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 30 minute film about the conference A Woman’s Place made by Sue Crockford . It is available on Concord Media. More information 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.
Child Rearing and Women’s Liberation – Rochelle P Wortis
Women, Work and Equal Pay – Leonora Lloyd
Beginning in the autumn of 1970 a group of women active in the Women’s Liberation Workshop assisted in the unionisation of women working as night cleaners in offices in central London.
The campaign had been started by Mary Hobbs, who had been active in tenants’ campaigns in Hackney, when she set up the Cleaners Actions Group. This is what she says on her autobiography Born to Struggle published in 1973;
From that moment going around and organizing the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and start talking to the cleaners themselves.We formed ourselves into the Cleaners’ Action Group and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing out they could not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.
In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.
They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal.
After two years hard campaigning they had a victory .
Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when ten cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 on their earnings of £12.50 for a forty-five-hour week and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Women’s Lib co-operated to set up round-the-clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.
The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The G.P.O. engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed…
On 16th August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimization. The supervisor at Horseferry House was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.
Sheila Rowbotham says that she got involved after May approached the International Socialists for help and they asked Sheila to put a note in the Women’s Liberation Workshop newsletter. As well as Sheila, Sally Alexander, Mary Kelly and a number of other women became involved. In her autobiography Promise of a Dream Sheila recalls:
With a friend from my Women’s Liberation group, Liz Waugh, I set out each Tuesday night at 10 pm into the deserted streets of the City, London’s financial district. We would prowl the streets looking for weary-looking women clutching their belongings in carrier bags and accost them with, ‘Excuse me are you a night cleaner?’
It was all exceedingly haphazard. Our aim, once we made contact, was to find out where they worked and follow up by recruiting the whole building. The vague assumption was that we would gradually unionise the whole of London’s cleaning force. But the cleaners worked often spasmodically and were moved around to different buildings. Some were happy to remain invisible and off the books, because they were claiming social security. Most of the women we approached were middle aged and looked older. The accumulated exhaustion of working at night and looking after their families in the day, had marked their faces. Moreover a sizable minority were immigrants from the Caribbean and exceedingly nervous. They needed the money, little as it was, most desperately, moreover they were contending with racism in working class communities as well as in the job market.
Unions were remote entities to many of the women we approached. Indeed sometimes we found ourselves explaining what unions were. We began to supplement the blue and yellow recruiting forms from the T& G with our own hand-written one produced on duplicators (early ancestors of the photocopier). ‘Why do night cleaners get less pay than day cleaners? Do night work for such low pay? Why don’t cleaners get full cover money? …
Remarkably a few of the night cleaners did come on the first ever Women’s Liberation demonstration in March 1971, when 5,000 women with male supporters strode through the sleet and snow singing ‘Stay Young and Beautiful’. Among them was May Hobbs , bearing a placard ‘The Cleaners’ Action Group’. May, who was a natural orator, addressed the crowd in Trafalgar Square calling for ‘the self-organisation of women at their workplaces.’
After the success of the 1972 strikes the campaign struggled as May was now a well-known person and was speaking around the country and it seems to have run out of steam in 1973. A documentary about the campaign The Nightcleaners was made by the Berwick Street Film Collective and shown in 1975. You can see a clip here.
Sally Alexander speaks about the camapign in a short clip here.
The campaign was also included in a television report on women’s liberation made in 1971. This shows the meeting held on 12th February 1971 which was addressed by Bernadette Devlin who had been elected as an MP in April 1969, aged 21. (This meeting also featured in The Nightcleaners documentary) You can watch the report here.
In 2006 Sheila Rowbothan wrote a lengthy article about the campaign ; Cleaners’ Organizing n Britain from the 1970s : a personal account. You can read this here.
The campaign was featured in Shrew, the Women’s Liberation newsletter, early in 1971 and again in a special issue published in December 1971 which included a short history of the campaign, examples of the conditions the women worked in, reports from leafletters, interviews with May Viddell, Jean wright and May Hobbs and considerations of the relationship of women’s liberation to class , I have scanned these pages below.
