Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

11. The women’s movement in Britain



It is worth comparing the general social and political conditions against whose background the women’s movements of Britain and the USA grew, for these affected the differences and similarities between the two movements. This is particularly true where working-class women were concerned.

In Britain the trade unions, with more than half the working population in membership in 1978 (55 per cent) [1], are far stronger than those in the United States, where only one worker in five is a trade unionist (19 per cent). This difference applies even more among women workers, where 36.7 per cent are union members in Britain (1974) compared with only 11.6 per cent in the US (1978).

In the political field the differences between the US and Britain are even greater. In Britain there is a Labour Party with a mass vote among the working class, while in the US there are only openly bourgeois democratic parties. The revolutionary socialist organisations are also stronger in Britain, with greater influence in the working class.

Although there has never been a fusion of the women’s and trade union movements in Britain, there have been a few noteworthy common actions.



The struggle for equal pay

Equal pay was an important issue in the 1960s. By 1962, according to a TUC survey, 19 trade unions, representing 200,000 women, had equal pay agreements with employers. Thirty unions did not. Many unions were pushing not only for equal pay but for maternity leave, equal job opportunities and equal terms and conditions of work. In 1963 the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution calling on the next Labour government – which was in fact to take office the following year – to make equal pay a requirement in law. The Women’s Advisory Committee of the TUC followed this with an Industrial Charter for Women, demanding equal pay, equal opportunities for training, re-training facilities for women returning to industry, and special provisions for the health and welfare of women at work. They had very little immediate success.

But towards the end of the 1960s there was a general struggle for increased wages throughout the trade union movement. The demand for equal pay became one aspect of this. A crucial strike took place in 1968 by sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant, followed by those in the company’s Halewood plant on Merseyside. The women organised their own strike committee and brought Ford to a standstill. Their victory raised their pay to 92 per cent of the men’s rates, although they failed to raise their grading from “unskilled”.

The strike by the women at Ford inspired many other women workers. Out of it arose the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACWER), which adopted a five-point charter and called on the TUC to lead a campaign for equal pay and opportunity. [2] In May 1969 the campaign organised an equal pay demonstration which was supported by women trade unionists from all over the country.

Trade unions now made promises that they would fight for equal pay as part of their recruitment campaigns, and women streamed in as new members. In the ten years 1968-78, the women membership of the public employees’ union (NUPE) more than trebled, that of the local government officers’ union NALGO more than doubled, that of the health service union COHSE quadrupled and the white-collar workers union ASTMS multiplied its women membership by seven times. [3]

1970-74 were years of mass working-class struggle, including two national miners’ strikes, a national dockers’ strike when five dockers – the “Pentonville Five” – were jailed for picketing, and more than 200 factory occupations. These years also saw an impressive array of women’s strikes. In 1970 London night cleaners fought for union recognition. The same year 20,000 Leeds clothing workers (85 per cent of them women) went on strike. Flying pickets closed clothing factories further afield in Yorkshire. Tens of thousands of teachers, three-quarters of them women, were also on strike over pay for the first time in half a century. 1971 saw a London telephonists’ pay dispute, while at Brannan’s, a small thermometer factory in Cumberland, women struck to defend trade union organisation. In 1972 women joined the occupations of Fisher-Bendix on Merseyside and Briant Colour Printing in London. The same year women at Goodman’s, part of Thorn Electrical Industries, successfully struck for equal pay. In 1973 hundreds of thousands of hospital workers (the majority women) went on their first ever national strike. In the same year two hundred women in GEC, Coventry, struck for eight weeks over piece rates. Asian women at Mansfield Hosiery Mills struck over racial discrimination, and there was a national NALGO strike – mainly of women. There were many other women’s strikes in this period of mass upsurge.

Parallel with this, there was progress in the women’s movement. The groups which started in 1969 mushroomed. The first organisation to be set up was the London Women’s Liberation Workshop, which followed the American example in being a network of small groups with information services. It stated:

the men lead and dominate, the women follow and submit. We close our meetings to men to break through this pattern, to establish our own leaderless groups and to meet each other over our common experience as women ... For this reason, groups small enough for all to take part in discussion and decisions are the basic units of our movement ... to further our part in the struggle for social change and transformation of society. [4]

A different group produced the women’s liberation magazine Shrew each month.

A few months later, in February 1970, the first National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Ruskin College, Oxford. Nearly 600 women turned up, mostly from the new women’s liberation groups, some from NJACWER and some from Maoist and Trotskyist groups. [5] The conference adopted a structure of small women’s groups based on localities, loosely co-ordinated through national meetings to which each group could send two delegates. The conference also set up a Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee.

In November 1970 about a hundred feminists disrupted the Miss World Competition.

On 6 March 1971 International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in London and Liverpool. The demonstrators carried on their banners four basic demands (worked out by the Women s National Co-ordinating Committee): for equal pay now, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries. [6] The four demands clearly identified the aim of the women’s movement as being to bring changes in the real world. They were political demands in that they were demands on the state, and they well suited the needs of working-class women.



