Category: Brtish feminism

“Free our sisters, free ourselves…” The first Women’s Liberation march, 8th March 1971

In my previous posts I have written about  the first Women’s Liberation Conference in February 1970 and the  imaginative protest at the Miss World contest in November 1970.

Another key milestone was  the first Women’s Liberation march which took place on 8th March 1971 in London (in freezing wreather, it should be noted). Organised by the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee  and Ad Hoc Committee for the London March 6th Demonstration it was the first march on purely women’s  issues since 1926, assembling at Speakers’ Corner and processing to Trafalgar Square.

The idea was to bring women  together in support of the four demands of the Women’s Liberation movement:

  • Free abortion and contraception on demand
  • Equal educational and job opportunites
  • Free 24-hour nurseries
  • Equal pay

The event  was planned with much  imagination  with banners stating “Women  Unite” and “Women’s Liberation”, a  twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe,  a caged woman (Mis-Stress)   as well as co-ordinated singing, dancing and music and performances in the Trafalgar Square.

Surviving footage captures its fun aspect  and the sometimes bewildered reactions of passers-by.  Around 3,000 attended.

first Women’s Liberation Movement march –  footage from UCL students archive 


Women’s Liberation March, London, UK Archive Footage

Jill Tweedie  went on the march and wrote an account for The Guardian

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “If that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”
“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”

An article in the Women’s Liberation workshop newsletter  Shrew  (Vol3, no3)  reflected on what had been achieved – and not achieved

Male passer-by:  What do you want – Stuffing?

Woman in uniform:  “we’re not allowed to think…”

Woman in fur coat: “abortion makes me turn cold. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. “

Middle-aged woman shop assistant: “I think I’m in favour.”

These remarks of bystanders at the demonsaration on Saturday, and the attitude of amused tolerance  in the press coverage of the march, must guide us in assessing exactly what we have achieved. The demonstration raisse certain questions  about our aims and strategy as a movement.  That over 3,000 women assembled in Hyde Park prepared to march despite falling snow and freezing temperatures w  sreason enough for spirits to be high. Not only the numbers present, but that these represented nation-wide support for our cause must be an encouragement. While we need to stand united in the face of press criticism of the demonstration and of the movement as a whole, it is important that our first experience of a national demonstration should provoke self-criticism within the movement.

What were we “demonstrating”: was this a demonstration of  of women’s solidarity  or was it an outing?  Was it a march, or a wander through the West End? In terms of appearances a useful  comparisons  is the New York Women’s Liberation demonsration of September 1970. Several thousand women, arms linked and chanting slogans, surged down Park Avenue, sweeping aisde police attempting to restruct the marchers to two traffic lanes. Police had barricaded sidewalks to keep public and demonstrators apart, and crowds gathered to watch the spectacle – expecting a circus. But, infected by  the determination of the marchers, middle-aged women  left their husbands and girls ducked under the barricades to join the march when challenged to do so. The uncommitted were made to feel that something important concerning them was at stake.

Given the British spirit of moderation in all things, in contrast with the polarisation on equivalent issues in American society, and that the British woman clings more conventionally to the passivity of her traditional  role – did we, in marching, really provoke or inspire women “on the side”  to commit themselves. Many, questioned on their attitude to the march, came out in favour of at least two or three of the four demands in point but had not been made to feel to demonstrate solidarity on the issues. Much more is at stake in the Women’s Liberation movement than equal pay, equal educational opportunities, state nurseries, free abortion and contraception:  the underlying   factor  is the liberation of woman  for independent  self-determination  as a human being.  To quote a hand-out  distributed on the march, “Social reforms do not necessarily mean a change in attitudes”. Female emancipation cannot be achieved simply be legisltaion as female  suffrage has shown.

If all we were  doing on March 6th was demanding social welfare  changes with which many can agree without any fundamental  changes in their  conception of and attitude to “woman”, what was the real confrontation of this demonstration?  

We must avoid putting ourselves in a position in which  we can be fobbed off with superficial concessions and be left with nothing more to say.

All women  must be confronted with the fact that the liberation of women   requires a fundamental revison of the definitions of all human roles in society.  This raises the question  of the role of male support  of the movement: one one hand, their presence  on Saturday  gives weight to the liberated men and women  through the call to women to do something about their own position. On the other hand, the presence of husbands and boyfriends in the midst of “women united”  made us more vulnerable to jokey press comments and public amusement – and possible identification by the public as yet another group of “student revolutionaries”, rather than  as an unprecedented  assembly of women, demonstrating in the cause of all women. 

If we failed to communicate the seriousness of the aims of Women’s Liberation perhaps we should ask ourselves whether our future efforts to communicate should now  involve a choice. One alternative is uncompromising militancy  which  most of neccessity provoke commitment or hostility to the movement, but which brings to light fundamental and radical  issues implied by women’s liberation.  Or do we try  to appeal to the mass of women in this country at the moment  who think they are in favour  – thus achieving a real following but running the risk of making  the four demands as end in themselves.

