Socialist Woman started life in 1968 as a journal produced by a group of women who were active in the International Marxist Group. The IMG was a small Marxist and Trotsykist group, formed in the 1960s as the British Section of the Fourth International. (You can read more about its history here). Its membership never amounted to more than a thousand at most, many of them joining during the student protest movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.
However IMG members were often hyper-active, involved in numerous campaigns – students, Ireland, women, anti-fascism, trade union, strikes, abortion etc – and somehow found time to produce a number of journals and pamphlets.
In those early years the editorial board comprised : Anne Black, Val Charlton, Marie-Claire, Antonia Gorton and Jo O’Brien. The journal included articles on:
- women’s activity in the trade unions eg the Nightcleaner’s campaign
- strikes by women workers eg a 10 week strike in 1969 at Electronics laboratories, Ramsgate; a strike by telephonists in London in 1971
- the developing Women’s Liberation movement and the role of Marxist women within this
- the war in the North of Ireland
- the fight against the Tory government’s Industrial Relatons Bill
- women’s history eg Helen Keller
In March 1971 the editorial welcomed the national Women’s Liberation march planned for 6th March in London and noted the growth of Socialist Woman groups over the past 6 months in Oxford, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow and London who were now represented on the pro-tem editorial board. It continued:
We believe that a total perspective of women’s liberation is impossible without a total revolutionary perspective. At the same time we recognise that many women will want to come into Socialist Woman groups without yet having this perspective. We intend that the groups will remain as open as they have always been, with the greatest possible democracy prevailing, so that policy is arrived at with the participation of all. Socialist Woman groups have a vital part to play in the Women’s Liberation movement, by bringing a political perspective into it. Women’s Liberation is a political question. Our oppression is rooted in the economic, social and political system., and until the system is overthrown, our liberation is impossible.
With the advent of Women’s Liberation left groups such the IMG and International Socialists (which were male-dominated) struggled to reconcile their Leninist structures in which decisions were taken by a central committee with the autonomous tendency of Women’s Liberation. There were also tensions about how much independence the women’s groups should enjoy to set their own policies, and the behaviour of men. As we shall see these tensions grew within IMG culminating in a major debate at the 1978 conference.
Socialist Woman Groups
Birmingham – contact: Tessa van Gelderen (1971) Sandra Cooper (1972)
Bolton – contact: Joyce Leman (1972)
Bristol – contact: Viv Prior (1972)
Canterbury – contact : Liz Lawrence (1972)
Cardiff – contact: Sue Lakes (1972)
Chorley – contact: Cath Young (1972)
Colchester – contact: Celia Pugh (1972)
Coventry – contact: Maureen Draper (1972)
Edinburgh – contact: Jackie Freeman (1972)
Glasgow – contact : Shelly Charlesworth (1972)
Keele – contact: Nicola Charles (1972)
Kingston – contact: Jane Cullen (1972)
Lancaster – contact : Margaret Coulson (1972)
Leicester – contact: Jean Holman (1971)
London – contact: Leonora Lloyd (1971).
London (North and Central) – contact: Pat Masters (1972)
London (South) – contact: Betty Hunter
London (West) – contact: Leonora Lloyd (1972)
Manchester – contact: Judy Evans (1971). (This group was previously the Manchester Women’s Liberation Group); Sheila Cohen (1972)
Norwich – contact :Rhona Ball (1972)
Nottingham – contact: Toni Gorton (1971),
Oxford – contact:: Judith White (1971), Hilary Wainwright (1972)
Preston- contact: Kath Ryde (1972)
Sheffield – contact: Catherine Cirket (1972)
Stafford – contact: Hilary Wykes (1972)
Watford – contact: Leslie Richardson (1972)
Welwyn Garden City – contact: Val Paterson (1972)
York – contact: Julie Baldasara (1972)
Socialist Woman Bulletin, December 1971
A typed Socialist Woman Bulletin was produced in December 1971 to “provide c-oordination between groups, to let them know what was going on in the centre, to pass on queries and to reflect the problems and triumps of the groups.” The groups were urged to send in regular reports of their meetings and activities, 100 copies of leaflets produced, details of all industrial work “what union and firm is concerned, names of militants who could be contacted by other groups as speakers, etc..” Groups were urged to sell the bulletin for 1d.
A speaking tour was being planned with Leonora Lloyd and possibly May Hobbs. The bulletin urged women active in trdae unions to try and get nominated as deleagtes to the TUC women’s conference.
Bolton had held a meeting with Margaret Coulson from Lancaster.The group “is going towards adopting an industrial orientation for its work. They want information on women in textiles.”
Sheffield (described as “a mixture of working, unemployed and students”) has been “doing research into working conditions in the area and made contact with university cleaners”. They were planning another meeting with May Hobbs in conjunction with the Trades Council
Birmingham wanted to do a survey and was planning a joint meeting with the Socialist Society.
