“the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman”; The 1st Women’s Liberation Movement conference, Oxford, February 1970

In a previous post I  discussed the protest by Women’s Liberation Workshop   outside the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall  in November 1969.  (You can read this here)

A few days later the 4th History Workshop took place at Ruskin College on Saturday 29th  and Sunday 30th  November 1969.  During a discussion on women in the workplace a male trade unionist stood  and  said that a man should earn enough to keep his wife and family, a still commonly held view.  Sheila  Rowbotham stood up and challenged him, stressing the importance of workplace organising.  At lunchtime a small group of women – Sheila, Roberta Hunter-Henderson, Sally Alexander, Arielle  Aberson  and Anna Davin –  got together and resolved that there needed to be more women’s   history at the Workshops. Sally and Arielle were studying at Ruskin, the only two women on the diploma course.

Sheila says :

At the next plenary I announced there was to be a meeting for people interested in talking about women. I had missed the obvious double entendre and the announcement was greeted with guffaws, which made us extremely cross.  A group crammed into a tiny student bedroom at  teatime, talking  excitedly. I proposed a History Workshop on women but  a North American, Barbara Winslow, who was more aware of developments  in North America, pointed out that we had not any general conference on women. And so, out of Ruskin History Workshop, was to come the first women’s liberation conference.

Sally Alexander went along to  meetings  in London to organise the conference and found them a  welcome contrast  to  meetings in Ruskin where she was silent:

“…this meeting was light, and there was sun, and a lot of women. I really liked it, it was a quite, quite different atmosphere….To find myself in these meetings, doing something, instead of being silent and rather bored and frustrated, or making the tea or listening to men, and only talking to your women friends afterwards – this was wonderful.”

The creche staffed by men (picture: Mica Nava)

The conference took place over a weekend  at the end of February 1970,   also at Ruskin College, Oxford. The organisers expected 100 or so  women to attend. but in the event  400 women, sixty  children and 40 men turned up and the venue had to be moved to the  Oxford Union. The crèche was housed in Ruskin, staffed by men. Sheila remembers:

I’d never seen so many women looking so confident. The night we arrived, they poured into Ruskin with bags and babies. The few men looked rather like women at most large predominantly male meetings – rather out on a limb. The reports on the Friday evening session were the most interesting, because you felt part of a movement for the first time.  This was captured again in the Saturday evening workshops but tended to go during the very large open sessions when there were papers on the family, crime, work and history.

Catherine Hall  was one of those attending who was involved with a women’s group in Birmingham which  had just started  and had come to feminist consciousness after having her first child in 1968. She  ­describes the conference  as a :

utopian moment . . . It’s hard to convey now the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman, and to have a language to talk about that, and not conceiving of it as an individual issue, but a collective and social issue. That was what was most important. The recognition that we shared a feeling and experiences that had a name.

Michelene Wandor  also  attended  the conference, her first ever political conference,  carefully dressed,  as she recalled,  in a mini-sweater dress, long black leather boots,  and an ankle–length black and white herring-bone coat. She had heard about the conference  from Audrey Battersby,  who had moved in down the road and whose house was  a meeting place for a Women’s Liberation Group. Their children went to the same nursery school and they had become friends. It’s an example how in some instances Women’s Liberation  was spread  literally by word of mouth.

Michelene says:

For me the Ruskin weekend was an exhilarating and confusing revelation. It was, I think, the first time I had been away from children  and husband, away from my secure home structure. Here I was surrounded by  about six hundred women, all far more politically sophisticated than I  was, all seemingly articulate and  knowledgeable  about the role of women in history, the position of women in today’s world: who could formulate  profound questions  about the relationship  between class, gender and race, who could simultaneously quote and criticise Marx (whom I had not read) and who seemed hell-bent on changing the world and  our self-image as women.

Audrey Batterby says:

One of the most visual memories of the Ruskin Conference was the busts being all covered up. The statues of men in the debating chamber. were all draped with women’s shawls. I think my first impression was amazement at how organised the whole thing  was. As we walked into the main hall there were people there with trestle tables  set up, all sorts of literature to be handed out or for sale  and I though , “Who did this? ” It was amazing.

Sally says:

The conference was exhilarating. There was a tremendous sense of achivement that Arielle and I both felt. After the first session got going Arielle and I  went to the pub and had a drink. It was all , “Isn’t this amazing? We’ve done it.!” We didn’t want to go and hear the papers at first, we were too tired. We couldn’t belivee it. Everyone was very friendly, and warm, and we made friends with lots of people.

There were sessions on family, motherhood, delinquency, women and the economy, the concept of  women’s  work, equal  pay, women and revolution and women’s role in trade unions. (Sally Alexander recalls that  the trade unionist Audrey Wise spoke intensely about being a socialist and a feminist  and a working-class woman.)

The final session was on “Where are we going?”

