In a previous post I discussed the protest by Women’s Liberation Workshop outside the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in November 1969. (You can read this here)
A few days later the 4th History Workshop took place at Ruskin College on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th November 1969. During a discussion on women in the workplace a male trade unionist stood and said that a man should earn enough to keep his wife and family, a still commonly held view. Sheila Rowbotham stood up and challenged him, stressing the importance of workplace organising. At lunchtime a small group of women – Sheila, Roberta Hunter-Henderson, Sally Alexander, Arielle Aberson and Anna Davin – got together and resolved that there needed to be more women’s history at the Workshops. Sally and Arielle were studying at Ruskin, the only two women on the diploma course.
Sheila says :
At the next plenary I announced there was to be a meeting for people interested in talking about women. I had missed the obvious double entendre and the announcement was greeted with guffaws, which made us extremely cross. A group crammed into a tiny student bedroom at teatime, talking excitedly. I proposed a History Workshop on women but a North American, Barbara Winslow, who was more aware of developments in North America, pointed out that we had not any general conference on women. And so, out of Ruskin History Workshop, was to come the first women’s liberation conference.
Sally Alexander went along to meetings in London to organise the conference and found them a welcome contrast to meetings in Ruskin where she was silent:
“…this meeting was light, and there was sun, and a lot of women. I really liked it, it was a quite, quite different atmosphere….To find myself in these meetings, doing something, instead of being silent and rather bored and frustrated, or making the tea or listening to men, and only talking to your women friends afterwards – this was wonderful.”
The conference took place over a weekend at the end of February 1970, also at Ruskin College, Oxford. The organisers expected 100 or so women to attend. but in the event 400 women, sixty children and 40 men turned up and the venue had to be moved to the Oxford Union. The crèche was housed in Ruskin, staffed by men. Sheila remembers:
I’d never seen so many women looking so confident. The night we arrived, they poured into Ruskin with bags and babies. The few men looked rather like women at most large predominantly male meetings – rather out on a limb. The reports on the Friday evening session were the most interesting, because you felt part of a movement for the first time. This was captured again in the Saturday evening workshops but tended to go during the very large open sessions when there were papers on the family, crime, work and history.
Catherine Hall was one of those attending who was involved with a women’s group in Birmingham which had just started and had come to feminist consciousness after having her first child in 1968. She describes the conference as a :
utopian moment . . . It’s hard to convey now the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman, and to have a language to talk about that, and not conceiving of it as an individual issue, but a collective and social issue. That was what was most important. The recognition that we shared a feeling and experiences that had a name.
Michelene Wandor also attended the conference, her first ever political conference, carefully dressed, as she recalled, in a mini-sweater dress, long black leather boots, and an ankle–length black and white herring-bone coat. She had heard about the conference from Audrey Battersby, who had moved in down the road and whose house was a meeting place for a Women’s Liberation Group. Their children went to the same nursery school and they had become friends. It’s an example how in some instances Women’s Liberation was spread literally by word of mouth.
For me the Ruskin weekend was an exhilarating and confusing revelation. It was, I think, the first time I had been away from children and husband, away from my secure home structure. Here I was surrounded by about six hundred women, all far more politically sophisticated than I was, all seemingly articulate and knowledgeable about the role of women in history, the position of women in today’s world: who could formulate profound questions about the relationship between class, gender and race, who could simultaneously quote and criticise Marx (whom I had not read) and who seemed hell-bent on changing the world and our self-image as women.
Audrey Batterby says:
One of the most visual memories of the Ruskin Conference was the busts being all covered up. The statues of men in the debating chamber. were all draped with women’s shawls. I think my first impression was amazement at how organised the whole thing was. As we walked into the main hall there were people there with trestle tables set up, all sorts of literature to be handed out or for sale and I though , “Who did this? ” It was amazing.
The conference was exhilarating. There was a tremendous sense of achivement that Arielle and I both felt. After the first session got going Arielle and I went to the pub and had a drink. It was all , “Isn’t this amazing? We’ve done it.!” We didn’t want to go and hear the papers at first, we were too tired. We couldn’t belivee it. Everyone was very friendly, and warm, and we made friends with lots of people.
There were sessions on family, motherhood, delinquency, women and the economy, the concept of women’s work, equal pay, women and revolution and women’s role in trade unions. (Sally Alexander recalls that the trade unionist Audrey Wise spoke intensely about being a socialist and a feminist and a working-class woman.)
