Jean Lane, a Women’s Fightback organiser during the miners’ strike, remembers how Paul Whetton responded to women organising.
The need for the organisation of working class women to change society, became common parlance for men and women throughout the strike, changing forever how many women saw themselves and how men viewed them. Wife into comrade, women changed their role from housekeeper to picket, speaker, traveller, poet.
Paul, from the beginning, was very clear on the importance of the role of Women Against Pit Closures. They were what kept Notts, and arguably the strike itself, going for as long as it did.
Initially the media had hoped to use the “striker’s wife” as a stick to beat the men back to work. It never worked. From the word go, women were the bedrock of support structures in the pit villages: at first to keep the pickets fed, but quickly moving on to picketing themselves. They spread the story of the strike, raised funds and spoke in labour movement meetings all over the UK and abroad.
The involvement of women, on their own terms, led many men to take a hard look at themselves and their attitudes. In one of the oldest male bastions of the labour movement, there were many men who had to be persuaded that the women had the right to take part in the strike. But there were also men for whom this was not a question which needed discussing. And Paul was one of these.
For him the issue was one of working class struggle and solidarity, in which the women were every bit as affected and involved as men; without them, the working class would be fighting with one arm tied behind its back.
Paul never spoke at a meeting without mentioning the crucial role that women played in the miners’ strike. “There’ll be no living with ’em from now on” he said dryly at one meeting. But he would never have even considered living without ’em, not least when the class struggle was at stake. Everyone he met was “comrade”, whether man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, so long as they were on the right side in the struggle.
Paul was a rare, lovely man with a wry sense of humour and an unshakeable belief in his class. He hardly ever talked about himself. But if you could once get him started, donkeys’ legs were not safe. He sat in our living room one night with a six pack of beer on the floor in front of him. As the cans disappeared one by one, he gradually unveiled his experiences of starting down the pit at the age of 15.
He told us of his fierce affection for a donkey, Ginger, who had started at the pit at the same time as he did. And how he felt watching Ginger going blind and eventually dying without ever seeing the light of day again. His compassion towards Ginger mirrored Paul’s staunch allegiance to the workers who toiled under awful conditions below ground and their courageous battle to save their communities against Thatcher’s union-busting onslaught.