Socialist Worker

Three generations of women celebrate the gains in the fight for liberation

Women from three different generations spoke to Siân Ruddick about their lives and what liberation means to them.

Issue No. 2141

Young women have been at the forefront of the anti-war movement in Britain (Pic: Angela Stapleford)

Young women have been at the forefront of the anti-war movement in Britain (Pic: Angela Stapleford)

Women around the world will be celebrating the gains that they have fought for and won on International Women’s Day this Sunday 8 March.

Yet many will be well aware that the fight for liberation continues.

The lives of women in Britain have changed dramatically over the past few decades.

The beginning of the Second World War in 1939 brought thousands of women into the workplace to replace the men who were called up to the army.

This transformed the way that women working outside the home were viewed.

Following the war, women entered the workplace and the education system in increasing numbers, and raised demands for equal opportunities and sexual liberation.

The rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s saw feminists, socialists, students and workers organise campaigns for things like equal pay and abortion rights.

These fights continue today. And women have been a vital part of other campaigns that go beyond the issues of women’s rights.

The anti-war movement brought thousands of women from all backgrounds onto the streets to say no to imperialism and war.

Tony Blair and George Bush used the rhetoric of women’s liberation as a reason to wage war on Afghanistan.

But the anti-war movement has argued against this justification for slaughter. Women know that the same people who decry women’s oppression abroad have attacked women’s rights at home.

To mark International Women’s Day, women from three different generations spoke to Siân Ruddick about their lives and what liberation means to them.

‘In lots of homes the husband had control’

Beatrice Johnstone is 80 years old. She migrated from Coatbridge in Scotland to Corby, Northamptonshire at the age of eight

‘In working class families in Scotland, it was the done thing that women worked. My mother worked in the steel works after she left school.

There was a lot of discrimination against Catholics by employers at the time. She found that the main barrier to work, not her gender.

I lived at home until I was married at 20. That’s something that has only changed quite recently.

I worked in an office before and after I was married and my sister was the same. When you left school you got a job and enjoyed life.

There wasn’t much talk of going into further education, but it was the same for the lads too. We had to work.

When I was married I think the way we organised finances in our home was an exception. We made joint decisions, my husband and me. That was the way my mother was too.

But in lots of homes the husband had total control.

Even when women worked, the day-to-day running of the house was left to them. My mother didn’t work once she was married – she ran the house.

When we moved to England in 1936 my gran and aunt came with us, and we lived together. Women in my family worked or had worked throughout their lives.

In 1939 war was declared. I think this changed women’s lives quite dramatically. As the men were called up and sent off to fight, women had to fill in for them.

My aunt became a crane driver. Women did heavy industrial work and operated machines.

When the men returned, women didn’t just go back to the usual jobs, they continued to work in factories.

I can see the ways our lives have changed. From my mother’s generation to mine the changes were significant. We had more freedom and choice. We would dance and go out before and after we got married.

Women now are doing well I think. They have access to all sorts of jobs and can go to university. But there are still pressures, such as juggling work and family.

I still think it’s nice for children if mothers stay at home, but I know lots of people don’t agree with me.

But at least the choice is there. At one time if women were teachers before they got married they couldn’t return to those jobs afterwards.

Its good that things like that don’t happen so much anymore.’

‘It’s encouraging to see so many people protesting’

Helen Blair is a secondary school teacher in Glasgow and has three daughters. Helen was active in the women’s liberation movement and is an active socialist and anti-war activist

‘I do think lots of progress has been made in terms of women’s lives, but we’re not all the way there yet.

I look at my daughters and in some ways I do have more hopes for them than my parents had for me. They’ve been pushed to achieve in education, which wasn’t common when I was younger.

But when I was a student in the 1970s, you didn’t leave with all the debt. My middle daughter will be leaving university about £20,000 in debt to the student loan company.

Now with the recession they’ll find it harder to get jobs and clear their debts.

I was involved in women’s liberation activity and its interesting to see how the achievements of that movement are being reclaimed by the establishment to try and tell us women have it all now.

Legislation, like the Equal Pay Act, came about because of pressure from our movement. This legislation gives the impression of equality but it is a false impression.

At Glasgow council, women are still fighting for equal pay. In August last year there was a strike by council workers. At our school this meant some of the lowest paid women workers going on strike – office staff, dinner ladies and cleaners all going out together.

And yet the headteacher at our school is one of the highest paid women in the council.

In the 1970s there were arguments about gender and class between socialists and feminists.

As socialists we saw class as being the biggest divide. We had to fight for an analysis that said that all women don’t share the same interests.

Some women have benefited from changes in society. But the majority are still fighting their corner.

But it’s really encouraging to see so many young people, men and women, fighting and protesting.

My daughters have been involved in campaigns for Gaza, against military recruitment in schools, and are confident about expressing their point of view.

Seeing the anti-war demos full of young and angry Muslim women is impressive. It mirrors the process that I and lots of other women went through in breaking through the male-dominated nature of politics.

Figures of authority can’t stop people from trying to understand the world.’

‘We don’t need fake, airbrushed media images’

Estelle Cooch is a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) and has been involved in pro-choice campaigns and the recent protests at Miss University beauty contests. She was central to the LSE occupation for Gaza

‘I think the women’s liberation movement has meant that people take it for granted that women and men should have equal pay and equal opportunities, but often the reality is very different.

This is particularly obvious around things like welfare issues and abortion rights.

The Miss University beauty contests, that held competitions in each college, were part of the rebirth of the objectification of women.

Our campaign against Miss University brought together feminists, socialists and anti-war activists.

We had Afghan women involved who linked imperialism and women’s oppression. It is a common argument now that women can’t reach liberation when they’re being bombed.

Palestinian women were a leading part of the resistance against Zionism and war. We have many more inspiring and powerful images of women to aspire to, we don’t need the fake, airbrushed images fed to us by the media.

There is an argument that says that if both men and women are objectified then it makes it equal.

People who disagree with us try to say we’re prudes because we don’t find it liberating to have women depicted as sex objects and pole dancers being leered at by men, so there’s still a fight on.

The recession is going to have a big impact on women. The business society at LSE has started to claim that men have always held high-powered jobs, and in times of plenty women could have these jobs but now men should have priority again.

Employers will use excuses such as childcare and maternity leave to exclude women from the workplace as the recession starts to bite.

At LSE, the nursery was one of the first things that came under attack. They wanted to close it down to save money.

A campaign beat them back but it’s a sign of things to come. The erosion of crucial services will have a massive impact on working class women, particularly single mothers.

We have to widen our resistance. It has to include both men and women and continue to raise questions about equality and class.’

Estelle Cooch and Beatrice Johnstone

Estelle Cooch and Beatrice Johnstone

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Article information

Tue 3 Mar 2009, 18:33 GMT
Issue No. 2141
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