“Free our sisters, free ourselves…” The first Women’s Liberation march, 8th March 1971

In my previous posts I have written about  the first Women’s Liberation Conference in February 1970 and the  imaginative protest at the Miss World contest in November 1970.

Another key milestone was  the first Women’s Liberation march which took place on 8th March 1971 in London (in freezing wreather, it should be noted). Organised by the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee  and Ad Hoc Committee for the London March 6th Demonstration it was the first march on purely women’s  issues since 1926, assembling at Speakers’ Corner and processing to Trafalgar Square.

The idea was to bring women  together in support of the four demands of the Women’s Liberation movement:

  • Free abortion and contraception on demand
  • Equal educational and job opportunites
  • Free 24-hour nurseries
  • Equal pay

The event  was planned with much  imagination  with banners stating “Women  Unite” and “Women’s Liberation”, a  twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe,  a caged woman (Mis-Stress)   as well as co-ordinated singing, dancing and music and performances in the Trafalgar Square.

Surviving footage captures its fun aspect  and the sometimes bewildered reactions of passers-by.  Around 3,000 attended.

first Women’s Liberation Movement march –  footage from UCL students archive 

 

Women’s Liberation March, London, UK Archive Footage

Jill Tweedie  went on the march and wrote an account for The Guardian

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “If that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”
“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”

An article in the Women’s Liberation workshop newsletter  Shrew  (Vol3, no3)  reflected on what had been achieved – and not achieved

Male passer-by:  What do you want – Stuffing?

Woman in uniform:  “we’re not allowed to think…”

Woman in fur coat: “abortion makes me turn cold. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. “

Middle-aged woman shop assistant: “I think I’m in favour.”

These remarks of bystanders at the demonsaration on Saturday, and the attitude of amused tolerance  in the press coverage of the march, must guide us in assessing exactly what we have achieved. The demonstration raisse certain questions  about our aims and strategy as a movement.  That over 3,000 women assembled in Hyde Park prepared to march despite falling snow and freezing temperatures w  sreason enough for spirits to be high. Not only the numbers present, but that these represented nation-wide support for our cause must be an encouragement. While we need to stand united in the face of press criticism of the demonstration and of the movement as a whole, it is important that our first experience of a national demonstration should provoke self-criticism within the movement.

What were we “demonstrating”: was this a demonstration of  of women’s solidarity  or was it an outing?  Was it a march, or a wander through the West End? In terms of appearances a useful  comparisons  is the New York Women’s Liberation demonsration of September 1970. Several thousand women, arms linked and chanting slogans, surged down Park Avenue, sweeping aisde police attempting to restruct the marchers to two traffic lanes. Police had barricaded sidewalks to keep public and demonstrators apart, and crowds gathered to watch the spectacle – expecting a circus. But, infected by  the determination of the marchers, middle-aged women  left their husbands and girls ducked under the barricades to join the march when challenged to do so. The uncommitted were made to feel that something important concerning them was at stake.

Given the British spirit of moderation in all things, in contrast with the polarisation on equivalent issues in American society, and that the British woman clings more conventionally to the passivity of her traditional  role – did we, in marching, really provoke or inspire women “on the side”  to commit themselves. Many, questioned on their attitude to the march, came out in favour of at least two or three of the four demands in point but had not been made to feel to demonstrate solidarity on the issues. Much more is at stake in the Women’s Liberation movement than equal pay, equal educational opportunities, state nurseries, free abortion and contraception:  the underlying   factor  is the liberation of woman  for independent  self-determination  as a human being.  To quote a hand-out  distributed on the march, “Social reforms do not necessarily mean a change in attitudes”. Female emancipation cannot be achieved simply be legisltaion as female  suffrage has shown.

If all we were  doing on March 6th was demanding social welfare  changes with which many can agree without any fundamental  changes in their  conception of and attitude to “woman”, what was the real confrontation of this demonstration?  

We must avoid putting ourselves in a position in which  we can be fobbed off with superficial concessions and be left with nothing more to say.

All women  must be confronted with the fact that the liberation of women   requires a fundamental revison of the definitions of all human roles in society.  This raises the question  of the role of male support  of the movement: one one hand, their presence  on Saturday  gives weight to the liberated men and women  through the call to women to do something about their own position. On the other hand, the presence of husbands and boyfriends in the midst of “women united”  made us more vulnerable to jokey press comments and public amusement – and possible identification by the public as yet another group of “student revolutionaries”, rather than  as an unprecedented  assembly of women, demonstrating in the cause of all women. 

If we failed to communicate the seriousness of the aims of Women’s Liberation perhaps we should ask ourselves whether our future efforts to communicate should now  involve a choice. One alternative is uncompromising militancy  which  most of neccessity provoke commitment or hostility to the movement, but which brings to light fundamental and radical  issues implied by women’s liberation.  Or do we try  to appeal to the mass of women in this country at the moment  who think they are in favour  – thus achieving a real following but running the risk of making  the four demands as end in themselves.

The moderate method  could be regarded as first step towards greather things ,  or as the removal of specific grievances, but at the possible cost of true liberation.

After the march the Socialist Woman group held a meeting in the evening  in a pub about  the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg

 

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Emmie Lawther’s account of the 1936 NUWM women’s march

Emmie Lawther in 1936

In 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936 the Unemployed Workers’ Movement organised  national marches to London by the unemployed which  included contingents of women.

This is an account written by Emmie  Lawther, Deputy Leader of the march in 1936, which I  have just come across when doing some research at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Emmie started her working life in the Potteries at the age of 13. She became an active trade unionist  and  was a branch secretary by the time she was 18. She also joined the Social  Democratic Federation.

In 1920 she went to Ruskin College for two years and then spent a year in Vienna teaching English. In 1923 she got married to Steve Lawther, whom she had met at Ruskin,  and went to live in Chopwell in the North East where he was a miner. She  quickly became active in the Labour Party’s  Women’s Advisory Council.

Her husband was imprisoned for 3 months during the General Strike.  Emmie was very active in the  miner’s relief fund distributing thousands of pounds to women for their families She also campaigned for a birth control  clinic, despite the disapproval of male Labour politicians.

In 1928 she visited the Soviet Union on a delegation, going to Leningrad, Moscow and the Donbass coalfield and spoke at many  meetings about what she had seen in terms of child welfare, which exceeded what was available in Britain.

In 1929 she attended the first International Anti-Fascist Congress in Berlin.  After the Naxis came  to power she  took in a child refugee  from Germany who later served in the British army.

In the early 1930s she was very active in the NUWM speaking at many meetings. This is her account of the 1936 march.