The moderate method  could be regarded as first step towards greather things ,  or as the removal of specific grievances, but at the possible cost of true liberation.

After the march the Socialist Woman group held a meeting in the evening  in a pub about  the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg


“…to stand firmly with kindness, firmly with consideration.” Pat Sturdy and the Women’s Industrial Union, Burnley, 1971-1972

The Women’s  Industrial  Union was  a breakaway union from the General and Municipal Workers’ Union,   formed by Pat Sturdy at the Lucas factory in  Burnley in May 1971 because she had  become very disillusioned with the attitude of the male-dominated union  who ignored issues raised  by women.

Pat attended the Socialist  Woman conference in London in January 1972 as an observer,  contributing to a panel on women and trade unions.

In her Book Women, Class and Education (2002), Jane Thompson  quotes Pat from a letter as wanting the WIU:

…to be more like a Union-cum-Club… (to) look after members’ rights  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. (p.35)

Although it attracted 200 members, the WIU opted after a year to go into the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

This is a report  from Socialist Woman, summer 1972 .


” We believe that a total perspective of women’s  liberation is impossible without a total revolutionary perspective.” Socialist Woman journal, 1969 to 1978

Socialist  Woman started  life in  early 1969  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 range  of  journals and pamphlets.

In those  early  years the editorial board included the following : Anne Black, Val Charlton,  Margaret Coulson  Marie-Claire, Antonia Gorton, Leonora Llotd Jo O’Brien. and Ann Torode.

In the first issue they set out their views in an editorial ” A New Journal For An Old Battle.”

The immediate past period has brought forward a number of demonstrations on issues involving women; the Ford Strike over equal pay, the nurses at the House of Commons, the AEF  negotiations, the 800 women  in Manchester  and Coventry over equal bonuses, the Irish sewing machinists on civil rights.

A national campaign has started involving important  sectors of the union movement & political organisations on Equal Rights for Women. We feel  that it is neccessary  to take advantage  of the increased interest and  activity around women’s demands in industry and in the home, to establish a journal on the question. This journal will, we hope, bring socialist demands to this movement. We wnat to encourage womnew to use their power to further themselves and the cause of the working class as a whole.

Further we intend this journal to educate the left. This sounds like a rather specious claim but is not so. Countless are the papers, journals and documents put out by the left which either ignore the demands of women or use woman as a selling device a la Playboy. Women are one-third of the labour force and one-half of the population, at the same time women  have many  of the characteristics of an exploited minority. Women have specific problems and require special attention in formulating a programme, industrially, politically, and socially that will advance their consciousness and stimulate them to take action.

And finally we are not anti-male, a charge often thrown at those concerned with the woman question. We are opposed to private property, the alienation of labour and capitalism, the exploitation of the entire working class. We are opposed to  those men who  who do the “gaffer’s” job and assist him to do the dirty on women workers – whether  in the home or in industry. And we we will not hesitate to take these men on. Those men who refused to hear the bus conductresses give their case at the bus drivers’ conference; those men who refused to allow women to drive a taxi; those legions of men who measure their masculinity by the few shillings more they make an hour than their female counterparts – they’re no better than blacklegs and we’ll tell them!

We hope you will find this first issue worthwhile and whetehr male or female contribute to it – literarily or financially.  For the next issue we will pay special attention to the status of women in education and immigrant women. Book reviews will be greatly apprecaited. The Socilaist Women’s Committee which produced this journal has contcats in major cities and universities in Britian and hopes women will join and build these committees. The SWC draft programme will be reproduced in the next issue. 

It’s worth rembering that at this point  in time (early 1969) the Women’s Liberation movenent was in its very early stages with  just a handful of groups in London. I am not clear as to whether the women behind Socialist Woman were aware of their  existence at the time of the first issue, but the second issue  mentions the Womne’s Liberation Workshop and gves their address.

What pushed them to set up Socialist Woman ie the strike by the women sewing machinists at Fords  and the campaign for  trawler safety  in Hull led by Lil Bilocca were also the reason that women  such as Sheila Rowbotham  were thinking about the position of women in society. Interestingly the first issue reprints an article by the trade unionist Audrey Wise “Equal Pay Is Not Enough” which first appeared in the Black Dwarf special issue on women  (10th January 1969), edited by Sheila Rowbotham

There is also an article by Anne Torode in the first issue called “Mere Women”  which reflects on  notions of “masculinity” and “femininity”  and the way that  women’s  magazines  treat women “as creatures whose whole life is dependnet on men and romance..”

