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
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.