Remembering the Peterloo Massacre: 1820-2017

 

Rather than write  directly  about the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 –  which I have done on a number of occasions before – I thought it would be useful  to bring together  some of the information about past  commemorations that I have gathered over the past year.

At the end of this article  I will set out my views as a socialist and historian on the current commemoration  and  the  plans  for a memorial.

I will leading a history walk “The Real Story of Peterloo” on Saturday 19th August, 11.30am to 1.3opm. Please meet at Cobden’s statue, St Ann’s Square. The cost is £8.00. Advance booking is strongly recommended as places are quite limited. To reserve places, please email me: redflagwalks@gmail.com

 1820

On the first anniversary of the Massacre,  a thousand or so people attended  a meeting on St. Peter’s Fields,  where  they were addressed by John Saxton.  The seven committee members of the Manchester Female Reform  Society issued an address in which they declared, “May our flag never be unfurled but in the cause of peace and reform: and then may a female’s curse pursue the coward who deserts the standard…” In September 1820  they issued an address to  Queen Caroline, signed by 20,000 women, and  sent an address  to Henry Hunt.

1823

On the anniversary in August  1823  the radical newspaper Black Dwarf  reported;

On Saturday last, being the anniversary of the ever memorable sixteenth of August  1819, the teachers and scholars of the Union Sunday School, Manchester, with a number of the inhabitants of that town, attended at four o’clock in the morning, on St Peter’s Field, when the song of “The Slaughter” was sung by the scholars and the company present, and after praying for justice on the perpetrators of the deeds of blood so recently committed they quietly departed to their several occupations.

It was intended to have a public procession; but, owing to the excessive rain during the whole of the day, and particularly at the time appointed for assembling, the procession was reluctantly abandoned; enough, however, was done to show  that  the execrable deeds of that fatal day were not forgotten, nor likely to be so, during the lives of the present generation; and it is to be hoped, that this anniversary  will always be commemorated till such time as a full and fair investigation has been instituted, and the abettors and aiders of the dreadful massacre has received the punishment they merit.

At Ashton under Lyne and Charles Town, a black flag was displayed, with the inscription “Murder, 16th August, 1819” upon it, and the people assembled were harangued on the subject of the Peterloo Massacre.”

1830

Henry Hunt spoke at a meeting in Salford Town Hall on the anniversary. The magistrates  made sure that the police and army were at hand. Hunt was met at Pendleton by a band of music,   accompanied by several hundred people from Manchester. He was put in a landau with Reverend Dr  Scholfield, Mr Cox and Mr Mitchell, and they proceeded along Chapel Street, up New Bailey Street, Gartside Street, Quay Street and Peter Street,   and onto the site of Peterloo where he arrived “amidst loud huzzas and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs”. The Manchester Guardian reporter  estimated the crowd at 40,000 to 50,000 “consisting chiefly of lads, with a considerable sprinkling of women”.

 

1830s

At the  huge Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor on 24 September 1838 the events of 20 years ealier were still raw.  The memory of Peterloo was  represented by a number of banners,  one showed the scene on St Peter’s Fields in 1819  with the inscription “Murder Demands Justice, ” while another bluntly proclaimed  “Slaughter of Our Unarmed and Peaceable Brethren On the Plains of Peterloo, AD 1819″. Mr Hodgetts from Salford moved a resolution  in favour of the Charter,   referring to  Peterloo in his speech  which  caused a  great stir  in the crowd,

Dorothy Thompson, the pre-eminent historian of Chartism,  describes Ashton-under-Lyne  as “perhaps the most radical and Chartist of all the factory towns”, due in part to the celebrations organised by the women  on the anniversary of Peterloo.  William Aitken, weaver, schoolmaster and lifelong radical,   recalled in his memoirs:

My earliest remembrances of taking part in Radicalism are the invitations  I used to receive to be at “Owd Nancy Clayton’s in Charlestown, on the 16th August to denounce the Peterloo Massacre and drink in solemn silence “ to the immortal memory of Henry Hunt”. This old woman Nancy and her husband were both at Peterloo, and I believe, both were wounded, at all events, the old woman was. She wore on that memorable day a black petticoat which she afterwards transformed in black flag which on the 16th of August used to hung out and a green cap of liberty attached thereto. In the year 1838 a new cap of liberty was made and hung out with the black flag on the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. These terrible and terrifying symbols of sedition alarmed the then powers that existed and our then Chief Constable – no lover of liberty – was ordered by a magistrate to march a host of special constables and all the civil power he could command to forcibly seize and take possession of these vile symbols of anarchy and base revolution. Off they marched…but the women of that part of the borough heard of the contemplated raid that was likely to befall their cherished emblems and the women  drew them in from the window and hid them. Up this gallant and  brave  band of men  went to the front door of poor Nancy Clayton  and placed themselves in daring military array while the Chief Constable with a subordinate marched upstairs  and amongst the women there he found my old friend ‘riah Witty who told the writer what follows. Imperiously and haughtily,   as became  the chief of so noble a band,  he demanded the black flag and cap of liberty. My old friend ‘Riah said,

“What has’t thou to do wi’ cap o’liberty? Thou never supported liberty, not aught ‘ut belongs thee?”

However the chamber was searched and the poor black flag was found under the bed and  taken prisoner…the house was searched  from top  to bottom for the cap of liberty but neither the genius of the chief nor his subordinate could find the missing emblem of revolution. Off this gallant band of men marched with poor old Nancy’s petticoat –  the  black flag never more to grace a radical banquet of potatoe pies and home-brewed ale.

The Saturday after this grand demonstration ‘Riah Witty met the Chief Constable, and she exclaimed, “Now thou didna find  that  cap o’liberty, did tha?” “No”, he said,  “ I didna ‘Riah, where wur it?”

She said “I know thou couldna find it, it were where thou duratna go for it”

 

1876

The Manchester Man by Isabella Banks  was published , which  includes an  account  of Peterloo. In her appendix to the 1896 edition Mrs Banks writes:

The female sabred on the hustings was a Mrs. Fildes when I knew her. Her son, Henry Hunt Fildes, was in my father’s employ; and his nephew is now an artist not altogether unknown to the world… The memory of this inhuman outrage was not soon permitted to die out of the Manchester mind ; for so surely as Peterloo Day came round, it was commemorated by a long procession of working-men, headed by an immense banner on which the scene of the massacre was represented with startling effect, if not with consummate art. Year after year I beheld the long procession and its ponderous banner until I had outgrown my childhood and any likelihood of forgetfulness. But when these annual processions were abandoned, or what became of the scenic banner, I have no means of ascertaining…

1879

Ford Madox Brown was  commissioned to paint murals for the Great Hall in the Town Hall. Peterloo was chosen as subject to begin with,  but was then abandoned out of   what the Manchester Guardian reported as  “deference to political susceptibilities”. It was replaced with a mural  the opening of the Bridgewater Canal.