A National Co-ordinating  Committee was set up  with a  delegate  structure to circulate information. This  came up with  four demands:

  • Equal pay
  • Equal education and job opportunities
  • Free contraception and abortion on demand
  • Free 24-hour nurseries

Sally sums her feelings about the whole event:

As an event it was mind blowing. We’d done it. That  was a shared feeling.  It felt like the culmination of something. It  didn’t feel like the absolute  beginning. I think  from that moment  bits of myself became more together. I think I became more myself. I think I came out more. And I never went back to – or was remotely interested  in –  those sorts of bits and pieces of male left politics that  I had picked up on and had seen a bit of.  I was a socialist, but it seemed to me that the women’s movement  was the place to be a socialist, and my socialism and the women’s movement just came together for me…

Audrey says:

Having been a social worker, and then a mother, and particularly a mother with a handicapped child and  then being a single parent, I think the conference helped to gel all those  thoughts and feelings and rages and whatever together, into a kind of political perspectiv , which had never existed before. We talked so much, about patriarchy, child-rearing, the greatrer involvement  of men in the family, ourselves and our relationships with each other. …that sense of sisterhood was so supportive and  so powerful that it actually replaced everything I felt I didn’t have at the time. We formed ourselves into consciousness-raising groups… 

Catherine says:

Ruskin was different in feel from later conferences. What I remember best is the big session and the decision about the four demands.  I think they helped us to shape what it was that we were talking about. When we went back, the most exciting thing about the next few months was the consciousness-raising.

Mary Holland reported on the conference for The Observer  in a somewhat  sniffy  piece entitled “Hell Bent on Women’s Liberation,”   published on 1 March 1970. These are some extracts;

…In Britain there is  a tradition of suffrage activity  dating from the suffragettes  but this kind of miltancy is comparatively new. Most of the 15 groups represented at the conference have sprung up within the last year or two,  but both movements and the groups are growing. One has an  impression of groups of angry young women meeting all over the country to discuss liberation. We heard reports from the Women’s Liberation Workshop based in london, which now has five groups and a newspaper called Shrew.

…From Nottingham an attractive and articulate Marxist told us about her group which started producing under the boss’s nose a duplicated sheet called Socalist Woman  which has now gone into print  and sells in 15 bookshops in the United States as well as to women bus crews in Nottingham. From Bristol came a magazine called Enough Is Enough

…some of the speakers  seemed mainly concerned with the social amelioriation of women’s lot.  Some of this was fairly  familar stuff about restructuring the family unit, but many, many more were concerned with political action and their speeches came much closer to the student protest movement  than any of the traditional complaints  about captive wives…

Audrey Wise

...A speech which drew roars of applause came from a long-haired white-faced young woman who called for acts of violence  “to smash the myth of feminine passivity.” It was after this they marched in a body to express solidarity  with the students  occupying the Clarendon Building to protest against the keeping of files on student activity.

…What has not yet clearly emerged from today’s meetings is what these extremely liberated young women are doing advocating for what  looks like a new ghetto for women, albeit one of radical feminist activity and why they do see their path in more generalised political activity?  Although tribute was paid to women freedom fighters in underdeveloped countries, there was almsot no discussion of general political issues. 

…Still during the afternoon’s discussion on women and the economy, a militant trade unionist from Coventry  called Audrey Wise made a bold call for a broadly based socialist movement. She argued that feminism is not enough and ended: “I don’t want to be an equal economic unit  any more than  I want  to be a decoration or a drudge. I  want women’s liberation to be a movement for people as people, whether they are women and men.”

After the Oxford  conference from a mainly London-based movement  Women’s Liberation became a national movement. A year later there were groups in most towns and cities across Britain.

Sadly Arielle Aberson died in 1970 in a car accident


Resources and further reading

There is 30 minute  film about the conference A Woman’s Place made  by Sue Crockford . It is  available on Concord Media. More information here.

The British  Library has interviewed in number of feminists about the 1970s and placed the videos  on a website.

In 2010 the BBC made a radio documentary on the 40th Anniversary of the conference which you can listen to here.

Dreams and Dilemmas: Collected Writings  by Sheila  Rowbotham (1983)

Promise of a Dream by Sheila Rowbotham  (2000)

The Body Politic : Women’s Liberation in Britain 1969 – 1972,   edited by Michelene Wandor (1972)

Once a Feminist,  Stories of a Generation by  Michelene Wandor (1990)

The Papers

I have scanned in below three of the papers which were collected together in a book  on writings of the early Women’s Liberation movement, The Body Politic, edited by Michelene Wandor (1972).

Women, the Work and Family – Jan Williams,  Hazel Twort and Ann Bachelli.



Child Rearing and Women’s Liberation – Rochelle P Wortis

Women, Work and Equal Pay – Leonora Lloyd


“…we are no longer prepared to accept the passive role imposed on us.” The protest by Women’s Liberation Workshop outside the Miss World contest on 27th November 1969

In previous posts I have tried to chronicle the emergence of Women’s  Liberation groups, mainly in London,  in the course of 1969  who were organised into a network:  the Women’s Liberation Workshop. To exchange news and foster debate they began  circulating their own newsletter   Shrew, each issue being edited by a different local Women’s Liberation group in turn. (You can read more about Shrew here.)