Thirty-two  women assembled in Coventry on the evening of Tuesday, 27th October, 1936, to take part in the National Unemployed Workers’ movement.

 They came from the distressed areas of Scotland, Cumberland, Tyneside, Wearside, Merseyside and the Midlands. These women knew they were on a serious mission and, though most of them had never left their homes and families before, they came because they felt it was their duty to make this protest to the Government and to bring the poverty and malnutrition rampant in the distressed areas to the notice of the people in towns, villages and hamlets on the route to London.

 Not knowing what they had to face but prepared to meet any hardship such a trek may entail, the women began their march on Wednesday , 28th October, determined to persevere and reach their objective.

 We set off  from Lockhurst and arrived at Coventry about 10.30am.

After a meeting at the Labour Exchange, we set off for Rugby, a distance of 15 miles. In an hour or so the town gave way to countryside and we pass through many pretty scenes and eventually have our mid-day meal by the roadside, sandwiches provided by the Labour and Co-operative women of Coventry. During the break we decide to have a ten minutes rest each hour as the majority of us were already feeling the effects of being “broke in” to this new life. At one of these breaks,  a farmer came and gave us  a sack of apples, large jug of milk and a half-crown to our collection.

 We were to meet with many such kindly incidents on our journey. Long before we reached Rugby we were too tired to appreciate the glamour of the countryside, but in spite of this, we marched into this town as the workers were leaving the factories just after 5pm with banners flying and singing our marching songs and the people responded in no uncertain manner. Here,a good meal  was provided by the co-operative  and served in their hall where we were to sleep. We were all very tired, many had blisters on their feet, others ached in every limb but everybody endeavoured  to make light of their weariness. After a sing-song and much good humoured chaff, we settled down to our second night on bare boards.

 Next morning after breakfast and carrying our mid-day meal we start for Daventry in a heavy drizzle, everybody accepting the wretched weather with good philosophy. After our mid-day meal, we send our advance guard  ahead, on her bike, to make arrangements  for our stay in Daventry. She ultimately returns and informs me  that we are to stay in the Workhouse and the Master is making soup for our arrival. Oh! How we could smell that soup during the last weary miles to Daventry.

Arriving at the Workhouse, everyone slips off her pack and makes a bee-line for the mess room.  We sit down expectant, the soup is served,  and eagerness gives way to dismay. Never have I seen such a concoction  – a thick, lumpy, mess with  bits of fat here and there. We try to eat the disgusting mess but our indefatigable leader, Maud Brown, is the only one that sticks it. She certainly set us an example, but we preferred to make a meal of the farmer’s apples.

 We tramped though town and village, Coventry, Rugby, Daventry, Northampton, Ampthill, St Albans, Finchley and Islington to London. Many times seeking a night’s shelter in Workhouses, oft we were weary and footsore but we never faltered. We carried our message of poverty and distress from the special  areas, caused by the callous indifference of the Government, to the needs of decent people, wherever we went. The people were amazed at the stories of hardship, poverty  and malnutrition our women had to tell. And we aroused the sympathy of all sections of the community. Many people helped to make our  journey to London as light as possible.

In Coventry, Newport Pagnal, Finchley and Islington, the church loaned us their halls to sleep in and we were thankful for their kindness. We shall not forget “mine host” of the “Sow and Pigs” midway between Ampthill and Dunstable, who provided a room with a roaring fire for 32 women  soaked to the skin. We arrrived wet and dismal and left warm and dry with the kindliest feelings for the cheery host who had done so much for us.

 We marched to London to arouse the public consciousness  to the Government’s attitude on unemploymnet. We arrived there on Saturday , 7th November, and carried out eight strenuous  days of campaigning in the Metropolis.

 We addressed Co-operative Guilds, Trade  Union Branches, Public meetings, lobbied  the House of Commons and carried out all kinds of activities. Those  who saw shall never forget the Armistice Celebrations of 1936. Following the official ceremony, 2,000 marchers, who were already lined up in the Horse Guards Parade, marched into Whitehall and paraded past the Cenotaph. They were preceded by five men and five women marchers, each Group bearing a wreath from the men and women marchers that  was placed at the foot of the Cenotaph. The eerie stillness of the morning was broken by a cheer as those two wreaths were placed in position and the huge procession that had marched from every part of the isles now marched past the Cenotaph and  re-forming ranks. It was a most impressive sight.

 Our march was essentially a protest against the National Government. When the first contingents had taken the road five weeks previously, the Cabinet issued a statement, deprecating the march and informing us that they would not meet the marchers. After our arrival in London, Mr Baldwin repeated this declaration in the House of Commons but we broke through this conspiracy and forced the Minister of Labour to meet a deputation from the Marchers  before we had  concluded a week’s campaign in London. Not only did we break through  the ban of the National Government but we broke through all the bans of officialdom in our movement and   we achieved a measure of unity undreamed of at Edinburgh a few months. I  myself spoke on the same platform at Sir Stafford Cripps, G R Strauss, MP,  Wal Hannington and Arthur Horner.

The demonstration in Hyde Park  on Sunday, 8th November, was one of the greatest ever seen on that historic ground; it brought on to the same platform  Clem Attlee, Leader of the Parliamentary party, Wal Hamnnington, Leader of the Unemployed, and a host of Members of Parliament and Trade Union Leaders and left wing leaders who would not have associated on the same platform a short time ago. We can claim the march achieved a measure of unity never before accomplished and that basis that we laid will bear fruit in the future.

Emmie remained active for next thirty years. She died in 1965. This account of the march and her life is taken from a pamphlet  Emmie Lawther: a tribute.

” We’re not ugly, we’re not beautiful—we’re angry!”: The protest by feminists at the Miss World contest, 20th November 1970

In a previous post I discussed the protest at the Miss World Contest in 1969.

Twelve months later on 20th November 1970  there was another protest but this time a number of women  got into the Hall and disrupted the contest for a time which was being broadcast live.

Jane Grant, who had been at the first Women’s  Liberation  conference at Ruskin college in 1970, helped to organise the protest. She fondly remembers the detailed planning, and stresses that the focus was on the show’s host, Bob Hope, a Hollywood comedian with a reputation for reactionary and racist gags. “It wasn’t about messing things up for the women in the competition or causing harm in any way.”

Sally Alexander concurs.  “We had no quarrel with the competitors. Our argument was, why do you have to be  beautiful and looked at like this before you get noticed as a woman.”

