Strength and audacity we have never before known

Submitted by SJW on 10 March, 2020 - 4:45 Author: Jill Mountford

“…the Ford women have definitely shaken the women of the country.” (Rose Boland, one of the leading women in the Equal Pay Strike at Ford Dagenham,1968)

“We have achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years.” (Mary Denness, one of ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’ who changed health and safety laws for fishermen working on the trawler ships, Hull, 1968 )

“It felt like the culmination of something. It didn’t feel like the absolute beginning.” (Sally Alexander, in an interview 20 years on from the first Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970. Sally was one the two main organisers of the conference, a trade unionist at the time studying at Ruskin College, Oxford).

A movement is born

Sally Alexander is right, the first women’s liberation conference, as Sheila Rowbotham claims, is the moment when ‘a movement could be said to exist’ but it wasn’t the beginning. Much had happened in the 1960s - a time of rapid cultural, social and (to a lesser extent) political change - to make this conference the next logical step in the battle for women’s equality and liberation.

The organisers were hoping for 100 or so women to take part but, all in all, 500 people attended the conference. At the end of a weekend of discussion and debate, four fundamental demands were formulated for the new Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM): equal pay; equal education and opportunity; 24 hour nurseries and free contraception and abortion on demand. These summed up what the participants considered to be the essential foundation for women’s liberation.

Sheila Rowbotham wrote in Women’s Resistance and Revolution (1972), "women’s liberation brings to all of us a strength and audacity we have never before known." This was expressed in many ways but most powerfully in the struggles led by working class women during this period.

Working class women fighting back

The 1970 conference was inspired by the Ford Dagenham machinist’s strike for equal pay in 1968. Following three weeks of striking the women won a significant pay rise, though not (yet) equal pay. The strike helped set in motion the 1970 Equal Pay Act (as did Britain’s obligations after joining the European Economic Community and the necessary condition of equal pay in the Treaty of Rome article 24).

Another group of working class women in Hull, wives and girlfriends of trawler men, organised an incredible campaign for better health and safety for the fishermen after three trawler boat tragedies in early 1968. These women were tagged the ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’ after they set up the Hessle Road Women’s Committee and drafted a health and safety ‘Fishermen’s Charter’. In less than two weeks they gathered 10,000 signatures.

Big Lil Bilocca led the campaign in the face of sexist abuse, harassment and even death threats. She lost her job and was blacklisted. But she didn't waiver. She spent many freezing cold hours on the dock checking the ships for health safety before they left for sea and was known to throw herself on the deck of ships that failed to comply with the Fishermen’s Charter. Big Lil threatened “If I don't get satisfaction I'll be at that [Harold] Wilson's private house, until I do get satisfaction in some shape or form.” Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister, eventually met with Big Lil and agreed to all of the charter’s demands. The Hessle Road Women’s Action Committee made national headlines, even, for a short period, knocking the Vietnam War off the front pages.

Rowbotham describes how small women's groups and action committees like this "mushroomed" following the first women's equality demonstration on International Women's Day in 1971. The WLM was started by and remained dominated by socialist feminists; women who were part of the labour movement, even when critical of its failings.

The Night Cleaners

May Hobbs, a working class feminist and trade unionist, cleaned offices for a living and set up the Cleaners Action Group with the goal of unionising night cleaners - low paid, precarious workers. She approached other women to help, such as the Dalston women’s liberation workshop and before long Sheila Rowbotham and Sally Alexander were among her recruits. The campaign ran from 1970 to 1973. It was something socialist feminists were directly involved in and, as Rowbotham says, it was "part of a wider attempt to foreground women workers and challenge trade union complacency about women’s subordination". In less than 2 years the Cleaners Action Committee had unionised more than 75% of the women cleaners, but the T&GWU officials remained indifferent and elusive. The indifference and dismissiveness shown by the trade union bureaucracy to this struggle (sadly, something all too familiar today) meant that a number of women involved turned away from class politics and the labour movement.

The Trico strike

The 1976 Trico strike is all too often forgotten about, overshadowed by the mammoth battle of Grunwick which started three months later in the same year. It was a battle for equal pay and a test for the new law passed in 1970 but not enforced until 1975, which had given employers 5 years to find ways round the law. Trico bosses thought they’d cracked it after implementing a segregated workforce, with men on the night shift and women on the day shift doing the same job for rates of pay. When five men joined the day shift and four hundred women discovered the injustice the battle began. After 21 weeks of strike action, the women won, despite their bosses taking the dispute to tribunal. The women and their union decided to ignore the tribunal, instead organising round-the-clock picket lines.

