A Short History of the Socialist Current Within The British Women’s Liberation Movement, Scarlet Women, July 1977
Note : we were asked to write this paper at short notice. It is based upon a combination of the papers we have collected over the years plus memories of conferences we attended. Inevitably, therefore, it is by no means a complete history. We do think, however, that the events and conflicts which we outline here do reflect in general, the development of the Socialist-feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The late 60s saw the emergence of the Women’s Movement in Britain. In 1969 in London the Women’s Liberation Workshop established itself, developing consciousness raising groups and attempting to articulate and understand the ways in which women felt themselves to be oppressed and exploited. In the same year, a group of socialist women active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign started producing a journal called “Socialist Woman”, whose aims were both to impress on the left the importance of the “Woman Question” – to publicise the struggles of women in Britain and internationally and to try to develop a socialist analysis of women’s oppression it was to be distributed through the newly formed Socialist Woman Groups.
The first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. It was felt that the movement had already grown sufficiently to need a national structure in order to co-ordinate the increasingly diverse activities of women’s groups around the country. Women in left groups saw this as an opportunity to influence the political development of the Women’s Liberation Movement and managed to dominate the National Committee. This Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee formulated four demands which were adopted by the Women’s Liberation Movement – equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and 24 hour nurseries for all under 5’s. However the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee degenerated into sectarian squabbling between the different left factions represented and was disbanded by the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference in 1971. It left behind a great deal of hostility among feminists towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left. Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciousness-raising group was taken to the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.
A series of Women’s Liberation and Socialism Conferences were planned. Four conferences took place: London, September 1973 on Autonomy or Separatism?; Oxford, March 1974 on the four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement; Birmingham, September 1974 on Women in the Family; and London, March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement”. There was also at least one day conference organised – on the Working Women’s Charter, Leeds, November 1974 – and probably others. “Red Flag” a journal for socialist feminist women was also started in 1972.
Dear Sisters, hereby enclosed the promised report. On second reading it still seems to have many rough edges, but I thought it preferable to send it as read, rather than to take it on myself to edit and modify. However, do feel free to polish up where you feel it necessary. Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that this report got written under circumstances reflecting all too accurately the “tyranny of structurelessness”. (I didn’t mention because of injunctions against being “negative”). Of the women delegates to report on their workshops most did in fact turn up to the Reporters’ Meeting, but were rapidly driven away by cold, hunger, fatigue and impatience. This left a small nucleus of 6 women, self-selected, not delegated, to discuss the final report, of whom two actually drafted a report, purporting to represent 700 off women! Hopefully it turned out OK and not too skewed by our personal recollections and opinions – but even so the problem of who “takes responsibility” – and why – remain unsolved, as does that of accountability.
Yours in sisterhood, Ruth Butler.
Report on Day 1 , Socialist Feminist Conference, January 28th 1978.
With the proviso that summary report tend to gloss over those very nuances and dynamics of discussion which make or break the experience of participating in a workshop, we hope that the following will convey some idea of the themes raised and the feelings and ideas expressed.
Composition of the workshop
The encouragingly large numbers of women who participated in the workshops – about 1000 – represented a broad spectrum of groups and activities, including the following:
Women from socialist feminist groups, Women’s Aid, NAC, WARF, WWC, Women in Ireland, and various collectives such as Scarlet Women and Newsreel; women from CR groups, Lesbian Left, Women’s Voice, Women’s Action groups; women involved in community politics, trade unions and manual trades; women new to the movement, women who have been out of touch for a couple of years and women who presently active; women aligned in left groups – CP, IMG, SWP, Big Flame, RCG, ICL, Workers’ Power, CPB (ML).
There was a sprinkling of international representatives, including groups of Latin American and Iranian women.
And probably lots more besides, whom we have unwittingly left out.
We shall try to summarise the discussions held in workshops held in the workshops according to the general headings suggested by the organisers.
- Common concerns in socialist feminist action.
Since there is not yet a coherent and cohesive socialist feminist network, many women who identify themselves as socialist feminist and who came to the conference are active in various campaigns and/or left groups. In discussing our participation in such activities several common themes and issues seemed to emerge.
Several women raised problems flowing from conflicts between self-definitions as socialist feminist and the need to work within the system, when, for example, applying for grants. Women’s Aid was cited in this respect, with women expressing the conflict between making clear statements of principle and intent, or playing these down in order to obtain badly needed women’s refuges. In the same context women discussed the implications of parliamentary lobbying, an issue of especial relevance to NAC women.