1919

Socialists in Manchester set up the Peterloo Centenary Committee,  comprising representatives of the Manchester and Salford Labour Party, Coop Political Committee, ILP, British Socialist Party, Railwaymen, WIL, United Socialist Council, Socialist Sunday Schools, Ex-Servicmne’s Union, Federation of Discharged Soldiers. The Committee organised  a number events and also publshed  a pamphlet by J H hudson, Peterloo: a history of the massacre and the conditions which preceded it.

C A Glyde produced a pamphlet The Centenary of the Massacre of British Workers, published in Bradford.

James Haslam  wrote in the Manchester Guardian that  he first heard of Peterloo as young boy  from handloom weavers who discussed politics in a cellar. His father owned the looms and rented them to other weavers.

The Manchester Guardian ran a lengthy article on 16th August  recounting the events of  1819,  written by F. A B. (almost certainly Francis Bruton, whose book on Peterloo was published in 1919).

That same day there was  Peterloo procession ,  at the head of which  was a red bonnet carried on a long pole. It assembled in  Queen Street, near Albert Square, and    then went along Deansgate  and turned up  Peter Street where there was a  pause for a singing of “The Marseillaise”. It then  continued  to Platt Fields. The speakers in the park included  veteran trade unionists Tom Mann and Ben Turner.

On Sunday there was a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall called by the Manchester and Salford ILP. The speakers included  J H Hudson (chair),  Philip Snowden, Katherine Bruce Glasier and Annot Robinson. The report in Manchester Guardian  does not report what Katherine and Annot said , only what the men  said!.

1932

June 1932.  The Cotton Pageant at Belle Vue  included a depiction of Peterloo. The organisers appealed for 1, 500 top-hats for the scene.

1938

In early April the official celebration of Manchester’s century as a city decided to drop Peterloo from the commemorations. The pageant committee said that it might cause bitter feeling. The trade  unions said that it would do nothing of the sort , that the workers regarded it as an incident in their long struggle for liberty. After similar  protests  it was agreed to reinstate Peterloo. The Pageant organiser was called Nugent Monck . (By the way three Scottish societies in Manchester were invited to take part in the 1745 episode in the Pageant, while thirty red-headed girls were chosen to play  slaves from Gaul in the Roman episodes.)

As part of the centenary events there was an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery entitled “ Manchester in Nineteen Century  Pictures and Records” which comprised 198   works, of which half were portraits,  including Peterloo.

There was an exhibition in Manchester Town Hall Extension  of historical items, including a sabre from  the Cheshire Yeomanry, lent by Quartermaster Sergeant Wrigley of the 6th Manchester Regiment who received it from the grand-children of the man who had  picked it up on the day of Peterloo.

On 18 June the Communist Party organised their own version of the Manchester Pageant at the Manchester Athletic Ground. The event was begun with a parade  of youth, men and women’s contingents alternating. The men  had a workers’ uniform of blue or white  open-necked shirt and grey flannel trousers, the women were dressed similarly. Each carried a red flag.

The pageant consisted of a number of banners painted with scenes and slogans. It began with Peterloo and Chartism and ended with banners calling for “ A Manchester with no unemployment, ” “ A Manchester without the threat of war, ” and “A Manchester that belongs to its people”.

1940

Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring was published. Spring was a former Manchester Guardian journalist,   whose novels  were very popular in the 1940s. Spring once wrote “it was not until I started to write novels and took Manchester as their settings that I realised how deeply the city had bitten into my consciousness.”

The novel recounts the rise of Hamer Shawcross from the streets of  Ardwick to becoming a Labour Minister in the 1930s.  Shawcross’s grandfather “The Old Warrior”  was at Peterloo and often recounts the events of the day, which  he begins by taking down a sabre from above the fireplace, a sabre  he took from the field of  Peterloo.

He tells how he and his sweetheart emma  marched with Sam Bamford from Middleton. When they got to Manchester there were many thousands filling the town. Orator Hunt passed them in his horse-drawn carriage with a woman all in white, wearing a red cap.  Then they were attacked by the military. The Old Warrior put Emma behind him and pushed his way through the panicking crowd. He was confronted by a soldier waving a bloody sabre.

I rushed to meet him shouting “God damn you, you bastard! You’re a poor man like us. What are you doing?

 I waved my stick, and I could hear the leather creaking in the saddle and see the shine of his lovely boots. And then, when I was on him, his horse reared up, and I could see its front hoofs dangling over my head with the shoes gleaming, and the big veins in its belly. I struck upwards with my stick and got the beast in the belly, and then Emma shrieked and pulled me backwards. …Then the horse was gone , and there was Emma,  lying on the ground.  She was dead…

The Old Warrior went in pursuit of the soldier

I whirled my stick – good solid oak it was – and you could hear his elbow crack like a broken stick  when I hit it. My  anger was not cold any longer.  God alone saved me from murdering the  man. I was red and blind. The sabre fell on the field and I picked it up, dropping the stick from my hand. I swung it round my head and aimed at the middle of him with a blow that would have cut him in two. He dug his  spurs into his horse. And the beast gave a sideways leap that ended my blow in the empty air. Then the soldier pulled him round and fled with one arm dangling at his side as though it were tied on with string.

The novel was filmed  in 1947 with Michael Redgrave in the main role, and also  made into a TV series by the BBC in 1982, with Tim Piggott-Smith in the main role.

1949

February 1949  – a proposal to change the  St Peter’s ward to  Peterloo ward, moved by Alderman Sir Miles E Mitchell  and Alderman Wright Robinson was rejected.

1951

When the Free Trade Hall reopened after being rebuilt following war-time bombing there was a mural about Peterloo  by Sherwood Edwards in the foyer.

1961

In February 1961 Peterloo was included in a display of documents mounted at Central Library, selected by local history librarian, Mr H Horton. The centrepiece was a diary kept by Henry Hunt whilst in Ilchester prison following Peterloo. On 16th Augsut   1820 he wrote,  “I eat no meat today, I sincerely pray that I may live to witness the condign punishment of every soundrel that was instrumental to, or accessory to, or principal to, or in any remote degree concerned in those  infamous, crule, cowardly, unprovoked, and premeditated assassinations, cuttings, and murders of peaceable mne, women, and children at Manchester this day twelvemonths.”