Sally and her co-conspirators  dressed up. “We wanted to fit into the audience so we went in with our handbags and looking good. Inside our handbags we had put flour scrunched up into little pieces of paper. When we got in we realised that there were groups of women  dotted all around the hall.  You felt,  “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.” You felt terrified.”

Sarah Wilson was chosen to start the protest. “When Bob Hope was going on and on with terrible, grotesque stuff, I got up and swung my football rattle. It seemed ages before anybody responded – people were lighting their cigarettes to ignite the smoke bombs – but then I saw stuff beginning to cascade down.”

From her position in the balcony, Jenny Fortune saw the signal. She had come with a busload of women from Essex University. “We threw leaflets, bags of flour and smoke bombs – the Albert Hall was covered with smoke and leaflets. It was pandemonium.”

Jo Robinson was sitting on her own surrounded by families and beginning to wonder if the protest was such a good idea. But she was appalled by by the misogyny and racism of Bob Hope’s  act and became desperate  for the protest to begin:

“Suddenly I heard a football rattle go off  – very hesitatantly  –  and it all went very quiet. And then  suddently another football rattle started and just after that there were these almightly howls and screams all round the Albert Hall. And I looked up and I saw in the floodlights all this flour, smoke bombs and leaflets, coming down onto the floor. 

Jo jumped and  hurled tomatoes at the press, shouting “We’re not ugly, we’re not beautiful—we’re angry!”

According to some accounts they also threw plastic mice. One woman who had been watching Miss World on TV at home nearby actually raced out of her house and joined in.

Guardian reporter Nicholas de Jongh,  who was covering the event, wrote: “Sixty seconds noisy, smelly pandemonium reigned. I was hit by  a bag of flour, tied in a paper packet. My shirt, suit and hands were splattered with blue paint. Bob Hope retreated, unable to compete with this newer, and frankly more interesting, entertainment.”

Sally again:“We leapt up. I had to climb over people who were horrified at what we were doing.  I was certainly determined to get onto that stage and disrupt. When I first leapt up I could see Bob Hope looked absolutely horrified and ran back stage. He took a long time to be persuaded to come  back on.” She  was seized by four or five policemen  and carried out by her arms and legs. “As we were being dragged out some of the Miss World contestants, beautiful young women  in all  their baubles,  were saying “Let them go” to the policemen!”

The contest was won by Miss Grenada, Jennifer  Hosten, aged 22. She was an airhostess and the  daughter of a barrister. She told The Guardian, “I do not think women should ever achieve equal rights. I do not want to. I still like a gentleman to hold my chair back for me.”  (Apartheid South Africa sent two contestants:  Jillian Jessup,  Miss South Africa,  who was white,  and Pearl Jansen, Miss  Africa South,  who was mixed race  and came second.)

In its report The Guardian said that there were 30 or 40 women   involved who were sitting in three  guinea and four guinea seats. The paper quoted Jan Williams, speaking on behalf of the Women’s Liberation Workshop,  “The protest had been planned for a number of weeks. As far as we are concerned it was a great success. We never intended to attack the girls.We just wanted to show we were sorry for them.” Bob Hope described it as “one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life. I was flabbergasted.  I have never  faced a bunch of mad women before.”

In her television programmes  review column in The Guardian  Nancy Banks Smith wrote:

…this year the contest was worth watching for the uproar from the floor. At the time of writing I don’t know who tried to break up the contest but I’ll  tell you this. I”ll join. Include me  in.  Consider me a member. If it was Women’s Liberation forget the form. I already belong. If Bob Hope’s jokes had been getting over (in the confusion we saw one of his cue cards being held at arm’s length – which is where I would have held it) there would’nt have been a pause to demonstrate in.

One of his jokes about World Wildlife and women’s  fur coats  had  just been stillborn when a football rattle was heard in the polite silence. At first Hope seemed to think that this was some kind of British appreciation…However, a shower of leaflets, some screwed up paper landing  on the stage   and thundery shouts induced him to say “Who are these pests? ” And he thereupon kindly left the stage.

Five women appeared in the magistrates court on 22nd  December  on a variety of charges including assaulting the police, threatening behaviour and insulting behaviour.  Shrew appealed for support : this is the first Women’s  Lib trial since the suffragettes . ..please come to Bow Street…and bring  your friends, your banners, your lunch and your support.

They were Jo Robinson (28) , Catherine McLean (20),  Mair Twissell (27), Sally Alexander (27)  and Jenny Fortune (21)  At  the hearing  Sergeant Geoffey Bowers alleged  that Sally had been one of the two women who ran towards the stage. “I  grabbed her as she climbed a barrier leading towards the stage. She struggled violently and screamed. In her right hand she had a lighted cigarette which she stubbed out on the back of my hand.” At the police station they searched her bag and found a bag of flour, four plastic mice and an over-ripe tomato. Inspector Eric Warren   claimed  that Jenny was trying to light smoke-bomb. Outside the court supporters  paraded with banners which said “Beauty Contests Enslave” and “Support Women  on Trial for Miss World.”

Jo  was heavily pregnant and repeatedly used her right to ask for a loo break, which eventually annoyed the magistrate. When she threatened to relieve herself in the court, a fracas ensued. The women on trial were rearrested and spent the night in Holloway prison, and ended up being fined for various offences. Nevertheless, Fortune describes the experience as an “epiphany . . . It was the most fantastic feeling: facing your fears – and my fears were my family’s fears: if I stopped being a nice middle-class girl, I’d get into bad trouble.”

The Women’s  Liiberation  Worksop Shrew carried a lengthy  jointly-authored report of what had happened. This began:

The Miss World competition is not an erotic exhibition; it is a public elebaration of the traditional female road to success. The Albert Hall on th evening of  November 20th was miles away from the underground world of pornography. The atmosphere was empahtically respectable, enlived by a contrived attempt at ‘glamour’. The conventionality of the girls’ lives and the ordinariness  of their aspirations – Miss Grenada (Miss World) “Now I’m looking for the ideal man to marry.” – was the keynote of all the pre-and post -competition publicity. Their condition is the condition of all women, born to de defined by their physical attributes, born to give birth, or if born pretty, born lucky; a condition which makes it possible and acceptable, within the borgeois ethic, for girls to parade, silent and smiling, to be judged on the merist of their figures and faces.

After detailing the individual experiences of some of the women involved, it concluded:

How was it, with so many  odds against us, that the demonstration was successful? The spectacle is vulnerable.  However intricately  planned it is, a handful of people can disrupt it and cause chaos in a seeming impenetrable organisation. The spectacle isn’t prepared for anything other than passive spectators. Bob Hope made more connections than we had ever expected to put across; his continual emphasis on Vietnam revelealed the arrogance of imperialism  behind the supposedly re-assuring family of nations facade.