Another theme evolved from discussion pertaining to working on campaigns jointly with other groups. There was a feeling that women’s groups could contribute to the development of more varied and flexible tactics for political action. For example, in several groups women from WARF talked about the need to develop further alternatives to direct physical confrontation both as means of reaching more people and as an expression of wariness of what were seen as male tactics of violence as a major form of expression. However, it seems to have been generally accepted that in some situations direct confrontations are necessary, and that greater emphasis on self defence for women would equip us to cope better with such confrontations as Grunwick and Lewisham.
During discussions about the need to develop a socialist feminist strategy for action, several groups talked about the need to broaden the age, class and race bases of involved women. Particularly emphasis was placed on the potential of working within local community issues such as nurseries, schools, hospitals, tenants’ associations and so on.
From their perspective of working in various campaigns, several women voiced the need to formulate guidelines for actions compatible with a socialist feminist perspective. One knotty example discussed was the rape issue, where a common feminist demand for stiffer sentencing is not an easy one for socialist feminists to support unambiguously. A parallel issue with Women’s Aid was expressed as the need to develop alternatives to the nuclear family rather than merely providing short term solutions for immediate problems. Another issue to emerge from discussion on Rape was the problem of, for example, having Reclaim the Night marches through predominantly black areas. During such discussions it was suggested that socialist feminists could make a creative contribution by conceptualising additional levels of linkage between superficially disparate campaigns.
Finally, many women seemed to suffer from chronic over-extension. Socialist feminists have been defined as women who go to twice as many meetings as anyone else. Whether true or not, all groups seemed to touch on the thorny questions of how and where to channel energy so as to be the most effective as socialist feminists.
Obviously, such a sparse summary cannot but fail to do justice to the depth and texture of the thoughts, doubts and aims that emerged in discussing these issues. However, two general conclusions did emerge. On the level of practice, the vital need for more communication and mutual support among socialist feminists was repeatedly voiced – indeed many women cited this as their main reason for coming to the conference. The lack of such close communications was felt specifically at a geographical level – for example by Scottish women from NAC who felt that their specific needs had been largely ignored by the national campaign , and by Irish women feeling inadequate solidarity with them in their struggles. In general, many women felt the need for more contact between socialist feminist women working in different campaigns. While no resolutions on the matter were suggested, the general desire for a co-ordinating network which, despite, our fears of organisations, would function to provide contact and support for socialist feminists was clear. Some specific suggestions in this direction included the publication of a separate newsletter and/or magazine devoted to the socialist feminist tendency.
Secondly, there were repeated calls for a long-term socialist strategy and theory which would provide us with an overall perspective; and a framework with which to organise, initiate and co-ordinated socialist feminist activities. This could help us not only to clarify our ideas and stands, but also to address ourselves in a more forceful and effective way to immediate issues ranging from Northern Ireland to the Cuts.
2. Socialist feminist and the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The second main topic on the agenda was the relationship of socialist feminists to the WLM. Interestingly enough, this question seemed to have received scant attention in most groups. We discussed the growing need to define ourselves as an independent tendency within the women’s movements without encouraging sectarianism or splits. While there was some discussion around this issue, the general feeling seemed to be that spits in the movement should be avoided if possible, though not at the expense of glossing over theoretical and tactical differences. It was suggested that maybe the women’s movement as a whole needs to work further on the dilemma of combining different tendencies while still presenting some kind of united outward front. It was felt to be particularly important for socialist feminists to work on coming over clear and intelligible to other feminists. Thus we should work to bring an awareness of socialism into the WLM without fostering distrust. At the same time we should not fall into the trap of denying the solid contributions to be made by other groups within the WLM. The problems of overcoming what was felt to be the essentially elitist nature of the WLM was also raised in this context.
Finally, many women reiterated the personal satisfaction they derived from participating in the WLM.
- Socialist feminists and the organised left.
In contrast, most women reported a high level of interest and involvement on our relationship to the Left. Our difficulties in relating to the Left seem to be three-fold. Most women criticized Left groups for their failure to integrate an inadequate understanding of the implications of analysis of patriarchy for developing a revolutionary perspective. Much resentment was expressed at being point 5, or sometimes 6, in most revolutionary programmes. Such an attitude seemed to many women to relegate the theoretical importance of subjects raised by the Women’s Movement – such as the role of the family in perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist structures – to a mere question of “women’s issues”.
