Remembering Reclaim the Night, 1977

On a cold autumnal night in Leeds on November 12th, 1977, sixty women took to North Street and proceeded to march in an effort to reclaim the night. The march, inspired by a similar ‘Take Back the Night’ protest in West Germany earlier that year, was organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group and was a direct response to the anger and frustration many Leeds womenfolk felt at the police’s ineffective, slow and misogynist handling of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

By November 1977, Peter Sutcliffe (aka the Yorkshire Ripper) had murdered seven women and seriously assaulted several more, he would go on to murder a total of thirteen women before his capture in 1980. The majority of his crimes had, by this stage, occurred in Leeds, with several of the victims identified as sex workers. The death of sixteen-year-old student Jayne MacDonald in the Chapeltown district of the city on June 26th, 1977 proved to be a gamechanger. The press, who had barely paid much attention to the spate of killings when it was directed at sex workers, were now sitting up and paying attention at the prospect of no woman being safe, and the police began to feel the heat. Reacting to the realisation that all women were potential victims of this elusive serial killer, West Yorkshire Police effectively placed women on curfew, telling them to stay out of public spaces after dark.

The logic of the police’s advice was ridiculous and blatantly chauvinistic. In putting the half of the population who were the innocent, potential victims of sexual violence under nighttime curfew, they were effectively siding with the man’s ‘right’ to roam freely and attack women at will. It was an edict that betrayed its patriarchal, outmoded roots, seemingly ignoring, or just plain ignorant of, the fact that women may have been gainfully employed on late or night shifts. It was clear that the top brass of the West Yorkshire Police believed that it was only the menfolk who brought home the bacon. It also refused to consider the circumstances of those women engaged in sex work, the Ripper’s main target, who had no option but to go out at night to ply their trade.

Founded that year as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Movement emphasised the importance of women-only safe spaces and identified male violence against women as a cornerstone in the oppression of women and gender inequality. Concerned with the police’s mishandling of the Ripper investigation and the contempt they felt they were showing women in their community, the Reclaim the Night March against sexual violence and for gender equality took place in the Chapeltown district of Leeds, where many of the Ripper killings had occurred, on this day forty-three-years ago, with other marches also taking place in York, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, London and Brighton.

Many of the marchers carried placards bearing such slogans as ‘No Curfew On Women – Curfew On Men’ to highlight the victim blaming logic of the police’s action and the impracticality of expecting half of the population to stay indoors. The desire to reclaim the night and take back public spaces was admirable, but many felt uncomfortable at some of the radical tactics of some protesters who verbally attacked any men in the vicinity and called for male castration. As Chapeltown was a mostly black neighbourhood, the protesters also fell foul of some anti-racist organisations who argued that focusing attention in the area could reinforce harmful racial stereotypes and give police a free licence to target innocent black communities. Their concerns were proved to have some basis when officers used the opportunity to harass youths of colour, despite knowing full well from eyewitness statements that the Ripper was white.

The marches continued long after the Ripper was arrested, continuing the demand for gender equality and an end to attacks on women, but concluded at some time in the 1990s. However the Reclaim the Night organisation was revived in 2004, a sad indictment of the British police continuing inherent misogyny when faced with violence against women. In 2006, a march was organised in Ipswich in response to the murders of five sex workers there, gaining some 200-300 attendees. Northampton staged its first Reclaim the Night march in 2013 to raise awareness for its local rape and incest centre (NRICC) allowing male attendees for the first time in the organisation’s history, and on 25th November, 2017 – a little over forty years to the day since the first march took place – hundreds of women took to the streets in London, Bristol and Newcastle to match for the #MeToo movement.

For more information visit the Reclaim the Night site here.

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