Q&A with the Founders of TWSS

2021 marks 10 years of TWSS, and we named our 20th print mag ‘Legacy’ to reflect on those years: how far has the world of feminism progressed, and how has our magazine evolved alongside it? Eliot Lambert reached out to TWSS’ founders to hear their experience of creating a feminist magazine in a time when feminism wasn’t trendy yet, and how the feminist movement is still paramount. Her interviews are collected in their entirety here to celebrate our magazine’s pioneers.

We thought that for the theme of ‘legacy’, it would be really exciting to get in touch with the founders of TWSS, and ask them why they founded the magazine a decade ago, what was happening in the world of feminism at the time, and what they are up to now. It took a while to track them down, but thanks to my amateur detective skills and the power of linkedin, I finally found them. They were keen to get involved, and didn’t realise how much the magazine had grown since they started it!

EMILY MILES

1) What was your role in TWSS?

I was the co-founder and editor of the first few issues. I was also Deputy President of the newly founded Bristol Feminist Society for two years.

2) Why was TWSS created?

We were a new society and our focus was on raising awareness – about the society, about feminism and about issues that were important to us. We wanted to get more radical than the “post-feminist” Girl Power mentality, whilst also making feminism as inclusive and relevant as possible. There was a lot of blatant misogyny in a lot of the mainstream Bristol Uni student papers, so we set up the paper to put out a counter-narrative. 

3) What were the most spoken about feminist issues during that time?

Domestic violence and the underfunding of women’s refuges in Bristol was a big one. It also affected the student community a lot – as victim blaming of student rape survivors was rife. Also the representation of women in the media and public life – this was a time when there was still Page 3, when women’s sport was given absolutely no coverage, and Hooters restaurant had just opened at Bristol Harbourside. 

4) How do you feel attitudes towards feminism have changed over the decade?

When we started, feminism was still very much a dirty word. Many of our brilliant and fierce female friends agreed with the issues, but refused to call themselves feminists or associate themselves with feminism. Ten years on, I can see that their relationship with feminism has changed and so many of them are trailblazing in male dominated industries which is fantastic to see.

The conversation about men’s role in feminism and allyship was also a new one for many people, and one we tried to focus on. Our committee and our events were fairly diverse but whilst we campaigned on racial justice issues, I don’t think the ideas of intersectionality and white privilege were properly acknowledged in the movement. It’s great to see that this has started to change.

5) Why is feminism still important in 2021?

It will always be important! And definitely more so in times of social and economic crisis. During the pandemic we have seen that women continue to pick up the burden of care, are economically more vulnerable, and domestic violence statistics are distressingly high. But there are also more opportunities to grow and do better – there’s greater awareness and acceptance of feminist issues, and there’s more interest from men in particular to have a better relationship with gender and masculinity. There will always be backlash – but these things also give me hope.

6) What have you been up to since leaving Bristol?

After graduating I did my MSc at LSE in Gender and International Development, and then worked for a range of charities on gender equality issues. I’ve worked in international development, the arts, and healthcare sectors. More recently I started a PhD at UCL looking at gender issues in the construction industry. 

Sometimes it feels frustrating to be talking about the same issues a decade later, but it is also a really rewarding experience to see the movement grow and march onwards. 

MEGAN STODEL

1) What was your role in TWSS?

I came up with the name! I was part of the group working on the first issue.

2) Why was TWSS created?

It came out of the Feminist Society, which was pretty new too – it definitely felt like a time of feminist voices getting louder.

3) What were the most spoken about feminist issues during that time?

I remember a lot around sexual violence, victim blaming and slut shaming. We were part of events and movements like Reclaim The Night, SlutWalk and This Is Not An Excuse To Rape Me.

4) How do you feel attitudes towards feminism have changed over the decade?

Feminism has got more prevalent but also more polarising because of that, as there is a backlash. I think there’s also been increasing understanding of the need for feminism to be inclusive – not just one version of feminism. I’m also super aware of the need for feminists to step up for trans rights. When I was an LGBT Officer at Bristol, we got gender neutral toilets signed off, and it wasn’t too controversial. But now the discussion is so often framed as ‘feminists’ being against trans rights – which I know is bullshit. We need to stop that characterisation with our actions of support and solidarity.

5) Why is feminism still important in 2021?