Away from the labour movement

Unfortunately a number of factors pushed the growing women’s movement away from the working class. The first was its middle-class composition. Sheila Rowbotham identified the social composition in 1979: “Women’s liberation has mobilised mainly women from a particular strata, teachers, social workers, librarians, journalists or clerical workers, as well as women working in the family.” [7]

This needs to be qualified: not all clerical workers, but only the upper ranks; not all housewives, but only those who could afford to indulge in changing their lifestyle. Sheila Rowbotham notes this phenomenon: “Feminist politics can become preoccupied with living a liberated life rather than becoming a movement for the liberation of women.” [8] A feminist who had worked in a factory with other women commented:

Experimenting with more “open” relationships, or even trying to live communally takes up a lot of time, energy and discussion which simply are not at the disposal of women factory workers ... other people’s more exotic lives are not a possibility for them.

Home and marriage was the most important thing for the women working on the line ... For a start, you are so tired out by work and have so little time that you need to have a stable routine and reliable domestic set-up ... [9]

Of course one may argue, and socialists should argue, that the values held by these working-class women – an acceptance of the traditional picture of home and family – are the wrong ones. It is still clear, however, that working-class women cannot come to terms with feminism. Working-class women do not have the time for “consciousness-raising”.

For most the only relaxation was watching telly and going out on Saturday night. Those with young children got up between five and six and went to bed at 9.30. After 10 was considered late – an early night meant seven or eight p.m. [10]

How far working-class women were out of place in the women’s liberation movement is illustrated by the following letter to Spare Rib headed Intellectual Snobbery, by a working-class woman, Margaret King:

I agree very much with the letter about intellectual snobbery shown by many women in the movement ... I will not join women’s liberation groups any more because of this ... The last time I went to join a consciousness-raising group I was the only woman there who had started work straight from school, instead of going on to higher education. This made me feel inferior, which, as women of all people should understand, put me on the defensive. My reaction to this led one member to suggest that I contact a Women’s Therapy Group! I left the meeting feeling really depressed, and determined never again to expose myself to such an experience from my so-called “sisters”. [11]

A measure of how the women’s movement distanced itself from the working class is the changes in its platform of demands. As we have seen, the original 1971 demands (equal pay now, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand and free 24-hour nurseries) suited the needs of working-class women. In 1975, two new demands were added: “Financial and legal independence” and “an end to all discrimination against lesbians and a woman’s right to define her own sexuality”. In 1978, at the last National Women’s Conference, the following demand was added: “Freedom from intimidation by threat or use of violence or sexual coercion, regardless of marital status; and an end to all laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.” The original four demands were clear, aimed at changes in the real world and directed towards the state; the added ones largely related to “attitudes” and “assumptions”, to “personal politics”.

The year 1974 was the peak of class struggle in Britain. That year a national strike by the miners forced the Tory government to call a general election, which it lost. The new Labour government, aided by the trade union leaders, quickly cooled down the working-class movement – including the militancy among women workers for equal pay and equal opportunity. But the arrival of a Labour government did not affect the growing economic crisis: inflation hit hardest for the lowest-paid (usually women) and rising unemployment saw the end of work for thousands of part-time workers (again usually women).

It was above all this general downturn which brought the inherent weakness in the women’s movement to the fore. Until the mid-1970s it was possible to say that the women’s movement had three strands. At one extreme were the radical feminists, for whom men were “the enemy”. They were marginal, and their only practical option was to withdraw to build communes in Wales. At the other extreme were those bent simply on revising the present structures of society to make more space for women, the reformists and the career women.

In the middle were women who marched against the Vietnam War, and for the right to abortion, who probably supported the miners in their strike against the Tories, and who opposed sexism at work and in the media. They could loosely be called “socialist feminists”. “Equality” was for most of them a revolutionary demand – even if they did not always see it that way – since it was clear that the system could not accommodate such equality without drastic and fundamental change.

That “socialist” strand of the women’s movement has faded away as the downturn has deepened. We are left with the two extremes. The decline in the women’s movement led it to turn away from the struggle of women in the workplaces and towards “personal politics” and “women against violence”. This decline was itself accelerated by divisions inside the movement which were largely responses to the worsening situation in the real world. It was not until this later period that the radical feminists’ “theory of patriarchy” elbowed aside ideas of class – and the “feminist struggle” in the Labour Party is also a phenomenon of this later period.




