‘We are in the midst of an uprising’: An interview with Lee Lakeman

Lee Lakeman

Lee Lakeman is a feminist activist, speaker, and was a front line anti-violence worker for over 30 years. She continues to consult and do anti-violence work in her retirement. In May of 2013 Lee received an honorary PhD from the University of British Columbia. Upon her retirement she also won SFU’s Thakore Visiting Scholar award, given in the name of Mahatma Gandhi.

Jess: Thanks for agreeing to meet with me today. As a young feminist I’m wondering how you became involved in the feminist movement and how you decided to make it your life’s work.

Lee: In a way, I had absolutely no excuse. I was roughly twenty, living in Toronto and studying at Ryerson, so lots of things were going on all around me, including meetings about women’s liberation and meetings about the civil rights movement. It was right there. You had to work at not being involved when I was young.

To top it all off, I became pregnant by a foreign student so I was, all of a sudden, right in the middle of the race questions, poverty questions, and women’s rights questions. That made them all profoundly important to me. I didn’t think about it as my life’s work until later.

I owned a house with some friends, and we made it available to women who had no place to go. It became the Woodstock Women’s Emergency shelter. So, there I was in the middle of learning about violence against women, and I haven’t looked back. The work is rewarding, and the more I did it, the more I understood how important it was. It was a place to stand.

Jess: Since you first became involved in the feminist movement, what do you think has changed? What about the current movement is truly unique and what aspects are being recycled from eras past? What has remained a constant?

Lee: Boy, you’re asking in the middle of a new crisis so it’s not clear to me what the future holds. I decided to take my stand in relation to male violence against women by supplying services — politicized services. So, all those things roll into one answer. I would not be doing services if they were not politicized services and I’m not crazy about a practice that doesn’t involve front-line work. Something about it is appealing to me. It can keep you honest and grounded.

However, I think transition houses and rape crisis centers are under serious threat now, so I don’t know that they will continue to exist in any radical form in the future. I hope they will. I’m going to fight for them.

I do think there’s a sea change that is happening and I’m writing about it in the [Rape Relief history] book.

There were a lot of anarcho influences in the beginning, in the formations that women chose: affinity groups, collectives, coalitions of collectives. The structure of these groups was very important. There was a lot of women-only space. Mixed organizations [with both men and women] would partner, perhaps, on important issues, but there was a lot of women’s centers, transition houses, rape crisis centers, Take Back the Night marches, public education events, and rallies that were essentially women-only spaces.

That’s under attack now, but I also think there is currently a pretense that you can be a feminist and a capitalist at the same time. There’s a pretense that you can participate in imperialist activity or ignore colonialism or ignore racism and still think of yourself as a feminist. The radicals from the beginning always integrated those things, and there were academics who wrote down what we integrated. Black feminists have lead important discussions and arguments about that. Now there’s a huge divide and that’s been manipulated by many forces. We have to be diligent about integrating an independent women’s movement.

There is more public discussion of violence against women today than there ever was in my lifetime and I don’t think a lot of young women are fully appreciating that. We’re in a moment where all of a sudden, it’s on the news. High profile cases are everywhere. Women are telling on men of enormous power (as well as their lovers, and husbands, and friends).

We’re not delivering loud enough leadership. That public understanding is there. Women are using it now to rise up, but we also have to help each other understand what action to take.

Jess: What would that leadership entail?

Lee: I don’t think it will be me. It’ll more likely be this next round of women — women your age. I know that it means that we’ll have to express an integrated politics. We have to be leading on government, public policy, public education, and funding. We can’t silo off those issues or settle for the current government programs — the government — funded programs that are being put forward.

Jess: How do you see the collective model being a part of that leadership?

Lee: Collectives make you smarter than you are. That’s the main point. If you’re part of a collective that reflects the population that you’re serving, then you’ve got a lot of intelligence at the table to discuss strategies, tactics, and what praxis should look like. You can correct each other without raising paranoia and antagonistic fights. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got friendly opposition within our thinking. I think we’re desperately in need of that right now, and we need fora in which to do it. Collectives are one of those fora.

