Feminism’s Fault Lines

She Was Walking Home: How Sarah

The disappearance and murder of a young British woman, whose killer will be sentenced this week, unleashed a torrent of anger—and exposed deep rifts in feminist approaches to criminal justice.

Police officers form a cordon as vigilgoers turn on their phone lights at a bandstand on Clapham Common.
Police officers form a cordon as vigil-goers turn on their phone lights at a bandstand on Clapham Common.Photograph by Justin Tallis/AFP/ Getty Images.

 

On the last night Sarah Everard was seen alive, she picked up a bottle of wine at a London grocery store and visited a friend before beginning her walk home. It was around 9 p.m. on March 3 and the 33-year-old marketing executive was wrapped in warm layers and wearing sensible sneakers. She took a main road, it is believed, that cut through Clapham Common, a park regularly populated by joggers and dog walkers. By 9:30 p.m., she was past the park and on Poynders Road, heading toward her neighborhood. The streets would have been emptier than normal, with pubs and restaurants closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Sarah’s image was captured briefly on a private doorbell camera as she walked by herself. Then, she vanished.

Image may contain Human Person Clothing and Apparel
Sarah Everard spotted on security camera footage in a grocery store before she disappeared in March.Photograph from Shutterstock.

In the following days, the news of her disappearance hooked somewhere deep inside women in Britain and unleashed a wave of grief and anger. Online, women began sharing the everyday modifications they took to avoid danger in public—walking with keys thrust between knuckles, avoiding dark streets, adjusting outfits to cover up skin or obscure curves, calculating exactly what tone to use when responding to a stranger’s greeting without provoking anger or inviting further conversation—the weight of this eternal vigilance came tumbling out in a stream of tweets and Facebook posts tagged #shewaswalkinghome. Much has been made of the invisible labor women perform in terms of planning children’s birthday parties and refilling hand-soap dispensers, but this was another form of labor, comprised of constant, deliberate acts of survival.

Women in Clapham reported that they had been visited by police and advised not to venture out at night alone. The instruction was eerily reminiscent of what police told women in the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper, a notorious serial killer, was terrorizing Britain’s female population. Back then, feminists in Leeds, bristling over the suggestion they should limit their personal freedoms to escape male violence, began organizing evening protests under the name “Reclaim the Night.” Was it possible that nearly 50 years later, this was the best advice law enforcement had to offer? The simmering anger reached a crescendo six days later when police arrested one of their own, a Metropolitan police officer named Wayne Couzens, and subsequently charged him with Sarah’s kidnapping and murder.

Image may contain Human Person Advertisement and Poster
Posters along Sarah Everard’s last known route.Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Alone in her apartment, Jamie Klingler, an event planner in her early 40s who runs the annual London Seafood Festival, was feeling useless and a little stir-crazy. “I needed to see other women. I needed people [who were as] angry and upset as I was,” she told me over coffee at a café in Soho. Somewhat impulsively, Klingler decided she would organize a vigil for Sarah and announced her intentions in a tweet. She soon learned that another group of women were planning the same thing, organizing under the name “Reclaim These Streets”—a nod to the earlier feminist movement. The women teamed up, and over a series of Zoom calls, planned a vigil for Saturday, March 13. The plan was to hold a socially distanced, masked event at the bandstand in the common, which was already serving as a makeshift memorial, blanketed in flowers and notes to Sarah. But when organizers reached out to law enforcement to ensure the gathering could go forward without violating lockdown restrictions, Klingler said, they were told that the event was illegal. The group went to court to fight for their right to protest, but ultimately felt they could not proceed without legal risk. On the morning of the vigil, Reclaim These Streets announced that the event was off. Klingler appeared on several television and radio programs to urge people to stay home and participate in a virtual vigil instead.

Leave a Reply