1969

In the Guardian on 20 July 1969   A J P Taylor reviewed a new book by Robert Walmsley, Peterloo; the Case re-opened. At the end  of the review Taylor  concluded that,  “The magistrates  and yeomanry were defending a corrupt system. The demonstrators were demanding their just rights, even if they used sticks and stones as well as arguments. Henry hunt spoke for the people of England… when the defence of order leads to the killing of innocent people, the guilt always  lies with the guardians of order”.

Manchester Libraries produced a portfolio of 20 documents to make the 150th anniversary.

The Peterloo Gallery in Manchester commissioned a series of prints by Ken Sprague which were displayed in the gallery in August.  He said “ I didn’t want blood and guts . They showed that aspect well enough at the time.” Merete Bates in the Guardian thought that the content often  seemed irrelevant “a landscape, a still-life, the occasional figure study”. She thought that the artist had failed “not through lack of knowledge but by pleasing without disturbing” Kenneth Sprague was born  in January 1 1927 and  died July 25 2004. He worked for the Daily Worker, Morning Star and other publications as well as producing posters and much other work.

The Peterloo Gallery closed in January 1980 after North West Arts cuts its funding. It was started  by Lillian Gethic  in 1968 with £100 of her own money

On 8 August 100   children acted out the story of  Peterloo in two perforances in the  Library Theatre. This was the result of two weeks work with the children from 20 Manchester schools  by the Library Theatre Company under the direction of Gloria Parkinson.

There was folk concert on 16 August  in the Free Trade Hall, at which  the performers included  Harry Boardman and Leon RosselsonMichael Foot, MP,  also spoke. The narrator was  the actor Randal Herley. A Peterloo  banner from Middleton  was brought on stage.

1972

The City Council suggested changing the name of   Peter Street  to Peterloo Street. In April 1972  preliminary notices were posted about the change,   but this was stopped  in September by a magistrate after shop-owners took out summonses. John Bamber, stipendiary magistrate  said,  “I think we are getting matters entirely out of proportion to think that a city of Manchester’s importance should have to change the name of one of its best known streets to commemorate a not very creditable incident that took place there 153 years ago.” The chairman of the Highway Committee, Alderman Joseph Ogden, “We’ll  just have to leave it as it is, as Peter Street.” The objectors included the YMCA and the Midland Hotel.

1973

Rochdale progressive rock band Tractor recorded  a concept album,  The Peterloo Suite,  comprising  5 songs  which was going to be put out  on  John Peel’s  Dandelion Records, but this folded before the release. It was finally officially  released in 2011.  You can listen to it here.

1994

As part of the City of Drama in Manchester there was a performance based on the events of Peterloo in Upper Campfield Market. It  was modernised, though,  with riot vans, and mobile phones being deployed during the promenade performance. It was written by Mike Harris and produced by Dave Moutrey. Over 100 volunteers took part. ( A copy of the script is available at the Working Class Movement Library).  The show was publicised by an event for journalists in Albert Square on 16th August.

2007 to 2017

Regarding the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Committee – which  since 2007 has been organising an annual  event of the  reading of the names of those killed,  and is campaigning  for  permanent memorial – I think  this has   plucked Peterloo out of  its immediate political, economic and social context, and repackaged it as a one-off event which is portrayed as a milestone on the road to democracy. (The Whig interpretation of history reheated, essentially)

And at an event which was about politial reform as a response to hunger, unemployment  and poverty, which has  inescapable  parallels with Foodback Bank Britain  in 2017, they refuse to allow present-day camapigners  to speak at the commemoration or even carry banners.

But you can’t talk about Peterloo without talking about the radical  Republican ideas of  Tom Paine set out in both parts of  “The Rights of Man” in 1791 and 1792 .  These were ideas that still terrified  the authorities  in 1819.  Richard Carlile, for instance, due to be one of the speakers at Peterloo,  was jailed  for five years shortly after,  just  for selling Tom Paine’s work.

And I don’t think you can talk about Peterloo without talking about  the acute economic  distress in the years before  which, for instance,  led to attacks on  mills in  Middleton in April  1812  (in which more people were killed by the Scots Greys than at Peterloo), and at an attack on the Royal Exchange the same month.

Finally,  you have to talk about the class element at Peterloo: that a small,   very wealthy minority who controlled the political system were determined to maintain their privileges, if need be, by killing people in the streets. Which is exactly what they did at Peterloo, with no regrets. This was an analysis  that was not all controversial on  previous anniversaries. As noted above  1919 the Committee was made up of local socialists  and trade unions,    while in 1969 a concert at the Free Trade Hall  had socialist folk-singers and Labour MP,  Michael Foot.

Rather than giving money to a static memorial, in my view  it would be better spent on supporting  campaigning  groups in Geater Mancheste whoare , fighting austerity, zero hours,  benefit cuts etc.  The monument would then  be a  continuing visible  fight for a better society.  (Si monumentum  requiris  circumspice, to adapt a motto)

radical history walks on weekends in August in Manchester and Ashton

I will be doing the following walks on weekends  in August. The cost of each walk is £8.

Advance booking is strongly recommended as places are limited. To reserve places or  for more information, please email  me:  redflagwalks@gmail.com

Saturday 19th August. The Real  Story of  the Peterloo Massacre,  16 August 1819

Meet at 11.30am, by the statue of  Richard Cobden, St Ann’s  Square

The  Peterloo Massacre of 16th  August 1819 was Manchester’s most traumatic political event. A peaceful crowd of men, women  and children, numbering tens of thousands, was attacked without warning  by the miltary, resulting in many deaths and injuries. This walk will explore the background to the Massacre,  setting it in the context of  the radical  movement of the late C18th and early C19th and the Manchester food  riots of 1812. At the end we  will follow the events on the day on the place where Peterloo took place.

Sunday 27th August. Radical  Ashton-under-Lyne.

Meet at 11.30am by  the Town Hall steps. Market Square.

This walk will explore a number of episodes in Ashton-under-Lyne’s radical past,  including the political career of socialist and suffragette Hannah Mitchell,  the Chartist Rising of 1848, the  Bread Riot of 1863, the Anti-Irish Riot of 1868 and  the formation of the Co-operative movement.  This walk will be a fund raising walk for The Poor Side of Life blog, written by Charlotte Hughes.