Jess: So how do you go about building those collectives? Where do you start? Is it better to get involved in something that is pre-existing or come together around a specific issue?

Lee: I think you need some affinity for each other, a common cause, and a little bit of common practice. What has saved Rape Relief’s bacon many times as a collective (when it was in an argument with itself) was that we all had to answer the phone. So we had what Chris Hedges calls a moral imperative. We were not going to let the crisis line close. That shared commitment to the woman we don’t know has kept us as a meaningful, purposeful collective.

You have to be tough. You have to be committed. The more collectives there are, the better, and the best is when they’re overlapping — when there are women within your membership that belong to two or three different collectives, it increases their capacity to talk to each other.

Jess: Can you recall any situations where you learned a feminist lesson the hard way (I know I can)?

Lee: Oh man, I’ve had lots. When I first got to Vancouver (full of ideas) I leapt into activity at Rape Relief without scouting out the territory or making a place in the community before I launched in so that caused me a fair bit of trouble. However, I also learned that outsiders — and you have to work harder to hear an outsider — often bring forward the ideas that are missing in your group.

I’ve learned that while I’m often put forward as a public figure, my intelligence really depends on the rest of the women in the group. I might be the one getting the accolades, but that doesn’t mean I’m smarter than anyone else in the group or that I can do it by myself.

Jess: While we’re on the subject of collectives, could you tell me a little bit about your book and some of the themes in there?

The idea is that we should write down the history of Rape Relief, especially the collective history. The first thing we did was break it into five year chunks. What we did was get one woman from each time period, meaning that she had lived and worked that time period, and she became the pathway for anybody else who wants in.

Then, we made a series of political decisions together about what that time period involved. Who was in that time period, and what record do we have? We have a huge archive to work from. I’ve been reading through [the timelines] and going through all the history (particularly the feminist history) happening during those time periods in order to make those connections. So, the hope is that we can tell the stories behind the politics.

We already know that consciousness-raising is very important to us, that direct action is very important to us, that we did some pretty sophisticated lobbying, that broad coalition-building was part of our history. We know that we had a tremendous success right after the Montreal Massacre and achieved a lot of reform during that time period. Immediately after that we were hit by neoliberalism in a big way.

And we’re still in that period, trying to figure out how to function. We don’t have any easy answers but there are some concepts that are still useful and still important. What does it mean to lobby? What does it meant to do direct action and what can they be about violence against women?

Taking back the night, for instance, is a revival of the direct action tactic, and it’ll be evaluated as such. What did it achieve? We know that women learned something about taking the street, about working together, about supplying their own security systems. All those things matter.

Jess: I’m interested in consciousness-raising because I think there’s a lot of literature about the theory but our contemporary praxis is lacking. Could you provide the reader with knowledge of the benefits of that praxis?

Lee: I’m a big fan of consciousness raising. I see it as the practice of “the personal is political.” For example, when we realized as a collective — both on the theoretical level and on the meta level – that prostitution was changing in neoliberalism, we had to connect to the issue using the experience on the ground so that we could genuinely have an integrated point of view.

If you look at standpoint theory, where can we stand to connect to this issue?

My job (as one of the rotations) was to work on alliances so I asked my committee to talk about prostitution. And we did. Then we replicated that discussion in a public group, which was the beginning of Flesh Mapping.

We met every couple of weeks and the questions that we kept answering to ourselves were:

“What’s prostitution got to do with you? Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever been in the position of being a prostitute? Do you know someone who is or was? Did somebody leave condoms in your backyard? How does this engage you?”

When you keep doing that exercise, what happens is your blinders come off and you begin to remember things that you’ve been burying or letting live in the fog.

