I remember the moment of panic on the tube as it clattered towards Waterloo. Was I really going to go through with this?
I was in my mid-fifties, a grandmother to two, and I had agreed to be part of a topless protest on Waterloo Bridge.
What was I thinking?
Let’s begin with the easy part: why I had agreed. The singer and activist Blythe Pepino – a woman I admire – had asked me to join her in a daring action for Women’s Day to draw attention to the fact that the lives of vulnerable women in the Global South will be made even more precarious by climate change.
I had just finished interviewing her for Rebel Radio about the death of Iggy Fox when Blythe popped the question. I asked who else would be involved and she named a number of women I love from the movement. So, I said yes. Quite enthusiastically, I remember.
But over the next week, my feet got colder and colder, as I argued with myself about whether to go through with it. Not only am I in my fifties, but I also have an autoimmune condition. I am supposed to avoid getting infections. International Women’s Day is the eighth March and I knew from bitter experience that bridges are cold places for a protest even for the fully-clothed.
But I also reckoned that if I wore a lot of layers and took a small hot water bottle, I should be able to keep myself safe.
More complicated were my feelings around being a middle-aged woman about to, well, not to put too fine a point on it, get her tits out for women and the environment. Did that even make any sense?
First of all, although I have made peace with my own body, and feel an affection and gratitude towards it, there nevertheless persists the fear of body shaming. The commodification of women’s flesh in this patriarchal world mean a woman is made aware from men in cars, on the tube and the streets, of her exact value as an object in that market. Or at my age: your lack of value.
But, I also pride myself as being an independent thinker: someone with the courage to face down my fears. I realised there was no choice: I had to do it.
The internal debate made me keenly aware of my privilege. I was choosing to take this challenge. There are young women even now who have to walk longer and longer distances to get water or food, or who risk sexual violence to do difficult, dangerous and demeaning jobs in order to provide for their families due to the escalating climate crisis.
I got out at Waterloo with a sense of purpose and remembered that the bridge had been chosen because it was partially built by women in WW2.
Preparing in the vaults of an XR-friendly church near the station was most enjoyable part of the day. Dressed in the “black trousers or skirts” specified by the brief and topless, we drank cups of tea and chatted with friends while waiting to have slogans painted in black letters on the top part of our chests. The painting was intimate and kindly: an act of love and support, the room lit with a growing sense of camaraderie and trust.
Then we walked out in a two by two formation. Two other teams of rebels had already blocked either end of Waterloo Bridge. We were fully clothed at this stage, but on the bridge the temperature dropped and it was windier. I winced at the idea of spending an hour or two so literally exposed.
At a signal, we put down our clothes and then re-joined the double line. On a further signal, one end of the line spread out so we formed a V shape and then, once in place, we all linked arms with the two closest women.
The slender girl on my right, whom I had never met before, soon started trembling. Even with the hot water bottle under my skirts, I felt horribly cold in my upper body.
One of the well-being support team brought us heat pads to hold in our hands and put into our shoes. I felt vulnerable standing there, unsure what the reaction would be from the passing public.
Pedestrians walking over the bridge had time to adjust to what was happening before they reached us. Our posture was often read as a challenge and many in the crowd were uncertain where to look and reluctant to meet our eyes.
At intervals we took up a song. There were enough talented voices to give the whole a pleasing harmoniousness and it felt like a consolation: our acapella voices binding us together against the wind and the light rain, against the cameras’ intrusive snapping and whirling and the bemused, sometimes hostile expressions of passers-by. As well as our holding hands, we were holding each other in the song: a timeless female sound crossing boundaries and cultures.
I noticed the tabloid photographers angling themselves to get a shot with everyone’s breasts in a line. This was predictable. What was more interesting was that two of XR’s own male filmmakers and photographers did not meet my eye as they went by, as if they were respecting my privacy.
The crowds’ reaction was mostly positive. One young mother spontaneously stripped off to come and stand with us, her daughter in a papoose between her breasts. Two young women jumped over the pedestrian barrier to personally hug every woman on the protest. One man on a bicycle, cycled towards us at speed but our photographer put his own body in the way to prevent his reaching us. The cyclist seemed incensed by the bridge being blocked rather than by the protest.
Pictures of us appeared in all the women’s day coverage. The line of woman was striking, beautiful, strong. I was proud of myself for deciding to join and when I saw this tweet from Julia Hartley Brewer, it just made me wry: ‘Ok, can every [sic] please stop raping women more than they otherwise might have done because of, y’know, the “climate and ecological emergency”. Then this lot will sod off and leave the rest of us alone.’
She included a rare ugly photograph of us and many of the trolls commenting under her post indulged in the habitual misogyny found on the Internet about our “not being worth raping” while another seemed to come straight from the twelfth century: “Where are their cats?” I am old enough to remember the same kind of things being said about the Greenham Common women.
This made me think of the women in the Global South facing rape rather than insult, as well as those women who, two generations ago, built Waterloo Bridge and back further to the suffragettes and the pillorying they received. And all those amazing women standing at my shoulder made it seem slightly mortifying that I had even considered staying in bed that morning instead of joining my sisters in the cold.
Jessica Townsend began her career as writer-in-residence at Hampstead Theatre and won the Peggy Ramsay prize. She directed several prize-winning short films. More recently she has been juggling a feature film commission, which is now in casting to shoot next year, finishing her first novel and coordinating the Extinction Rebellion podcast.