 

The Lancashire Women’s Parliament, April 1942

In 1941 and 1942 a number of Women’s Parliaments were held in different parts of the country to discuss the  issues arising from  women working in industry. This  was an initiative stemming from the Communist  Party,  but which drew in wider support than just their own membership, a sign that the changed position of women in society created by the war, was leading to a thoughtful discussion of wider issues.

The first Women’s Parliament was held in London on 13 July 1941, just a few weeks after Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, and was  attended by 346 women who were dubbed “MPs”.   The  conference was opened by Beatrix Lehmann, a well-known actress and author. She said:

We welcome you to this first session of the Women’s Parliament, which meets at a time of crisis unparalleled in world history. We women, more than any, are sensible of the sufferings which have been brought upon this generation.  We know what a terrible cost would be exacted by the victory of Fascist reaction and we know that the utter annihilation of Fascism must precede all hope of a just and lasting peace.  Yet any who think that the role of a woman  at this time is to sit down and weep beneath the load of her sufferings  and take no part  in the shaping of events, is mistaking all the lessons of history. The war, it is true, has broken up the settled course of social life. But it also faces us with new responsibilities and immense opportunities.

 The Women’s  Parliament passed an emergency resolution  of support for the USSR. The report of the event said the gathering was “confident of its strength and resolute in its purpose. They were not there to air grievances or bewail their fate, but to put forward concrete proposals”.  At later sessions the Parliament put forward draft Bills  on Wages and Part-Time Work which, it said,  were  needed  in order “to utilise the whole resources of the nation in the war against German Nazism and to ensure an early victory, it is necessary to bring about the most effective and fullest mobilisation of man power and woman power”.

The Lancashire Women’s Parliament took place on 12 April 1942,  organised by Manchester and District  Anglo-Soviet Women’s  Unity Committee. It was held in the Co-operative Hall, Downing Street,  and   attended by  300 women from political parties, trade unions, Anglo-Soviet committees, munition factories,  and many other bodies. Also present were  two representatives from the Ministry of Information, as well as a large number of  other visitors.

Miss Clara Bamber, President of the Manchester and District Women’s Anglo-Soviet Unity Committee,  presided over the conference. She  had been active in the Co-operative Movement,  and was also Chair of the Manchester, Salford and District Maternal Mortality Committee.

In her opening address Clara  said that about half the delegates  represented women in industry and about half represented  housewives or organisations interested in women’s work, thereby representing a very good  cross section of Lancashire women.  She said that the Parliament  had come about after a number of Manchester  women had met the previous August and decided to form an Anglo-Russian Women’s Friendship Committee. This had been very successful and a deputation had been sent to Madame Maisky (wife of the Soviet Ambassador) with donations of money and supplies to the Soviet Union. They had also affiliated to  the Anglo-Russian Friendship Committee, started by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. She recalled that when the Soviet trade  union delegation had  visited Manchester, Madame Nikolayeva,  Secretary of the All-Union Council of Trade Unions, had  pointed out that she was disappointed at seeing  so many women in Lancashire who were not  working in industry. (The delegation had visited Manchester in January 1942, attending a conference and visiting bombed areas and factories).

They  had called the Parliament, Clara continued, to give women  the opportunity of discussing why more of them were not working in industry  and what the difficulties were which kept them out. In conclusion she spoke about the international situation:

 At the moment the only country which is holding the enemy is Russia and Russia must be helped if we are to help ourselves. Their magnificent stand this winter has given us quiet nights; it has saved us from possible invasion and has filled us with admiration and courage. We love our land, too, and we will sacrifice for it, but we want the burden to fall equally on all people. Our deliberations today are to that end.

The first item discussed by the delegates was the  draft Women’s  Power Bill which set out the following demands in order to allow women to go into industry:

 

  • Factory canteens and British restaurants

 

  • Nursery schools and residential nurseries

 

  • Full time education, dinners for all school children, breakfasts and teas for children of war-workers

 

  • Play Centres for children of school age with voluntary supervision

 

  • Full use of local part-time labour to made by all factory management

 

  • All women who registered for National Service should be drawn into work without delay or class distinction

 

  • An immediate  examination of Lancashire industry should be undertaken  by the Ministry of Labour, the employers and the trade unions with a view to making the fullest use of the available woman labour

Mrs Holt, representing  the BRD Aircraft Factory, Warrington, moved the Bill. She  said that she had wasted 12 years of her life as an unpaid housewife,  but for the past five months she had been in industry helping the war effort. “The splendid and dauntless courage of the Soviet women drew me to the factory,” she declared.  “The Soviet women are an example to us, and we can play our part just as they are doing…every woman must play her part as more and more men are taken out of industry and drafted into the Forces”. She went on to say that her factory was now 100 per cent trade union,  and that as a senior shop steward  she knew the problems confronting the women in industry such as the lack of  nursery schools and shopping facilities.  She asked the women of the Parliament to give this draft bill their utmost support.

Bessie Wild of the Longsight  Anglo-Soviet Committee said that there could be no future for her two children unless she herself  played her part in the war effort. Her children attended a nursery and she was extremely satisfied with the manner in which her children were being  looked after.   Bessie  had heard that a munitions factory quite near to her home was being opened, but when she presented herself she was told that there could be no question of part-time work. She thought that Labour Exchanges should adopt a more friendly and helpful attitude.

Margaret Hyndman, who was described as a shop steward  in a  “a large aircraft industry” (clearly the Avro factory in Chadderton, ) said that the firm  employed 11,000 workers, 2,000 of whom were women.  They were not organised at first,  but now they  had  a woman convenor as well as a male convenor. They had good conditions, and surprised the management by turning out the new bomber  in three months under schedule. “The shop stewards,” she continued, “took up the question of the canteen  and secured substantial  improvements, such as weekly  dinners at six shillings per week, table-cloths, flowers on the tables, waitresses, good service, food well cooked and served. Since the women had started working at the factory, production had doubled. Get the women organised,  and then we can end the war this year”.25

Florence Mitton was a delegate from the Stretford branch of  the TGWU at Metro-Vickers. She said that she  represented  2,000 members,  and their worst problem was shopping which had  led to much absenteeism. “We feel,” that in Manchester and Lancashire we should get busy on solving this problem – show the traders the difficulties experienced by the  workers and get their co-operation in the  settlement of the problem”.  Florence  also  said  it was essential to get crèches.26

There was concern  in the higher echelons of the trade  union movement at the success of the Women’s  Parliaments,  and the fact that  it might enhance  the standing of the Communist Party. Consequently Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the TUC, sent out a letter which was read at the monthly meeting of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council on 17 January 1943.  It was clear, he wrote, that the Women’s  Parliaments were attempting to deal with many matters that were the subject of “negotiation by individual trade unions or the trade unions generally” and had intervened in matters that  were essentially the responsibility of trade unions. If the Women’s Parliaments were to receive support from trade union branches, district committee, or trades councils it would inevitably lead to” conflicting policies or misunderstandings”. In all circumstances, the letter concluded, the General Council of the TUC strongly advised affiliated organisations and Trades Councils not to support the Women’s Parliaments.