Following her article  “Women:  the struggle for freedom”  which was  published in  Black Dwarf in January 1969, Sheila Rowbotham  further developed her ideas in response to the new movement  and  this was published by the May Day Manifesto group under the title:   Women’s  Liberation and the New Politics. She says

…the innovative aspect was my attempt to trace how  silence is broken by  a new consciousness  and how women’s grievances  had historically  taken differing forms. I had no idea, of course, that I was to pursue these two for the rest of my life!….through a mix of subjectivity, history and theory I was trying to probe beyond  what was taken for granted.

Going  up to Sheffield in May 1969   for a conference of the Institute of Workers’ Control Sheila spoke at women’s  meeting and met trade unionist Audrey Wise and also Gertie Roche, a trade unionist in the Leeds clothing industry who was to lead a huge strike amongst women working in the industry in 1970. Gertie asked Sheila “And you, are you emancipated in your own life?”

Albert Hall protest 1969 (3)

The first collective protest by the WLW  took place on 27th November 1969  when they decided to picket the Miss World contest  which that year was taking place at the Albert Hall for the first time.

The contest had been  founded by Eric Morley, a director of Mecca which had popularised bingo in the 1950s. The first contest was held in 1951 to coincide with the Festival of Britain. It was first televised live in 1959 and was watched by millions. (My family used to watch it for starters).  It was accepted  almsot without question as wholesome family entertainment.

The protest  began at 6pm when three women arrived outside the Albert Hall  in a taxi piled high with placards, sashes and leaflets.  Over the next half hour more women trickled up  from groups in London, Coventry and Essex,  some  of whom had already leafleted tube stations. Together they started leafletting the main entrance, forming two lines with about 50 women present.

The placards carried slogans such as:

Mis-fortune demands equal  pay for women

Mis-conception demands free abortion for all women

Mis-pleased demands a place outside the home

There were large number of police outside the Hall, both men and women.  To the women’s surprise the press and television turned up in numbers, taking photographs and asking questions and some women found themslves giving interviews.   A number  of the women sang American women’s liberation songs to the tunes of “Ain’t She Sweet” and  “We Shall Overcome.”

Shrew reported :

We had all been speculating on what kind of people were going to fork out 3 or 4 guineas to actually see the Miss World show. The women were disguised in a general uniform of satin dress, fur stole, and 2ft hair-do, as they trailed along behind their penguin dinner-jacketed escorts. There was also a busload of sailors.  Girls who were leafleting had some difficulty in avoiding the outstreched hands of the male patrons and in effectively thrusting the leaflet at their women who usually had their hands clutching fur stole and a handbag without a handle.

 The picket marched doggedly but cheerfully round and about, and when the show started at 7.30pm we all reassembled , had a quick meeting, and went home cold and tired…to watch it on telly?

The contest was won by Miss Austria,  Eva Rueber-Staier, a model and  actress. (You can  watch a Pathe  news clip about the “50 stunning beauties”  here.)

Several members of the group appeared on the David Frost programme the following day, while Eric Morley personanlly  wrote them a letter which he addressed to “Ladies”.

With respect, you really must study your facts a little more carefully before you use quotations from newspapers. You say “why does Mecca spend thousands of pounds arranging the Miss World contest?” and then go on to refer to a statement I made regarding the Miss World trademark. Just for information Miss World started in 1951, and for nearly twenty years Mecca has spent in excess of one million pounds on its promotion. During that period of time the only people who have benefitted from it have been:

 a) The children’s charities, for it is held in aid of handicapped children

  1. b) The contestants themselves who share several thousand pounds in prize money. The so-called exploitation of the winner is for her own good and not for the benefit of Mecca, for unlike other international beauty competitions, all the money which is received for the appearance of “Miss World” is paid direct to the winner, less the usual management fees, which incidentally do not cover the cost of looking after her during her year of office.

 You also say “Outside the home we are given second rate  jobs at third rate pay”. Miss World during her year of office earns over £30,000 which is more than  I earn.  If you consider this third rate pay, than you had better ask the hundreds of men in this country, earning £20 to £30, what they think about it. So that is the price of Miss World contest, about which you say “is the price of the economic, social and psychological devaluation of women financed by Mecca but paid for by all women”.

 Could you please tell me what women pay for, for in this particular instance it is only they who benefit, for I can assure you that in the majority of cases, these girls will earn, at the very least, £2000 during the coming year.

 It was this contest which enabled Miss Reita Faria to finish her studies and qualify as a doctor in one of the finest teaching hospitals in the world. As a result of her world travels she is in contact with people from all over the world, has gained money and independence, and a very worthy profession. Quite frankly,  I think it was she who has exploited Mecca and not the other way round.

ShrewThe successes and  failures of the protest were  picked over in the next issue of Shrew (November/December 1969).

The Miss World  demonstration  has again raised the problem of what the WLW is supposed to be doing. Though we can’t lay down  any conclusive statements here, we can pose some  questions on the general value of public demonstrations  to WLW, and aspects of the Miss World contest in particular .

First of all – why did we do it? We feel that as a publicity  catching issue it served to announce our collective existence as a group of women  stating in one form that we are no longer prepared to accept the passive role imposed on us. Hopefully, we have begun to reach some of these women discontented with their traditional role and who now know that  they are not the isolated neurotics society makes them out to be. 

