One of the most exhilarating and exciting things about the miners’ strike (and there are plenty of those, as well as the holes in it) is the mobilisation of women.
By all accounts, the march and rally of 10,000 women from mining communities all over Britain last Saturday was a most fantastic event.
The women from the miners’ communities have not been confined to passive support, or to servicing the strike—they have been out on the picket lines.
There was, as far as I can remember, none of this in 1972 or 1974. Then the movement for women’s liberation, which flowered in the 1970s, was in its infancy. As that movement grew, so two arguments sprung up on either side of it to blunt its influence and its growth.
The first was that women’s place was in the home, looking after their men.
This argument was not confined to the Daily Mail—it penetrated deep into the working class where solid, socialist men argued that the relationship between men and women in modern society was about right, that there was no oppression in it, and that any concern with women’s liberation was ‘bourgeois deviationism’.
This attitude was quite strong in the National Union of Mineworkers. Arthur Scargill publicly defended the publishing of ‘pin-up’ women in his union journal, and in the process managed to get through a fair amount of sexist drivel.
Arguments like the ones he used in that debate served to separate the struggle for the emancipation of women from the struggle for the emancipation of labour. Indeed they poisoned the labour movement at its very roots, by pretending that anyone can free themselves while they are condoning discrimination against others.
The other argument seemed to be the opposite, but was in fact the reverse side of the same coin. This was that the central problem in society was the liberation of women, that all woes of modern life stemmed from the oppression of women by men, and that therefore the fundamental battle, far more important than any other, was for women to break the masculine chains which bound them.
Obviously, they could only achieve this without men. Obviously, therefore, this cut out any class struggle, since there were even more men at work than there were women. So this argument too served to separate the struggle for women’s liberation from the struggle for workers’ liberation, to set one set of freedom-fighters in bitter battle against the other, and to weaken both.
There was, throughout that time, a third argument. This was that the treatment of women in capitalist society was one of the most powerful indictments of it; that women were, plainly, worse off than men in society, and that this discrimination, whether in the workplace or the home, greatly assisted the class in power.
Discrimination and sexism was widespread, even in the working class movement, and had unconditionally to be resisted.
But the power to change society could not escape its fundamental economics, its class divisions. The power to change was rooted in the ability of workers to take their own decisions about the work they did, and the wealth they produced, and to act together.
It followed from this that the most effective way to change not just wages and conditions, but also discrimination against women, was working class action.
Much of this is being worked out before our eyes. The ‘keep women in the home’ brigade have been out in force, especially among the scabs. They have had a rougher time than ever before.
The ‘ultras’ who believed only in women’s action, and who denounced the miners’ strike as ‘macho’, have been routed. The combination of the power of working class action and the organisation of women who are part of that struggle, has been electric.
It has changed sexism and prejudice everywhere. I haven’t read everything Arthur Scargill said at the women’s rally in Barnsley, but I’m damned sure he didn’t speak up for pin-ups in his union magazine.
(26 May, 1984)