As in the United States, the structurelessness of the British women’s movement accelerated its disintegration. After a couple of years, three of the founding members of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop went to India to sit at the feet of Bhagwan Shree Raineesh. Another four went back to America. Spare Rib describes the demoralisation:

Our spirits sagged, and for weeks turning to months meetings were irregular, people coming late or never, and it was less than ever possible to redeem our lost group-confidence by organising energetic political pursuits when nobody was around anyway and whoever was felt despair at the desertions ... In 1973 or 74 we started to meet about every two weeks for dinner in each other’s houses. We were no longer politically active as a group ... What we could provide for each other was a crucial network of affection and support. [12]

The same story is told by Lynne Segal, one of the authors of Beyond the Fragments, concerning the Essex Road Women’s Centre in Islington, North London, which was opened in August 1972. This did not look towards women workers. In fact Lynne Segal commented: “Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved.” [13] The Centre oriented on the most marginal, oppressed, insecure people: “prisoners, the homeless, claimants, etc. ... But misery does not always equal militancy, and those most oppressed are sometimes so smashed that it’s hard for them to fight back at all.” [14] The result of all the effort was therefore practically nothing. The Centre opened for two nights a week, and its adherents usually drifted off after about a year. [15]

A loose network of small groups does not aid the transfer of experience or continuity. Hence when a new Centre rose from the ashes of the old, Lynne Segal could comment: “It is as though things are all starting again from scratch and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned.” [16]

Lynne Segal drew further conclusions from the structurelessness of the women’s movement, after years of “panegyrics to participatory democracy” as an alternative to the supposed hierarchies of Leninism: “I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat ‘leaderism’ within the small group, and interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms, rather than as political manifestations.” [17] In similar vein Sheila Rowbotham writes:

The problems about participatory democracy are evident. If you are not able to be present you can’t participate. Whoever turns up next time can reverse the previous decision. If very few people turn up they are lumbered with the responsibility. It is a very open situation and anyone with a gift for either emotional blackmail or a conviction of the need to intervene can do so without being checked by any accepted procedure. [18]

Composed of middle-class women organised in unstructured groups open to arbitrary elites, the women’s liberation movement was ripe for the activities of different sectarian groups. In 1868 Marx characterised a sect thus: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.” [19] 1871 he added: “The development of the system of Socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in reverse ratio to each other.” [20]

As early as 1971 the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee was dissolved because “its meetings had become a sectarian battleground.” [21] The admission of men was an early casualty of the battle. Men were allowed into the first two national conferences of the Women’s Liberation Movement but subsequently excluded, after a wrangle between two women over the microphone when the husband of one rushed to her aid. Men were also excluded from the London Liberation Workshop.

The British movement, like the American, was torn by a lesbian/straight feminist conflict. In April 1974 the first conference of lesbian feminists, 300 strong, declared lesbian politics to be central to feminism. [22] In September 1979 the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group issued a statement entitled: Political Lesbianism: The Case Against Heterosexuality. It declared:

We do not think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians ... Penetration is an act of great symbolic significance by which the oppressor enters the body of the oppressed. But it is more than a symbol, its function and effect is the punishment and control of women ... Giving up fucking for a feminist is about taking your politics seriously. Women who are socialists ... will resist buying Cape apples because the profits go to South Africa. Obviously it is more difficult for some feminists to give up penetration ... [23]

Another statement by the same group says that “heterosexuality ... has been created, maintained and enforced upon women by men, for their purposes, one of which is to oppress all women, everywhere, of whatever description.” [24]

The lesbian feminists drove many heterosexuals away from the women s movement. Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell describe how many women

felt they couldn’t participate in the politics of the women’s liberation movement, where the dominant question was whether one was for or against heterosexuality . There were ritual rows at one national conference after another, until the last one in Birmingham in 1978 – when the split was so bitter and painful that no one was prepared to organise another such gathering. [25]

One of the victims of the lesbian feminist offensive has been Spare Rib, the movement’s only surviving journal. [26] At its beginning Spare Rib devoted much space to news and features relating to the work experience of working-class women. For instance, a five-page special feature was given over to descriptions by women strikers at SEI in Heywood, who were out for eleven weeks in the winter of 1975 for equal pay. A picture of one of the pickets appeared on the cover. After 1976, however, industrial issues practically disappeared. Instead, Spare Rib reflected all the problems within the women’s liberation movement: the love-hate relationship with the “male-dominated” labour movement; the quest for a “feminist lifestyle”; finding niches of women’s liberation within the prevailing social and political system.

The lesbian/straight split tore the editorial board of Spare Rib apart. An editorial in September 1980 admitted: “It has been difficult to produce work and get along in a sisterly spirit. The seriousness of it all made us decide to hold a series of special meetings, with a group counsellor, to help us son out structural and personal problems.” In a letter of resignation, Amanda Sebastyen, one of six who resigned from the editorial collective, stated: “I was the sucker who said we should call in a counsellor – it’s taken me six months of rage, misery and boredom to make me see I was wasting our time.” [27] Spare Rib, especially in its letter pages, became a battleground between lesbian and heterosexual feminists. [28] The collective has since split further. Black women have attacked white women. Arab women have attacked Jewish women. The magazine argued for months about the racism of white women, then produced a special “black issue”, followed by a four-month row about whether this was tokenism.