Before the demonstration took place  many of us were worried that WLW would not be able to get large enough turn out, even for an effective picket. Contrary to expectations  fifty women arrived, including  contingents from outside London. This was reassuring. Now we know that we as women have enough tenacity  to confront the male power structure in the future. For some of us, this was the first time ever on a public ‘demo’, for others it was at least the first time we had “gone it alone’ without any  men to step between us and the authorities. Perhaps Sally sums up this feeling best – ‘we did it” – I have proved to myself that it wasn’t so frightening and it won’t be so bad next time.’

Why did we choose to demonstrate  against  the Miss World contest rather than, for example,  the nudies at the Motor Show? The Misss world contest was not so  much as issue in itself, but an illustration of the wider exploitation if women  on an economic and pyschological  level.  Miss World, we are reliably, informed, earns over £30,000 during her year of office:  in contrast,  the average weekly wage for women in Britain is £10. The values embodied in the Miss World contest form part of a  vicious circle  of consumption. A commercial standard of beauty has been set up, creating anxieties  in women, which compel  us to accept and aspire to this standard by buying beauty products. By selecting competitors on the basis of this artifical measure, the Miss world contest reinforces the absolute nature of this norm of beauty. Miss world is then used as a trade mark to sell us mor e junk and so the whole process starts again.

The response to our picket quickly showed us how naive we had been in our understanding of organisation and the way decisions were taken in relation to the demonstration . The delegated working party didn;t function properly and communications broke down., resultng in individuals being faceds with last minute unilateral decisions., both on the picket line and later the following day. No-one expected so much interest by the TV and press, and the major problems of  ‘WLW and the media’  didn’t even begin to be discussed until after the event. Ther emust be more communication between groups and w esuggest that ‘Shrew’  might be one vehicle for this. 

We feel that as a group there is now a need to discipline our individual experiences of oppression and use them for serious collective analysis. we must learn to use this pool of experience, this knowledge of oppression we all share, to reach in the future a new vigorous of thought and action.

In the same issue Sally Reynolds contributed a piece “Thoughts about the Miss World Action” in which she was very  critical, both  of the protest and the decision-making process that had led to it.

Mass action? Do we mean everyone within Women’s Liberation  at the moment or dreams of arousing the masses of women as yet unknown to Women’s Liberation? If we mean the latter how come  we can’t get every London member of the Workshop  to an early, short and not to cold picket line on the 27th November? We can’t even attempt a mass action until we get ourselves straight on this one issue.  Also were there any others like myself who only came at the last moment out of solidarity to the movement and without a gut feeling to this particular  issue.

Right at the beginning, the objections to the action that were raised at the first joint group meeting were not listened to, written down or really discussed, and a deep group participating analysis did therefore not develop. The few who wanted to go ahead did so and the silence from other groups  was taken as consent. The objections and individual analyses having resulted, they must be formulated now or Women’s Liberation will nevrer become a unified force…

To me the most importnat conclusion is that we have a whole lot of talking to do.  No more action yet. Everyone must dare to speak out in meetings or they’ll never do so in public. We must have a group analysis  and a very strong sisterly solidarity before we attempt anything else of this sort, even if it takes another twelve months. We will be co-opted and split into a thousand factions if not;  ‘united we stand , divided we fall.’

As for why we did it? The only reason I could gather was for publicity. this wa snot good right from the beginning. The press is the voice box of th esystem, and if we are a growing revolutionary movement, how can we expect it to show us in a favourable light? At this early stage of development it can only do more harm than good.

A second protest by WLW at Miss World took place a year later in November 1970 but on this occasion they adopted  a very different style of protest.  I hope to write about this in the near future.


“…it should be an action workshop”: Women’s Liberation Workshop and the Nightcleaners campaign, 1970-1973

May Hobbs

Beginning in the  autumn of 1970 a group of women active in the Women’s Liberation Workshop  assisted in the unionisation of women working as night cleaners in offices in central London.

The  campaign  had been started by Mary Hobbs, who had been active in tenants’ campaigns  in Hackney, when she  set up the  Cleaners Actions Group. This is  what she says on her autobiography Born to Struggle  published in 1973;

 From that moment going around and organizing the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and start talking to the cleaners themselves.We formed ourselves into the Cleaners’ Action Group and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing out they could not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.

In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.

They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal

After two years hard campaigning they had a victory .

Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when ten cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 on their earnings of £12.50 for a forty-five-hour week and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Women’s Lib co-operated to set up round-the-clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.

The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The G.P.O. engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed…

On 16th  August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimization. The supervisor at Horseferry House was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.

Sheila Rowbotham says that she got involved after May  approached the International Socialists for help and they asked Sheila to put a note in the Women’s  Liberation Workshop newsletter. As well as Sheila, Sally Alexander,  Mary Kelly and a number of other women became  involved. In her autobiography Promise of a Dream Sheila recalls:

 With a friend from my Women’s Liberation group, Liz Waugh, I set out each Tuesday night at 10 pm into the deserted streets of the City, London’s financial district. We would prowl the streets looking for weary-looking women clutching their belongings in carrier bags and accost them with, ‘Excuse me are you a night cleaner?’

