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The fight for women’s freedom 50 years ago

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A landmark conference 50 years ago this month helped to boost struggles for women’s liberation. Sarah Bates looks at its significance and lessons of the movement for today
Issue 2692
Inside the first national Womens Liberation conference in 1970
Inside the first national Women’s Liberation conference in 1970 (Pic: Still from video)

There was a “real buzz of excitement” in London 50 years ago this month, when the first national Women’s Liberation conference was held in Ruskin college, Oxford.

That is how Mary Kennedy, who was involved with the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) at the time, later remembered the event.

“Here came the turning point, and we were all able to speak out,” she said.

The conference brought together hundreds of women—and was a key moment in the struggle for women’s liberation.

Following decades of stultifying oppression, the fact that the meeting took place was significant.

The WLM developed out of struggles by women ­workers demanding equal pay. Radical movements in the 1960s had started to blow apart the repressive world.

The conference took place at a time of rising class struggle and a strong left in Britain.

There was more pressure to take up ideas of women’s liberation in unions and ­workplaces. And more equality legislation was being ­written into law.

The conference was a refreshing break from those who said issues of liberation could be ignored. And it was a leap forward that women organised to demand that they discuss what they wanted to.

Debates about reproductive rights, sexuality, the role of men, working rights and the family thrived.

The conference was a roar of defiance from women who had enough of being dismissed and patronised—including by some on the left and in unions.

The conference was the biggest meeting of its kind up to that point. For many, the experience was thrilling

Ideas of women’s liberation became more widespread.

But as many working class women were involved in struggles alongside working class men, relatively few activists were involved in the WLM itself.

Yet the conference, between 500 and 600 women strong, was the biggest meeting of its kind up to that point. For many, the experience was thrilling.

Historian Catherine Hall said the excitement partly came from starting to see oppression “not as individual issues, but a collective and social issue”.

“That was what was most important,” she said. “The recognition that we shared experiences that had a name.”

The conference was chaotic, as numbers far exceeded expectations.

Author Sheila Rowbotham said, “Everybody arrived with their sleeping bags on Friday night. Which was turmoil.

“And then management managed to extend the conference into the Oxford Union—an extraordinarily stiff environment that was meant to produce male orators who would become prime ministers.”

Socialist Worker reported at the time, “There were members of Women’s Liberation Workshops, trade unions, radical single-issue pressure groups and from many left tendencies, including more than 50 from the IS”, which was the forerunner to the Socialist Workers Party.

“Whatever their disagreements, many agreed on one vital point—that full emancipation of women and the elimination of their oppression could only be achieved by a revolutionary change in society which would give women and men real freedom.”

Yet divisions—over how to organise, campaign priorities and other issues—quickly grew.

Many delegates came from local campaigns or “consciousness raising” groups where they discussed personal experiences of oppression.Organiser Sally Alexander said her workshop group in Oxford often discussed “the fact that women were very low paid”.

“We were expected to become either a nurse or a secretary,” she said. “Most women were cleaners. Women were the poor.”

Women workers fighting for equal pay in Birmingham in 1976
Women workers fighting for equal pay in Birmingham in 1976

Professor Stevi Jackson wrote in 2017, “As feminist activists we encountered disbelief about what are now seen as real problems.”

She said activists were battling “a tendency to see feminism as simply a matter of individual choice and freedom rather than thinking in terms of systematic inequalities.

“What many women were constantly told was that we should know our place and not make a fuss about ‘personal problems’.”

But “make a fuss” they did—often under the banner, “the personal is political”.

The Ruskin conference hoped to move beyond discussing oppression to fighting it collectively.

In a final session called “Where are we going?” delegates agreed four central demands that would come to shape their movement.

These were equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries.

The demands reflected an orientation on the needs of working class women. They focused on real, material changes that would have an impact on women’s lives.

And they were rooted in the idea that liberation wouldn’t be won through personal dedication, but through a united working class fighting together.

Changes were already taking place. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s a host of legislative changes provided formal backing for equality.

The 1967 Abortion Act gave women legal access to abortions, despite some limits.

These struggles shook our rulers and saw women and men fighting together in a battle against the system

And the 1970 Equal Pay Act—although it didn’t come into force until five year later—was a cornerstone in equality legislation.

Both of these important legal rights were fought for by working class women.

Grassroots campaigns had demanded abortion rights. And striking women workers—most famously at Ford Dagenham in 1968—battled for equal pay with men.

Women workers played a hugely significant role in this period of working class struggle.

Around 50 percent of workers were in trade unions in the early 1970s.

Many women worked at least part time while also being primarily responsible for domestic labour and childrearing. And the influence of socialists and trade unions in the WLM was stronger than in its sister movement in the US.

Some had been active in the anti-war, Civil Rights and student movements that exploded in Britain and the US in the late 1960s.

These struggles shook our rulers and saw women and men fighting together in a battle against the system.

This spirit infused discussions at Ruskin. It wasn’t just about demanding legislative change, but bold, radical action.

The following decade saw more militant action against women’s oppression.

There were attempts to organise women workers, such as the campaign to unionise night cleaners in London in the early 1970s.

WLM activists supported and picketed alongside the cleaners, who struck twice over poor working conditions and low pay.

Fighting back today
Fighting back today (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Activists staged audacious actions such as flour bombing the Miss World contests later in 1970 over the sexual objectification of women.

And the following year around 4,000 people took to the streets of London for the first national WLM march.

There were always disagreements in the movement, and by the late 1970s they became insurmountable.

The main division was over what caused oppression and how best to fight it. Some women saw the fight for women’s rights as linked with workers’ struggle.

Others were more influenced by radical feminism, and saw men as the problem. They argued against socialist politics.

The WLM eventually disintegrated, holding its last conference in Britain in 1978.

Some of the more privileged women who had been involved shifted to look at improving their individual lives instead of fighting for wider change. Many others joined the Labour Party.

We have to wage battles in the here and now that improve ordinary people’s lives

Today, the four demands of the conference are as urgent as ever.

Despite half a century of Equal Pay legislation, women are still on average paid 17 ­percent less than men.

Women still don’t have full abortion rights. The right to choose is repeatedly under attack.

And a decade of austerity and 30 years of privatisation and cuts from the Tories and Labour have left many parents struggling without proper childcare.

The challenges for all those fighting for women’s liberation today remain much the same as they were in 1970.

We have to wage battles in the here and now that improve ordinary people’s lives.

But in a system that puts profit before ordinary people, there will always be attempts to roll back every gain we make.

Under capitalism, a system built on division, hierarchy and oppression, women will remain in second place.

So while fighting for reforms we also have to fight to end capitalism and win liberation for everyone.

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