The socialist women’s  movement does not argue that by virtue of our special feminine qualities, women can make a useful contribution to the world of rough politics. Rather we must fight against those factors that impose upon us our second class status – social and economic  factors inseparable from the  capitalist organisation of society. By involving large numbers of women in this fight, the “mere women” image will be forced to crumble.

In the second issue (March & April 1969) Anne Black  from the Nottingham Socialist  Women’s  Committee  oulined their hopes for 1969 and listed a set of demands on women  and the family  very much  tune with the developing women’s movement.

1968 provided a year in which the fight for women’s rights received a much-needed  shot in the arm.  If we accept  the challenge with militancy, 1969 should be  a year of tremendous advance.

It is vital that the working class movement in Britain accept the question of women’s status as very real political issue and that it be acted upon with the same seriousness as any other aspect of the struggle…

This is a time of intense  frustration for many women whose status has not changed since the suffragettes, for women are doubly oppressed, both on account of their sex and as workers. The oppressive nature of our society stems from the establishment of private property and the  consequent  development of the paternal, monogamous family. …

The combination of running a home and working brings home to married women the full extent of their exploitation, and the widespread inequalities in employment, in terms of opportunity,  training and wages are burdens that rest equally heavily on the single woman, not to mention the single mother.  Women  must organise to remove the intellectual dominance of the male. To enter the  world of political man without an identity results in an atmospehere of intolerance and patronage  which does not advance our individuality and swamps our particular problems and demands.

We must demand complete rights over our own biological functuions ie free access to birth control information and devices, abortion and a completely new attitude to marriage with a view to ending enforced cohabitation. We stress that the “family” is only meaningful  if based on mutual consent, love and respect..Children must be the resposbibility of the community which  should provide free creches and nurseries, and legal paternity abolished. We must destroy the image of marriage as career, petty domestic routine and constant preoccupation with small children are not fulfilling  activities for any adult human being. We must demand full legal rights, such as the right to separate income tax returns, and we must demand equal pay for work of equal value….

Fianlly, we  must examine and restate the role of women  in history and reject the bourgeois propaganda  that women have made no contribution.  They can and will continue to do so in their roles as human beings. We must organise ourselves to make these demands real and pressing, educate ourselves and gain confidence in our ability to act.

The  early issues of Socialist Woman  included  articles on:

  • an interview with Mme. Binh of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam
  • Sister Patricia Veal and the militant  United Nurses Assocaition
  • the equal pay campaign run by  the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights.
  • 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;  the Lancaster Cleaners’ Strike, a strike at Brannan’s in Cleator Moor, a strike by telephonists in London in 1971
  • sexuality
  • reviews of books by Sheila Rowbotham and Juliet Mitchell
  • 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

These groups  were listed in  Socialist Woman in 1971 and 1972 but not  after that.  It would be intersting to know why.  Were they dissolved? It is noticeable that the end  of 1973 Socialist Woman  no longer called itself “The National Paper of the Socilaist Woman Groups”:  instead it used the strapline “A Journal of the International Marxist Group.”

Birmingham – contact: Tessa van Gelderen (1971)  Phyllis Tinsley (1971), Sandra Cooper (1972)

Bolton  – contact:  Joyce Leman (1972)

Bristol  – contact: Viv Prior (1971) 1972)

Canterbury – contact : Liz Lawrence (1971) (1972)

Cardiff –  contact: Sue Lakes  (1971), (1972)

Chorley – contact: Cath Young (1972)

Colchester – contact: Celia Pugh (1972)

Coventry – contact: Pauline  Walsh (1971), Maureen Draper (1972)

Edinburgh – contact: Anne McLellan (1971),  Jackie Freeman (1972)

Glasgow – contact : Shelly Charlesworth (1972)

Hull – contact M Ball (1971), N O’Neill (1971)

Keele  – contact: Nicola Charles (1972)

Kingston – contact: Jane Cullen (1972)

Lancaster –  contact : Margaret Coulson (1971),  (1972)

Leeds – contact: Val Jones (1972)

Leicester – contact: Jean Holman (1971)

London –  contact: Leonora Lloyd (1971).

London (North and Central) – contact:  Felicity Trodd (1971), Pat Masters (1972)

London (South) – contact: Betty Hunter

London (West) – contact: Leonora Lloyd (1971) (1972)

Manchester – contact: Judy Evans (1971). (This group was previously the Manchester Women’s Liberation Group);  Sheila Cohen (1971) (1972)

Norwich –  contact : Fiona Fadenburgh (1971), Rhona Ball (1972)

Nottingham – contact: Sue Lee (1971),  Toni Gorton (1971), Val Graham (1972)

Oxford – contact:: Judith White (1971), Hilary Wainwright (1972)

Portsmouth – contact: Sally Ruffin (1972)

Preston- contact: Kath Ryde (1971)  (1972)