Another sect was the Wages for Housework Campaign. At the National Women’s Conference in Manchester in March 1972, Selma James read a paper entitled Women, the Unions and Work. It declared as a central task “the struggle of the woman of the working class against the union [because] like the family, it protectsthe class’ at her expense.” [29]

The four demands of the women’s liberation movement (equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24-hour child care and free contraception and abortion on demand), Selma James argued, should be replaced by six different demands, the first two being:

  1. We demand the right to work less.
  2. We demand a guaranteed income for women and for men, working or not working, married or not ... we demand wages for housework. All housekeepers are entitled to wages (men too).

Women at home, stated a pamphlet by Mariarosa Costa and Selma James in 1972, are producing, and hence are potentially “social power. If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.” [30]

Hence we must refuse housework as women’s work ... We must get out of the house ... to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether that ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or a slum. [31]

The minimum demand for a housewife’s wage, she says, should be equal to the average wage in society.

So housewives, isolated from each other by the four walls of their homes, with young children and perhaps older parents to look after, and carrying an even greater burden in caring for the young, the old and the sick as the state cuts back social services and the health service – housewives will suddenly organise and seize wages for housework! And this when women who are organised, in trade unions, have not yet achieved equal pay, and find it ever more difficult to defend the social benefits they have got.

Many women in the women s liberation movement have consistently focussed on the areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the areas of struggle where women are more likely to win the support of men – such as opposition to the cuts in hospitals and schools, the right to abortion, and battles at work for equal pay or the right to join a trade union. Such women see themselves and others as victims of male supremacy, not as fighting members of the working class. Instead of concentrating on where women are strongest – where they are organised in the unions and in their workplaces – the women’s liberation movement has come to concentrate on where women are weakest.

The first refuge for battered women was set up by Erin Pizzey in Chiswick in 1972. By 1980 there were 200 refuges, set up by feminists or by social workers not associated with women’s liberation. National conferences were held in 1974 and 1975, the latter drawing representatives from 28 established and 83 potential refuges. [32]

The first rape centre was opened in North London in March 1976. Five years later there were sixteen similar centres in cities throughout Britain. Demonstrations to “reclaim the night” took place in London, Leeds, Manchester, York, starting on 12 November 1977. Hundreds took part, singing and slapping stickers on windows of porn shops and strip joints. [33]

There is also a network of other centres: women’s aid and women’s study centres, women’s collectives for writing and publishing, health, psychiatry, legal advice, child care, carpentry. To their participants these make up a “complete alternative feminist culture”.

For socialists refuges for battered women and their children are an important social service, which needs to be defended like hospitals or schools. But in no way can they be seen as more than palliatives, of marginal impact on the human wreckage caused by capitalism.



On different rails ...

While the women s movement has become more and more passive and powerless, engrossed in internal squabbles and splits, the women in the trade unions have not been inactive. We have told of the establishment in 1969 of the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACWER), with its four-point charter, also the mass movement of women into the unions and the exciting struggles of women in the years 1968-74.

The strikes involving women after 1974 were usually tough to carry through. A number went on for long periods: Trico, Grunwicks, Chix, Lee Jeans, the Liverpool typists, to mention but a few. On 22 January 1979, 80,000 workers, the majority women, came out on a demonstration in support of a National Day of Action for the low-paid, and shortly afterwards the unions in the public sector launched a programme of industrial action to protest at both low pay and government cuts. But women’s strikes after 1974 were virtually completely ignored by the women’s liberation movement – witness, for instance, the change in coverage in Spare Rib.



The abortion campaign: an uneasy alliance

In the campaign in defence of women’s right to abortion, the trade unions and the women’s movement to some extent worked together.

There were repeated attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act. In 1975 the National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was launched in reaction to the introduction of an Abortion Amendment Bill. In June 1975, 40,000 women and men participated in a demonstration called by the campaign. There were many banners from white-collar unions, and a sprinkling of banners from miners’ branches and building workers. There were also many banners from socialist groups and women’s organisations.

More and more unions passed resolutions at their annual conferences supporting the woman’s right to abortion. The 1975 TUC Women’s Conference carried by a large majority a resolution which pledged support for abortion “on request”. Later that year the TUC Congress passed a similar resolution. The Abortion Amendment Bill never reached the statute book: it fell for lack of parliamentary time.

But in April 1976 the National Abortion Campaign had to call another mobilisation against another attempt at restriction. This second Bill, which came before parliament in 1977, aimed to reduce the time limit within which abortion was allowed, to impose higher fines for doctors who abused the law, and to require the signatures of two doctors for an abortion rather than one. Fifteen thousand people joined the demonstration and many more supported the campaign that followed. The Bill again fell for lack of parliamentary time.