In 1969 there was a just small number of women’s groups starting to meet, influenced by the Women’s Liberation movement in the USA (which started in 1968); their involvement in the male-dominated left, and their personal experiences as women in the 1960s.
Sheila Rowbotham, for instance, was inspired by the Ford Machinists strike and the Hull trawler wives’ campaign and was becoming increasingly aware of how men on the left, alleged revolutionaries, treated women. r. In December 1968 she was asked to join the editorial board of Black Dwarf to co-ordinate writing on a women’s issue and began commissioning articles. Sheila also wrote furiously, sitting on her stool by the gas fire in the kitchen of her house:
Out came all the concentrated thoughts and impressions which had been unconsciously accumulating. It was the kind of article I would later recognise as one that builds up inside. In the spirit of ’68, I knew I must write not from received authorities on “women” but from my own observations and feelings…Now all those scattered experiences could take a new shape. As the words splattered out in to pages , it felt as if I had reached a clearing.
The resulting article was published in Black Dwarf in January 1969 under the title “Women : the Struggle for Freedom”. You can read the whole article here. Sheila says:
After Black Dwarf came out …I found myself just talking and talking with women friends with a new-found excitement. We all seemed to be going in a similar direction. Things suddenly began to connect, to make sense. It was if we were discovering a new way of seeing which at the same time had always been part of our awareness.
In February Sheila went to a revolutionary festival at Essex University at which, partly because of the Black Dwarf women’s issue, it was decided to have a meeting at the festival on women. Sheila remembers: Although unsure what to expect we were charged with a powerful sense of anticipation. I remember the intensity of our talking and the feeling of mutual discovery. Ideas in the early day of women’ liberation seemed to just spring out of a process of recognition. This connection of experiences was all the more remarkable because it was an exchange of perception which had been so private. All those reactions, those vagrant thoughts which you had kept to yourself suddenly came to acquire a new social meaning.
Five Women’s Liberation groups in Greater London were formed in the course of 1969: Tufnell Park, Peckham Rye, Notting Hill, Belsize Lane and Islington which comprised a network called Women’s Liberation Workshop.
The Peckham Rye group, for instance, emerged from a group of mainly working class women who met at the “One-Clock Club,” a Council club for mothers with young children. Jan Williams wrote
Over a period of 18 months a group of about six women were meeting their in the afternoons with their children , and talking, mainly about their children, their hair, their husbands and their homes. The chatter seemed to us to have an umbrella over it – an umbrella of of depression (misery)..For a long time we attributed our miseries to such things as having hairy legs or no money, etc. In effect we were blaming ourselves for not being able to live up to a prescribed image of the wife and mother. Bur gradually the talk became less frgamented and more meaningful. The break came when another woman, not a regular visitor, circulated a sheet of complaints about the difficulties of being at home with children.
They began meeting as a larger group on Sunday evenings and read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and A S Neill’s Summerhill. At the fourth meeting Hilary Rawlings and Juliet Mitchell came and spoke about the position of women as second class people. They talked at length about the family and children, questioned our every belief about the family and children by questioning the organisation of society in general, tackling the whole thing with honesty and thoroughness. ..From this point on the meetings were freed of talk of creches and geared to honesty with one another and action as a group.
Some of the women invaded a debate at Goldsmith’s College on revolutionary ideas (all male speakers, of course) and demanded to be heard. We were booed loudly and asked to strip, told we needed a good fuck etc, etc. However, we went on to hold the 300 people in the hall to our subject for over an hour. Gradually, through minor actions, through more group discussions, through more reading and learning we are all becoming militants. The skin over our eyes is peeling back, and people are trying to emerge out of passive shells.
The local groups met weekly, the Workshop met monthly. The newsletter was established to exchange ideas, encourage debate and circulate information. First called Harpies Bizarre (the witches newspaper in the television series Bewitched), then Bird, they finally settled on Shrew. Initially, each issue was produced by adifferent group each month which accounts for the very different look of each issue in its early years and its different content.