 It was all exceedingly haphazard. Our aim, once we made contact, was to find out where they worked and follow up by recruiting the whole building. The vague assumption was that we would gradually unionise the whole of London’s cleaning force. But the cleaners worked often spasmodically and were moved around to different buildings. Some were happy to remain invisible and off the books, because they were claiming social security. Most of the women we approached were middle aged and looked older. The accumulated exhaustion of working at night and looking after their families in the day, had marked their faces. Moreover a sizable minority were immigrants from the Caribbean and exceedingly nervous. They needed the money, little as it was, most desperately, moreover they were contending with racism in working class communities as well as in the job market.

 Unions were remote entities to many of the women we approached. Indeed sometimes we found ourselves explaining what unions were. We began to supplement the blue and yellow recruiting forms from the T& G with our own hand-written one produced on duplicators (early ancestors of the photocopier). ‘Why do night cleaners get less pay than day cleaners? Do night work for such low pay? Why don’t cleaners get full cover money? …

 Remarkably a few of the night cleaners did come on the first ever Women’s Liberation demonstration in March 1971, when 5,000 women with male supporters strode through the sleet and snow singing ‘Stay Young and Beautiful’. Among them was May Hobbs , bearing a placard ‘The Cleaners’ Action Group’. May, who was a natural orator, addressed the crowd in Trafalgar Square calling for ‘the self-organisation of women at their workplaces.’

After the success of the 1972 strikes the campaign struggled as May was now a well-known person and  was speaking around the country and it seems to have  run out of steam in 1973. A documentary  about the campaign The Nightcleaners was  made by the Berwick Street  Film Collective and shown in 1975. You can see a clip here.

Sally Alexander speaks about the camapign in a short clip here.

The campaign was also included in a television report on women’s liberation  made in 1971. This shows the meeting held on 12th February 1971 which was addressed by Bernadette Devlin  who had been elected as an MP  in April 1969, aged 21. (This  meeting also featured in The Nightcleaners documentary)  You can watch the report here.

In 2006 Sheila Rowbothan  wrote a lengthy  article about the campaign ; Cleaners’ Organizing n Britain from the 1970s : a personal  account. You can  read this here.

The campaign was featured in Shrew, the Women’s Liberation newsletter,  early in 1971 and again  in a special issue published in December 1971 which included a short history of the campaign,  examples of the conditions the women worked in, reports from leafletters, interviews with May Viddell, Jean wright and May Hobbs and considerations of the relationship of women’s liberation to class ,  I have scanned these pages below.


“…through minor actions, through more group discussions, through more reading and  learning we are all becoming militants” “Shrew: a Women’s Liberation newsletter 1969-1978

Shrew began life in 1969  as the newsletter of the Women’s Liberation workshop in London

In 1969 there was a just small number of women’s  groups starting to meet, influenced by the Women’s Liberation movement in the USA (which started in 1968); their involvement  in  the  male-dominated left,  and their personal experiences as women in the 1960s.

Sheila Rowbotham, for instance,  was inspired  by the  Ford Machinists  strike and the Hull trawler wives’ campaign   and was becoming increasingly aware of how men  on the left, alleged revolutionaries, treated women. r.  In December 1968  she was asked to join the editorial board of Black  Dwarf to co-ordinate writing on a women’s issue and began commissioning articles.  Sheila also wrote furiously, sitting on her stool by the gas fire  in the kitchen of her house:

Out  came all the concentrated thoughts  and  impressions  which had been  unconsciously accumulating. It was the kind of article I would later recognise as one that builds up inside. In the spirit of ’68, I knew I must write not from received authorities on “women” but from my own observations and  feelings…Now all those scattered experiences could take a new shape. As the words splattered out in to pages , it felt as if I had reached a clearing.

The resulting article was published in Black Dwarf in January 1969  under the title “Women : the Struggle  for Freedom”.  You can read  the whole article here. Sheila says:

After Black Dwarf came out …I found myself just talking and talking with women  friends with a new-found excitement. We all seemed to be going in a similar direction. Things suddenly began to connect, to make sense. It was if we were discovering  a new way of seeing  which at the same time  had always been part of our awareness.

In February Sheila went to a revolutionary festival at Essex University at which, partly because of the Black Dwarf women’s issue,  it was decided to have a meeting at the festival on women. Sheila  remembers: Although unsure what to expect we were charged with a powerful sense of anticipation. I remember the intensity of our talking and the feeling of mutual discovery. Ideas in the early day of women’ liberation seemed to just spring out of a process of recognition. This connection of experiences was all the more remarkable because it was an exchange of perception which had been so private. All those reactions, those vagrant thoughts which you had kept to yourself suddenly came to acquire a new social meaning.  

Five Women’s Liberation groups in Greater London were formed in the course of  1969:  Tufnell Park, Peckham Rye, Notting Hill, Belsize Lane and Islington which comprised a network called Women’s Liberation Workshop.

The  Peckham Rye group,  for instance, emerged from  a group of mainly working class women   who met at the “One-Clock Club,”  a Council club for mothers with young children.   Jan  Williams wrote

Over a period of 18 months a group of about six women were meeting their in the afternoons with their children , and talking, mainly about their children, their hair, their husbands and their homes. The chatter seemed to us to have an umbrella over it – an umbrella of of depression (misery)..For a long time we attributed  our miseries to such  things as having hairy legs or no money, etc. In effect we were blaming ourselves for not being able to live up to a prescribed image of the wife and mother. Bur gradually the talk became less frgamented and more meaningful. The break came when another woman, not a regular  visitor, circulated a sheet of complaints about the difficulties of being at home with children.