In addition, many women voiced anger at having so often to encounter sexist attitudes and behaviour among men who consider themselves socialists. The analogy was drawn with racism – it is hard to imagine a man with overtly racist attitudes being tolerated in any Left group, whereas sexist men are. Thus much of our work within Left groups on the levels of both theory and practice is reduced to a harrowing struggle with fellow members. It was mentioned that men on the Left are at least “no worse” than other men; but the expectation that they should rather be considerably better seems most valid. Linked with this problem is our awareness that the power structures against which we struggle as women tend to be replicated within many Left groups.
Finally, women expressed much anger at the often opportunistic attitude of Left groups to feminist issues and campaigns.
There were definite differences in the strength with which different women voiced criticism of this nature, and in the conclusions drawn from them. Some women, mainly those present in the aligned Left, felt that activity meaningful from a socialist feminist perspective was possible, and indeed occurring, within Left groups. While aware of the need for further development, they were appreciative of the changes already wrought by feminists within the Left. On the other hand, some women felt the attitudes of many members of the aligned Left to be so alienating that they could not work productively within these frameworks. Some criticism of the women members of the aligned Left were also voiced. Some women felt that many of these women tended to internalise what they saw as the false dichotomy of the organised Left between feminism and socialism. Such dichotomy was seen to differentiate between the “real, gut” problems of socialism and the “secondary” ones of socialism. In addition, some women felt that the presence of aligned women with clearly articulated programmes may sometimes stifle attempts to formulate an independent socialist feminist perspective.
While such differences exist and need to be analysed further, most groups resorted a strong tendency to reaffirm the need for socialist feminists to work on developing a theoretical perspective which will reflect our own particular position with relation to socialism and feminism. The feeling was that such a perspective must primarily provide common ground where it is both necessary and legitimate to discuss all issues as relevant to socialist feminists. In other word, we socialist feminists must articulate our own identity through a growing and flexible set of ideas rather than a dogmatic “line”. Women seemed to feel that such an analysis should concentrate on the relations between patriarchy and capitalism, together with the relevance of each separately and both together for revolutionary theory and practice.
Secondly, the feminist realisation that the personal is political should be integrated into socialist discussion of the nature and role of revolutionary consciousness and the forms of political practice.
Finally, the issue of structure was widely discussed. We felt that Left groups are often organised on an over-rigid hierarchical basis which could be identified with patterns of male dominance. The WLM has always maintained a certain structurelessness as an essential part of its identity. Some women felt that this detrimental to effective work and its own way can become tyrannical. Must we equate structure with hierarchy? Is it possible to develop the kind of structure which fill facilitate organisation with falling into those power and leadership patterns which we as feminists reject in Left groups.
To summarise, out of all this discussion emerged definite strategy and theory which will create and serve a socialist feminist identity in theory practice.
This conference was also reported in Spare Rib, 68, March 1978
Miles from Miles End by Ruthie Petrie
Women still shudder at the last Women and Socialism National Conference at Mile End, London 1976. So the Socialist Feminist Conference in Manchester loomed up with many of us feeling a mixture of guarded anticipation and anxiety. We knew it wouldn’t be a repeat performance of disunity and domination of left-wing groups, of huge open sessions in which we were engulfed by papers declaring fixed positions with no discussion. But nor did anyone feel certain that the resurgence of socialist- feminism, expressing itself through local action and/or study groups, regional meetings and educational, would allow us a wider optimism.
Overall, the concern seemed to be concerned with questions of structure and organisation at the expense of much that was new in theory and strategy. And there was no Eurekas for a new way forward. So why did most of us come away feeling optimistic and reinforced? Well, there were 1000 women and that was impressive. In Saturday’s conference we talked about what it means to define ourselves socialists and feminists, what our place within the Women’s Liberation Movement, and our relationship to the left as well as whether we wanted a national structure, and if so, what sort. On Sunday, the workshops dealt with more concrete themes and campaigns. Exchanges about hospital closures, rape, Women’s Aid, reproduction, Ireland – and much more – were amicable and constructive. Then, too, a decision was taken to hold a conference next spring, and Scarlet Women will shift away from being a socialist-feminist bulletin to becoming a discussion journal. It’ll have an enlarged contributing network through regional correspondents, a more regular schedule and be circulated through feminist outlets and shops rather than just by subscription.
Concrete activities are emerging from it too. New groups to discuss future strategy, and new socialist-feminist groups have begun meeting. So it seemed a confirming and consolidating weekend.