So very quickly we realized that a number of women in the collective were immigrant women whose mothers or grandmothers or aunts had been caught in the migrations and had experienced predator men moving in on them (or armies moving in on them). We had women in the collective who had been prostituted on the streets of Vancouver. All of that was coming to the table.

When you have that knowledge, it affects your behaviour, your attitude. It affects the way you learn. It affects the way you talk about prostitution. It’s no longer “other.” It’s no longer “them.” The conversation included women who were very beautiful and so had been mocked, with people saying “why aren’t you a prostitute?” It included women who taught school who would lose their job if they’d be seen prostituting. It included women who did not want to be the poster child for prostitution but who wanted the group to fight for their right not to be.

That’s just one example but it has been true on many different examples: wife assault, incest, rape, street harassment, prostitution, and there will probably be more.

Jess: After the group gets their blinders removed, what’s the next step? How did you go from that process to something like Flesh Mapping where the conversation went public?

We had been public with our position on prostitution for a long time, but this was on a theoretical level. The last time we were actively public in Vancouver was a while ago when women and men were prostituted and betrayed by the justice system through the creation of the public nuisance law. They posted 31 people’s names in the West End. We’d been active on this issue before, but this was yet another round of answering, “what does it have to do with us?”

It starts with somebody wanting to do something about it. The questions we were answering were, “what is the connection between international trafficking around the pacific, and the demand for prostitution in Vancouver? How can we draw the public’s attention to that connection?”

There’s no abstract answer to how you go to action. It takes at least one woman deciding to do it and then gathering whatever resources, including women, that she’s got.

Jess: Well, I hope to be part of that in the future.

If you were going to give a message of encouragement or a call to action for young feminists, what would that be?

Lee: I’m doing it, and I’m doing it all the time. I would say think global. Don’t forget to do the consciousness-raising. You’re in it. You’re not about someone else’s liberty; you’re about all of our liberty.

Don’t separate the issues. Don’t isolate violence from liberation and just start and then self correct, and go again and then self correct.

Jess: I want to end with a quick question on the election. Misogyny in the right wing is widely acknowledged. However, many women are choosing not to vote in the upcoming election on the basis that misogyny is rampant also in the left. Can you talk about what misogyny on the left looks like and what you think our response should be?

Lee: The discussion with Chris Hedges [an event recently took place in Vancouver on September 25] got going because we had met him in the context of a broad coalition in San Francisco. I realised that he was chastising the left for not being radical enough and so I threw in the fact that they’re not so great on women’s issues either right now.

I was thinking, particularly, about prostitution. I found it distressing that there was no enormous union support behind the call to interfere with the working conditions of immigrant women in domestic labour, or of Indigenous women migrating to the city, or of destitute single mothers. That’s who’s facing prostitution on a large scale. That’s who’s being groomed. That’s who’s being set up, and that’s who’s being abandoned.

So, I was pissed off at the left that they were disappointing on this. But, you know, I’ve lived a long time. The left didn’t start off being supportive on wife assault either. They weren’t great on rape and they’re still not great on sexual harassment on the job.

But we are in a new moment. We’re in the midst of an uprising and women are in revolt everywhere and the left is noticing. Now is the time to articulate our demands, to articulate our vision, to articulate that our solidarity requires solidarity back.

Jess: You might say we’re getting a little ungovernable. I’d like to see us get more so, but you might say we’re exploring it.

Lee: That’s right. We have to announce our terms in the alliance. Alliances are not unconditional love. They’re very conditional.

Jess: What terms could we announce in the upcoming election if we’re going to use the state?

There’s no party that gives a damn what we think right now, so that’s our first problem. I agree with Chomsky when he says that, yes, it’s worth the five minutes. Go get Harper out.

On the other hand, I see no real support from the NDP and all three parties [the Greens, the Liberals, and the NDP]  have sworn to repeal the laws against prostitution. That better mean that they’re going to bring in better laws because if they think they’re going to get away with abandoning us to full decriminalization, they are in for a shit fight.

Jess: I’m very willing to participate in that. Thank you.

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.