The letter was in some sense unnecessary, since the Lancashire Women’s Parliament was the last such meeting to be held.  The Communist Party was increasingly directing  its efforts towards factory production committees, and also a campaign for a Second Front, calling for an Allied  invasion of  Western Europe in order to assist the Red Army in its fight against  the German  armies in the East.

The Women’s Peacemakers Pilgrimage

The  Women’s Peacemakers Pilgrimage, summer 1926

Womens Peace Pilgrimage 1
Marchers from North Wales

In the summer of 1926 the Women’s  International League, part of an international organisation which campaigned to prevent  another Great War,  co-ordinated with other organisations a Peacemakers’  Pilgrimage from many parts of the country to London, very much modelled on the 1913 suffragist Pilgrimage.

The aim was to raise the question of peace and international arbitration which, the organisers felt, was  not being addressed with enough urgency, even by the League of Nations. They said that they  wanted to show the government that “this country wants law not war”,  and,   in particular,  they wished  the British government to accept compulsory arbitration in international disputes by the League of Nations, something  17 other countries, including Germany and Russia, had already agreed to.

The Chair of the organising committee was Mrs Eleanor Acland, a leading member of the Women’s National Liberal Federation,  while the Treasurer was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the former  WSPU suffragette. In March Emmeline addressed a conference of 50 societies  in Manchester, which  included the Society of Friends, the League of Nations Union, the St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance and  the Women’s Co-operative Guild,  all of which  agreed to support the Pilgrimage.

The Women’s Citizen Association organised a further meeting on 12 April at the Ancoats Settlement, Manchester   to rally support for the Pilgrimage.  Mrs Muter Wilson, a former suffragist,  reviewed the history of attempts to bring about international arbitration of disputes between countries from William Penn to the League of Nations. She said that there was no greater mistake than to suppose that the mere existence of the League would in itself secure peace. She thought that the Locarno Pact might have made peace,  had it been followed by a disarmament conference. Although seventeen countries had signed the arbitration clause, Britain had not yet done so.  She believed that the Pilgrimage was “a force to be reckoned with”.24

Seven Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage marches set out in May (coinciding with the General Strike,  incidentally), holding hundreds of meetings along the way.  On 17 June there was a procession  in Manchester in support of the Pilgrimage, which gathered in Stevenson Square at 5pm,  and  then marched with pennons and banners to the Cathedral, which was packed to the doors. After being  addressed by the Dean  the  procession went to  Platt  Fields where a crowd  of 2,500 heard  speeches from Councillor Mary Welch,  Cecile Matheson   and  finally Kate  Courtney, who said that the Pilgrimage was an expression of “an aspiration to permanent peace,” an aspiration which she believed filled the mind of almost every man and woman in the country.

The 3,000 marchers on the Pilgrimage reached London in mid-June. They held a final mass procession on 19 June  ending in Hyde  Park where there were 22  platforms for  the speakers, which included  Dame Millicent Fawcett, Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Evelyn Sharp. At the end of the meeting bugles were sounded, and a resolution was put urging the government to agree to submit all international disputes to arbitration or conciliation.

On 16 July a delegation from the Pilgrimage went to the Foreign Office,  where they met Sir Austen Chamberlain.  Mrs Acland presented him with report from the Pilgrimage,  and emphasised that the object of the Pilgrimage was not merely to speak of the desirability of world peace,  but to put before their countrymen the need  for England to “throw the full weight of its immense prestige” on the side of international law “as against international anarchy.” Chamberlain replied to the women with emollient diplomatic speak, assuring them that the government was reviewing “the whole question of arbitration in international affairs.”

The Pilgrimage inspired the Manchester branch of the WIL to arrange a number of meetings in the theme of peace in July 1927 in number of villages and towns in Lancashire and Cheshire, including Bollington, Newton-le-Willows, Stockport  Whaley Bridge,  Wilmslow. The speakers included Councillor  Mary Welsh, Mrs Muter Wilson  and Dr Vipont Brown.

You can  watch a short British Pathe silent news reel  about the marches here

a short history of Manchester’s first May Day marches in the 1890s

walter-crane-a-garland-for-may-day-1895On 1 May 1892 Manchester workers marched for the first time in a mass labour demonstration for a shorter working week and an independent political voice. It was part of a worldwide movement as unskilled workers organised in mass trades unions and Socialism developed a mass political following.

May Day was instituted as an international Labour Day from 1890 onwards. The impetus came in part from a long-running campaign to reduce the working day to 8 hours. In September 1866 the International Workingmen’s Association (otherwise known as the First International) meeting in Geneva passed a resolution adopting 8 hours as a goal. In October 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions of the United States and Canada also passed a resolution calling for an 8 hour day from 1 May 1886.

In May 1886 tens of thousands of workers responded across the United States. The most militant city was Chicago, where on 3 May the police shot dead six strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In response strikers organised a massive rally the following day at Haymarket Square. The rally was peaceful but as it ended somone threw a bomb into police ranks. This was followed by a savage battle in which a number of police died, as well as members of the crowd. There was a political show trial of a number of anarchists, of whom four were convicted and hanged. They become known as the Haymarket Martyrs.

anarchsist of ChicagoOn 14 July 1889 the Second International meeting in Paris called workers around the world to march on 1 May 1890 for an 8 hour day.

The Congress decided to organize a great international demonstration, so that:

“in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.”

This coincided with a new mood amongst unskilled workers, hitherto ignored or excluded by the trades union movement, which had largely organised skilled male workers only. In July 1888, for instance, women workers at the Bryant & May match factory in East London went on strike and won with the support of Socialists. The following year there was a massive dock strike in London involving thousands of dock labourers, which brought the miles of docks to a halt. The result was victory for the workers leading to higher pay, better working conditions and a new union for unskilled workers, The Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union. The strike was led by trade unionists and Socialists including Tom Mann, John Burns, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne.