Socialist Feminism by Anne Torode
Spare Rib, May 1979
When I was asked to write this article about how I saw socialist feminism for a discussion on tendencies in the women’s liberation movement (WLM) I must admit to feeling a bit wary. One reason why our movement is so vital is because we are talking and thinking about our lives, and our feminist understanding is developing as we struggle – often painfully – with our personal circumstances. The theory and practice that is emerging that is emerging from this struggle is for real – we have never postured nor adopted ‘positions’ on finer points of theory to bolster our revolutionary self-image. Our movement will continue to grow only if we remain flexible to women’s experience. I think it would be really bad if the labels we give ourselves stop us from identifying against a common female oppression. (The labels, of course, do not refer to class differences with the WLM. As a movement we must be very clear about how class affects women’s experience of their oppression as women.)
I am aware that many sisters identify socialist feminism with traditional left politics, seeing as a liberal tendency, a watering down of feminist consciousness, an attempt by the left to define the terms of our struggle, and that the typical socialist feminist is assumed to be ‘into men’ or at the least ‘putting her energies into men.’
For me, socialist feminism is a redefinition of socialist aspiration; I see it as a synthesis incorporating the feminist perspective into a socialist analysis. Socialist feminism is about the using the Marxist method of analysis to look at the how and why of female oppression, and to see how our oppression relates to class oppression. And from this, how the struggles of women relate to the struggles of the working class and to those all of the oppressed.
I do not think of socialist feminism as a liberal accommodation to male powered – ‘socialist’ is not another word for liberal. The ‘socialist’ bit does not qualify or limit feminism in any way, rather feminism informs and enriches socialism. It is certainly not another way of saying that men are oppressed too! Men are not oppressed as a sex .
The working class is oppressed, yet. But ‘working class’ and ‘men’ are not interchangeable concepts. Men may be oppressed because they are gas, black and/or working class, but women experience these forms of oppression as well. Men have power over women and though the male sex role (again, not a term interchangeable with ‘worker’) may distort and cramp a man’s potential, I would not call this oppression, but merely the price they have to pay for male power.
When I first got involved with feminism in 1968, my husband and other left men used to ask how a white middle class woman who didn’t even have to work (I had two small children at the time!) could say she was oppressed – what about the Vietnamese /blacks/coalminers. But I read feminist publications, in particular the journals of the Boston women’s group, and what they were saying related directly to my experience. They were asking my own questions – why did I feel so lousy considering I was really ‘happy’, why was my housework overlooked, why were people who produced people so undervalued compared to people who produced things, why was sex seen in terms of men’s needs, why did I have so little control over the birth of my baby?? These were non-questions to the left. The men I know got so indignant at my new-found feminism that I sometimes felt that they were themselves Vietnamese, blacks or coal-miners. All the weight of socialist authority was behind their anger. These white middle class men were presuming to define what was socialist and what was not!
But I had spent years on the left too and i was heartily sick of its dogmatic approach to revolutionary practice. The left’s ‘class analysis’ identified the working class as those men working at the point of production and the class struggle as their struggle for higher wages. Until the Vietnamese was brought masses of people onto the streets in support of a foreign revolution, this limited view of class struggle was taken to be the be-all and end-all of the revolutionary process.
Much of the feminist stuff I read was critical of the traditional left to the extent of rejecting Marxism, but I felt why leave the definition of socialism to these left men. Marxism belongs to the oppressed – to women, the working class, the black movement. We could use it to help us understand the causes of our oppression and the nature of the system we were up against. In this way, Marxism would again become a living theory, a revolutionary guide to action.
I began thinking about oppression. The black power movement said that blacks were colonised by whites in that they had internalised white racism…And weren’t we colonised by men insofar as we internalised their view of us existing to serve their needs. ? Oppressed people are reduced to object status because we are useful to our oppressors. This was clear in the case of blacks and the working class, but what about women? It is true that we service men in the home, but why do we service men in the home – why were we oppressed in the first place?
As a marxist this seem to me to be a key question. I didn’t think it was enough to describe how we felt oppressed or even to identify how our oppression served the interests of the capitalist class. Female oppression and class oppression predate the development of the capitalist system. We had been living in a patriarchal class-divided society for thousands of years before the advent of capitalist class rule. If we restricted our analysis to the position of women today we could miss the basic horror of our situation and end up talking about sex roles instead of oppression.
The idea that men and women were both unable to express their potential because of their sex roles always worried me – it was a way of glossing over the problem. It was our job to go beyond the appearance of things, to their essence, as Marx did in analysis of the working of capital. But although he devoted books to explaining how capitalists exploited by paying them less in wages for the use of their labour power than they produced in value-profit for their employers, marxism as a method is more than a description of capitalism. It is historical method which goes right back to uncover the cause of class oppression. This was, and is, often overlooked by marxists and non-marxists alike and there was, and is, a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class oppression to a question of the economic exploitation of workers in capitalism.