Reading- contact: Carolyn Rice (1972)

Rickmansworth – contact: Leslie Richardson (1972)

Rotherham – contact: Jane mole (1971)

Sheffield – contact: Catherine Cirket (1972)

Stafford – contact: Anna Booton (1971),  M Martin (1971),  Hilary Wykes (1972)

Watford – contact: Leslie Richardson (1972)

Welwyn Garden City – contact: Val Paterson (1972)

York – contact: Julia Baldasara (1971) (1972)


Socialist Woman Bulletin, December 1971

A  typed Socialist Woman Bulletin was produced in December 1971 to “provide co-ordination between groups, to let them know what was going on in the centre, to pass on queries and to reflect the problems and triumphs 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

Education: sexism in scholls

Housing: the Housing Finance Bill; Fair Rents campaign;

International reports

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; lesbian liberation; lesbians and the women’s movement; Lesbian Line;

NUS women’s camapign

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, reprts from WLM national conferences

Contributors included:  Carol Ackroyd,  Judith Arkwright,  Sue Aspinall, Hilary Brazen, Ann Chesterton,  Cath Cikit,  Margaret Coulson, Mary Crane,  Rosalind Davis, 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,  Maureen Smith,Sue Spilling,   Yvonne Taylor, Nina  Thomas, Jane Smith,  Linda Smith, Tessa Van Gelderen,  Yvonne Taylor,  Felicity Trodd, Hilary Wainwright,  Dodie Weppler June Whitfield and Laurie White.

The last issue of Socialist Woman  appeared in October 1978 . There was no sign that  that this  would be the last issue. What happened? was it financial or a political decision?


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;

  1. The lack of consciousness in the IMG as to how and why sexism operates in its own ranks.
  2. A concept of a cadre which can be interpreted as a steretoype of traditional male behaviour.
  3. Insufficient understanding of women’s educational needs.
  4. A tradition of political discussion which encourages  individual competitiveness and dismissiveness rather than collective dialogue.
  5. Lack of confidence of women comrades induced by conditions within and without the orgaisation.
  6. A division of labour which creates a distinction between (mostly male) prucers of theory, and the paractical activists.
  7. 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  copies of Socialist Woman in its collection

The Marxists website has the  complete run  scanned in (including the bulletin and pamphlets)  which  can be read here.







“the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman”; The 1st Women’s Liberation Movement conference, Oxford, February 1970

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 creche staffed by men (picture: Mica Nava)

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.

Michelene says:

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.

Sally says:

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…

Audrey says:

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… 

Catherine says:

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…

Audrey Wise

...A speech which drew roars of applause came from a long-haired white-faced young woman who called for acts of violence  “to smash the myth of feminine passivity.” It was after this they marched in a body to express solidarity  with the students  occupying the Clarendon Building to protest against the keeping of files on student activity.

…What has not yet clearly emerged from today’s meetings is what these extremely liberated young women are doing advocating for what  looks like a new ghetto for women, albeit one of radical feminist activity and why they do see their path in more generalised political activity?  Although tribute was paid to women freedom fighters in underdeveloped countries, there was almsot no discussion of general political issues. 

…Still during the afternoon’s discussion on women and the economy, a militant trade unionist from Coventry  called Audrey Wise made a bold call for a broadly based socialist movement. She argued that feminism is not enough and ended: “I don’t want to be an equal economic unit  any more than  I want  to be a decoration or a drudge. I  want women’s liberation to be a movement for people as people, whether they are women and men.”

After the Oxford  conference from a mainly London-based movement  Women’s Liberation became a national movement. A year later there were groups in most towns and cities across Britain.

Sadly Arielle Aberson died in 1970 in a car accident


Resources and further reading

There is a 30 minute  film about the conference  called A Woman’s Place,  made  by Sue Crockford .  You can watch it here.

The British  Library has interviewed in number of feminists about the 1970s and placed the videos  on a website.

In 2010 the BBC made a radio documentary on the 40th Anniversary of the conference which you can listen to here.

Dreams and Dilemmas: Collected Writings  by Sheila  Rowbotham (1983)

Promise of a Dream by Sheila Rowbotham  (2000)

The Body Politic : Women’s Liberation in Britain 1969 – 1972,   edited by Michelene Wandor (1972)

Once a Feminist,  Stories of a Generation by  Michelene Wandor (1990)

The Papers

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

“…it should be an action workshop”: Women’s Liberation Workshop and the Nightcleaners campaign, 1970-1973

May Hobbs

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.


“…through minor actions, through more group discussions, through more reading and  learning we are all becoming militants” “Shrew: a Women’s Liberation newsletter 1969-1978

Shrew began life in 1969  as the newsletter of the Women’s Liberation workshop in London

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.







Pioneering feminist Anna Doyle Wheeler and the Rights of Women

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.