Imagining a Transnational and Transhistorical Movement Against Violence

As a college student in the U.S. in the 1980s, I first became aware of Take Back the Night. In countless cities, towns, and campuses across the U.S., feminist organizations coordinated these annual events to protest violence against women. Participants—typically women (and often intentionally and exclusively women)—gathered for night-time marches and rallies to speak out against rape and other forms of sexual assault and to assert that women should have the right to occupy public spaces and travel at night without fear.

The movement known as Take Back the Night (or Reclaim the Night, RTN, outside of North America), began in the 1970s and continues to the present. Starting with the first RTN events (in West Germany and Britain in 1977), it quickly spread to the U.S., Australia, Canada, and other parts of the world. The U.S.-based Take Back the Night Foundation began in 1999 to facilitate events and advocate for an end to sexual violence; but the movement has been, and continues to be, decentralized with protests generally coordinated by local activists and community organizers. Over time, the agenda has expanded to include a broader understanding of the forms and causes of sex and gender-based violence and those affected by it. Within the U.S., Take Back the Night has also seemed to shift from protest to ritual and the angry tone that energized earlier demands for legal and social change has been replaced by the more sombre tone of a memorial and the effort to create safe spaces for survivors to recount their stories.1

Several years ago, I started to pay attention to Take Back the Night (TBTN) in new ways. Both an annual event and a movement, RTN/TBTN deserves attention as one of so-called second-wave feminism’s enduring projects. Spanning more than forty years, the event highlights the continued problem of sexual violence even as public awareness of causes, impact, and potential solutions have shifted over time. My new interest was inspired by research in the archives at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. There, I encountered the records of the Coalition to Take Back the Night, which organized the annual event in Boston. The archival collection spans from 1978, the year of the first protest in that city, to 1991. By that time, the Coalition, predominantly white women, had disbanded after failing to incorporate women of colour into decision making roles or to reconfigure Take Back the Night’s demands to address an understanding of violence that highlighted the ways that race and class intersected with gender to shape women’s experiences and the collective responses of legal, political, and social service organizations. Instead, a single citywide event was supplanted by multiple neighbourhood and campus-based protests throughout the area.2 In the archival collection, meeting minutes and correspondence documented the Coalition’s approaches to organizing TBTN and its eventual decision to disband, while pamphlets, posters, speeches, and press materials showed the media activists produced to promote the event and mobilize participants before and during the night-time protest.

Two documents from this collection particularly intrigued me: a hand drawn poster and a typed 3-page report. The report, ‘Take Back the Night: A Short History’, was dated September 1978, and written by unnamed members of the Coalition. It detailed the inspiration, agenda, and processes used to coordinate TBTN. It noted:

In Boston, women learned from a London women’s newspaper that such a demonstration happened in London in November of 1977. Here, it was discussed in a local socialist feminist group, and from there the idea to plan a Take Back the Night demonstration spread to several individuals and groups working on the issues of violence against women in the home, at the workplace, on the street, and in prisons and psychiatric institutions.

Other documents revealed that Boston organizers spoke by phone with a member of London’s Women’s Liberation to gain more information about that city’s demonstration, the challenges they encountered, and how they reached out to area residents before and after the event.3

The ‘Short History’ revealed Coalition members’ consciousness of the historical significance of TBTN and the planning it represented. Written less than one month after Boston held its first TBTN, it demonstrated the Coalition’s dedication to document their process and a deliberate effort to create an archive that could be useful in the future, a dedication that may explain how the papers ended up at Northeastern’s Library. In addition, the ‘Short History’ directly situated members of the Boston Coalition within a web of connections that included activists in that city and elsewhere. Although meeting minutes indicated Coalition members also consulted with their counterparts in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., both sites of prior TBTN, in the ‘Short History’ the London connection was singled out as the only non-local contact with a significant role.

In explicit and implicit ways, the poster also established Boston’s connections to a larger movement. Produced for the first march in 1978 by an unknown artist, the poster immediately located TBTN, and the issue of sexual violence, within a broader landscape of feminist organizations and issues. It listed many co-sponsors that supported the event and would appear as speakers and stated organizers’ theory of change: ‘Women have the right to control our own bodies; we demand Medicaid funding for abortion; we call for community action against violence; we demand access to self-defence classes; we demand women-run community shelters for women.’

