It’s Time to Lift the Female Lockdown

A woman’s brutal murder in London prompts a debate about fear and freedom.

Hundreds of people gathered at a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in South London
Kristian Buus / In Pictures / Getty

“Dear Sarah,” read the note left on the makeshift memorial, “we are so sorry. You did nothing wrong.” It was just after 5 p.m., an hour from sunset, on March 13 and women were already beginning to gather at the park in Clapham, South London, to remember Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman kidnapped from the capital’s streets on March 3. Her body was found a week later in a woodland 50 miles away, in a builder’s bag, and had to be identified from dental records.

The terrible buildup between Sarah’s disappearance and the discovery of her body drew widespread attention to the case, as did the identity of the man now charged with her murder: a serving police officer. On the same day he was arrested, a survey was published showing that 80 percent of young women in the U.K. have been sexually harassed in a public space, and the online conversation returned to a familiar theme: Will women ever feel safe walking the streets?

The right to enter the public sphere is one of the longest-running fights waged by the feminist movement. A speech at the vigil for Everard on March 13 referenced the conviction of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper,” 40 years ago. Back then, police warned women to stay home if they wanted to be safe, which prompted a movement called Reclaim the Night. But feminists were arguing that women had restricted access to public spaces well before that, as much through the design of cities as through cultural taboos. In the 1900s, the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony praised the bicycle for giving women “a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Later, activists fought for more public toilets, better street lighting, spaces for strollers on buses, and baby-changing facilities in restaurants—all amenities that make it easier to leave the domestic sphere. More recently, researchers have looked at how men crowd women at ATMs, how male pedestrians expect women to move out of their way, and how groups of men take up more space on the sidewalk. Even online abuse—which is disproportionately directed at women and members of racial and religious minorities—can be seen on this continuum. Some of those who are relentlessly trolled, harassed, and screamed at will retreat from the open internet, just as surely as the woman who is afraid to go out at night has been harried out of public life.

After Everard’s disappearance, the usual advice got peddled again: Stay at home. A Green Party politician, Jenny Jones, sarcastically wondered whether it would be better to impose a curfew on men, to stop them from committing crimes. She received hate mail from those who didn’t get the bleak joke. “Perhaps, instead of a curfew, I could have offered the more moderate proposal that men are only allowed to walk along well lit busy roads in the evening, even if this adds another 10 minutes to their journey?” she wrote afterward. “Perhaps we should discuss the clothes men wear, or whether they drink too much when out with friends? Any of this sound familiar?”

Arriving at the Everard vigil, I realized something else: The rhetoric of right-wing libertarians contains an unlikely lesson for feminists. Male culture warriors have been at the front of the anti-lockdown movement in Britain, including the actor Laurence Fox and the former head of the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage. “It’s been a strange 12 months in which we’ve given up so many of our personal freedoms,” Fox said in a recent video. “I want to reclaim your freedom to move.” Britain is currently under a complete lockdown: Until March 29, citizens are legally required to stay at home, except for exercise, work, or other exempted activities. If informed by the official Test and Trace service that you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, you must self-isolate at home for 10 days. Breaking this self-isolation carries a fine of £1,000. From last March to the middle of this February, the police issued more than 4,000 fixed-penalty notices for not wearing a face covering on public transport, and more than 200 for breaking international quarantine rules. During the first and strictest lockdown last year, I watched police officers order a young woman who was sitting alone in a park, reading a book, to move on.

I can understand why someone like Fox might chafe at the idea of being told what to do, being told where he can and can’t be, feeling that his presence in public is constantly surveilled and questioned, feeling that the public sphere does not quite belong to him: Welcome to our world, Laurence! This could be a moment for feminists, who skew to the political left, to learn from the powerful rhetoric of the right. Lockdown skeptics represent a small minority in Britain, and they are, flatly, wrong in their arguments. Clear scientific evidence shows that coronavirus restrictions save lives. But the foothold that Fox, Farage, and their fellow travelers have gained in politics is partly thanks to the appealing nature of their rhetoric: the vocabulary of freedom and rights and control of your own life. Those words carry connotations of masculinity, but they could be reclaimed by feminists to make the case that women have been living under (self-imposed and socially mandated) lockdown forever, ostensibly for their own protection. The debate around the Everard case has been defined by “the constant use of the words ‘safe’ and ‘safety,’” the Oxford University linguistics professor Deborah Cameron wrote on her blog. “But what’s really at stake here is women’s freedom rather than just their safety, and I would like to see that f-word given more emphasis.”