At the second hearing  on 12th February 1971 three  of the women decided to conduct their own defence:   Catherine,   Jenny and Jo  while  Nina Stanger represented Sally. The Guardian  report said:

On the face of it the trial should have been clearcut and simple. But the magistrate  was clearly ill at ease with the tactics used by the three women  who presented  their own defence. At no stage was there any meeting of minds. On one side was the magistrate, determined to see justice done: the charges were clear,  he waited for the evidence. His opponents were four women determined to assert that the trial was not about criminal offences but about the position of women in society. ..they refused to be intimidated by the awe in which courts are held in Britain. All,  particularly Miss Fortune, were very articulate, only relying on occasions on their legal advisers for assistance. 

During the hearing the women tried to establish that their questions on the position of women in society were relevant. They tried to ascertain what each Crown Witness felt about Women’s Liberation and what the attitude of each  was to women in general.

The women’s  attempts  to turn the court into a political  theatre to promote their views very much echo what they the suffragettes  did in the many trials of women  arrested on numerous protests in the earry C20th.

Catherine and Jo were fined £10 for insulting behaviour  and £10 for throwing a stink bomb. Sally and Jenny were fined £10 for threatening  behaviour. The charge against Sally for assaulting a policeman was dismissed. Charges against all four for possessing offensive weapons ie stinkbombs were dismissed.

Looking back  in an interview 2014 Sally reflected: “We were exhilarated by the demonstration  and exhilarated by its success and astonished by how successful it had been. I do see Miss World as one of the spectacular consciousness raising episodes. It did leave its mark.”

Some of the women continued campaigning for different causes. Jenny Fortune became active in the Claimants Union and in housing politics in east London – campaigning for women’s right to housing in their own names. Sue Finch became a peace campaigner, and in 2010  was among demonstrators who closed down the Aldermaston weapons base. Sally Alexander became an historian and eventually  a Professor. Her work includes Becoming a Woman: And Other Essays in 19th and 20th Century Feminist History. Jo Robinson was involved in a radical  commune movement   called Wild.

Here are some clips

Interview with Sally Alexander

Interview with Jo Robinson

Bob Hope and the moment  the protest began.

Michael Aspel  introduces the judges

Jennifer Hosten,  Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World

 

“…to stand firmly with kindness, firmly with consideration.” Pat Sturdy and the Women’s Industrial Union, Burnley, 1971-1972

The Women’s  Industrial  Union was  a breakaway union from the General and Municipal Workers’ Union,   formed by Pat Sturdy at the Lucas factory in  Burnley in May 1971 because she had  become very disillusioned with the attitude of the male-dominated union  who ignored issues raised  by women.

Pat attended the Socialist  Woman conference in London in January 1972 as an observer,  contributing to a panel on women and trade unions.

In her Book Women, Class and Education (2002), Jane Thompson  quotes Pat from a letter as wanting the WIU:

…to be more like a Union-cum-Club… (to) look after members’ rights  and help with their problems out of work…to stand together…to stand firmly with kindness, firmly with consideration. Only this way can we hope to show the men folk the error of their ways and stay uncorrupted ourselves. (p.35)

Although it attracted 200 members, the WIU opted after a year to go into the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

This is a report  from Socialist Woman, summer 1972 .

 

The women workers’ occupation of the Sexton’s shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk, spring 1972

In early 1970s there were a number of occupations by workers of their work places in response to plans to close them down, the most well known being the Upper Clyde Shipbuilding occupation in 1971  and Fisher-Bendix  in 1972. Many  of  the other occupations, including those by women workers – Sexton’s shoe factory in Fakenham  and Briant Colour Printing in Peckham – have been forgotten

I came across the Fakenham occupation mnetioned  in Socialist Woman (summer 1972)   in the course of writing a post about this  Marxist women’s journal  which was published between 1968 and 1978. I have  scanned in the report below.

Fakenham  was a small market town with a population of less than 5,000 but had a number of factories attracted  by cheap female labour . Sexton’s shoes  was set up in the ninteenth century and opened a factory in Fakenham in 1964 which  employed 45 women. Set in a mainly agricultural area, there was no history of industrial militancy.

Sexton’s was sold to an American company in February 1972  who sacked most of the workforce. The unions organised a  mass meeting and threatened an occupation,  leading to most redundancies being withdrawn, but  not those of the women workers in Fakenham. Led by their supervisor Nancy McGrath  the women occupied the factory on 17th March The occuption was run democraticlaly and the women went out and about publicisng their cause and raising money through selling the bags, skirts and  waistcoats they made using scaps of material. Orders came in from unions and feminist groups.

They set up a workers’ co-operative, which  was launched on 17th July 1972 in  a new factory using a loan. Despite high hopes it  struggled   to make ends meet. and folded after five years.

The occupation  was reported by Mary Holland in The Observer, 7th May 1972. It has also  been featured in several books.  The occupation of the Sexton, Son & Everard Shoe factory at Fakenham Norfolk which eventually lead to the formation of a Workers Cooperative known as Fakenham Enterprises by Jill Hardman (1975). Women  in Control : Dilemmas of a workers c-ooperative by Judy Wajcman (1983) (who worked at the factory for a  few months)  and Women, Workplace  Protest and Political Identity in England 1968-1985 by Jonathon Moss (2019),

It was also  the subject of a documentary made by the London Women’s Film Group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

” We believe that a total perspective of women’s  liberation is impossible without a total revolutionary perspective.” Socialist Woman journal, 1969 to 1978

Socialist  Woman started  life in  early 1969  as  a journal produced by a group  of women  who were active  in the International Marxist Group. The IMG was a  small Marxist and Trotsykist  group, formed in the 1960s as the British Section of the Fourth International. (You can read more about its history here).

Its membership never amounted to more than  a thousand at most, many of them  joining during the student protest movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.

However IMG members were often  hyper-active,  involved  in numerous campaigns  – students, Ireland, women, anti-fascism, trade union, strikes,  abortion etc – and somehow found time to  produce a range  of  journals and pamphlets.

In those  early  years the editorial board included the following : Anne Black, Val Charlton,  Margaret Coulson  Marie-Claire, Antonia Gorton, Leonora Llotd Jo O’Brien. and Ann Torode.

In the first issue they set out their views in an editorial ” A New Journal For An Old Battle.”

The immediate past period has brought forward a number of demonstrations on issues involving women; the Ford Strike over equal pay, the nurses at the House of Commons, the AEF  negotiations, the 800 women  in Manchester  and Coventry over equal bonuses, the Irish sewing machinists on civil rights.