They  began meeting as  a larger group on Sunday evenings  and  read  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and A S Neill’s Summerhill. At the fourth meeting Hilary Rawlings and Juliet Mitchell  came and spoke about  the position of women as second class people. They talked at length about the family and children, questioned our every belief about the family and children by questioning the organisation of society in general, tackling the whole thing with honesty and thoroughness. ..From this point on the meetings were freed of talk of creches and geared to honesty with one another and action as a group.

Some of the women invaded a debate  at Goldsmith’s College on revolutionary ideas (all male speakers, of course)  and demanded  to be heard. We were booed loudly and asked to strip, told we needed a good fuck etc, etc. However, we went on to hold the 300 people in the hall to our subject  for over an hour. Gradually, through minor actions, through more group discussions, through more reading and  learning we are all becoming militants. The skin over our eyes is peeling back, and people are trying to emerge out of passive shells.

The local groups met weekly, the Workshop met monthly. The newsletter was established to exchange  ideas, encourage debate  and  circulate  information. First  called Harpies Bizarre (the witches newspaper in the television series Bewitched), then Bird, they finally settled on Shrew. Initially, each issue was produced by adifferent group each month which accounts for the very different look of each issue in its early years and its different content.

Each issue carried a statement of what the Workshop  stood for:

Women’s Liberation Workshop believes that women in our society are oppressed.  We are economically oppressed; in jobs we do full work for half pay, in the home we do unpaid work full time. We are commercially exploited by advertisements, television and press; legally we often have only the status of children. We are brought up to feel inadequate, educated to narrower horizons than men. This is our specific oppression as women. It is as women that we are, therefore, organizing.

The Women’s Liberation Workshop questions women’s role and redefines the possibilities. It seeks to bring women to a full awareness of the meaning of their inferior status and to devise methods to change it.  In society women and girls relate primarily to men; any organization duplicates this pattern; the men lead and dominate, the women follow and submit.

We close our meetings to men to break through this pattern, to establish our own leaderless groups and to meet each other over our common experience as women. If we admitted men there would be a tendency for them, by virtue of their experience, vested interests, and status in society, to dominate the organizations.  We want eventually to be, and to help other women to be, in charge of our own lives; therefore, we must be in charge of our own movement, directly, not by remote control. This means that not only those with experience in politics, but all  must learn  to take their own decisions,   both political and personal.

For this reason, groups small enough for all to take part in discussion and decisions are the basic units of our movement.  We feel that the small group makes personal commitment a possibility and a necessity and that it provides understanding and solidarity. Each small group is autonomous, holding different positions and engaging group., Women’s Liberation Workshop is essentially heterogeneous, incorporating  within it a wide range of opinions and plans for action

Some issues of Shrew focused on particular issues: May 1971 was on The Family,  while December 1971 was devoted to the campaign by the Cleaners’ Action Group, led by May Hobbs, to unionise women cleaners, a campaign assisted by  some members of the Women’s Liberation workshop  such as Sally Alexander and Sheila Rowbotham. (I will be writing  about this at greater length  in a future post).

After the first Women’s Liberation conference  held in Oxford in February 1970, attended by 600 women,  the number of  WLM groups started to grow rapidly. By the end  of 1971 there were over 50 in London,   from Alexandra Palace  to Wembley,    as well as specialist groups  eg Pyschology, Medical, GLF, Street Theatre,  Women in Media and even  a Men’s Group.

In the course of  1971 an issue of Shrew was being produced  almost every month but after that production was less frequent. There was  one in 1976 and a final one in 1978 on  spirituality,   godesses, stone circles  etc, clearly  produced by a completely different group of women.

The Working Class Movement Library in Salford  holds  an incomplete run of Shrew which is  available for consultation by prior arrangement. The Library would welcome a donation of the missing issues.

Miss World Protests in 1969 and 1970

Below I have scanned in pages from Shrew relating to  the protests  by the WLN at the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall  in November 1969 when it was confined to protesting and leafletting outside,   and  in November 1970 when women  dressed up, took their seats and then  disrupted the live brodacast throwing flour and whirling noisy rattles.  A number of women were arrested, the first women  to be arrested on a protest on women’s issues since the Suffragettes.

You can watch an interview with Sally Alexander about the protest here.







Articles from socialist feminist magazine Red Rag on women workers on strike: 1972 to 1974

I have scanned and posted pages  below from Red Rag,  the socialist  feminist journal,   relating to women workers taking strike action.

In issues 5 and 8 they collated  together reports from the Morning Star and Socialist   Worker  from July 1972 to October 1974 on women  taking strike action for higher pay, for equal pay or for union recognition.

The first thing to note is how many there were, the second thing to note is that they broke out in different part of the country and in a variety of  industries.  There are  also  displays of solidarity for women workers eg strikes by dockers,  miners and engineering workers in June 1974 in support of the nurses’ pay campaign.

