Socialist Worker

The struggles and retreats of the 1980s

In the second column in our series on women’s liberation, Judith Orr looks at problems that hit the women’s movement

Issue No. 2092

Protesting at Greenham Common airbase

Protesting at Greenham Common airbase


By the late 1970s the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was in decline on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain there was a growing rift between those who saw the struggle for women’s rights as linked with that of the working class, and those who were more influenced by radical feminism, and in particular the theory of patriarchy.

In essence this theory declared that the root cause of women’s oppression was male power. Soon patriarchy became the dominant theoretical explanation of women’s oppression.

It was widely accepted that all men benefited from women’s oppression, and that therefore all men had an interest in maintaining it.

By the time of the WLM conference of 1978 the political divisions in the movement had become insurmountable. It was to be the last such conference to be held in Britain.

When the left started to be characterised as “inherently macho” it signalled just how far the rightward drift had gone.

Beyond the Fragments, an influential book by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, was published in 1979. It was an outright attack on the left that claimed Leninist politics was oppressive to women.

Radical feminists argued that socialist politics were not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

Even working class struggle and trade unions were increasingly dismissed in this manner.

This disintegration of the WLM led some women – usually the most privileged – to look to individual solutions.

These were women who could pursue careers in the City and big corporations while employing nannies and cleaners to carry the burden of housework.

The image of a businesswoman in shoulder pads and high heels became a 1980s cliché. But the success of the few women who broke through the “glass ceiling” did nothing to advance the position of the majority of women.

For others, the Greenham Common peace camp in the early 1980s provided a model. This was a women-only protest against US nuclear missiles in Britain.

Greenham Common came to embody the radical feminist view that men were biologically driven to be aggressors while women were naturally peacemakers. Yet Margaret Thatcher’s warmongering was proof that women are not naturally non-violent.

Many women found a new political home in what seemed an unlikely place – the Labour Party.

Labour was dominated by men and bureaucratic, but it provided an alternative to a layer of political activists – women and men – who were giving up on class struggle as a way forward.

Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election convinced many activists that the left had to take over the Labour Party and transform it from the inside.

Labour-controlled local authorities became key battlegrounds. Many of them established women’s committees, reflecting the new influence of feminism on the party.

The pinnacle of these was the Greater London Council’s women’s committee, which controlled a budget of £8 million. But this top-down approach was a far cry from the struggles of the 1960s.

The trajectory away from class politics was briefly stopped in its tracks by the great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

Despite the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers was a male-dominated union, the common interest of working men and women was clear for all to see.

Miners’ wives and other women in mining communities threw themselves into the struggle. Many went from making the tea and kitchen duties to mass picketing and travelling all over the country to win solidarity. A layer of feminists was inspired by their magnificent fight and got involved.

But this spark of renewed interest in working class struggle turned out to be short lived.

In the end many of those who had been at the forefront of the WLM ended up playing the system rather than trying to smash it.

These are the women who are the cabinet ministers, lawyers and managers of today.

They have benefited from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that put equal opportunities on the agenda. But their lives have little in common with those of the mass of ordinary women.

The battle to win real women’s liberation is still to be won. We face pay inequality, attacks on abortion rights, welfare cuts and a massive rise in sexism in popular culture.

Next week I will look at how a new generation is now stepping up to take the struggle for women’s rights forward.


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