A national campaign has started involving important  sectors of the union movement & political organisations on Equal Rights for Women. We feel  that it is neccessary  to take advantage  of the increased interest and  activity around women’s demands in industry and in the home, to establish a journal on the question. This journal will, we hope, bring socialist demands to this movement. We wnat to encourage womnew to use their power to further themselves and the cause of the working class as a whole.

Further we intend this journal to educate the left. This sounds like a rather specious claim but is not so. Countless are the papers, journals and documents put out by the left which either ignore the demands of women or use woman as a selling device a la Playboy. Women are one-third of the labour force and one-half of the population, at the same time women  have many  of the characteristics of an exploited minority. Women have specific problems and require special attention in formulating a programme, industrially, politically, and socially that will advance their consciousness and stimulate them to take action.

And finally we are not anti-male, a charge often thrown at those concerned with the woman question. We are opposed to private property, the alienation of labour and capitalism, the exploitation of the entire working class. We are opposed to  those men who  who do the “gaffer’s” job and assist him to do the dirty on women workers – whether  in the home or in industry. And we we will not hesitate to take these men on. Those men who refused to hear the bus conductresses give their case at the bus drivers’ conference; those men who refused to allow women to drive a taxi; those legions of men who measure their masculinity by the few shillings more they make an hour than their female counterparts – they’re no better than blacklegs and we’ll tell them!

We hope you will find this first issue worthwhile and whetehr male or female contribute to it – literarily or financially.  For the next issue we will pay special attention to the status of women in education and immigrant women. Book reviews will be greatly apprecaited. The Socilaist Women’s Committee which produced this journal has contcats in major cities and universities in Britian and hopes women will join and build these committees. The SWC draft programme will be reproduced in the next issue. 

It’s worth rembering that at this point  in time (early 1969) the Women’s Liberation movenent was in its very early stages with  just a handful of groups in London. I am not clear as to whether the women behind Socialist Woman were aware of their  existence at the time of the first issue, but the second issue  mentions the Womne’s Liberation Workshop and gves their address.

What pushed them to set up Socialist Woman ie the strike by the women sewing machinists at Fords  and the campaign for  trawler safety  in Hull led by Lil Bilocca were also the reason that women  such as Sheila Rowbotham  were thinking about the position of women in society. Interestingly the first issue reprints an article by the trade unionist Audrey Wise “Equal Pay Is Not Enough” which first appeared in the Black Dwarf special issue on women  (10th January 1969), edited by Sheila Rowbotham

There is also an article by Anne Torode in the first issue called “Mere Women”  which reflects on  notions of “masculinity” and “femininity”  and the way that  women’s  magazines  treat women “as creatures whose whole life is dependnet on men and romance..”

The socialist women’s  movement does not argue that by virtue of our special feminine qualities, women can make a useful contribution to the world of rough politics. Rather we must fight against those factors that impose upon us our second class status – social and economic  factors inseparable from the  capitalist organisation of society. By involving large numbers of women in this fight, the “mere women” image will be forced to crumble.

In the second issue (March & April 1969) Anne Black  from the Nottingham Socialist  Women’s  Committee  oulined their hopes for 1969 and listed a set of demands on women  and the family  very much  tune with the developing women’s movement.

1968 provided a year in which the fight for women’s rights received a much-needed  shot in the arm.  If we accept  the challenge with militancy, 1969 should be  a year of tremendous advance.

It is vital that the working class movement in Britain accept the question of women’s status as very real political issue and that it be acted upon with the same seriousness as any other aspect of the struggle…

This is a time of intense  frustration for many women whose status has not changed since the suffragettes, for women are doubly oppressed, both on account of their sex and as workers. The oppressive nature of our society stems from the establishment of private property and the  consequent  development of the paternal, monogamous family. …

The combination of running a home and working brings home to married women the full extent of their exploitation, and the widespread inequalities in employment, in terms of opportunity,  training and wages are burdens that rest equally heavily on the single woman, not to mention the single mother.  Women  must organise to remove the intellectual dominance of the male. To enter the  world of political man without an identity results in an atmospehere of intolerance and patronage  which does not advance our individuality and swamps our particular problems and demands.

We must demand complete rights over our own biological functuions ie free access to birth control information and devices, abortion and a completely new attitude to marriage with a view to ending enforced cohabitation. We stress that the “family” is only meaningful  if based on mutual consent, love and respect..Children must be the resposbibility of the community which  should provide free creches and nurseries, and legal paternity abolished. We must destroy the image of marriage as career, petty domestic routine and constant preoccupation with small children are not fulfilling  activities for any adult human being. We must demand full legal rights, such as the right to separate income tax returns, and we must demand equal pay for work of equal value….

Fianlly, we  must examine and restate the role of women  in history and reject the bourgeois propaganda  that women have made no contribution.  They can and will continue to do so in their roles as human beings. We must organise ourselves to make these demands real and pressing, educate ourselves and gain confidence in our ability to act.

The  early issues of Socialist Woman  included  articles on:

  • an interview with Mme. Binh of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam
  • Sister Patricia Veal and the militant  United Nurses Assocaition
  • the equal pay campaign run by  the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights.
  • women’s  activity in the trade unions eg the Nightcleaner’s campaign
  • strikes by women workers eg a 10 week strike in 1969 at Electronics Laboratories, Ramsgate;  the Lancaster Cleaners’ Strike, a strike at Brannan’s in Cleator Moor, a strike by telephonists in London in 1971
  • sexuality
  • reviews of books by Sheila Rowbotham and Juliet Mitchell
  • the developing Women’s  Liberation movement and the role of Marxist women within this
  • the  war in the North of Ireland
  • the fight against the Tory government’s Industrial Relatons Bill
  • women’s  history eg Helen Keller

In March 1971 the editorial welcomed the national Women’s Liberation march planned for 6th March  in London and noted the growth of Socialist  Woman groups  over the past 6 months in Oxford, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow and London who were now represented  on the pro-tem editorial board. It continued:

We believe that a total perspective of women’s  liberation is impossible without a total revolutionary perspective. At the same time we recognise that many women will want to come into  Socialist  Woman groups without yet having this perspective. We intend that the groups will remain  as open as they have always been,  with the greatest possible democracy  prevailing, so that policy is arrived at with the participation of all. Socialist Woman groups have a vital part to play in the Women’s Liberation  movement, by bringing a political perspective into it. Women’s Liberation is a political question. Our oppression  is rooted in the economic, social and political system., and until the system is overthrown, our liberation is impossible.

