In 1977, women across the UK in a movement that came to be known as Reclaim the Night. Back then, it was Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper, whose case was the immediate trigger for them to take a public stand.
Sutcliffe was evading police, with each attempt to narrow down the search resulting only in further failings of the law. Instead of addressing the misogyny of the system that was leading it to fail, the police encouraged women not to go out after dark – a demand which has repeatedly raised its head in cases of gendered violence, and was widely seen to be shifting the burden for the problem from men to women.
The familiarity between then and now is frightening. The police aren’t hunting a serial killer, but they’re still proving incapable of dealing with male violence – above all when that violence comes from within their own ranks. At time of writing, a Met Police officer—different for the one currently standing accused of murdering Sarah Everard—is under investigation on suspicion of raping two of his female colleagues. Even those who work within the system aren’t safe.
Prior to 1977, the police had believed that Sutcliffe only targeted sex workers. Quick assumptions about victims were made from biased scrutiny of their class, their nighttime activities, and their marital or parental status. It was only the murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald that challenged this assumption, but even then, officials inferred that Sutcliffe had mistakenly attacked a ‘respectable young girl’.
This case operated on the assumption that women could be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – implicitly, deserving or undeserving of violence. That culture continues to infect policing methods today, evident in the division (picked up on and emphasised by much of the media) of supposed dangerous radicals Sisters Uncut from other, more liberal alternatives.
If less time had been spent in speculation on the perceived moral worth of Sutcliffe’s victims, it’s fair to assume he may have been caught sooner. Looking back at the commentary of survivors like Tracy Browne, it was obvious that Sutcliffe targeted all women – but even had he not, the police’s search for a supposedly ‘legitimate’ reason as to why someone would want to harm women, rooted in disdain for sex workers, made them unable to see what all women could: that their womanhood marked them.
This kind of sexism was far from unique to the UK and continues to be widespread today. The movement that led to those early marches originated in the US and mainland Europe: candlelit marches through the streets were held in Philadelphia and Brussels in 1975 and 1976 respectably, and in April 1977, three months before the demonstrations in Leeds, coordinated protests took place in cities across Germany.
‘Politics in West Germany is still a male preserve, with women in small minorities in the political parties and in Parliament,’ Craig R Whitney wrote in the New York Times in January 1977. ‘Running West German industry is almost exclusively a man’s business. Women, more than a third of the labour force, earn a third less than men.’
The murder of 26-year-old Susan Schmidtke brought the most violent consequences of these social inequities to Germany’s political fore. Similar marches then took place in the USA in 1978, and in Australia in 1979, the latter run primarily by women involved with their local rape crisis centres.
In Britain, marches continued sporadically over the years until the early 1990s, being revived again the following decade. Like the original actions and those that have taken place more recently, these demonstrations were often reactive: in 2006, a march was organised in Ipswich after five sex workers were murdered by serial killer Steve Wright.
With the twenty-first century have come new priorities—for example, making the movement inclusive of trans women and others at risk of exclusion from feminist discourse—but looking back at the history reveals a decades-long constant: that instead of creating a society in which women are free from abuse, women are told to shield themselves.
Rather than allow people to gather to mourn the death of Sarah Everard and other victims of gendered violence this year, the police again imposed restrictions, using Covid as cover for their own fear of dissent even as others are forced to continue working in infection-prone industries without adequate protection. The Policing, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill takes the same line, limiting our freedoms—in this case, to protest—in the name of ‘public order’.
The lack of understanding by political and civic institutions worldwide—that safety is not, and cannot be conditional; that all are entitled to it, whether or not they ‘did everything right’—often seems to be at risk of active regression, if not just stagnation. The violence with which recent protests in Bristol and elsewhere were met has proved once again that the police take their duty to ‘protect’ very seriously: it just isn’t us they’re protecting. We have always been forced to protect ourselves.