I felt that the feminist understanding of oppression tied in with Marx’s conception and that this would enrich the limited perspective of the left. Socialist feminists could challenge the notion that the system we were fighting was the capitalist production process, by talking about class society. It was only by going back into our history that we could uncover the root cause of our oppression and see how female oppression inter-related with class oppression over time.
So why were we oppressed? The most illuminating book i read at this time was Briffault’s The Mothers. According to him, what men needed from women was paternity rights in women’s children. In earliest times women and their children lived in matriarchal clans with their maternal uncles and brothers. They didn’t live in family units headed by husband/father. They were autonomous and their bodies were their own. They came under male authority only when men began to accumulate property. The creation of the father family gave men control over women’s capacity to reproduce and thus ‘legitimate’ heirs to their wealth. It was from this family system, which allowed for the private accumulation of property over generations, that class society developed. When men alienated our reproductive power, they gained control of our lives, our bodies and sexuality and our productivity. I remember fantasising about life in a matriarchal clan, imagining a system where mothers had high status and didn’t have to keep the peace with men for the sake of the children, a system where our sexuality did not belong to men…
It was clear then that class oppression rests on our oppression and that the family, long ignored by the left as peripheral to the class structure, is in fact the basic institution of the whole system.
However, whereas I think that female oppression underpins class society, I wouldn’t agree with those feminists who explain the functioning of the system in terms of male power alone – nor do I think you can talk about dual systems of oppression with economic class exploitation running parallel to sex class exploitation. I know that revolutionary feminists will say that we are oppressed as class, but I find this notion confusing and unnecessary. I prefer the term female oppression because it seems more powerful to me than the idea of sex class.
Female and class oppression are integrated and historically related – the one developed out of the other for very real material reasons, not because, as I have heard argued on occasions, men developed a taste for power after they had taken control of our lives. Because our oppression is so fundamental to the system, there might be seem to be a case for suggesting that women alone can overthrow existing social relations, that all we need is a feminist revolution. To me that is not just on.
But I think people who counterpose socialism and feminism, and then say all we need is a socialist revolution, are wide off the mark too. I don’t see how socialism and feminism can be counterposed, because I don’t think you can have a socialism which doesn’t include the feminist perspective (though naturally, I can see why some feminists reject socialism, given the history of left attitudes to the WLM). The socialist struggle is to the struggle of all oppressed people to take back control of their lives from patriarchal class society.
Feminism is the specific interest of women of women within that struggle – an interest that ought to inform at a very basic level the way all oppressed people organise and the kind of demands they put forward. Ought to…but in practice women have to fight on two fronts – whatever else we’re involved in, we also have battle for our specific interest to be recognised. We’d all agree that the working class can’t free women, hence the autonomous women’s movement – but the class needs the power of women to free itself. We can’t free the class for we couldn’t possibly dismantle the class structure on our own, but we do need the power of the class behind our fight for liberation. Class power is the lynchpin of the revolutionary process, but not its sole element.
To be successful these struggles have to be interdependent. The depth of understanding that would be generated in the course of such a total challenge to the system would mean that we’d bring about a real socialist society where children would no longer be seen as either as the property of their family or as a potential labour power for the bosses; where women would control their reproductive power (ie capacity to reproduce) , their bodies and their sexuality…Meanwhile back to grim reality. We have responsibility for children but little control over the conditions in which we bring them up or in which they will have to live…Campaigns which challenge male and/or maternal role are central to our struggle.
It may seem strange that anyone could possibly think that control over the conditions in which women live as mothers was a central issue for feminism. Because patriarchal class society defines and contains us as mothers and puts us down for our reproductive function, it’s easy to react by saying we should define ourselves as anything but mothers. I reckon we should say that as a sex we do have the capacity to reproduce, that it belongs to us, not patriarchy, and we intend to fight over control , whether we as individuals have children or not.
Even thinking about mothers losing their children to men or to the state makes my blood boil. I spent two years fighting over the custody of my boys and now I only have them for the weekend. I live alone and I sometime wonder if I’d be ‘happily’ married if it wasn’t for feminism. What I do know is that I’d be lost without my sisters and the struggle. Which brings me back to the beginning. If we want to feel the power of women coming out for themselves, then our movement must be a’ home’ for women. For our own survival we need a real alternative to all the shit we’re offered now. Sisterhood is more than a revolutionary consciousness, it is our collective strength against the system, our lifeline and that’s why factionalism must never be allowed to tear us apart.