When MP John Corrie introduced yet another restrictive Bill after the election of a new Tory government in 1979, the TUC carried into effect a TUC Congress resolution inspired by the TUC Women’s Conference, and called for a mass demonstration. This was held on 31 October 1979, when some 80,000 women and men marched in London from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square. It “was the largest trade union demonstration ever held for a cause which lay beyond the traditional scope of collective bargaining; it was also the biggest ever pro-abortion march.” [34] A contingent of about 200 young radical feminists staged an angry protest, insisting that women should lead the march. The National Abortion Campaign steering committee sharply rebuked them. There are women, they said, who

object to TUC involvement at all. The fact that the TUC organised the demo was not an accident, nor was it opportunism as some have suggested ... We positively fought for a TUC demonstration because we believed that it was the best way of bringing together the widest number of people to oppose the Corrie Bill. Without the trade unions, there was no hope of reaching women outside the limited circle of the women’s movement (and readers of The Guardian) ...

We started organising in 1975 at the TUC women workers’ demo, shouting “TUC take a stand, free abortion on demand”. We spent the next four years getting them to do just that ...

It was the women who had fought to get policy through the trade union branches who were in those trade union contingents at the front. The action of taking it over was an insult to them, an assumption that they had less right to be there than other women who had not been directly involved in the campaign at all. [35]

While the radical feminists were wrong to urge separatism, and the National Abortion Campaign on the other hand was too submissive to the union bureaucracy, the important thing throughout the abortion campaign was the crucial role played by trade unionists and socialists, both men and women.



The women’s liberation movement in the face of Tory attacks

All working people have suffered from the attacks of the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher on health, education and social services, and this is especially true of women. Unemployment and cuts in the value of child and maternity benefits also burden women more heavily. Maternity allowance, £25 in Britain, is many times lower than in most European countries. In France maternity allowance is £525 for the first child, £752 for the second, and a whopping £1,048 for the third. [36] The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act are practically dead letters. Women’s average earnings for a full-time job, which in 1977 stood at 75.7 per cent of men’s, had dropped to 73.9 per cent by 1982. In 1981 the number of cases brought for equal pay had dropped to 54, of which only six were won. [37]

In face of the Tories’ and employers’ offensive, any sectional response is futile. As I wrote in the autumn of 1979:

The Tories are going to test out our working-class organisation. Hence it is necessary to see every attack in the context of the general offensive. This means it is crucial to rally the greatest possible support for every group of workers in struggle and to relate their struggle to the government’s attack. The whole battle has to be given a clear, political – i.e., general class, socialist, anti-government edge. [38]

In the heady years of 1968-74 things were easy, and even sectional actions could be effective. Then the women’s movement grew. But when the going got tough, it closed in on itself despondently.

In 1980 one feminist writer, Liz Heron, wrote that “the waning of radical optimism ... has prompted the retreat into the personal.” [39] Another, Rosalind Coward, said that there is “a crisis of fragmentation, [which has] generated a gargantuan nostalgia for the days of ‘the women’s movement’.” [40] In a sad article in Spare Rib, entitled Where to Next?, Micheline Wandor looks at the bleak scene of the 1980s. It is no longer possible, she says, to talk of a women’s liberation movement at all, but only of feminism. However, she argues, the past decade has not been a complete failure: “Feminism has established some important professional niches.”

Micheline Wandor is right. A number of middle-class women have done well out of the women’s liberation movement – in education, in journalism, in television. One of the best openings for some professional women was the establishment of Women’s Studies. At present there are at least 30 universities with Women’s Studies courses, besides those in adult education and WEA courses. [41]

Micheline Wandor concedes that for the mass of women, the fact that feminism has established some important professional niches is in no way good enough. Thatcherism, she admits, will make working-class and some displaced middle-class women move towards trade unionism, and towards general socialist parties.

This section may aptly be concluded by an Obituary printed in the Workers’ Chronicle (The Newcastle Trades Council paper) of January 1981:

It is with great regret that we have to report the death of Newcastle Trades Council’s Working Women’s Charter Sub-Committee. After almost five years of activity, the Sub-Committee succumbed to failure of support and lack of active interest and passed away at the beginning of December

The main focus of the Sub-Committee’s activities was education and publicity work. Among its many achievements in this field, worthy of mention, are a Video Film around the Ten Points of the Working Women’s Charter; a similar Television Programme; a series of Ten Programmes on Local Radio; production of Women’s Struggle – a local newssheet; articles in the Workers’ Chronicle and the local press – especially the Evening Chronicle; organising and participating in Day Schools; and leading discussions in Schools and Colleges ...

It is ironic that the Sub-Committee passed away at a time when women are most under attack.



Sharp lessons from the gay liberation movement

The oppression of gays and lesbians is a by-product of the oppression of women, for gays and lesbians break the role stereotyping of men and women which is imposed by capitalist society. The challenge to this stereotyping by the women’s movement therefore spurred on a Gay Liberation Movement. But the gay movement was even less stable, even more wracked by internal contradications. A sketch of its development will throw further light on the nature of the women’s movement.