For the first time Socialist ideas were getting a mass audience. John Burns wrote of the importance of the dispute after it had been won:

“Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organize itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors.”

On May Day 1890 there were strikes and marches in many part of the United States and Europe. Frederick Engels wrote:

As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, under One Bag, and fighting One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment…. The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!

The London march to Hyde Park was huge, with perhaps 100,000 attending. Engels wrote an account in the newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung:

“There can be no doubt about that: on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army. And that is an epoch-making fact. The English proletariat has its roots in the most advanced industrial development and, moreover, possesses the greatest freedom of political movement. Its long slumber — a result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of 1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of 1848-80 — is finally broken. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the line of battle.”

The success in London was repeated in 1891,  and Manchester followed with its own march in 1892.

On 16 April 1892 The Clarion reported that a “a great labour demonstration” was being planned for Manchester for 1 May. Trade union and labour societies were requested to communicate with Mr James Quinn at the County Forum, 50a Market Street. (The County Forum was a debating society). Organising meetings were to be held every Thursday.

On the day before the march Robert Blatchford wrote a millenarian editorial in The Clarion:

“The people will meet, that is the main thing. We shall see each other face to face, feel each other should to shoulder, hear each other voice to voice, trust each other soul to soul and we shall go away open-eyed and conscious of a change. we shall have felt our strength, imagined our numbers, seen as a vision of the world the golden dawn streak of the day of our deliverance, and our triumph. Manhood suffrage and payment of members! What are these? They are as candles to the sun in comparison with the new LABOUR DAY. …Our labour day as bind us as corn in the sheaf. The sturdy miner, the skilful engineer, the broad-handed navvy, the white-fingered artist, the lusty farmer, the fragile seamstress, the outcasts of the streets, the despised denizens of the slums, the sweater’s slave the hearty sailor. Strong and weak, feeble and brave, old and young, simple and wise, the workers shall band themselves together in fraternity and freedom. They shall march on from this labour day growing ever wiser, nobler and juster until there is honour for those who make more than those who mar, reward for those who labour better than for those who loaf, until snobbery and prejudice, and theft and butchery are banished into the Hell they came from; until Labour shall hold that which it wins, and England shall be the freehold and the home and inheritance of the English.”

The procession was to assemble in Stevenson Square at 2.30pm and march to Alexandra Park by way of Oldham Street, Piccadilly, Portland Street, Oxford Street, Stretford Road, Great Jackson Street, Preston Street, Moss Lane and Alexandra Road. The order of procession was advertised as follows

The Manchester Fabian Societies
Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
Tailors
Bakers & Confectioners
The Labour Church
Shirt & Jacket Makers
Salford Social Democrats
North East Manchester Labour Electoral
Spindle & Flyer Makers
Horsehair & Fibre Workers
Dressers, Dyers & Finishers
Enginemen & Cranemen
Navvies & Bricklayers
North Manchester Labour Electoral

According to the report in the Manchester Guardian, a white ensign headed the procession with the slogan “Work for all, Overwork for None”. Other banners stated “Unity is Strength” and “Equality by Right, Justice to All”. Members of the Labour Church carried a banner stating “God Is Our King”,  while the Social Democratic Federation contingent carried red flags and a red cap on a pole (the symbol of the French Revolution).

Due to the numbers the procession moved off before the appointed time and was enlivened by at least a dozen bands. The Manchester Guardian noted that watching crowds, especially women, cheered the mottos in favour of the 8 hour day. In Hulme the march was greeted by large crowd and “something like the fervour of enthusiasm.” The march reached the park at about 4pm with at least 60,000 people now present.

At the park there were six platforms with a mix of trade union and Socialist speakers who advocated the following political programme;
1. Formation of an Independent Labour Party
2. Payment of MPs
3. Shorter Parliaments
4. Adult suffrage
5. Nationalisation of the land.

On one of the platforms Robert Blatchford moved the following resolution:

“That this meeting recognises that the establishment of a working day of not more than 8 hours is the most immediate step towards the ultimate emancipation of the workers and urges upon the Government the necessity of fixing a working day by legislative enactment.”

One of the platforms was reserved for Jewish speakers who spoke in Yiddish, including Mr Wess from London. This platform was chaired by Mr R Abrahams, who said that he hoped that next year Jews would be more numerous. There do not seem to have been any women speakers and women’s suffrage was not included as an aim.

In 1893 Manchester Council tried to stop the march taking place, turning down an application from 35 trades unions to use Alexandra Park. According to a report in The Clarion, the Corporation Parks Committee had deemed it:

“…inadvisable that Sunday demonstrations should be held in the public parks and considers that unless desired by a considerable section of the Manchester citizens they should not be permitted. This meeting believes the present application is not of such a nature to warrant such permission and therefore declines to grant it.

Leonard Hall, chair of the demonstration committee, wrote to The Clarion to state that the march was a labour demonstration open to all, and not an Independent Labour Party or Socialist demonstration. After more public protests, permission to use the park was eventually granted.

Manchester was alive with socialist organisations and activity. In the week before the 1893 march The Clarion carried notices for meetings of the Independent Labour Party in various parts of Manchester and Salford as well as a “gigantic” excursion to Morecambe on Whit Friday.The Social Democratic Federation, Hyde Labour Club, Ashton ILP, Oldham Independent Labour Club, North Manchester Fabians and  Manchester Anarchist Group all  held public meetings. Joe Waddington (known as “Clarion” Joe) sold The Clarion, Labour Prophet, Labour Leader, Workman Times, Shafts, A Paper for Women and “Socialistic” literature from his shop at 4a Crown Street, Chester Road. The printers and publsihers, Manchester Labour Press,  was based at 59 Tib Street.

The march took place on 6 May leaving from Stevenson Square at 2.30pm. The Clarion reported that it had been attended by 20,000. In his editorial Blatchford attacked the “city fathers” who had tried to stop them using the park and the Chief Constable who had deployed very large numbers of police who were threatening to the crowd, pushing people off pavements.

In 1894 the authorities refused to allow the use of Alexandra Park and instead the march went to Philips Park in Openshaw. The tradition of May Day marches continued for a century until it ceased in the wake of trade union decline and defeat. In recent years the tradition of a May Day labour procession has been revived,  although the numbers attending  at present are but a fraction of those who attended in the early years.

