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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
Education: sexism in scholls
Housing: the Housing Finance Bill; Fair Rents campaign;
Ireland: the aftermath of Bloody Sunday; an interview with Maire Drumm, joint President of Sinn Fein; Anti-Internment League conference; Dolours and Marion Price hunger strike; interview with Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin); Irish Women United; Women for Peace; Women and Ireland group
Lesbian/Gay Liberation: report on Gay Marxist conference in 1973; 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
The report in Socialist Woman (October 1978) noted that there had been “months of often heated pre-conference discussion” and that the discussion:
raised some very basic questions about a revolutionary party; the relationship of activity in the women’s movement and a revolutionary organisation: how tensions between men and women express themselves in a mixed political party and the methods and limitations of combating sexism within its ranks. This discussion revolved around the role and functioning of women’s caucuses (that is meetings for all and only women members inside the IMG.
A very lengthy resolution was adopted at the conference which began with some trenchant criticism of men in the organisation and its culture :
Sexism in society finds its reflection inside the IMG. It finds its expression in a number of ways;
- The lack of consciousness in the IMG as to how and why sexism operates in its own ranks.
- A concept of a cadre which can be interpreted as a steretoype of traditional male behaviour.
- Insufficient understanding of women’s educational needs.
- A tradition of political discussion which encourages individual competitiveness and dismissiveness rather than collective dialogue.
- Lack of confidence of women comrades induced by conditions within and without the orgaisation.
- A division of labour which creates a distinction between (mostly male) prucers of theory, and the paractical activists.
- Insufficient action to deal with the problems of child-care.
Reading between the lines it seems clear that the model of organising within Women’s Liberation (non-hierarchical, valuing all contributions and based on small group discussion) had clashed with the male culture within IMG in which it appears that if you hadn’t read every word Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had ever written you were dismissed.
It was agreed that women caucuses encouraged the organisation “to come to grips with the problem of sexism.” These should be timed so as not to clash with other branch activities and open to all women. It was suggested that discussion in the caucuses should include consciousness -raising; problems of the role of women comrades in the leadership; help in integrating new women comrades into the organisation and discussion of recuitment and relationships to women contacts.
The resolution concluded:
Women comrades have an enormous potential contribution to make to the life and politics of the organisation. This potential is still far from being realised, despite certain advances in theory and practice made by the IMG over the past few years. Only the establishment of women’s caucuses wll help to realise this principle. At least, we should free ourselves from all prejudice about this issue, and try to investigate the various positions and options open to the IMG as frankly and as carefully as possible. The aim is not to ghettoise women’s issues and problems but to make them the property of the IMG as a whole, and its concern. Women’s caucuses will help to stimulate a more outgoing approach by women comrades rather than concentration among themselves on informal discussion and unresolved conflicts.
Socialist Woman pamphlets
1. Booklist for Women’s Liberation
2. The Nightcleaners’s Campaign.
3. The Lancaster Cleaners Campaign.
4. Women in Industry. No 1
5. Women workers in Britain: a handbook
6. International Women’s Day by Alexandra Kollontai
I have found some biographical detail on two women involved with Socialist Woman:
Margaret Coulson. She died in 2017 in Australia. This is an obituary written by her friend Margo Gorman.
Leonora Lloyd. She died in 2002. This is her obituary in the Guardian.
Reading Socialist Woman
The Working Class Movement Library in Salford has 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.
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.
Scarlet Women was the newsletter of the socialist feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.
It was set up by a number of socialist women after the 1976 National Women’s Liberation conference and was produced by a collective based in North Shields, Tyneside. There appear to have been 13 issues produced between 1976 and 1981.
In the history of the socialist-feminism current included in issue 4 (July 1977) – which looked back over the last seven years – the SW Collective noted that the Women’s Liberation movement had abandoned a National Co-Ordinating Committee in 1971 because it had degenerated into sectarian squabbling between different left groups.
It left behind a great deal of hostility amongst feminists towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left. Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciouness- raising group was taken to be the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.
In March 1973 women in Birmingham called a conference on “Women’s Liberation and Socialism” which was attended by several hundred women, some in left groups, some not. All agreed in the need to analyse the position of women from a Marxist perspective and most agreed that the existing analysis was inadequate for understanding the specific problems raised by radical feminists in the Women’s Liberation.
This followed by a conference in London in September 1973 on “Autonomy or Separatism”; one in Oxford in March 1974 on “The Four Demands”; one in Birmingham in September 1974 on “Women in the Family”; one in Leeds in November 1974 on “The Working Women’s Charter” and one in London in March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement” which ended in walkouts, confusion and chaos.
