity and inclusion” training for our members 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;

  • Our 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’.

THE CASE

Women should not have to plead and beg for permission in order to use the rights we already have. Women shouldn't have to justify over and over again why we want to be among ourselves to discuss our own lives. We should be able to use the single-sex provisions without being targeted by trans activist students and without being sanctioned by institutions meant to support us.

We are grateful to have received pro bono guidance from lawyers helping us advocate for our rights. Based on this guidance, we believe that the BSU, being an association as defined under the Equality Act, has breached its duties towards us. We also believe the BSU has committed sex related harassment by engaging in unwanted behaviour which has had the purpose or effect of violating our dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

We believe that Women Talk Back! as a whole, and specific women members, have been the victims of direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation, because of our protected characteristic of sex, and because of protected acts done in relation to that characteristic.

While this was the preliminary and pro bono advice that we received, we have now instructed Amanda Jones from Great James Street Chambers as our barrister and Elizabeth McGlone from Harrison Clark Rickerbys as our solicitor, to represent us. Both women specialise in equality and discrimination matters. 

WHY WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!

We are initially raising £10,000 to get the case off the ground, and this will cover a thorough legal case assessment, the Letter Before Claim, the lodging of the claim and the initial costs of the litigation. Following that, we will need to prepare the case itself, including disclosure and witness statements. Cases like this can cost up to £50,000-£75,000 and we need to raise enough money to ensure we can pay for the Bristol SU costs in case we are not successful. There is no such thing as a guaranteed success and we are aware that we might lose.

Our case could be the among the first brought by women who were directly prevented from or sanctioned for using the single-sex exemptions under the Equality Act 2010. The rights everyone has to single-sex spaces mean nothing if public bodies and institutions, such as the Bristol SU, can override and dictate which rights women should or should not have. 

All we want is to hold our women-only consciousness-raising meetings where we discuss our lives and unapologetically centre ourselves. We simply want the BSU to abide by the law and recognise that their sanctions against us were unfair and discriminatory. We want to continue operating using the single-sex exemptions for our restricted consciousness-raising meetings, and to continue holding our successful public feminists events where everybody is welcomed. 

THANK YOU!

Women Talk Back! has spent the past three years cooperating amicably and in good faith with the Bristol SU. We are disappointed that they have sanctioned us and we are saddened to have to litigate so that both women's boundaries and rights are upheld. 

However, we want to thank the lawyers who have helped us with their guidance on how to invoke the single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act and we are grateful to all of you for the support and solidarity we have received since the sanctions against us became public.

Now, we ask for your support so that we can move forward ensuring women's rights to single-sex spaces and services are protected. As students and former students, we can't do this without you. Please share this Crowdjustice page among your networks, donate if you are able and help us stand up for women's rights.

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Update 1

Women Talk Back!

Sept. 23, 2021

Thank you for helping us reach our Initial Target!

We feel humbled and frankly surprised by the confidence so many people have placed on us to take on this challenge to protect single-sex services and spaces. We were worried because you haven't seen our faces, you don't know our names and our legal case has received no newspaper coverage so far so we assumed that we would spend a very long and stressful month trying to reach our Initial Target but you truly delivered and we are so grateful. The outpouring of solidarity and support has been so heartening and reassuring. 

We wish we didn’t have to be doing this, but we are encouraged to know that the public sentiment to protect women's rights (and everybody's right to single-sex services like ours) is so strong. We appreciate how you have spread the word about our legal case by sharing our funding effort and boosting financial contributions.

We all feel particularly emotional reading all the comments showing solidarity. As we mentioned in our text, we are four young women taking on an organisation that has a lot more resources than us, but we feel supported now knowing that so many of you are watching, backing us and following the developments of our legal case so closely. We will be updating you every step of the way, including information regarding when and where we file our case. 

All we want is for the Bristol SU to admit that their sanctions against us were discriminatory and unlawful, to prevent what happened to us from happening to other women, to continue providing our consciousness-raising meetings as a service for women and hosting our successful public events open to the public. We may be young and right at the beginning of our careers, but we will not budge on these points. 

Thank you for letting us know loud and clear, through your messages of solidarity and financial support, that you all feel just as strongly as we do about the protection of single-sex services and spaces, and that you will walk with us every step of the way to ensure we see this through.

Kind regards, 
Women Talk Back!

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