 

 

“ Revolutions are made about little things”: Socialist Women and International Women’s Day, 1909 to 1979

The contribution of socialist women to the instigation of International Women’s Day seems to have been virtually written out of the history of the Day. So here’s my  small effort to put them back into the picture,  and also  recall   a number of  radical and revolutionary women over the past century.

On 5th March 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, including many immigrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.

Leonora O'Reilly

The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. In her article on the origins of  International Women’s Day Alicia Williamson writes: “Turning out a few thousand celebrants, meetings around the city featured addresses by prominent suffragists such as the Women Trade Union League’s Leonora O’Reilly and the Political Equality League’s Priscilla Hackstaff in addition to socialists like Anita Block, Meta Stern, Meyer London, and Algernon Lee. Besides chanting the slogan that O’Reilly had recently coined at a protest in Albany (‘We do not want the ballot, we need it’), speakers lambasted elite conservative opponents. London in particular derided the privileged, male politician who would sermonize about the ‘sanctity of the home’ while sending ‘our children to the shop,’ or who would ‘meet a lady in a car, tip his hat, and offer a seat, but refuse to make a law that [would] provide a seat for a woman who works for ten hours a day in a factory.'”

Strikers in 1909In November 1909 Clara Lemlich led thousands of women workers in New York, mostly Jewish, out on strike  after she declared at a meeting: “ I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike”.  After a three months strike they won better working conditions and improved pay.

On 26 and 27 August 1910, the second International Women’s  Socialist Conference took place  in Copenhagen. (The first meeting had taken place in 1907 at the suggestion of German Socialist women). German Socialists Luise Zietz, Kate Duncker, Clara Zetkin and others successfully proposed the following motion:

“In order to forward political enfranchisement of women it is the duty of the Socialist women of all countries to agitate..indefatigably amongst the labouring masses; enlighten them by discourses and literature about the social necessity and importance of the female sex and use therefore every opportunity of doing so…if the women have no vote, or a limited one, the socialist women must unite and guide them into the struggle for their right; …On the occasion of the annual May day demonstration…the request of full political equality of the sexes must be proclaimed and substantiated. In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organise a special Women’s Day which in the first line has to promote Women’s Suffrage propaganda. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole women’s organisation according to the socialist conception of social things.”

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai

This is part of  a report on the conference written by the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai.  “The conference agenda included, in addition to the organisational question of establishing closer links between organised socialist women from different countries, two major issues: 1) ways and means of achieving in practice universal suffrage for women and 2) social security and protection for mother and child. Despite these seemingly specifically female topics, the conference in Copenhagen was free of that sickly-sweet ‘feminine flavour’ which provokes such irrepressible boredom in the practical politician who is used to the ‘cut and thrust’ of real political battle… The questions discussed at the conference were examined not only from the point of view of the common tasks of proletarian class policy, but were also, and inevitably, supplemented with more general demands. The fate of Finland, a country with an extremely democratic system of popular representation, the question of war, peace and the fight against militarism, the struggle against domestic manufacture and night work, compelled those taking part in the congress to move beyond the narrow framework of feminine issues and, having become more familiar with wide-ranging, urgent issues, to join in the active struggle being waged by the many millions who compose the army of the organised working class…  (International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers )

Clara ZetkinClara Zetkin was the leading campaigner within the German Socialists on the issue of women’s rights. This is a link to a speech she made at the Party Congress of the German Social Democratic Party on 16th October 1896,  “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious”.  Between 1892 and 1917 she edited Die Gleichheit (Freedom), a bi-montly journal for women workers with a circulation of tens of thousands. Her writings were translated in English and read abroad. In April 1909 she visited London at the invitation of Dora Montefiore, speaking at a number of meetings, including the annual May Day rally in Hyde Park. In December 1913 the British Labour party journal Labour Woman published an article by Clara which you can read here. Clara was a close friend of Rosa Luxembourg who, after moving to Germany from Poland, became  one of the most pro speakers and propagandists in the German Socialist party.

On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.  Looking back, Alexandra Kollonta wrote in 1920: “Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”

In 1913 the Day was fixed on 8 March.  One of the earliest marches in Britain took place in London on 8 March 1914, when there was a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage. The women were marching to join a meeting organised by the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The Manchester Guardian reported:

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.

Russian womne revolutionariesRussian women  revolutionaries

At the end of February  1917  Russian women went on strike and  poured  onto the streets of St Petersburg,  calling for “Bread and Peace: they  demanded an  end of World War I, an end to food shortages, and and an end to rule by the Tsar.   Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.”

RosaIn January 1919 Rosa Luxembourg was murdered and her body thrown into a canal in Berlin after a failed rising  by the Spartacist League, a Communist  group she had helped found. In her last editorial   before her death, “Order Prevails in Berlin”   in her newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Banner)  she wrote:

“The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this ‘defeat’ they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this ‘defeat.’ ‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am,  I shall be!” You can read the whole article here.

front cover Labour Woman July 1925Between the wars International Women’s Day continued to be celebrated in different countries. There was also other  women’s  activity  connected with  the  labour and socialist movement. In June  1925   women  in the Labour  Party held a Women’s  Week  with  meetings and  rallies in many parts of the country at which the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson,  Mary Carlin, Jane Hooper, Margaret Bondfield, Clare Annesley, Helen Crawfurd and many others.  In Kirkmuirhall on 6 June  the Women’s  Section organised a Children’s Gala. Labour Woman reported  that : “Over 500 children met at the ILP Hall and marched to a field, headed by the Coalbrun and District  Pipe Band , which refused a paid engagement  that day in order to lead the children. Tea was served by memener sof the section, and after tea Sports were held at which £8 worth of prizes were given to the children. Every child received something.” In Lincoln, despite the stormy weather the women held a successful  rally.  “A procession headed by bands and banners marched to Boultham Hall Park and included a decorated char-a-banc  and waggons representative of various planks  in albour’s programme. A novel feature was decorated  lorry which represented Englan’s , and especailly Lincolm’s, need of trade with Russia.”

17_year_old_communist_militant_1936_posters-r61b8dc1b5fc647d3800e2e1fb65b3a90_2xapx_8byvr_512In Spain when the Army, led by Franco and other generals,  staged a coup on 17 July 1936 which led to  a three year Civil War,   they were fought and defeated in many towns by local workers’ militia. Many women  joined the militia and fought who  were known as “milicianas.  Once the initial phase of the Civil War  was over, though,  they were sent home. The  photograph to the left   shows 17 year old  Marina Ginestà on the rooftop of the Hotel Colon in Barcelona on 21 July  1936. She was a member of the United Socialist  Party of Catalonia and was reporting on the war, assisting Mikhail Koltsov from Pravda.  Later in the war she was evacuated to France after she was wounded.  She died  in Paris in January 2014 , aged 94. When she was shown the photograph  Marina  said  “It reflects the feeling we had at that moment. Socialism had arrived, the customers of the hotel had left. There was euphoria. We temporarily set ourselves up at the Colón, we ate well, as if the bourgeois life were ours and we had moved up in category very quickly.”