There’s still widespread gender inequality, often compounded by other inequalities. And even the pandemic has put a lot of things backwards.

6) What have you been up to since leaving Bristol?

I did a Masters in Gender and International Relations and became an editor of The F-Word for a few years, which is an online feminist magazine. I worked in social research and a couple of years ago shifted my career to become a data scientist.

Answering the questions together on Zoom!

ALESSANDRA BERTI, SHANNON AND LAURA

1) When did you join TWSS and what was your role?

We, (Shannon, Laura and Alessandra) were part of the third committee for FemSoc (alongside Eleanor, Jess, Georgina and Jess) and the first to take over from the founding committee led by Sophie Bennett. Alessandra was President in 2011/12, and Shannon and Laura were co-Presidents in 2012/13. 

In the spirit of collaboration and reflexivity we’ve answered these questions together, in dialogue with each other.

Alessandra was around for the very first issue of TWSS, and then Laura and Shannon for the second onwards. In 2011-12 when Alessandra was President, it upped to 2 issues per annum and we built on the momentum of the Society which was seeing increasing numbers of people joining and coming along to events. 

A: TWSS was really Emily’s baby. I remember being at the SU and us brainstorming for names. Megan came up with ‘That’s What She Said’ and everyone laughed and loved it. We all got involved in various ways – wrote articles, edited others’ work, and oversaw the project, but it was a collaborative effort with wonderful people. 


2) Why was TWSS created/continued?

A: All the obvious reasons really. It was a way to give people a low threshold way of engaging with feminism, to spread ideas. In the editorial letter for the third edition we even named it one of our propaganda aims!

L: People would come to meetings and say their housemates had been grossed out that they were coming to a feminist thing so TWSS was an accessible way to get into feminism secretly. 

S: We wanted to be creative, tap into a legacy that we knew sisters before us had done with zine making, Spare Rib etc. We’d write letters to Epigram and engage with women’s issues in that way but having TWSS allowed us to define our own space and platform. In all honesty it was also probably something for my CV. 

3) What were the most spoken about feminist issues during that time?

A: I think it’s important to paint a picture of the context: Taking FemSoc to the 2011 Freshers fair got lots of side-eye from people, it felt fairly hostile. The Law Society was next to us and at the end of the day, the guy on that stall came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to know what I think about feminism? It’s too hard for men to get custody of their children’.

L: I didn’t feel embarrassed so much [being at Freshers Fair] but exposed. Contrast this to the first year I was a sabbatical officer for the SU five years later, a FemSoc event had so many people attending we had to put them in the Anson Rooms. 

Abortion rights was definitely something we spoke about a lot and organised around. This was in response to circumstances: a pro-life society was created at the uni, and anti-abortion protestors would pop up doing demos on campus, so we became the obvious network to act quickly in response to this. Sophie Bennett had a motion to make the union pro-choice so there was generally lots of conversation around the topic. 

Pole dance society got spoken about quite a lot – I think we wanted to ban it, wanted to get it shut down. I can’t believe that now, our feminism has changed a lot since then. It tied into the wider Bristol situation where there was a survey going round and people were trying to close adult entertainment venues.

S: I’m pleased to see I’ve changed my attitudes on this! I’m sex work positive now and very pro sex worker rights. I continue to fill in surveys for Bristol council but now asking them not to close sex work venues! 

A: The pole dancing society versus FemSoc debate was one of my first interactions with Ellie, and she’s now one of my best friends! 

L: A trans woman on the committee prepared a presentation explaining to us about being transgender… she was so nervous about doing it that I had to read her notes instead. I think that’s an indication of how in the shadows trans issues were then; the feminist society needed a 101-explanation session. 

Another focus for us was sexual assault and rape (on campus), gender-based violence. One of the first Reclaim The Nights was on when we were in the committee, and so I think our interaction with the broader Bristol feminist scene and Bristol Feminist Network shaped our agenda. Alice Philipps institutionalised it into the SU so it happens yearly now. 

Lads mags and cultures was also a hot topic. The NUS released a report about ‘lad mags’ on campus and held a conference around it. We were very concerned with the objectification of women and their bodies. There was a lad mag at Bristol Uni actually that Sophie Bennett had managed to shut down!

A: Safe spaces, what they looked like and whether they were helpful to the cause, were a big question. I remember at both the women’s conference from NUS and a UK Feminista Event the fact that there was a black caucus was seen as divisive by some white women. Discussion would be had about whether some events should be for women only etc. 

