In the November of 1977 a shadow hung over Leeds.
While no one yet knew his name, Peter Sutcliffe had already killed six women and seven more would die before he was finally arrested.
The lives of everyone in the city were touched by the Yorkshire Ripper. Most knew someone who had been questioned by the increasingly desperate detectives and women were advised not to walk alone after dark.
It was the latter that in part prompted the UK’s first ever Reclaim the Night march. A similar event had taken place in German towns and cities earlier in the year and as winter arrived the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group decided to act. Al Garthwaite remembers it well.
“We all knew what it was to feel harassed and to feel vulnerable when walking at night and Peter Sutcliffe wasn’t the only threat,” says the Leeds councillor. “We decided to organise two marches, one from Hyde Park and one from Chapeltown and then I suggested that we encourage feminist groups throughout the country to march on the same night.
“We wanted to fight back against the widespread acceptance of women as fair game for abusive and violent men and it did feel like we achieved something.”
At 10pm on November 12 that year, women gathered in 12 different towns and cities and began their after dark march. Some were carrying banners proclaiming ‘No Curfew on Women, Curfew on Men’, while others simply chanted ‘Reclaim the Night’ as they went.
“There were about 60 women on each of the Leeds marches,” remembers Al. “As I recall, the sole police officer who turned up at the Chapeltown march rapidly radioed for assistance when she saw our numbers, and our flaming torches.
“As we marched up North Street, a dark and seedy place compared with today, men coming out of a pub shouted obscenities and tried to harass, but reeled back as we advanced on them, flaming torches at the ready. That was a satisfying moment.”
The Reclaim the Night marches continued for more than a decade before fizzling out in the early 1990s. However, the event was revived in 2004 and it is also the inspiration for The Darkest Corners, a new work by Leeds theatre company RashDash, which will be performed in a car park on the outskirts of the city centre this week.
“Unfortunately the issues those women marched against 40 years ago haven’t gone away,” says Abbi Greenland, who is one half of RashDash along with Helen Goalen. “We all have a thing we do when we are out alone at night. Some might already have 999 tapped into their phone as a precaution, others always have their keys to hand so they feel armed.
“When Helen and I first began talking about it, we thought they might just be our own quirks, but as we spoke to other women we realised that not only is it something we all do, but also that everyone had a story of either being followed or being hassled.”
Part cabaret, part physical theatre and with a helping of live music, The Darkest Corners, which is part of the citywide Transform 17 festival, also takes its lead from global female activists including Diana The Hunter – the Mexican ‘vigilante’ who shot and killed two bus drivers following the sexual abuse of female passengers and India’s Gulabi Gang; a group of women working towards justice for oppressed and abused women.
“We wanted to perform it somewhere people would feel uncomfortable to go at night, so that’s why we chose a car park in Holbeck,” says Helen. “We don’t want to give away too many details, but over the course of an hour and 15 minutes we will follow the journey of one woman as she comes face to face with various different figures, some of whom will be dangerous and intent on violence, but others are entirely innocent.
“Recent world events seem to have ignited a new wave of feminism. We have been working on this show on and off for the last couple of years, but it really feels like the right time to stage a piece like this.
“In January five million took to the streets in what was the largest ever march to protect women’s rights and this is our way of celebrating the fearless women who have stood together over the last 40 years.”
The Darkest Corners, Globe Road, Holbeck, April 20 to 22. transformfestival.org