The Midland Regional Conference had been attended by 10 groups, most of which reported a decline in membership and activity. Three schools were being planned: 22nd January 1972 on nurseries (organised by Leamington Spa WLG ); 5th February Industrial (organised by Nottingham SWG) and 29th February on abortion and contraception ( organised by Birmingham and Nottingham WLG).
The Bulletin included a copy of strike leaflet produced by Bristol SWG addressed to the wives of strikers at Rolls Royce and a copy of the York Socialist Woman manifesto
The existence of the women’s movement is a result of the oppression of women, the root cause of which is the whole structure of society – not merely male chauvinism which is only a reflection of that society.
The oppression of women is most clear in the class oppression of women, where the contradictions are most obvious. Therefore the Socialist Woman Group aims to help organise working and working-class woman in order to focus on the central place where women are oppressed – doubly oppressed – not just as women but as workers: not just as women but as workers.
We don’t want equality with oppressed men: we demand liberation for everyone and we recognise that this aim can only be achieved through a Socialist Revolution. Women and men can never be free under the present social structure; capitalism cannot, by its very nature, allow for true equality. However, there is a need for women to organise as women – and the Socialist Woman Group is the first step in that direction.
The Socialist Woman Group demands equal pay for equal value, equal job and educational opportunities, and free 24 hour child-care centres under community control. We organise around the bi-monthly publication Socialist Woman and all our members sell this magazine.
Despite the proclaimed intention of producing a regular SW Bulletin, this appears to have been the only issue produced.
Socialist Woman conference, 29th – 30th January 1972
This took place at Imperial College, London and, according to the report by Linda Fryd in Socialist Woman, was attended by about 100 women. In its report the journal said that the conference was needed because, with the growth of Socailist Woman groups, they needed to resolve the problem of what relationship to establish with existing women’s groups and also their relationship with the IMG.
More urgent was the need to establish a common political basis from which to coordinate the activities of the groups, pass on the lessons drawn from local struggles and further build up the groups. Most groups had already drawn up a local manifesto for the purpose of recruiting, expressing the broad aims and political position of “Socialist Woman” on the question of women’s liberation, differentiating themselves from purely feminist and from reformist groupings, and locating themselves within the mainstream of the revolutionary movement
On the Saturday the conference began with a paper by Linda Smith, “The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, the WNCC, and the regional structure, (including a historical analysis of women’s organisations.) ”
This was followed by a paper by Judith White, “The relationship between women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism.”
In the afternoon a member of the Irish Solidarity Campaign spoke on women in the Irish national liberation struggle and the need for solidarity with the struggle of the IRA for a united Ireland and a Workers Republic.
A women from the Danish section of the Fourth International reported on the setting up of a socialist women’s group in Denmark in response to “the inward-looking, feminist, anarchistic movement that had grown up during the previous six months.”
Margaret Coulson from Lancaster Socialist Woman Group opened the next full session on the need for Socialist Woman groups to initiate a campaign in workplaces for equal pay and against low pay. She stressed that the Equal Pay Act did not envisage or legislate for the the raising of the position of most low paid working class women. “What is needed to make the fight for women’s liberation dynamic and fruitful is a campaign exposing the real nature of the Act to be an attempt by the ruling class to defuse the women’s liberation struggle and isoloate it from the class struggle while fostering reformist illusions among working-class women. This means a campaign demanding equal work with men, not just equal pay…and this must be a two-way process of levelling up and in no case down.”
There was a contribution from Pat Sturdy who attended as an observer amd who raised the question of how women militants could overcome the frustrations encountered in “the existing male-dominated and extremely bureaucratused undemocratic unions.” (Pat was a shop steward at an engineeting works in Burnley who had founded the Women’s Industrial Union after she got fed up with way that the male-dominated unions ignored womne’s issues eg workpalce bullying . The aim was sto be “more like a Union club to look after members’ rights at work and and help with their problems out of work…to stand together…to stand firmly with kindness, firmly with consideration. Only this way can we hope to show the men folk the error of their ways and stay uncorrupted ourselves.” The WIU attracted 200 members, but met with considerable hostility from the official trade union movement. Eventually Pat returned to the official trade union movement. Jane Thompson, Women, Class and Education, p.35; George Stevenson, The Women’s Liberation Movement and the Politics of Class in Britain, p. 88)
Dr Altheia Jones from the British Black Panthers spoke about the oppression of black women in the USA, West Indies and Britain and the way in which the West Indian colonial system had entrapped women within the family. She stressed “the continued neccessity for oppressed people to organise themelves independently and separately from the existing working class and revolutionary organisations in view of the prevalence of racist and sexist attitudes within these.”