The final session was on “Where are we going?”
A National Co-ordinating Committee was set up with a delegate structure to circulate information. This came up with four demands:
- Equal pay
- Equal education and job opportunities
- Free contraception and abortion on demand
- Free 24-hour nurseries
Sally sums her feelings about the whole event:
As an event it was mind blowing. We’d done it. That was a shared feeling. It felt like the culmination of something. It didn’t feel like the absolute beginning. I think from that moment bits of myself became more together. I think I became more myself. I think I came out more. And I never went back to – or was remotely interested in – those sorts of bits and pieces of male left politics that I had picked up on and had seen a bit of. I was a socialist, but it seemed to me that the women’s movement was the place to be a socialist, and my socialism and the women’s movement just came together for me…
Having been a social worker, and then a mother, and particularly a mother with a handicapped child and then being a single parent, I think the conference helped to gel all those thoughts and feelings and rages and whatever together, into a kind of political perspectiv , which had never existed before. We talked so much, about patriarchy, child-rearing, the greatrer involvement of men in the family, ourselves and our relationships with each other. …that sense of sisterhood was so supportive and so powerful that it actually replaced everything I felt I didn’t have at the time. We formed ourselves into consciousness-raising groups…
Ruskin was different in feel from later conferences. What I remember best is the big session and the decision about the four demands. I think they helped us to shape what it was that we were talking about. When we went back, the most exciting thing about the next few months was the consciousness-raising.
Mary Holland reported on the conference for The Observer in a somewhat sniffy piece entitled “Hell Bent on Women’s Liberation,” published on 1 March 1970. These are some extracts;
…In Britain there is a tradition of suffrage activity dating from the suffragettes but this kind of miltancy is comparatively new. Most of the 15 groups represented at the conference have sprung up within the last year or two, but both movements and the groups are growing. One has an impression of groups of angry young women meeting all over the country to discuss liberation. We heard reports from the Women’s Liberation Workshop based in london, which now has five groups and a newspaper called Shrew.
…From Nottingham an attractive and articulate Marxist told us about her group which started producing under the boss’s nose a duplicated sheet called Socalist Woman which has now gone into print and sells in 15 bookshops in the United States as well as to women bus crews in Nottingham. From Bristol came a magazine called Enough Is Enough.
…some of the speakers seemed mainly concerned with the social amelioriation of women’s lot. Some of this was fairly familar stuff about restructuring the family unit, but many, many more were concerned with political action and their speeches came much closer to the student protest movement than any of the traditional complaints about captive wives…
...A speech which drew roars of applause came from a long-haired white-faced young woman who called for acts of violence “to smash the myth of feminine passivity.” It was after this they marched in a body to express solidarity with the students occupying the Clarendon Building to protest against the keeping of files on student activity.
…What has not yet clearly emerged from today’s meetings is what these extremely liberated young women are doing advocating for what looks like a new ghetto for women, albeit one of radical feminist activity and why they do see their path in more generalised political activity? Although tribute was paid to women freedom fighters in underdeveloped countries, there was almsot no discussion of general political issues.
…Still during the afternoon’s discussion on women and the economy, a militant trade unionist from Coventry called Audrey Wise made a bold call for a broadly based socialist movement. She argued that feminism is not enough and ended: “I don’t want to be an equal economic unit any more than I want to be a decoration or a drudge. I want women’s liberation to be a movement for people as people, whether they are women and men.”
After the Oxford conference from a mainly London-based movement Women’s Liberation became a national movement. A year later there were groups in most towns and cities across Britain.
Sadly Arielle Aberson died in 1970 in a car accident
Resources and further reading
There is a 30 minute film about the conference called A Woman’s Place, made by Sue Crockford . You can watch it here.
The British Library has interviewed in number of feminists about the 1970s and placed the videos on a website.
In 2010 the BBC made a radio documentary on the 40th Anniversary of the conference which you can listen to here.
Dreams and Dilemmas: Collected Writings by Sheila Rowbotham (1983)
Promise of a Dream by Sheila Rowbotham (2000)
The Body Politic : Women’s Liberation in Britain 1969 – 1972, edited by Michelene Wandor (1972)
Once a Feminist, Stories of a Generation by Michelene Wandor (1990)
I have scanned in below three of the papers which were collected together in a book on writings of the early Women’s Liberation movement, The Body Politic, edited by Michelene Wandor (1972).
Women, the Work and Family – Jan Williams, Hazel Twort and Ann Bachelli.