The poster’s central image—a hand grasping a crescent moon—directly tied to the text that women should come together to overcome the ‘fear of walking alone at night’. The act of solidarity evoked by the poster also extended beyond the call for women to unite for the night-time march. The graphic image—a moon and woman’s raised hand—was widely repeated by organizers of TBTN and RTN. In fact, nearly identical images have appeared frequently on TBTN/RTN promotional materials, from the U.S. to New Zealand to Canada, and from the 1970s into the 2000s.4 Although varying in colour and shifting from hand-drawn to digitally-produced posters and t-shirts, these symbols (and often silhouettes of dancing women) make up a metaphorical archive indicating activists’ imagined relationship between women and the night, one that replaces fear with familiarity (if not domination). Moreover, I argue, drawing on an archive of shared symbols works to reinforce a sense of collectivity that connects activists across time and place.

Poster for the Boston 1978 Take Back the Night event, Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, Mass., Coalition to Take Back the Night Records, Box 1, Folder 8.

As I continue this research, I seek to answer a number of questions: What has and has not changed in the ways that activists organize TBTN/RTN in the past four decades? How and why do activists mobilize the memory—and archive—of these earlier events to sustain this movement on both the local and transnational levels? I am particularly interested in understanding the critically important role of feminist media in catalysing RTN’s spread over both space and time. What narratives are created through media accounts of the movement and what accounts have been erased or forgotten? How did this movement—and these images—travel from one site to another? What material, concrete processes were involved in transferring materials in an era before digital files could be easily shared and reproduced?  And what is at stake in the ways that the history of organizing to end sex and gender-based violence is remembered?

Many of these questions lead me back to the archives—both the archive of symbols on which activists draw and the archives they created to document this movement. Thanks to the growth of digital archives worldwide, more and more RTN/TBTN posters and promotional materials are accessible. The papers of organizing committees, or individual activists involved in organizing RTN/TBTN events, is small but expanding. The largest and most widely accessible evidence, however, comes from published media and now, social media. Media coverage of annual events, as well as analytical articles reflecting on the movement’s role in defining gendered violence, have been critically important ways to make permanent what were ephemeral activities. But the media coverage can be skewed—by dismissive reports in mainstream press, sketchy or congratulatory accounts in feminist publications, and other biases. By closely reading media coverage and organizers’ records, I hope to uncover more of the archive of symbols, ideas, strategies, and connections that helped build a movement that is both transnational and transhistorical.


The featured image shows women marching in the annual Take Back The Night rally on State Street, Madison, ca. 1980–1989. Photograph copyright of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

  1. For more on the history of RTN/TBTN, see: Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement (London, 2015); Anne M. Valk, ‘Remembering Together: Take Back the Night and the Public Memory of Feminism’, in Leslie Brown, Jacqueline Castledine, and Anne Valk (eds.), U.S. Women’s History: Untangling the Threads of Sisterhood (New Brunswick, NJ, 2017), 186-206; ‘Marching Against Rape’, FAAR News, November/December 1977, 2-4; ‘Reclaim the Night’, Isis International Bulletin 12 (Summer 1979), 12. []
  2. Northeastern University, Boston, Mass., Collection M142, Coalition to Take Back the Night Records, 1978–1991. []
  3. Northeastern University Library, Boston, Mass., Coalition to Take Back the Night Records, Box 1 Folder 9, ‘Take Back the Night: A Short History’ and Box 1, Folder 6, Coalition to Take Back the Night Records, ‘Report from Connie from Reclaim the Night Event’. []
  4. For example, see poster for Women Reclaim the Night, September 22, 1979, Wellington, New Zealand, National Library of New Zealand; and Take Back the Night, September 11, 2013, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. []

Published by

Anne M. Valk

She is a historian of modern feminism in the United States, an oral historian, and a public historian. Currently, she serves as Executive Director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and is a Professor of History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she teaches public history.

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