On the Sunday morning Leonora Lloyd spoke about the equal pay/equal work campaign followed by a discussion with a panel of trade union militants on the problem and difficulties ecnountered in organising. The panel included May Hobbs from the Nightcleaners campaign who stressed the need for women’s groups to keep the pressure up, especially where women are organised. Also on the panel were Vicky Robinson (UPW) and Jo Gilbert (Jewellers’ Union)
The final session was spent mainly in discussion on the draft mainfesto which was presented by Felicity Trodd of the North London Socialist Woman Group. It was agreed to accept the general line in the draft and take the report back to the SW groups for further discussion.
The Conference also elected the Editorial Boad of Socialist Woman : Margaret Coulson, Leonora Lloyd, Roberta Manners, Wanda Mariuszko, Pat Masters, Vicky Robinson, Linda Smith and Felicity Trodd.
Manifesto of the Socialist Woman Groups, printed in Socialist Woman, summer 1972
We think that women cannot be liberated in a society such as this where class divisions distort all relationships between people. So by the liberation of women we do not mean the equality of women with men in the present set up , as this could only mean “an equal chance to be unequal” (for some to be wealthy and some to be poor, for some to be managing directors and some to be workers).
The only way to change this society for a better one is through a working class revolution, and this must involve women and men. A socialist revolution would end the exploitation of men and women workers for the profit of the employing class, and would create the possibility of ending all oppression such as that experienced by women. The ending of this present system of production for profit could release the neccessary resources to provide the full range of educational, social and medical services which will be needed to support the liberation of women. But for this possibility to be realised women must play a full part in the development of a socialist society.
In present society all women are to some extent oppressed but working class women are one of the most oppressed sections of society, oppressed because of their class and because of their sex. At the same time, because of their position, of dependence and isolation in the family, women are often the upholders of traditional values and behave in a reactionary way. To break out of this situation women need to organise themselves, to discuss and clarify their understanding of the subordination of women, and to begin to act to change things.
The need for this is made greater both by the lack of understanding among male trade unionists who do not see that the subordination of women (which seems to give them some immediate advantages) is used to make divisions within the working class, setting male workers against female workers., housewives against trade unionists. And also within most socialist groups the question of women’s liberation has been neglected, ignored or dismissed as irrelevant.
We see Socialist Woman groups as a way of organising against the oppression of women at the present time. We give priority to the struggles of working class women, both as the most oppressed, and as those in potentially the strongest position to organise against the central economic basis of women’s oppression in thissociety.
To begin to challenge the present situation we raise the following demands:
Equal Economic Rights – End Discrimination in Jobs, Social Security and the Law
- Equal pay and equal work: an end to low pay
- Work or full maintenance, regardless of marital status
- No discrimination against women in social services and benefits -no strings
Equal Cultural, Social and Educational Rights
- Social provision for children – free 24-hour childcare facilities controlled by the community
- Equal education and training
End to Sexual Repression and Exploitation
- The right to choose whether or not to have children
- Free contraception and abortion on demand
- The right to a standard of living to make this a real choice : adequate housing, income (wage or social security), child care facilities (schools, playgrounds)
- An end to the presentation of women as passive sexual objects
- Recognition of the rights of gay people
The Development of Class Consciousness and Solidarity- An End To All Divisions In The Working Class
- Working class support for women’s rights
- Full unionisation of women and their full participation in unions; democratisation of the unions
- An end to discrimination on grounds of sex, race or religion
- No redundancies or unemployment : we must be clear this includes women
- Support for women involved in working class struggles – for better pay and conditions, greater control over conditions including job evaluation; and to widen these; women on strike, wives of strikers, community struggles
- The development of class consciousness and a revolutionary socialist perspective in the women’s movement
Membership of a Socialist Woman Group involves:
1. General agreement with the political basis of the Socialist Woman Group as expressed in the Manifesto.
2. Acceptance of responsibility for sharing in the work of the Group, both discussions and activities.
3. Regular attendance at meetings (difficulties should be discussed with the Group.
4. Financial contribution to maintain the Group’s activities (amount to be decided by the Group).
5. Agreement to support, sell and if possible write for, the paper Socialist Woman.
Key issues covered in Socialist Woman 1972 -1978
Abortion: the national campaign to defeat James White’s Abortion Amendment Bill in 1975
Housing: the Housing Finance Bill; Fair Rents campaign;
Ireland: the aftermath of Bloody Sunday; an interview with Maire Drumm, joint President of Sinn Fein; Anti-Internment League conference; Dolours and Marion Price hunger strike; interview with Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin); Irish Women United; Women for Peace; Women and Ireland group
Lesbian/Gay Liberation: report on Gay Marxist conference in 1973; lesbians and the women’s movement; Lesbian Line
Sexuality: the May/June 1973 was a special issue on sexuality, produced by an informal collective of women , some in the IMG, some not. It was agreed to publish contributions received without any editorial restriction.