Each issue carried a statement of what the Workshop stood for:
Women’s Liberation Workshop believes that women in our society are oppressed. We are economically oppressed; in jobs we do full work for half pay, in the home we do unpaid work full time. We are commercially exploited by advertisements, television and press; legally we often have only the status of children. We are brought up to feel inadequate, educated to narrower horizons than men. This is our specific oppression as women. It is as women that we are, therefore, organizing.
The Women’s Liberation Workshop questions women’s role and redefines the possibilities. It seeks to bring women to a full awareness of the meaning of their inferior status and to devise methods to change it. In society women and girls relate primarily to men; any organization duplicates this pattern; the men lead and dominate, the women follow and submit.
We close our meetings to men to break through this pattern, to establish our own leaderless groups and to meet each other over our common experience as women. If we admitted men there would be a tendency for them, by virtue of their experience, vested interests, and status in society, to dominate the organizations. We want eventually to be, and to help other women to be, in charge of our own lives; therefore, we must be in charge of our own movement, directly, not by remote control. This means that not only those with experience in politics, but all must learn to take their own decisions, both political and personal.
For this reason, groups small enough for all to take part in discussion and decisions are the basic units of our movement. We feel that the small group makes personal commitment a possibility and a necessity and that it provides understanding and solidarity. Each small group is autonomous, holding different positions and engaging group., Women’s Liberation Workshop is essentially heterogeneous, incorporating within it a wide range of opinions and plans for action
Some issues of Shrew focused on particular issues: May 1971 was on The Family, while December 1971 was devoted to the campaign by the Cleaners’ Action Group, led by May Hobbs, to unionise women cleaners, a campaign assisted by some members of the Women’s Liberation workshop such as Sally Alexander and Sheila Rowbotham. (I will be writing about this at greater length in a future post).
After the first Women’s Liberation conference held in Oxford in February 1970, attended by 600 women, the number of WLM groups started to grow rapidly. By the end of 1971 there were over 50 in London, from Alexandra Palace to Wembley, as well as specialist groups eg Pyschology, Medical, GLF, Street Theatre, Women in Media and even a Men’s Group.
In the course of 1971 an issue of Shrew was being produced almost every month but after that production was less frequent. There was one in 1976 and a final one in 1978 on spirituality, godesses, stone circles etc, clearly produced by a completely different group of women.
The Working Class Movement Library in Salford holds an incomplete run of Shrew which is available for consultation by prior arrangement. The Library would welcome a donation of the missing issues.
Miss World Protests in 1969 and 1970
Below I have scanned in pages from Shrew relating to the protests by the WLN at the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in November 1969 when it was confined to protesting and leafletting outside, and in November 1970 when women dressed up, took their seats and then disrupted the live brodacast throwing flour and whirling noisy rattles. A number of women were arrested, the first women to be arrested on a protest on women’s issues since the Suffragettes.
You can watch an interview with Sally Alexander about the protest here.
Anna Doyle Wheeler 1785-1848
Anna Doyle was born in Limerick where her father was Protestant archbishop. She was married at the age of 15, to a neighbour, Francis Massey Wheeler, and had 6 children. It was not a good marriage, but Anna did find time to pursue her self-education, sending off for to London for bundles of novels and books on philosophy. She received Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft in one bundle and it was a revelation.
In 1812 she left her husband and went to live with her uncle in Guernsey, and then on to France where she became involved with the followers of Henri Saint Simon, a early proponent of Socialism. Whilst in France she also became friendly with Flora Tristan, an artist, writer and feminist, and Charles Fourier, another early Socialist, whose works she translated into English.
Returning to England she got to know Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen and William Thompson, the Irish political economist. Moving regularly between England and France she was an important conduit for ideas between these emerging groups of Socialists, a discussions to which she contributed in her own right.
In 1825 she co-wrote with Thompson The Appeal of One half of the Human Race, Woman, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men. To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery; In Reply to a Parargraph of Mr. Mill’s Celebrated “Article On Government“. In his essay the philosopher James Mill had justified the exclusion of women from the suffrage.