With the advent of Women’s Liberation left groups such the IMG and International Socialists (which were male-dominated)  struggled to reconcile their Leninist structures  in which  decisions were  taken  by a central  committee with  the autonomous tendency of Women’s   Liberation. There were also tensions about how much  independence  the women’s  groups should enjoy to set their own policies, and the behaviour of  men. As we shall see these tensions grew within IMG culminating in a major debate at the 1978  conference.

Socialist Woman Groups

These groups  were listed in  Socialist Woman in 1971 and 1972 but not  after that.  It would be intersting to know why.  Were they dissolved? It is noticeable that the end  of 1973 Socialist Woman  no longer called itself “The National Paper of the Socilaist Woman Groups”:  instead it used the strapline “A Journal of the International Marxist Group.”

Birmingham – contact: Tessa van Gelderen (1971)  Phyllis Tinsley (1971), Sandra Cooper (1972)

Bolton  – contact:  Joyce Leman (1972)

Bristol  – contact: Viv Prior (1971) 1972)

Canterbury – contact : Liz Lawrence (1971) (1972)

Cardiff –  contact: Sue Lakes  (1971), (1972)

Chorley – contact: Cath Young (1972)

Colchester – contact: Celia Pugh (1972)

Coventry – contact: Pauline  Walsh (1971), Maureen Draper (1972)

Edinburgh – contact: Anne McLellan (1971),  Jackie Freeman (1972)

Glasgow – contact : Shelly Charlesworth (1972)

Hull – contact M Ball (1971), N O’Neill (1971)

Keele  – contact: Nicola Charles (1972)

Kingston – contact: Jane Cullen (1972)

Lancaster –  contact : Margaret Coulson (1971),  (1972)

Leeds – contact: Val Jones (1972)

Leicester – contact: Jean Holman (1971)

London –  contact: Leonora Lloyd (1971).

London (North and Central) – contact:  Felicity Trodd (1971), Pat Masters (1972)

London (South) – contact: Betty Hunter

London (West) – contact: Leonora Lloyd (1971) (1972)

Manchester – contact: Judy Evans (1971). (This group was previously the Manchester Women’s Liberation Group);  Sheila Cohen (1971) (1972)

Norwich –  contact : Fiona Fadenburgh (1971), Rhona Ball (1972)

Nottingham – contact: Sue Lee (1971),  Toni Gorton (1971), Val Graham (1972)

Oxford – contact:: Judith White (1971), Hilary Wainwright (1972)

Portsmouth – contact: Sally Ruffin (1972)

Preston- contact: Kath Ryde (1971)  (1972)

Reading- contact: Carolyn Rice (1972)

Rickmansworth – contact: Leslie Richardson (1972)

Rotherham – contact: Jane mole (1971)

Sheffield – contact: Catherine Cirket (1972)

Stafford – contact: Anna Booton (1971),  M Martin (1971),  Hilary Wykes (1972)

Watford – contact: Leslie Richardson (1972)

Welwyn Garden City – contact: Val Paterson (1972)

York – contact: Julia Baldasara (1971) (1972)

 

Socialist Woman Bulletin, December 1971

A  typed Socialist Woman Bulletin was produced in December 1971 to “provide co-ordination between groups, to let them know what was going on in the centre, to pass on queries and to reflect the problems and triumphs of the groups.” The groups were urged to send in regular reports of their meetings and activities,  100 copies of leaflets produced, details of all industrial work “what union and firm  is concerned, names of militants who could be contacted by other groups as speakers, etc..”  Groups were urged  to sell the bulletin for 1d.

A speaking tour was being planned with Leonora Lloyd and possibly  May Hobbs. The bulletin urged women  active in trdae  unions to try and get nominated as deleagtes to the TUC women’s conference.

Reports:

Bolton had held a meeting with Margaret Coulson from Lancaster.The group “is going towards adopting an industrial orientation for its work. They want information on women in textiles.”

Sheffield (described as “a mixture of working, unemployed and students”)  has been “doing research into working conditions in the area  and made contact  with university cleaners”. They were planning another meeting with May Hobbs in conjunction with the Trades Council

Birmingham wanted to do a survey and was  planning a joint meeting with the Socialist Society.

The Midland Regional Conference had been attended by 10 groups, most of  which  reported a decline in membership and activity.  Three schools were being planned: 22nd January 1972 on nurseries (organised by Leamington Spa WLG ); 5th February Industrial (organised by Nottingham SWG) and 29th February on abortion and contraception ( organised by Birmingham and Nottingham WLG).

The Bulletin included a copy of strike leaflet produced by Bristol SWG  addressed to the wives of strikers at Rolls Royce and  a copy of  the York Socialist Woman  manifesto

The existence of the women’s   movement is a result of the oppression of women, the root cause of which is the whole structure of society – not merely male chauvinism which  is only a reflection of that society.  

The oppression of women is most  clear  in the class oppression of women, where the contradictions are most obvious. Therefore the Socialist Woman Group aims to help organise working and working-class woman in order to focus on the central place where women  are oppressed – doubly oppressed – not just as  women  but as workers: not just as women but as workers.

We don’t want  equality with oppressed men: we demand liberation for everyone and we recognise that this aim can only be achieved through a Socialist Revolution. Women and men can never be free under the present  social structure; capitalism cannot, by its very nature,  allow for true equality.  However, there is a need for women to organise as women – and the Socialist Woman Group is the first step in that direction.

The Socialist Woman Group demands equal pay for equal value, equal job and educational opportunities, and free 24 hour child-care centres under community control. We organise around the bi-monthly publication Socialist Woman and all our members sell this  magazine. 

Despite the proclaimed intention of producing a regular  SW Bulletin,  this appears to have been  the only issue produced.

 

Socialist Woman conference, 29th – 30th January 1972

This took place at Imperial College, London and, according to the report by Linda Fryd  in Socialist Woman, was attended by  about 100 women.   In its report the journal said that the conference was needed  because, with the growth of Socailist  Woman groups, they needed to  resolve the problem of what relationship  to establish with existing women’s groups and also their relationship with the IMG.

More urgent was the need to establish a common political basis from which to coordinate the activities of the groups, pass on the lessons drawn from local struggles and further build up the groups. Most groups had already drawn up a local manifesto for the purpose of recruiting, expressing the broad aims and political  position of “Socialist Woman”  on the question of women’s liberation, differentiating themselves from purely feminist and from reformist groupings, and locating themselves within the mainstream of the revolutionary movement

On the Saturday the conference began with a paper  by Linda Smith, “The Women’s  Liberation Movement in Britain, the WNCC,  and the regional structure, (including a historical analysis of women’s organisations.) ”

This  was followed by a paper by Judith White, “The relationship between women’s liberation and  revolutionary  socialism.”