Finally, I have also scanned in pages from issue 4 on the Whittington Hospital dispute and  from issue 7 on the nurses’ pay campaign in 1974

“Sisterhood is our defence against oppression, and as such part of our revolutionary consciousness”: Scarlet Women, a socialist feminist newsletter 1976 to 1981.

Scarlet Women was the newsletter of the socialist   feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.

It was set up  by a number of socialist women after the 1976 National Women’s Liberation conference and was  produced by a collective based in North Shields, Tyneside. There appear to have been  13 issues produced between 1976 and 1981.

In the history of  the socialist-feminism  current  included in issue 4  (July 1977)  – which looked back over the last seven  years – the SW Collective  noted that the Women’s Liberation movement  had abandoned a National Co-Ordinating Committee in 1971 because it had degenerated into sectarian squabbling between different left groups.

It left behind  a great deal of hostility amongst feminists  towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left. Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciouness- raising group was taken to be the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

In  March 1973 women in Birmingham called a conference on “Women’s Liberation and Socialism”  which was attended by several hundred women, some in left groups, some not. All agreed in the need to analyse the position of women  from a Marxist perspective and most agreed that the existing analysis was inadequate for understanding   the specific problems raised by radical feminists in the Women’s Liberation. 

This followed by  a conference in London in September 1973 on “Autonomy or Separatism”;  one in Oxford in March 1974 on “The Four Demands”; one in Birmingham in September 1974  on “Women in the Family”;  one in  Leeds  in November 1974 on “The Working Women’s Charter” and  one in London  in March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement”  which ended in walkouts, confusion and chaos.

According  to the SW Collective this occurred because there were now  bitter divisions between   women who were members of left groups and those who were non-aligned. They identified the divisions as follows:

  • Women in left groups believed  that conferences should be organised in the traditional structured way and  that the socialist current should be more independent of the Women’s Liberation  movement in  terms of structures, orientation and prgramme. They also felt that  socialists  should orient themselves towomne in the workplace and their  struggles around working conditions, unionisation and wages.
  • Non-aligned women   felt that  Women’s Liberation  had much to offer the left in terms of how meetings should be structured and that  socialist should not separate themselves  from the main movement. They also felt that it was essential to organise around issues relating to women at home  and in the community as well as at work.

For the next two years after the last conference in London many socialist-feminists  put their energies into the National Abortion Campaign (fighting two attempts in parliament to restrict access to  abortion)  and the Working Women’s Charter.

At the 1976 national Women’s Liberation conference in Newcastle some women  convened a worksop on “The Socialist Current within the Women’s Liberation Movement” which was packed  out.

The discussion ranged around our experiences as “mindless militants” and the need for combining the development of theory with paractice. Women active in NAC  felt particularly  the lack of overall theoretical pespective. non-aligned sisters complaine dof their isolation  within the Women’s Liberation movement. Sisters from left groups spoke of the need for support in their own struggles  with their male comrades. Suggestions that a socialist-feminist conference should be organised were rejected  – the memory of London was still too vivid.

What  was agreed  that a newsletter should be started with the aim of providing a communication  network  for socialist-feminists and discussing socialsit-feminist theory and practice.  Since then the socialist-feminist  current has been growing again – groups have started around the country, several regional conferences  have been held and  a national conference is being planned for later on this year. …We are confident that this time the socialist current in the Women’s Liberation Movement, firmly rooted in both feminism and marxism, will be able to resolve its differences and make an important contribution both to the Women’s Movement and the left in this country. 

The newsletter was Scarlet Women. After the 4th issue the first  national editorial group meeting took place in Newcastle on 18th March 1978 with women attending  from London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lancaster and Manchester. This drew up a statement intended to be a guide for the future direction of the newsletter:

Socialist Feminism is a distinct revolutionary approach, a challenge to the class structure and to patriarchy. By the patriarchy we mean a system in which all women are oppressed, an oppression  which is total, affecting all aspects of our lives. Just as class oppression preceded capitalism, do does our oppression. We do not acknowledge that men are oppressed as a sex, although working men, gay men and black  men are oppressed as workers, gays and blacks, an oppression shared by gay, black and working women. Sisterhood is our defence against oppression, and as such is part of our revolutionary consciousness.

Socialists sometimes see the struggle as being about a change in the economic structure alone.  For us the struggle is about a change in total  social relations. We are concerned to develop an understanding of the real relationship between male supremacy and class society. As Socialist Feminists we have to examine  socialist feminist thought and seek to develop it. What we are looking  is nothing less than a total redefinition of socialist feminist thought and practice. We are working towqrds a socialism which seeks to abolish patriarchy.

We want to publish papers, letters, articles, ideas that can develop the thought and effectiveness of socialist  feminism. The debate about the class struggle and relating to left groups can take palce in our pages only if contributions are based on the belief that autonomous struggles have the  right to define their own oppression and the struggle against it.

The national editorial group was made up of regional correspondents whose role was to encourage the writing of articles and sending them to the collective in Tyneside. It was agreed that the next editorial meeting would take place about 2 weeks before the issue went to press.