It begins in rousing fashion:
Women of England! women, in whatever country ye breathe–wherever ye breathe, degraded–awake! Awake to the contemplation of the happiness that awaits you when all your faculties of mind and body shall be fully cultivated and developed;
The authors go on to state;
To obtain equal rights, the basis of equal happiness with men, you must be respected by them; not merely desired, like rare meats, to pamper their selfish appetites. To be respected by them, you must be respectable in your own eyes; you must exert more power, you must be more useful. You must regard yourselves as having equal capabilities of contributing to the general happiness with men, and as therefore equally entitled with them to every enjoyment. You must excercise these capabilites, nor cease to remonstrate till no more than equal duties are exacted from you, till no more than equal punishments are inflicted upon you, till equal enjoyments and equal means of seeking happiness are permitted to you as to men.
They advocate “Mutual Co-operation” as the only remedy for the position of women
This scheme of social arrangements is the only one which will complete and for ever insure the perfect equality and entire reciprocity of happiness between women and men… Large numbers of men and women co-operating together for mutual happiness, all their possessions and means of enjoyment being the equal property of all–individual property and competition for ever excluded…
Anna became an Owenite lecturer and spoke publicly on “The Rights of Women” at venues such as South Place Chapel, Finsbury. One of lectures she gave there was published in the British Co-operator in 1830.
In conceding to the solicitations of the managers of this Institution, to deliver a Lecture on the : “Social Condition of Women,” I have had to struggle against a two-fold obstacle, that of depressed health, and a mind robbed of much of its energy and elasticity by a deep domestic sorrow. And while I feel the difficulty of employing a moderate language, in speaking of the degraded position of my sex, I am on the other hand but too well aware, that the remarks I am about to make, will draw upon me the hate of most men, together with that of the greater portion of the very sex whose rights (at the present stage of my existence) I attempt to advocate, with a dis interestedness which finds no rall ing point in Self. But what appears to me the most cheerless part of my task — I would almost say the “forlorn hope of my enterprise,” is that I am doubtful, whether any material good can be effected by this and similar lectures, seeing as I do, the rottenness of our institutions, and those especially which smell of rank injustice, in the disabilities set up against half the human race : Woman !
Nevertheless I shall attempt this task, stimulated by hope, which some friends entertain, that by so doing I contribute to the support of a truly liberal institution (as I understand this to be) besides, offering an example, which might produce the most beneficial results, if followed up, on similar principles, and acted upon by a competent number of Women. Should I however fail to awaken attention, in that portion of my audience, most immediately interested in my remarks, (if indeed what concerns all can be said to relate particularly to some,) I shall at least have discharged a debt to society, which its own increasing liberality enables me to pay, by permitting this public appeal ! For myself I confess, that ” to die and make no sign” expressive of my horror, indignation and bitter contempt, for that state of society called civilized, which in fact nothing more than barbarism masked, playing off its brute absurdities under wisdom’s guise, (through which however the cloven foot never fails to appear, and more particularly so in the destiny it has assigned to women,) would, I feel, complete the measure of my regret for having lived only to serve and suffer, in my capacity of slave and woman ; but the opportunity afforded me now, to leave one parting admonition to Society, will greatly mitigate those regrets which I feel, in common with every good mind, when denied the power of being more actively useful.
After this introduction to a question, that may indeed be called a Pivot, on which all our social interests turn — it would manifest little respect for the intelligence of my hearers, were I to offer any apology for the remarks I am about to make — Men and Women, must be prepared, to find me laying aside that cheat courtesy, speaking to facts, and holding the mirror up — Not indeed to nature, (for man’s cruel social code has stultified, if not stifled nature in him,) but to some mockery of himself, some distorted image of a goodly nature, warped in all its fair proportions by the evil genius vanity, who condemns him to be his own tormentor, in being the enemy and oppressor of Woman !