In the afternoon  a member of the Irish Solidarity Campaign spoke on women  in the Irish national liberation struggle and the need for solidarity with the struggle of the IRA for a united Ireland and a Workers Republic.

A women  from the Danish section of the Fourth International reported on the setting up of a socialist women’s group in Denmark in response to “the inward-looking, feminist, anarchistic movement that had grown up during the previous six months.”

Margaret Coulson from Lancaster Socialist Woman Group opened the next full session on the need for Socialist Woman groups  to initiate a campaign  in workplaces for equal pay and against low pay. She stressed that the Equal Pay Act did not envisage or legislate for the the raising of the position of most  low paid working class women. “What is needed to make the fight for women’s liberation dynamic and fruitful is a campaign  exposing the real nature of the Act to be an attempt by the ruling class to defuse the women’s liberation struggle and isoloate it from the class struggle while fostering  reformist illusions among working-class women. This means a campaign demanding equal work with men, not just equal pay…and this must be a two-way process of levelling up  and in no case down.

There was a contribution from Pat Sturdy who attended as an observer amd  who raised the question of how women militants  could overcome  the frustrations encountered in “the existing male-dominated and extremely bureaucratused undemocratic unions.”   (Pat  was a shop steward at an engineeting  works  in Burnley  who had founded the Women’s Industrial  Union after she got fed up with way that the male-dominated unions ignored womne’s issues eg workpalce bullying . The aim  was sto be “more like a Union club to look after members’ rights at work and   and help with their problems out of work…to stand together…to stand firmly with kindness, firmly with consideration. Only this way can we hope to show the men folk the error of their ways and stay uncorrupted ourselves.” The WIU  attracted  200 members,  but  met with considerable hostility from the official  trade union movement.  Eventually Pat returned  to the official  trade union movement.      Jane Thompson, Women,  Class and Education, p.35;  George Stevenson, The Women’s  Liberation Movement and the Politics of Class in Britain, p. 88)

Dr Altheia Jones from the British Black Panthers spoke about the oppression of black women in the USA, West Indies and Britain and  the way in which the West Indian colonial system had entrapped women within the family.  She stressed “the  continued neccessity for oppressed people to organise themelves   independently and separately from  the existing working class and revolutionary organisations in view of the prevalence of racist and sexist attitudes within these.”

On the Sunday morning Leonora Lloyd  spoke about the equal pay/equal work campaign followed by  a discussion with a panel of trade union militants on the problem and difficulties   ecnountered in organising. The panel included May Hobbs from the Nightcleaners campaign   who stressed the need  for women’s groups  to keep the pressure up, especially where women are organised. Also on the panel  were Vicky Robinson (UPW) and Jo Gilbert (Jewellers’ Union)

The final  session was spent mainly in discussion on the draft mainfesto which was presented  by Felicity Trodd of the North London Socialist  Woman  Group. It was agreed   to accept the general  line in the draft and take the report  back to the SW groups for further discussion.

The Conference  also elected the Editorial Boad of Socialist  Woman : Margaret Coulson,  Leonora Lloyd, Roberta Manners, Wanda Mariuszko, Pat Masters, Vicky Robinson, Linda Smith and Felicity Trodd.

 

Manifesto of the Socialist Woman Groups, printed in Socialist Woman, summer 1972

We think that women cannot be liberated in a society such as this where class divisions distort all relationships between people.  So by the liberation of women we do not mean the equality of women with men in the present  set up , as this could only mean “an equal chance to be unequal” (for some to be wealthy and some to be poor, for some to be managing directors and some to be workers).

The only way to change this society for a better one is through a working class revolution, and this must involve women and men.  A socialist  revolution would end the exploitation of men and women workers for the profit of the employing class, and would create the possibility of ending all oppression such as that experienced by women. The ending of this present system of production for profit could release the neccessary resources to provide the full range of educational, social and medical services which will be needed to support  the liberation of women. But for this possibility to be realised women must play a full part in the development of a socialist society.

In present  society all women are to some extent oppressed but working class women are one of the most oppressed sections of society, oppressed because of their class  and because of their sex. At the same time, because of their position, of dependence and isolation in the family, women are often the upholders of traditional values and behave in a reactionary way. To break out of this situation women  need to organise themselves, to discuss and clarify their understanding of the subordination of women, and to begin to act to change things.

The need for  this is made greater  both by the lack of understanding among male trade unionists who do not see that the subordination of women (which seems to give them some immediate advantages) is used to make divisions within the working class, setting male workers against female workers., housewives against trade unionists. And  also within most socialist groups the question of women’s liberation has been neglected, ignored or dismissed as irrelevant.

We see Socialist Woman groups  as a way of organising against the oppression of women at the present time. We give priority to the struggles of working class women, both as the most oppressed,  and as those in potentially the strongest position to organise against the central economic basis of women’s oppression in thissociety.

To begin to challenge the present  situation we raise the following demands:

Equal Economic Rights – End Discrimination in Jobs, Social Security and the Law

  • Equal pay and equal work: an end to low pay
  • Work or full maintenance, regardless of marital status
  • No discrimination against women in social services and benefits -no strings

Equal Cultural, Social and Educational Rights

  • Social provision for children – free 24-hour childcare facilities controlled by the community
  • Equal education and training

End to Sexual Repression and Exploitation

  • The right to choose whether or not  to have children
  • Free contraception and abortion on demand
  • The right to a standard of living to make this a real choice : adequate housing, income (wage or social security), child care facilities (schools, playgrounds)
  • An end to the presentation of women as passive sexual objects
  • Recognition of the rights of gay people

The Development of Class Consciousness and Solidarity- An End To All Divisions In The Working Class

  • Working class support for women’s rights
  • Full unionisation of women and their full participation in unions; democratisation of the unions
  • An end to discrimination on grounds of sex, race or religion
  • No redundancies or unemployment : we must be clear this includes women
  • Support for women involved in working class struggles – for better pay and conditions, greater control over conditions including job evaluation; and to widen these; women on strike, wives of strikers, community struggles
  • The development of class consciousness and a revolutionary socialist perspective in the women’s movement

Membership of a Socialist Woman Group involves:

1. General agreement with the political basis of the Socialist Woman  Group as expressed in the Manifesto.

2. Acceptance of responsibility for sharing in the work of the Group, both discussions and activities.

3. Regular attendance at meetings (difficulties should be discussed with the Group.

4. Financial  contribution to maintain the Group’s activities (amount to be decided by the Group).

5. Agreement to support, sell and if possible write for, the paper Socialist Woman.

 