According to the SW Collective this occurred because there were now bitter divisions between women who were members of left groups and those who were non-aligned. They identified the divisions as follows:
- Women in left groups believed that conferences should be organised in the traditional structured way and that the socialist current should be more independent of the Women’s Liberation movement in terms of structures, orientation and prgramme. They also felt that socialists should orient themselves towomne in the workplace and their struggles around working conditions, unionisation and wages.
- Non-aligned women felt that Women’s Liberation had much to offer the left in terms of how meetings should be structured and that socialist should not separate themselves from the main movement. They also felt that it was essential to organise around issues relating to women at home and in the community as well as at work.
For the next two years after the last conference in London many socialist-feminists put their energies into the National Abortion Campaign (fighting two attempts in parliament to restrict access to abortion) and the Working Women’s Charter.
The discussion ranged around our experiences as “mindless militants” and the need for combining the development of theory with paractice. Women active in NAC felt particularly the lack of overall theoretical pespective. non-aligned sisters complaine dof their isolation within the Women’s Liberation movement. Sisters from left groups spoke of the need for support in their own struggles with their male comrades. Suggestions that a socialist-feminist conference should be organised were rejected – the memory of London was still too vivid.
What was agreed that a newsletter should be started with the aim of providing a communication network for socialist-feminists and discussing socialsit-feminist theory and practice. Since then the socialist-feminist current has been growing again – groups have started around the country, several regional conferences have been held and a national conference is being planned for later on this year. …We are confident that this time the socialist current in the Women’s Liberation Movement, firmly rooted in both feminism and marxism, will be able to resolve its differences and make an important contribution both to the Women’s Movement and the left in this country.
The newsletter was Scarlet Women. After the 4th issue the first national editorial group meeting took place in Newcastle on 18th March 1978 with women attending from London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lancaster and Manchester. This drew up a statement intended to be a guide for the future direction of the newsletter:
Socialist Feminism is a distinct revolutionary approach, a challenge to the class structure and to patriarchy. By the patriarchy we mean a system in which all women are oppressed, an oppression which is total, affecting all aspects of our lives. Just as class oppression preceded capitalism, do does our oppression. We do not acknowledge that men are oppressed as a sex, although working men, gay men and black men are oppressed as workers, gays and blacks, an oppression shared by gay, black and working women. Sisterhood is our defence against oppression, and as such is part of our revolutionary consciousness.
Socialists sometimes see the struggle as being about a change in the economic structure alone. For us the struggle is about a change in total social relations. We are concerned to develop an understanding of the real relationship between male supremacy and class society. As Socialist Feminists we have to examine socialist feminist thought and seek to develop it. What we are looking is nothing less than a total redefinition of socialist feminist thought and practice. We are working towqrds a socialism which seeks to abolish patriarchy.
We want to publish papers, letters, articles, ideas that can develop the thought and effectiveness of socialist feminism. The debate about the class struggle and relating to left groups can take palce in our pages only if contributions are based on the belief that autonomous struggles have the right to define their own oppression and the struggle against it.
The national editorial group was made up of regional correspondents whose role was to encourage the writing of articles and sending them to the collective in Tyneside. It was agreed that the next editorial meeting would take place about 2 weeks before the issue went to press.
The regional correspondents in 1978 were:
Scotland : Joyce McDonald and Carol Russell
Northern: Anna Briggs
North West: Marti Lauret and Theresa Conway
London: Veronica Hold, Julie Gordon, Daphne Davies, Janet Lievesley, Cherill Hicks.
The remaining issues focused on particular topics:
Issue 6/ 7 April 1978) Reproduction and childbirth
Issue 8 (August 1978) Wages, work and financial independence
issue 9 (Janaury 1978) Fascism and anti-fascism.
Issue 10 (December 1979) Violence against women and Pornography.
Issue 11 (June 1980) The North of Ireland. (This issue was put together by the Belfast Womens’ Collective)
Issue 12. Internationalism : India Iran, Algeria, Chile and Egypt. Black women in Britain.
Issue 13 (in two parts) (May 1981 and July 1981. Sexuality.
Issues 4, 6/7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 are available to read at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. The library would welcome copies of issues 1, 2, 3 and 5 to complete its run.
Finally, I have scanned in below the report from issue 6/7 (April 1978) on the Socialist Feminist conference held earlier that year in Manchester.