Before I proceed further, it may be necessary to say, that I have no antipathy to men but only to institutions ; no leaning to the interests of one sex above the other ; my object is to deprecate that narrow, stupid policy which divides their interests, and in so doing, makes a pandemonium of our earth, by forcing its inhabitants to be in constant opposition to each other ! Whatever then may be the force of the terms I employ, to decry the monstrous, degraded condition of my sex, I beg to be understood, as speaking, more in sorrow than in anger ; more with regret, for the loss of happiness to both sexes, than to either in particular. It is not in the nature of Woman (when she has strength of character sufficient to preserve original feelings, and reject those which are forced upon her adoption) to wish to mete out undue proportions of good, for one sex above the other — her destiny is to be the mother of both, and nature, whose laws are general and not partial, makes no distinction in a mother’s love !
When I advocate the Rights of Women then, I do it under the most perfect conviction, that I am also pleading the cause of men by showing the mighty influence Women hold over the happiness or misery of men themselves, according as they are instructed or ignorant, as they are fettered or free, as they act on principles^ not teamed by rote, but acquired through the full development of their own faculties, not put into movement like machines, or led like beasts of burden, at the capricious will of a master, or in stupid routine, by that many headed despot custom ! So true it is that, “though men make the law, it it women who mould the manners and morals of society ; and according as they are enlightened or ignorant, do they spin the web of human destiny. It may be difficult for those, who have not studied the complexity of social movement, to conceive how beings, apparently deprived of all power, can possess so much, particularly as all the ingenuity of short sighted cunning legislators, has been exhausted, not only to make, but keep them passive instruments of man’s will ; well knowing, that the most effectual means of perpetuating the ignorance, and consequent slavery of men themselves, was to close the door effectually to all progressive improvement in woman, by assigning to her the lowest position in the scale of being, that which connects itself solely with man’s mere animal wants !
But how does nature avenge her wrongs, and those of eternal justice, in refusing to cultivate women’s intellectual faculties. Men are caught in their own snares ; and the ignorance, that they would exclusively confine to women, soon becomes general, and works itself into a very solid chain of fallacies and errors, which ultimately leads opinion ; and opinion, whatever be the direction given to it, is always sure to be triumphant ! Woman it is, who by a stupid servile submission to man’s arbitrary will, gives stability to all his selfish propensities, and which encountering no judgment in their passage to her mind, leaves it the recipient of every foul and monstrous error ; thus, like the fabled Pandora, she spreads the contents of the fatal box through all society
Oh ! how contagious is error ! Prejudice becomes fixed principle, omnipotent always, in proportion as its tendency is mischievous. Thus man, by his narrow views of mere personal interest, his jealous monopoly of rights and privileges, his absurd system of sexual morality (as if indeed this can be a virtue and that a vice, which is not distinctly vice or virtue in everybody) ; his setting up individual as opposed to general interests has plunged him in perpetual warfare with his species ! Hence the results we read of, and witness : vice, crime, and dissocial anarchy abound, misery, privation and suffering, in every degree that our nature is susceptible of; happiness is lost to all, because security is unknown to any. This alas ! must ever be the case, whilst our social system is based on principles of discord, while unity of action is sacrificed, in all our arrangements, and the most striking lessons that experience can offer, are neither attended to nor under-stood ! But I must not lose time in vain declamations against the vicious tendency of our institutions which have been termed by hireling advocates, ” the perfection of human reason.”
What a satire this, on human reason ! As well indeed might we discover perfection in the first rude attempts at sculpture, as in that mass of inconsistency and folly which our laws presents, and which is as much the caricature of reason, as the other is of the human face and form. If reason means anything, it means a generalizing faculty of the human mind, which finds, ’tis true, its source in instinct but its limits only in experience. When left uncultivated we lose all the advantages which should distinguish the human from the brute animal, and thus, by screwing up human reason to the sticking point perfection, all clue has been lost to social happiness. In the abstract we are willing to admit, that nothing can be good which produces permanently evil effects : the social history of man abundantly shows that nothing is perfectly imperfect and irrational, than laws and institutions which do not recognise the general interest of all mankind. But let us examine the grounds of disabilities set up by men, to disfranchise half the human race, Women ; the effects of this treatment on us and on themselves ; and whether indeed there is any essential difference between the sexes, which can authorise the superiority men claim over women ?