The second wave of feminism began in 1967 in the USA, developing out of the radical and anti-Vietnam movement. The first major Women’s Liberation Movement demonstration took place on 7 September 1968 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, outside the Miss America About 400 women were drawn together from across the United States to a protest outside the event. You can watch a short clip of this here.

The movement crossed the Atlantic and struck a chord amongst women involved in the radical left, many of them Marxists.  In their history of the movement, Sweet Freedom,  Anna Coote and Bea Campbell wrote that: ” Contrary to popular belief, the new feminists were not foot loose and fancy-free; most were married and freshly acquainted with motherhood…Many were members of the left-wing intelligentsia –a staunchly masculine society in which women were active and committed, yet felt themselves confined to the periphery.”

Women’s rights were already in the air after women workers at Fords in Dagenham and Halewood went on strike for three weeks  for equal pay in August 1968. Janet Blackman commented in an article in Trade Union Register that:

“The strike of nearly 400 Ford women machinists at Dagenham and Halewood last summer lifted the old boring subject of the unequal treatment of women on to a different plane. Yes, boring, because of the rut into which the campaign had stuck…The Ford women machinists swung the debate about women’s rights away from the concerns – albeit very real problems – of the middle class and professional women to those of the woman worker, successfully perhaps for the first time since the match girls’ strike of 1888. By September, 1968 the TUC was passing a resolution supporting industrial action as a possible means of obtaining equal pay.”

Black Dwarf Year of the Militant WomanIn  January 1969 the New Left  journal The  Black  Dwarf proclaimed that 1969 would be “The Year of the Militant Women.” Sheila Rowbotham  edited this issue and  in her own contribution, “The Struggle for Freedom,”  she wrote:

Oh so you’ve heard it all before
Ok so you’re bored
But meanwhile
We still get less pay for the same work as you
We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful
In which we have any responsibility
We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised
The present setup of the family puts great strains on us
Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained

The area of taboo on our sexuality is much more extensive
and the double standard still pervasive
Some women still never experience orgasm.
So what are we complaining about.

All this and something else besides

A much less tangible something – a smouldering , bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction – which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.

We want to drive buses, play football, use beer mugs not glasses. We want men to take the pill. We do not want to be brought with bottles or invited as wives. We do not want to be wrapped in cellophane or sent off to make the tea or shuffled onto the social committee
But these are only little things
Revolutions are made about little things
Little things which happen to you all the time, every day
Wherever you go, all your life.

Sheila then wrote a lengthy  pamphlet called Women’s Liberation and the New Politics, published by the May Day Manifesto group in 1969, and went on to write many influential books on feminism and on women’s history.  The first Women’s Liberation newsletter came out in May 1969, produced by the London Women’s Liberation Workshop. It was originally called Harpie’s Bizarre, and after issue 3, Shrew.

In  February 1970 the first Women’s  Liberation conference took place over a weekend at Ruskin College, Oxford, with hundreds of women  attending, whilst the men ran the creche.   Catherine Hall went, who was involved with a women’s group in Birmingham and had come to feminist consciousness after having her first child. She later described  it 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. ” Michelene Wandor also went and recalled:

“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 our self-image as women.”

In November 1970 the movement gained national attention when a group disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall, hurling flour  and smoke bombs  during Bob Hope’s act. 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.” You can watch the protest  here.

WL march 1971

The next key event in spreading the movement was the first Women’s Liberation march which  took place on 6 March 1971 in London. This was planned imaginatively with banners, a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a  woman  in cage wearing a tiara,  as well as co-ordinated dancing and music.  There were a good few children on the march.   You can watch videos of the march  here and here.   Jill Tweedie  reported  on the march  for The Guardian.   She wrote:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.”

You can read the whole report here.

May HobbsMay Hobbs

This is a short television report on Women’s Liberation from 1971 with a number  of interviews,  including one with May Hobbs,  who was organising women  nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s  Liberation activists.   May spoke at the march in 1971  mentioned above.  You can watch the report  here.

Red RagThe Socialist-Feminist current within Women’s Liberation was very strong  until the end of the  1970s with  numerous groups and networks, some connected to socialist political organisations, some not. The publications they  produced  included Bristol Women’s CharterIS Women’s  Newsletter,  Red Rag, Scarlet Women, Socialist Woman, Women In Action,  Women’s Struggle Notes and Women’s  Voice.  There were many women involved:  a  national Socialist-Feminist conference in Manchester in  1978 attracting over 1,000 women, for instance. In their first issue the collective producing Red Rag wrote:

“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 inequality 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.”

At the  end of the 1970s the movement went in many different directions, and this seems a good place therefore  to end this brief survey. My thanks to Alicia Williamson for allowing  me to quote from her article.

 

Further reading

Anna Coote and Bea Campbell, Sweet Freedom: the struggle for women’s liberation (1982)

Elzbieta Etinger, Rosa Luxembourg: a Life (1986)

Shulamith Firestone, The Women’s Rights Movement in the USA  (1968)

Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political” and other writings

Bernadette Hyland, Northern ReSisters; conversations with radical  women  (2015)

Feminist Anthology Collective (editors), No Turning Back: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1975-1980 (1981)

May Hobbs, Born to Struggle (1973)

Sarah Maitland, Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (1988)

Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution”, New Left Review, December 1966,

Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (1971)

Robin Morgan, Sisterhood Is Powerful, an anthology of writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970)

Angela Neustatter, Hyenas in Petticoats, a look at twenty years of feminism (1989)

Redstockings Archive Project

Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973)

Shelia Rowbotham, Dream and Dilemmas: collected writings (1983)

Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000)

Marsha Rowe (editor), Spare Rib Reader: 100 issues of Women’s Liberation (1982)

See Red Women’s Workshop archive site

Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (2007)

Sisterhood and After : an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement. A series of interviews on the British Library website

Michelene Wandor, The Body Politic (1972)

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

Clara  Zetkin, Selected Writings, edited by Philp S Foner.