The strikers could see that they were part of a broader movement, a bigger struggle. One woman striker said, ‘We’re carrying the rod for all women, let’s see it through to the end… A victory for us will be a victory for all women – so we have to win’. In one of the strike bulletins, they argued ‘We are tired of hearing that, if they have to pay women more, they will have to lay men off. ‘YOU CAN’T DIVIDE AND RULE US!’ and, ‘We shall say to the world—“OUR MOVEMENT WON FOR US THESE RIGHTS AND NOBODY WILL TAKE THEM AWAY FROM US—UNITED, WE WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED”’.

It is worth taking stock of what we have lost over the past four decades. This 21 week dispute was started by a show of hands. The women were uninhibited by postal ballots, thresholds, or restrictions on the number of pickets. This alone does not, of course, explain the strike's success and significance, but it does show us how we are fighting today with one hand tied behind our back.

The Grunwick dispute

In the summer of 1976, the Grunwick strike began. Many of the strikers had recently arrived from Uganda following a purge of its Asian minority. It was widely assumed that they would be compliant and desperate workers, house-trained to work in poor conditions for bad pay. Nothing was further from the truth.

Led with immense determination and dignity by Jayaben Desai this dispute lasted 2 years. Peaking in the summer of 1977 with a picket line of 20,000, the dispute was ultimately lost after their union and the TUC withdrew support. It was a pivotal moment for the labour movement, which demonstrated to trade union bureaucrats and employers alike that the militancy of the early seventies could be suffocated, and no doubt gave great inspiration to the Tory Ridley Report team, who were already drawing up plans to destroy the miners' union. The Grunwick dispute ended just weeks after the last ever WLM conference in June 1978.

A movement in decline

There were eight annual WLM conferences in total, with the last conference having 3,000 women taking part. As with any mass political movement there were conflicts, arguments and debates, discord and sectarianism. At the second conference in 1971 some Maoist men and women tried to take over the Women’s National Coordinating Committee, which had been set up at the 1970 conference to coordinate things in-between conferences. Socialist feminists and radical feminists united against this sectarianism, and the WNCC was abandoned in favour of a structureless, leaderless movement.

The unity between those two strands of feminism did not last long. Soon a third strand, revolutionary feminism raised its voice, asserting that capitalism was not the enemy, rather men where. At a revolutionary feminists conference in 1977 it was agreed that “Male supremacy is the system by which men as a class oppress women as a class". The 1978 WLM conference ended in complete disarray. The socialist feminists organising the event were accused of purposefully leaving a revolutionary feminist proposal off the agenda, which called for the abolition of the now six demands passed at the '70, ’74 and ’77 conferences, arguing it was "absurd to demand anything from a patriarchal state - from men - who are the enemy".

The plenary descended into further bitter rows when revolutionary feminists wanted to amend demand number 6 (an end to discrimination against lesbians and the right to a self-defined sexuality) by paring down the demand to ‘an end to discrimination against lesbians’ and making the right to a self-defined sexuality just part of the general statement. Accounts of the conference report cacophonies of insults, slow-hand clapping, the closing down of microphones and a group of revolutionary feminists congregating in the middle of the hall during the discussions to sing their ‘war’ songs.

In the aftermath Spare Rib argued, "we need more time together… In order to grow, we need to keep on exchanging feminist ideas." Other socialist feminist press, such as WIRES, were far more reluctant and pessimistic. One activist involved in Scarlet Women editorial board argued in 1979, "Caught up in a great amount of work we had little time to think about or develop theory about what we were doing".

In less than a year Britain would elect its first woman prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She and her government would spend the next decade attacking every concession our class, women and men, had fought for and won. The women’s movement was not dead though, Greenham women and, more importantly, Women Against Pit Closures were part of a new generation of women that were creative, courageous, determined fighters.

The legacy of second wave feminism, despite all the schisms and differences that developed, had a huge impact on the lives of women everywhere. It is now commonly accepted that men and women are equal; that women should receive the same pay as men for the same work; women should have the same educational opportunities; violence against women is unacceptable; women should have control over our bodies and reproductive rights; and that people can self-define their sexuality (though less so their gender - a battle being fought now). These are widely accepted as our rights but remain some way off in reality. Moreover, the progress we have made is very much under threat with the growth of the populist right.

As always, in times of economic crisis it is working class women who suffer the most from cuts in pay, jobs, and welfare. Our history, both first and second wave feminism, informs us that working class women, socialist feminists can organise and fightback, we can develop our ideas, take up the arguments and we can win.

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