Strikes involving women: : The Fisher Bendix occupation in Liverpool in 1972; the occupation by sacked women workers of the Fakenham shoe factory in Norwich in 1972; strikes at government buildings by cleaners in 1972. Imperial typewriters; Salford Electrical Instruments; Easterbrook Allcard. It also covered the role of miners’ wives in the 1972 miners’ strike:
Students: nursery campaigns; National Union of School Students; NUS Women’s Campaign;
Trade Unions: Fisher Bendix occupation; the failure of the Women’s Industrial Union in Burnley; nurses’ campaign for better pay and conditions; the Working Women’s Charter; women in the media conference; women in NALGO:
Women’s Liberation: the position in Sweden; Marxism and Women’s Liberation; domestic labour; socialist-feminism, Women Against Racism and Fascism, United Black Women’s Action Group
Contributors included: Carol Ackroyd, Judith Arkwright, Sue Aspinall, Hilary Brazen, Ann Chesterton, Cath Cikit, Mary Crane, Penny Duggan, Ingrid Falconer, Ann Foreman, Linda Fryd, Jenny Frost, Joanna Griffiths, Sarah Hart, Barbara Holland, Celia Holt, Dorothy Jones, Val Jones, Pat Kahn, Leonora Lloyd, Karen Margolis, Rosa Ochti, Angela Phillips, Lesley Richardson, Carol Riddell, Mary Roston, Sue Shapiro, Linda Smith, Sue Spilling, Nina Thomas, Linda Smith, Tessa Van Gelderen, Yvonne Taylor, Hilary Wainwright and Dodie Weppler.
IMG Conference 1978: discussion on women members
Feminism made women angry, including women in the IMG. This finally erupted at the 1978 national conference.
The report in Socialist Woman (October 1978) noted that there had been “months of often heated pre-conference discussion” and that the discussion:
raised some very basic questions about a revolutionary party; the relationship of activity in the women’s movement and a revolutionary organisation: how tensions between men and women express themselves in a mixed political party and the methods and limitations of combating sexism within its ranks. This discussion revolved around the role and functioning of women’s caucuses (that is meetings for all and only women members inside the IMG.
A very lengthy resolution was adopted at the conference which began with some trenchant criticism of men in the organisation and its culture :
Sexism in society finds its reflection inside the IMG. It finds its expression in a number of ways;
- The lack of consciousness in the IMG as to how and why sexism operates in its own ranks.
- A concept of a cadre which can be interpreted as a steretoype of traditional male behaviour.
- Insufficient understanding of women’s educational needs.
- A tradition of political discussion which encourages individual competitiveness and dismissiveness rather than collective dialogue.
- Lack of confidence of women comrades induced by conditions within and without the orgaisation.
- A division of labour which creates a distinction between (mostly male) prucers of theory, and the paractical activists.
- Insufficient action to deal with the problems of child-care.
Reading between the lines it seems clear that the model of organising within Women’s Liberation (non-hierarchical, valuing all contributions and based on small group discussion) had clashed with the male culture within IMG in which it appears that if you hadn’t read every word Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had ever written you were dismissed.
It was agreed that women caucuses encouraged the organisation “to come to grips with the problem of sexism.” These should be timed so as not to clash with other branch activities and open to all women. It was suggested that discussion in the caucuses should include consciousness -raising; problems of the role of women comrades in the leadership; help in integrating new women comrades into the organisation and discussion of recuitment and relationships to women contacts.
The resolution concluded:
Women comrades have an enormous potential contribution to make to the life and politics of the organisation. This potential is still far from being realised, despite certain advances in theory and practice made by the IMG over the past few years. Only the establishment of women’s caucuses wll help to realise this principle. At least, we should free ourselves from all prejudice about this issue, and try to investigate the various positions and options open to the IMG as frankly and as carefully as possible. The aim is not to ghettoise women’s issues and problems but to make them the property of the IMG as a whole, and its concern. Women’s caucuses will help to stimulate a more outgoing approach by women comrades rather than concentration among themselves on informal discussion and unresolved conflicts.
Socialist Woman pamphlets
1. Booklist for Women’s Liberation
2. The Nightcleaners’s Campaign.
3. The Lancaster Cleaners Campaign.
4. Women in Industry. No 1
5. Women workers in Britain: a handbook
6. International Women’s Day by Alexandra Kollontai
I have found some biographical detail on two women involved with Socialist Woman:
Margaret Coulson. She died in 2017 in Australia. This is an obituary written by her friend Margo Gorman.
Leonora Lloyd. She died in 2002. This is her obituary in the Guardian.
Reading Socialist Woman
The Working Class Movement Library in Salford has some copies in its collection , but not the whole run. Missing copies would be welcomed
The Marxists website has the complete run scanned in (including the bulletin and pamphlets) which can be read here.