I moved to Bradford in 1980 and of course was affected by what was happening at the time. West Yorkshire was a place of fear for women, with unsolved murders by the man we later discovered to be Peter Sutcliffe.
We were only too aware of the attitudes to women being demonstrated by those – including the police – who described some of his victims as ‘innocent’, as if the women he killed who had been working as prostitutes were somehow ‘guilty’. We were upset and angered by these attitudes, and about the fact that women were being told we shouldn’t go out at night. It seemed to us that it was men who should be under curfew, not women.
I became part of the Bradford women’s group, a loose network. Whether it was helping to set up those early domestic abuse refuges or rape crisis centres, forming lesbian support groups or providing childcare for women who needed it, most of us had been around aspects of the Women’s Liberation Movement over several years.
Now we were in the eye of the storm, and determined to make women’s concerns visible. We heard that a film entitled ‘Violation of the Bitch’ was to be shown at the Bradford Odeon. To have such obvious misogyny being promoted in a city where all women were potential targets for the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ wasn’t something we could ignore.
We decided to go to the cinema on 27 November, some half hour before the film was due to start, and explain to anyone going in why we thought it was a shockingly bad idea for them to see it. About forty of us stood on the steps of the cinema. We did not prevent anyone from entering, but certainly left them in no doubt as to how we felt about such a film being shown.
To no-one’s very great surprise, the police arrived. It was only too obvious that they intended to make arrests, as they brought a paddy wagon as well as several cars.
The police persisted in asking us who our leader was, and got more and more annoyed as we first of all shrugged our shoulders and then indulged in some banter between us about who might be a leader. It was just such an absurd question. We were a group and the idea of going to the cinema that night just evolved as we talked, quite possibly over a pint or two, a few nights previously.
Eventually, realising they weren’t going to get an answer – because there wasn’t one – the policeman in charge told his force to arrest the women he pointed out. It was quite random who was chosen. I was one. Some walked to the cars, some went limp and had to be carried, one or two resisted. Eleven of us ended up in the police station ‘cage’ or in cells; we called out to discover who else was there and if everyone was OK. It was a tedious few hours.
And then, at about midnight, they opened the doors and said we could go. We were appalled. “You’re releasing us after the last buses have gone, when we live scattered all across the city – and you’ve been telling us never ever to walk alone at night?” We told the police that they would have to get us home.
Their response? “Girls who play with fire must expect to get burnt.”
We did all get home safely that night, thank goodness. Then we received our court summons. Believe it or not, we were being charged with ‘blemish of the peace’. Not ‘breach’, because obviously that charge couldn’t be justified. Apparently the cinema owner had refused to press charges (the steps were private property), which left the police with few options. Our solicitor, Ruth Bundy, said she had never heard of ‘blemish of the peace’ being used before. Interestingly, it was later used against the striking miners in 1984.
Our day in court, on 19 January 1981, began with having to decide who would take the stand first. I volunteered, and explained our motives and intentions. We thought it should be understood that we weren’t just some rabble, but women with real concerns. Again, the fact that we were a group that functioned perfectly well without a ‘leader’ seemed incomprehensible to the prosecutor, who asked each of my friends in turn whether she was ‘in Alice’s gang’. We were bound over to keep the peace.
Now that the police have finally apologised for the way they talked about Sutcliffe’s victims, I feel it might be time for them to apologise to us, too. Fortunately, we were not ‘burnt’ that night. Had one of us become the next victim, would the police have recognised their own culpability? Or were we not ‘innocent’ enough?
This article first appeared in the Telegraph & Argus, Nov 2020