What are the causes of, and who are accountable, for the seeming difference which makes the sum of their plea ? It will,I think appear, that man’s own tyranny has created the distinction which he ungenerously sets up as a just cause for its exercise. FIRST : Deficiency of muscular strength has been deemed a sufficient reason for reducing them to vassalage, not to mention the grosser barbarities, which we know to be the daily practice of men towards beings whose happiness is so inseparably linked with their own, and which the law, the written law that stupendous monu- ment of man’s disgrace, not only sanctions but dictates to every known extent, save but the murderous blow, which ends the sufferings of the victim ; and for this show of mercy, man’s own life is forfeited. All experience proves how little reason men have to triumph, in the base possession of an authority which unnatural violence and usurpation first put into their hands, and which has not, as is presumed, found its excuse in the physical or moral organization of Women. As to to the first charge of bodily weak-ness, strange enough.
Monsieur de Chateaubriand, in his book of martyrs (an appropriate place to find a chapter on Women) brings a host of evidence, from travellers and naturalists, to prove that this deficiency of strength in Woman, is nothing but a civilized disease, imposed no doubt, on women, to shorten the duration of life, and to provide men with a rapid succession of youthful slaves ; in short a civil or civilized way of getting rid of a superfluous number; less shocking though not less cruel, than that resorted to, by other nations which cannot boast the high degree of civilization of our own. So that this supposed organic weakness, which condemns women to be slaves, is by no means borne out by fact. Savage tribes acknowledge it not, and men everywhere choosing their occupation compel women to drudgery, while they themselves engage in the most pleasurable and profitable pursuits of life.
She also wrote articles for the Owenite newspaper The Crisis under the pen-name “Concordia”. In the 1830s she helped to found the French feminist journal, Tribune des Femmes.
William Thompson died on 20 March 1833 in Ireland. Anne died on 7 May 1848 in London. Her great-grand-daughter, incidentally, was the suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton.
A course on the history of Radical Women part one
I will be teaching part one of a course on the history of Radical Women. The course last 10 weeks, starting on 5th February and finishing on 16th April. (There is no class on 12th March).
The venue will be the Working Class Movement Library, 51 Crescent, Salford, M5 4WX. The cost of the course will be £60. Places can be booked by emailing: email@example.com.
I have been researching and writing about the history of radical women for a number of years. My published work incudes “Up Then Brave Women”; Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918.
The course will include the following sessions:
Women in the English Revolution in the 1640s and 1650s
Women were active members of the radical group, the Levellers, marching and taking petitions to Parliament.
Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the few women who came to prominence in the English radical movement of the1 790s. Her treatise, Vindication of the Right of Woman, a follow up to her lesser known work, Vindication of the Rights of Man, made her a well-known figure in English society, though it did not lead to the creation of a feminist movement.
Women rioters in 1812
Luddism was an organised workers movement which attacked the machinery taking away their jobs in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire between 1811 and 1813. Whilst women did not generally play a role in the attacks on mills, they did play a prominent role in the food rioting in Manchester in the spring of 1812.
As the radical movement grew into a mass movement in the course of 1819, women stepped onto the political stage organising Female Reform Societies which issued addresses to the public. Women were present at Peterloo, and were among the dead and injured.
Manchester Female Republicans
In the 1820s women were active in the Republican societies inspired by the ideas and writing of Richard Carlile.
Organised groups of workers set up co-operative societies from the late 1820s onwards, inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen. Owen also attacked religion and traditional marriage, leading to a number of women, inspired by his ideas, such as Emma Martin preaching around Britain in public lectures.
Chartism was mass worker’s movement at its height between 1839 and 1848 which called for wholesale political reform. Women were not among the leaders, but were active at grassroots level.
Lancashire had the highest number of women workers in England, mostly working in the textile industry as weavers. The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council was set up in 1895 to organise women in lowest paid industries into unions.
Women and Socialism
Women played an active role in the various socialist organisations which came into being in the 1880s and 1890s.
Votes for Women!
The struggle for Votes for Women lasted from 1866 to 1928. Manchester played an important role in all phases of the movement, both militant and non-militant. This session will include the role of working class women in the suffrage campaign.
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.