In the autumn of 1970 the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in London. It was the most typical and dynamic representative’ of the new gay movement, writes Jeffrey Weeks, the historian of homosexual politics in Britain. On 28 August 1971 GLF organised an impressive Gay Pride demonstration of 2,000 men and women in London. In the first year of its existence it sold 8,000 badges, when wearing a gay badge was a courageous statement in itself. [42]

However, after a very short time the gay movement started to falter, then quickly fell to pieces. Since the roots of gay oppression are in capitalism itself, for any movement against gay oppression to succeed, it needs to be part of a general movement against capitalism. Without this, it suffers from the isolation of the gay ghetto itself, with all the limitations and powerlessness that goes with it. This is in fact what happened. Aubrey Walter writes that within only a few weeks, “the expansive euphoria that had marked the whole of 1971 was dampened by the first of a series of bitter and damaging splits, and the collapse of the GLF had begun.” [43] Jeffrey Weeks summed up the situation six years later: GLF “had been the last major product of the late 1960s euphoria; it collapsed as that euphoria died.” [44]

From the start the gay movement suffered deep internal conflicts. First there was conflict between men and women. Aubrey Walter writes:

On top of the numerical presence of men, many of these still maintained very chauvinist and condescending attitudes towards women ... As feminist consciousness developed, they understandably had decreasing patience dealing with the chauvinism of many gay men.

So in February 1972 the women left the GLF. Then, on the other side, “many gays felt that in order to struggle against male privilege, they must do everything possible to show that they were prepared to give up this privilege in themselves.” These were the transvestites and transsexuals who “insisted that they were doubly oppressed within the GLF, by the women as well as the men.” [45]

Another split was between socialists and those who advocated a new gay community style of living. Jeffrey Weeks writes:

... gay communes ... seemed to offer in embryo an alternative to the nuclear family. But they were also utopian ... they came up against iron laws about property, about how to live together and work together harmoniously and uncompetitively within a hostile economic and social environment. They also conflicted severely with the emotional structuring of most members ... the need for pair-bonding ... Nevertheless communal experiments did emphasize an impotant dichotomy – that between “personal” liberation on the one hand and political action on the other. Rarely did the two meet. [46]

The gay liberation movement believed that homosexuals constituted a potentially mass force for revolutionary change. But with only a tiny minority of homosexuals joining the movement – at most a couple of thousand out of a couple of million homosexuals in the country (drawn from the cautious estimate by Kinsey that homosexuals make up something like one in twenty of the population) – this proved to be an illusion. First of all homosexuals, unlike women or blacks, are not visible; they can “pass” as straight. In fact the overwhelming majority of homosexual men manage to survive as husbands and fathers. Second, homosexuals are not bound by minority-group loyalty, like blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups. “... the homosexual is usually the only one in his family. He grows up keeping his deviance a guilty secret from almost everyone – especially from those closest to him ... He lives in fear of exposure by other homosexuals.” [47] It is tragic but true that the great majority of homosexuals never overcome the internalised guilt they are condemned to in present society. Third, there are no economic-social bonds between homosexuals; they belong to all classes.

Thus the gay movement showed itself incapable of involving the mass of gay people, who are working class and live ostensibly heterosexual lives. The separatism of the gay movement added to the difficulties. It led to the exclusion not only of heterosexuals, but also of those gays who had not come out. As Lionel Starling, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, put it:

... non-gays are systematically or indirectly excluded from gay struggle. At the same time, the involvement of gays, far from being maximised, is actually discouraged on two fronts; non-separatists are obviously put off and gays who have not yet come out socially as homosexuals are denied the opportunity to gain confidence by taking part in gay struggle without at first identifying themselves as gay. The politics of the gay movement are therefore self-limiting and condemn it to the downward spiral of an inward-looking clique. [48]

Homosexuals did not create their ghetto any more than the blacks created theirs. And in both cases the people inside the ghetto are unable to break its walls by their own action alone, without the mass action of the majority outside against the walls.

Various organisations have benefitted from the gay movement. There is the reformist parliamentary lobby of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), which aims to achieve equality before the law for homosexuals. It became the largest gay organisation in the country, growing from 500 members in 15 groups in 1970 to about 5,000 members in 1976. It concentrates on social activities. The number of gay self-help groups, such as Gay Switchboard, also grew. [49]

In each case they are committed to providing help and information so one individual with a problem may find an individual solution (with the marginal difference of Icebreakers forming small groups) ... Gaysocs in universities and colleges performed the same function with the same limited and individualised influence. [50]

But far and away the greatest beneficiary was the “pink economy”. The self-confident, affluent homosexual male lives in the pages of Gay News, Him and Zipper, which burst with advertising for gay books, films, cosmetics, videos and services. Advertising executives increasingly talk of a specific “gay market”.

In conclusion we may say that organisations such as these, which have a narrow, immediate purpose, have remained stable. The more general radical gay groups have disappeared, and the college gay societies have declined in membership and militancy. While attitudes to homosexuality have changed a fair bit over the past ten years, and the potential for building support has grown, the organised pressure from homosexuals themselves has faded away.