Key issues covered  in Socialist Woman 1972 -1978

Abortion: the national campaign  to defeat James White’s Abortion Amendment Bill  in 1975

Education: sexism in scholls

Housing: the Housing Finance Bill; Fair Rents campaign;

International reports

Ireland: the aftermath of Bloody Sunday; an interview with Maire Drumm, joint  President of Sinn Fein; Anti-Internment League conference;  Dolours and Marion Price hunger strike; interview with Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin); Irish Women United; Women for Peace; Women and Ireland group

Lesbian/Gay Liberation: report on Gay Marxist conference in 1973; lesbian liberation; lesbians and the women’s movement; Lesbian Line;

NUS women’s camapign

Sexuality:  the May/June 1973 was a special issue on sexuality, produced  by an informal collective of women , some in the IMG, some not. It was agreed to publish contributions received without any editorial restriction.

Strikes involving women: :  The Fisher Bendix occupation in Liverpool in 1972;  the occupation by  sacked women workers of the Fakenham shoe factory in Norwich in 1972;  strikes at government  buildings by cleaners in 1972.  Imperial typewriters;  Salford Electrical Instruments; Easterbrook Allcard. It also covered the role of miners’ wives in the 1972 miners’ strike:

Students:  nursery campaigns; National Union of School Students; NUS Women’s Campaign;

Trade Unions: Fisher Bendix occupation; the failure of  the Women’s Industrial  Union in Burnley;  nurses’ campaign for better pay and conditions; the Working Women’s Charter; women  in the media conference;  women  in NALGO:

Women’s Liberation: the position in Sweden; Marxism and Women’s Liberation; domestic labour; socialist-feminism,  Women Against Racism and Fascism, United Black Women’s Action Group, reprts from WLM national conferences

Contributors included:  Carol Ackroyd,  Judith Arkwright,  Sue Aspinall, Hilary Brazen, Ann Chesterton,  Cath Cikit,  Margaret Coulson, Mary Crane,  Rosalind Davis, Penny Duggan,  Ingrid Falconer, Ann Foreman,   Linda Fryd, Jenny Frost,  Joanna Griffiths,  Sarah Hart, Barbara Holland,   Celia Holt,  Dorothy Jones, Val Jones,  Pat Kahn,  Leonora Lloyd, Karen Margolis, Rosa Ochti,  Angela Phillips,  Lesley Richardson, Carol Riddell,   Mary Roston, Sue Shapiro, Linda Smith,  Maureen Smith,Sue Spilling,   Yvonne Taylor, Nina  Thomas, Jane Smith,  Linda Smith, Tessa Van Gelderen,  Yvonne Taylor,  Felicity Trodd, Hilary Wainwright,  Dodie Weppler June Whitfield and Laurie White.

The last issue of Socialist Woman  appeared in October 1978 . There was no sign that  that this  would be the last issue. What happened? was it financial or a political decision?

 

IMG Conference 1978: discussion on women members

Feminism made women angry, including women in the IMG.  This finally erupted at  the 1978 national conference.

The report in Socialist Woman (October 1978)  noted that there had  been “months of often heated pre-conference discussion” and that the discussion:

raised some very basic questions about a revolutionary party; the relationship of activity in the women’s movement and a revolutionary organisation: how tensions between men and women express themselves in a mixed political party and the methods and limitations of combating sexism within its ranks. This discussion revolved around the role and functioning of women’s caucuses (that is meetings for all and only women members inside the IMG.

A very lengthy resolution was adopted at the conference which began with  some trenchant criticism of men in the organisation and  its culture :

Sexism in society finds its reflection inside the IMG. It finds its  expression in a number of ways;

  1. The lack of consciousness in the IMG as to how and why sexism operates in its own ranks.
  2. A concept of a cadre which can be interpreted as a steretoype of traditional male behaviour.
  3. Insufficient understanding of women’s educational needs.
  4. A tradition of political discussion which encourages  individual competitiveness and dismissiveness rather than collective dialogue.
  5. Lack of confidence of women comrades induced by conditions within and without the orgaisation.
  6. A division of labour which creates a distinction between (mostly male) prucers of theory, and the paractical activists.
  7. Insufficient action to deal with the problems of child-care.

Reading between the lines it seems clear that  the  model of organising within Women’s  Liberation (non-hierarchical,  valuing all contributions  and based on small group discussion) had clashed with the male culture within IMG in which it appears that  if you hadn’t read every word Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had ever written you were dismissed.

It was agreed that women caucuses  encouraged  the organisation “to come to grips with the problem  of sexism.” These should be timed  so as not to clash  with other branch activities and open to all women. It was suggested that discussion in the caucuses  should  include consciousness -raising;  problems of the role of women  comrades in the leadership; help in integrating new women comrades into the organisation and discussion of recuitment  and relationships to women contacts.

The resolution  concluded:

Women  comrades have an enormous potential  contribution to make to the life and politics of the organisation. This potential is still  far from being realised, despite certain advances in theory and practice made by the IMG over the past few years.  Only the establishment of women’s caucuses wll help to realise  this principle.  At least, we should free ourselves from all prejudice  about this issue, and try to investigate the various positions and options open to the IMG as frankly and as carefully as possible. The aim  is not to ghettoise women’s issues and problems but to make them the property of the IMG as a whole, and its concern. Women’s caucuses will help to stimulate  a more outgoing  approach  by women  comrades rather than concentration  among themselves on informal  discussion and unresolved conflicts.

Socialist  Woman pamphlets

1. Booklist for Women’s Liberation

2. The Nightcleaners’s Campaign.

3. The Lancaster Cleaners Campaign.

4. Women in Industry. No 1

5. Women workers in Britain: a handbook

6. International Women’s Day by Alexandra Kollontai

 

I have found some  biographical detail  on two women involved with Socialist Woman:

Margaret Coulson. She died in 2017 in Australia. This is an obituary written by her friend Margo Gorman.

Leonora Lloyd. She  died in 2002. This is her obituary in the Guardian.

 

Reading  Socialist Woman

The Working Class Movement Library in Salford  has  copies of Socialist Woman in its collection

The Marxists website has the  complete run  scanned in (including the bulletin and pamphlets)  which  can be read here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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 a 30 minute  film about the conference  called A Woman’s Place,  made  by Sue Crockford .  You can watch it 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.

 

W

Child Rearing and Women’s Liberation – Rochelle P Wortis

Women, Work and Equal Pay – Leonora Lloyd