After the sun went down on the vigil in South London, the two lockdowns converged. Women were ordered to leave the streets, as local police moved in to enforce Britain’s coronavirus restrictions, which forbid public gatherings. The resulting images of the police action looked awful. One of the most widely shared pictures showed a masked, redheaded woman in her 20s, pinned to the ground by male officers. It reminded some people of the images of the suffragettes, dragged away from their own (sometimes violent) protests outside Parliament in London. Technically, the Clapham protesters were breaking the law by gathering in public, but it was a hard point to argue when Britain’s future queen—Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge—had visited the site hours earlier to lay flowers.

What would it take for women to feel safer—freer—on the streets? In response to Everard’s death, ministers floated a suggestion that plainclothes police should be deployed to bars and clubs, ready to spot any wrongdoers preying on women. Vera Baird, the government-appointed victims’ commissioner, threw up her hands when I mentioned this. “How flipping remote from reality,” she told me. “Sarah [Everard] wasn’t on a night out anyway, so we’re a bit off target.” Baird’s role is to be an independent advocate for the rights of victims in the criminal-justice system, and she believes there are better solutions, starting with a commitment to prosecute rape and other sexual offenses quickly and fairly, as well as a campaign to change the culture around casual sexism.

Politicians have inevitably called for “tougher sentences,” when the real problem is securing any sentences at all. Sexual offenses have a high attrition rate, meaning that only a fraction of crimes are reported, a smaller fraction go to trial, and an even smaller fraction result in a conviction. The closure of courts due to COVID-19 has dragged out cases for even longer—a situation that is unfair to men who are accused of rape, some of whom will be exonerated, as well as to accusers.

In Britain, many rape complainants are asked to hand over their mobile phone, and the police can look through the camera roll and messages in search of evidence. This has been called a “digital strip search” by opponents, and prosecutors tend to ask for every scrap of information they think they might need. More work also needs to be done in balancing the objectivity required for a fair investigation with what many complainants feel are dismissive or sexist attitudes expressed by investigators. (An officer in the Everard case was removed for sharing a joke meme about the murder in a WhatsApp group.) A survey of nearly 500 self-identified rape victims by the office of the victims’ commissioner found that only one in seven believed they would see justice if they reported the crime. Baird backs the extension of legal support for victims, with an estimated price tag of £4 million, which would allow independent lawyers to challenge overly intrusive data requests.

As for cultural change, Baird pointed to the campaign against drunk driving. “When I was a young woman, if somebody was caught drunk driving, the usual response was ‘Why aren’t the police out catching crime criminals, instead of getting in the way of me?’” she said. That changed after posters and television ads showed the reality of road deaths. “So what we need to do is to get into a situation where men together, when they hear somebody catcalling, or saying something sexual, or something derogatory about a woman or about women, don’t just let it pass.”

Although that sounds simple, it would be the most radical change of all: framing street harassment, sexual assault, and rape as problems for men to solve—by confronting the attitudes of their friends and peers—rather than an inevitable hazard for women to avoid. “We are only talking about a minority of men who do bad things to women,” Baird said. “But it’s really important there’s a basic understanding of how damaging and how upsetting and how frightening that kind of sexist stuff is.”

Until then, the conversation will be stuck on whether women are taking the right precautions to protect themselves—while also wondering whether their fears are overblown. Although the coronavirus lockdown will eventually end, and Laurence Fox will regain his precious “freedom to move,” the female lockdown will endure.