It is worth mentioning what wasn’t being spoken about. Intersectionality wasn’t a widely used term at the time. Trans issues were only just coming into being spoken about; there were no visible role models, no blueprint of how to do things. The extent of our open conversations about race was doing events in collaboration with an organisation called Project Africa. We got criticism that the events are just white women complaining, and our events were absolutely catered for white women on campus – almost exclusively void of race and class awareness. 

4) How do you feel attitudes towards feminism have changed over the decade?

What does it even mean to be a feminist today? Race, class and trans intersections are the areas which jump out in response to this question. We ourselves, and (it seems) the movement, are building in a much more intersectional way.   

It’s much cooler to be a feminist now. Far more mainstream – Taylor Swift would not have said she was a feminist in 2011. I suppose it was less co-opted than now. People at FemSoc events would say ‘I told my housemate I was coming here and they got really funny’… back then there was such stigma about being openly involved.

L: I think you can’t really be a feminist without being an intersectional feminist now. And that’s a good thing. For me, my feminism has evolved in its race and class and anti-capitalist analysis. Those things are very important aspects of my feminism now. In the past I would have defined feminism based on identity – I was a feminist with some other left-wing politics. Now, I’m a socialist and feminism is a part of that.

A: For me it’s similar to questions around what is activism? A feminist to me would 1) self-identify as a feminist; 2) pick up on gendered inequality and in some way do something about it. Although, what does it mean to do something about it? Post-uni capitalism can make things very complex; the fear of not getting access to jobs or certain industries etc. is real. Some things still remain, like why is it still a news headline for a woman to get engaged as opposed to any other of her accomplishments? I think what has gained substance is the understanding and sharing of the diversity of women’s lived experiences.

S: I am concerned about the co-option and commodification of feminism. You can buy t-shirts with ‘Girl Power’ written on it for a fiver and I worry about this diverting away from important structural issues. It’s ‘cool’ in certain circles to be a feminist, but it seems a watered-down version in some ways; the language has been co-opted. I’d say there’s definitely a marked increase in ‘feminism’ in popular culture, which carries pros and cons.

5) Why is feminism still important in 2021?

I feel like we should get some statistics at this point. This many women are MPs, this many women were killed at the hands of a partner, this many women were raped last year. Why we need feminism still goes back to the basics – sexism and misogyny still exist, and we still live with, under and in, patriarchy. Also, the gross inequalities of wealth on the planet means we need feminism. 

Feminism has been liberating for us personally, and it’s meant some women’s options have been broadened. It allows for a space to re-imagine the world. But who is that space for, who is included and who isn’t? Also where are the spaces for masculinity to be discussed? This currently happens in queer spaces, and at the intersection of men’s mental health and masculinity, but there’s still a lot to be thought through here. Where is the lived reimagination of so many other things still affecting us, or we’re yet to experience? Climate change, motherhood, kinship, shared resources. We need feminism to reach tipping points – more people who are out and queer and feminist. We want to see the next step of living our lives in these creative and liberated futures. 

6) What have you been up to since leaving Bristol?  

A: Laura and I were sabbatical officers for the SU – so we didn’t leave Bristol so quick! I think of this as a proud tradition of FemSoc members going on to roles that seek to shape the university community more widely in the image of equality. For instance, Alice Philipps who was involved with FemSoc at the time went on to become women’s officer at the SU. After my time at the SU, I worked for a charity in Bristol, then moved back home to Switzerland, dabbled in the private sector tech world, and then did a masters in filmmaking and now work as a freelance filmmaker. 

L: I worked as a chef for a year, then I started a masters at Bristol Uni. There I became a sabb post-graduate rep for 2 years. Then I worked for a charity in London, then back to Bristol to work for the Labour Party. Other important things since graduating are that I came out as gay and have had various struggles with my mental health. Now I’m in London working as an organiser for Green New Deal UK. 

S: I travelled around, did some different jobs. Went farming in Hawaii, travelled around Central America, worked as a bouncer. For the past few years though I’ve been working in academic publishing, and I’m back in Bristol! I’m a commissioning editor at Bristol University Press and Policy Press, curating the sociology and gender books programme. 

The front cover of the first edition of TWSS from 2011!

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