The regional correspondents  in 1978 were:

Scotland : Joyce McDonald and Carol Russell

Northern: Anna Briggs

North West:  Marti  Lauret and Theresa Conway

London: Veronica Hold, Julie Gordon, Daphne Davies, Janet Lievesley, Cherill Hicks.

The remaining issues focused on particular topics:

Issue 6/ 7 April 1978)   Reproduction and  childbirth

Issue 8 (August 1978)  Wages, work and financial independence

issue 9 (Janaury 1978)  Fascism and anti-fascism.

Issue 10 (December 1979)  Violence against women  and Pornography.

Issue 11 (June 1980)  The North of  Ireland.  (This issue was put together by the Belfast Womens’ Collective)

Issue 12.  Internationalism : India Iran, Algeria, Chile and   Egypt. Black women in Britain.

Issue 13 (in two parts) (May 1981 and July 1981. Sexuality.

Issues  4, 6/7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 are available to read at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. The library would welcome copie sof issues 1, 2, 3 and 5 to complete its run.

Finally,   I  have scanned in below the report from issue 6/7 (April 1978)  on the Socialist Feminist conference held earlier that year  in Manchester.











“We challenge whatever and  whoever denies the right of women to be free”: Red Rag: a journal of Women’s Liberation and Socialism, 1972 to 1980

Red Rag was a women’s liberation magazine which  ran to 14 issues produced between  1972 and 1980 by a collective of socialist women.

In their first issue they  set out their declaration of intent which included the following;

RED RAG  is a magazine of liberation and in particular of women’s liberation. We stand for a revolutionary change in society, for ending capitalism and  establishing socialism. We challenge whatever and  whoever denies the right of women to be free – from economic inequaility and  from the tyranny of the role forced upon them in our society. Our aim is to help build an alliance between women liberators and the working class movement.

The organised labour movement – that is the trade unions, the co-ops and the left political parties – is the decisive force in this country for social progress and for socialism. Its wholehearted and active support is essential for the success of the women’s liberation movement. And that support will be all the more forthcoming to the extent that women  themselves state their claims  and demands and organise and fight to win them.

Whilst the first issue was produced by women  who were members of the Communist party, the following  issues were produced by a wider group  drawn from consciousness-raising groups, women’s centres, International Socialists,  Cleaner’s Action group, libertarian left etc.

By the fourth  issue they were calling themselves  a Marxist Feminist collective, explaining this as follows:

We are feminists first and foremost  because feminism is the political movement which emerges as women’s response to their  oppression. The material base for this oppression is men’s real power and privilege, that is, their economic, social, cultural, and psychological dominance.

Feminism has produced much analysis, in particular of women’s subjective  of their oppression, its biological roots, and its cultural and psychological manifestations (sexism, family, etc).  But we have realised first  of all that experiencing and understanding  will not by themselves change the situation, and, secondly,  that women’s oppression is only part of a class  and  racist society whose total formation we must understand if we wish  to change it.  

Women’s oppression is only one contradiction amongst a multiplicity of contradictions to understand a part of which we must  understand the whole. It is from this point of view that we must emphasise the importance of the study of Marxism since it is the theoretical  instrument for analysing the contradictions of advanced capitalist  society. That is why we have joined political study groups over the past year or so, – we felt the need for this analysis and we felt the need for some guide to action in the political practice of the revolutionary transformation of our society. 

The 14 issues  contained theoretical studies, discusions of feminist demands, reports on campaigns and conferences, reviews,  and also correspondence.

There were articles on  the following topics; abortion rights, childcare, children,  domestic violence,  the economy,  the family,  internationalism, orgasms,  playgroups, psychiatry,   sexuality,  strikes by women, students,  union organising eg the Nightcleaners’ campaign,   women and socialism,   women’s role in the labour movement, work and employment  etc.  There were  occasional biographies of  past women  activists eg Florence  Exten Hann by Sheila Rowbtham.

From issue 11 onwards  the collective tried to explore particular topics in each issue eg issue 11 focused on the nature of the  women’s movement. The Editorial said:

We have tried to include articles which examine our movement from a number of different perspectives: consciousness raising and  the role of the “small group” in the development of mass politics; the class character of British feminism:  the uneasy relationship between radical attitudes towards the family and the reality of many women’s lives: the strategical options for feminism  and their limitations; the relationship of feminism to the male-dominated left… issues  12 and  13 will be on sexuality and women and work respectively, please send us your ideas, articles, letters, poems, pictures…

The collective included at various times :  Sally Alexander, Gladys Brooks, Bea Campbell, Val Charlton,  Sue Cowley, Marion Dain, Roz Delmar, Eva Eberhart, Margaret Edney, Alison Fell,  Kerry Hamilton  Roberta Henderson, Adah Kay, Matia Loftus, Fran Mclean, Sheila McKechnie, Mandy Merck, Annette Muir,  Sue O’Sullivan, Christine Peters,  Ruth Petrie, Jean Radfors,  Sheila Rowbotham, Ann Scott,  Barbara Taylor, Michelene Wandor, Angela Weir and Elizabeth Wilson. ( nb this list is not exhaustive)

I have scanned the whole of the first issue below. This,  and other issues,  can be consulted at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford who hold substantial holdings on the women’s liberation and the  feminist movement.