The backstory of one of our founders

The backstory of one of our founders

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Hello my name is Emma Dolan, I’m a textile artist in Leeds.

Until 2018 I was making Harris Tweed tea cups and spinning things very happily in my studio at Sunnybank Mill in Leeds.

Then I learnt 2 things.

1. A 13yr old girl I knew, not yet through puberty, in foster care, ‘complex needs’ is the polite phrase I think, a lovely girl who thus far had had a hard life, was bought a breast binder by her mum for her birthday, and was being told that she could become a boy instead.

2.The Labour Party – of which I’m a member, who I’d always voted for, have leafleted and door knocked for – was allowing men who say they are women to be put on All Women Shortlists, in place to increase the number of women in power. I saw this as an obvious contradiction, contributed to a crowdfunder to question the policy and shared on a Labour women’s chat group. I was swiftly kicked off that group for being hateful.

I woke up one morning to find I been put in a Labour Party dossier of transphobes, at which point I wasn’t 100% sure what the word meant and, crucially for me, Id been added to “The Most Wonderful Twitter Chat Group with all the mouthy feminists – none of which I’d heard of.

I was, to be honest petrified. I was expecting my windows to be put through at the very least.

My focus changed. I read and read and researched and talked to anyone and everyone, trying to work out what was going on, as to me, it was ,and still is, very clear that humans cannot change sex. I “educated” myself. I asked every woman I knew, liked, respected, or not – “you know when you say TWAW, do you actually BELIEVE they are in REALITY women? Or are you being kind?”

I spoke to male Labour friends only to find that they thought I was being mean. Luckily, the voices I most respected , including my closest friends, my partner, my family, supported me.
From then on, my work has been focussed on feminism, women’s rights, women’s issues, running free workshops for women, volunteering at a women’s charity shop, helping put on meetings for women, create spaces for women to talk freely and craft if they wanted to. I produced embroidered domestic items, muslin cloths, sieves etc and banners. Lots of banners. I had thought that Harris Tweed tea cups were pretty niche, now I was embroidering PENIS onto tea strainers..

I started making marching banners. The popular Wrong Side of History My Arse for Procession 2018, banners for WPUK and FiLiA, and Feminism-Back By Popular Demand, (which has its own cancellation story!!)

In 2021 the owners of my studio, the mill complex, received complaints about 3 pieces of my work:

  • a business card with the word WOMAN and the dictionary definition, adult human female ,I had printed in March 2018 to distribute on my trip to the House of Commons for a meeting arranged by Venice Allen with speakers Julia Long, Sheila Jeffreys, Anne Ruzylo and Posie Parker

  • 3 tea strainers embroidered with brown silks to look like tea leaves, one said WOMEN, one said DON’T HAVE, and one said PENISES

  • A photograph of my most popular piece, Wrong Side Of History My Arse, being held by Graham Linehan who I asked to pose with it outside the Scottish parliament as I had donated the rights to the design to FILIA and they were selling it on a range of merchandise to raise money for other womens projects

The complaint to the mill complex was from a person who regularly campaigns for ‘transgender rights’ in Leeds and is well known to local women.

Two 23 yr old students who had, unknown to me been brought on a visit to the mill to see a working artists studios , had seen the business card in my and had “felt upset”. The complaint was then later made by their friend, the TRA.

Several months earlier I had removed the tea strainers at the mills request, I think they offended someone but wasn’t told who or why. So when the complaint re the card was made I had a chat with the mill complex owner.

I had to decide now whether to “Be Kind” and remove from view any of my work that could conceivably make anyone feel upset.

For the last 3 years ALL my work has been focused on women’s rights, whether the issue be about sexual violence and abuse, pornography, freedom of expression, prostitution, I could not at this point bring myself to give in. Again I found support from those I respect most….and by now, I’ve met sooooooo many more wonderful strong women, and a few men.

I didn’t remove all trace of work concerning women. I was given notice to vacate my space. I don’t fit the “inclusive” image that the business wants to portray. The Sewing Bee was being filmed there at the start of all this

My belief – that humans can’t change sex, men are not women, women do not have penises- is a forbidden belief in Leeds, in particular in the Leeds art world, in particular right now with Leeds2023 “City of Culture” as was, in full swing across all sectors.

So, I decided to stand my ground, to use the amazing success of Maya ‘Worthy of Respect’ Forstater, to be braver and say No. Luckily for me/unluckily for the Mill Complex, I was going to Filia, so knew I could get advice there. Maya herself suggested I contact Levins solicitors and go for discrimination.

Levins contacted the Mills solicitors citing Maya’s case, and Hey Presto, the Mill “felt sure this matter could be sorted out without resorting to litigation”.

We know our “beliefs” are reality, and so does everyone else. Wrong side of history, my arse.

So, what to do now? Find another space in another studios subject to the same climate of nonsense? Stop making altogether? Well, no, because in my solicitors words, “the Mill had Radicalized me”.

A group of women from across Yorkshire began to think about setting up our own studios, where we could express ourselves without being policed. And why stop at studio spaces? Why not our own workshops, meeting rooms etc etc, the studio quest began.

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