The gay liberation movement, child of the women’s movement, had an even weaker constitution than its mother. The activists of the women’s movement, however, failed to draw the lessons from its failure.



Women and the peace movement

The women’s movement received a new lease of life with the rise of the Peace Movement, centred around Greenham Common, the airbase in Berkshire used for Cruise nuclear missiles. The Peace Movement’s philosophy is summed up in the words of veteran pacifist Dora Russell: “That men must fight and women must weep is the implacable ruling of Fate ... It has taken us centuries to discover that the voice which makes this arrogant assertion comes from only one half of the human race.” Another pacifist woman writes: “Nuclear weapons are an expression of the twisted values of a male-dominated society ... We see nuclear weapons and nuclear power as particularly horrendous results of male domination.”

Pacifism, which the Greenham Women profess, does not recognise that nuclear weapons are the fruit of a capitalist class society with its massive concentration of economic, political and military power. Hence the only way to get rid of the weapons is by overthrowing capitalism, by disarming the capitalist class and arming the working class. This is a far cry from the tokenism of the women’s peace movement, as shown in this description of a web woven around the Pentagon by demonstrators: “Generals minced their way through woman-made webs ... At the end there was a braid around the Pentagon, and beautiful weavings at all the entrances. Women who were not arrested held a closing ritual circle.”

The women’s peace movement also pays great attention to the internal life of its participants, a “space” in which they can develop. As one participant writes:

... in spite of the diversity, it is extraordinary to see how much all these groups have in common. They all emphasise the importance of considering the personal needs of their members, or providing emotional support ... They constantly emphasise the positive: Women for Life on Earth, Children need Smiles. A feminist world will have healthy food, reproductive choice, etc. They emphasise the importance of imagination and use symbols ... of subjective feelings as a guide to action.

The women involved, according to one of their members, are “mostly middle-class”. Many have an “alternative life-style”, living in shared households, not having a “straight” job, and so on. [51]

Believing that public opinion by itself can stop the slide into nuclear war, the logic of the Greenham Common women and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is to adapt to public opinion. The Greenham Common women and the CND do not connect the struggle against Cruise and Trident missiles with the day-to-day struggles of working people for jobs, for better wages, better health care, education and housing. Hence they do not have roots in the life of the mass of people. If one cannot defend one’s livelihood, how can one defend life? If we cannot stop the closure of a factory in our own town, how can we influence the actions of US President Reagan or Prime Minister Thatcher hundreds or thousands of miles away?

The Greenham Common women have retreated a long way from the early slogan of the women’s liberation movement, “women are angry”, to an acceptance of “intrinsic female characteristics” such as “passivity” and “domesticity”, which the early women’s movement rightly challenged.



Sliding towards the Labour Party

In Britain, because of the strength of the labour movement, the same tendency towards incorporation into the establishment that pushes the US women’s movement towards NOW, draws the British women’s movement towards the Labour Party. Tony Benn made the overtures. At a meeting in Central Hall, Westminster, on 17 March 1980, which was misleadingly titled The Debate of the Decade, in which Tony Benn, Paul Foot, Tariq Ali, Hilary Wainwright, Stuart Holland and Audrey Wise took part, Benn went out of his way to praise Hilary Wainwright: “Hilary Wainwright, in my opinion, put the most important question of all ... I believe there is a very important relationship here between what Hilary Wainwright said and what I am saying ... What Hilary said about the women’s movement is very important.” The chairman of the meeting, Peter Ham, secretary of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, introduced Hilary Wainwright as “... co-author of what many of us feel to be a seminal work on the Left, Beyond the Fragments.” [52]

In November 1980 Benn enthused over the structure of the women’s movement:

Structures do matter ... the collectivity which is more common in the women’s movement than in the male movement is very relevant. The idea that you rotate your chair, you’re not just in the process of building a pedestal upon which spokespersons or spokeswomen operate, is very important too. [53]

A number of leading representatives of the women’s movement reciprocated. Take for example the book written by Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell, Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation. This does not challenge the existing capitalist structure of society, but calls only for more participation by women in this structure – in parliament, local councils, political parties and trade unions. It does not call for a shift in the balance between the wages going to workers and the profits going to the employing class, but only in the balance between women’s wages and men’s wages. It endorses the Labour Party’s Alternative Economic Policy, but adds to it the need for a feminist incomes policy, which would not seek to increase the share of the nation’s wealth going to wages – and so to the majority of women – but would seek only to give women a greater proportion of the existing wages.

Yet experience has proved that the higher the wages of those workers who are in a strong position, let us say the miners, then the greater chance there is for workers in a weaker position to improve their wages too, whether they are women or men. This was clearly shown here in Britain in the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when workers in the stronger industries, particularly mining and engineering, forged ahead, and the rest of the working class – women and men – were able to improve their own wages in their wake.

Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell sum up their strategy for equality in these words: “The biggest obstacle, in our view, is not finding the necessary resources, but persuading men to relinquish their privileges.” [54] Not persuading the capitalist class to relinquish its considerable privileges over the working class, but “men”! (In fact Beatrix Campbell, in an article in The Guardian on 9 August 1982 – in the middle of a hospital strike whose victory would have benefited the wage packets of many thousands of women as well as men – attacked trade unions as part of the “patriarchal system” by which men oppress women, and strikes as an outdated “dispute practice” inherited from the nineteenth century’s male-dominated labour movement.)

Coote and Campbell call for “redistribution of labour and wealth within the family” – thus ensuring the continuation of the individual family unit as the place for child care and housework.

They do not challenge the union bureaucracies, but call for positive discrimination – for women to hold full-time lobs on union executives and as full-time union officials. Positive discrimination also means more women MPs – completely irrelevant to the needs of working-class women – while women’s strikes, through which thousands of women have battled to win their rights, are hardly mentioned.

Finally, they approvingly quote attempts to get more representation for women in the Labour Party. “... increasing numbers of women in their twenties and thirties were making the Labour party the main focus of their political activity as feminists as well as socialists.” [55]

Why do the remnants of the women’s movement gravitate towards the Labour left? There is, in fact, an affinity between those who call themselves socialists in the two. First, the social composition is similar. The former is made up of white-collar and professional women, and so is the Labour left, though it also has more than a sprinkling of manual workers, and the support of many thousands of manual workers. Thirdly, for the socialist members of the women’s liberation movement and the Labour left, ideas are not moulded by the collective class struggle of workers, but are seen simply as a debate between individuals. Fourthly, unlike the revolutionary socialist organisations, which would demand from anyone in the women s movement that she break with both the analysis of the movement and its style of work, the Labour Party, being a “broad church”, makes no demands. Fifth, even in terms of structure there is far more in common between the structurelessness and loose federalism of the women’s movement and the bureaucratic swamp of labourism, than between either of them and the democratic centralism of a revolutionary socialist party. There is no party discipline, except where the bureaucratic right find it necessary.




The women’s movement in Britain has wavered between two alternative paths: aligning with the labour movement – with workers’ struggles, with the trade unions – or going its own separatist way. More and more it has turned in on itself, away from collective action and class politics, to life-style politics, “consciousness-raising” and separatism; away from fighting for women’s collective needs – equal pay, nurseries, abortion rights, women’s strikes – to issues where women are individual victims of male oppression – rape, violence, pornography.

To the extent that members of the women’s movement do try to relate to specific women workers’ demands they fall into the reformist trap of proposing a feminist incomes policy. They aim to increase the share of women in existing resources, when society is offering less and less to all working people. The other plank in their strategy – positive discrimination in favour of women in the trade unions and the Labour Party – is totally irrelevant to the real needs and aspirations of working-class women, who are alienated from the union bureaucracy, whether male or female, and from the MPs, who live a privileged and sheltered existence.


1. R. Price and G.S. Bain, Union Growth Revisited: 1948-1974, in Perspective, in British Journal of Industrial Relations (November 1976).

2. A. Coote and B. Campbell, Sweet Freedom. The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (London 1982), p.18.

3. J. Hunt and S. Adams, Women, Work and Trade Union Organisation (London 1980), p.15.

4. Spare Rib (April 1978).

5. Coote and Campbell, pp.20-21.

6. Spare Rib (April 1978).

7. S. Rowbotham, L. Segal and H. Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments (London 1980), p.45.

8. Rowbotham and others, p.41.

9. No Turning Back: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1975-1980 (London 1981). Compare this with the statement: “Marriage is an oppressive institution for both the married and the unmarried, and provides the major legal support for the current family form. We believe that socialists and feminists should not get married themselves and should not attend or support the marriages of any who can be convinced of our critique of the family ... Nobody should have a housewife. Nobody, man, child, invalid, or woman, needs a long-term ‘housewife’ or has the right to have one. Unpaid domestic service is in principle inferior to social provision. For those who can afford it, paying someone to clean the house or cook meals is preferable to making it the duty of one household member.” (M. Barrett and M. McIntosh, The Anti-Social Family (London 1982), pp.143-4.)

10. No Turning Back, pp.123-5.

11. Spare Rib (September 1981).

12. Spare Rib (April 1978).

13. Rowbotham and others, p.197.

14. Rowbotham and others, p.164.

15. Rowbotham and others, p.176.

16. Rowbotham and others, p.180.

17. Rowbotham and others, p.205.

18. Rowbotham and others, p.76.

19. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence (London 1941), pp.150-1.

20. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p.315.

21. Coote and Campbell, p.35.

22. No Turning Back, p.170.

23. Love your Enemy? (London 1981), pp.5-6 and 8.

24. Love your Enemy?, p.56.

25. Coote and Campbell, p.225.

26. Many journals died. To list but a few: Shrew, Socialist Woman, Red Rag, Women’s Report, Women’s Struggles Notes, Red Shift, Enough!, Women Now, Body Politic, Leviathan, Woman Liberation Review, Women’s Newspaper, Power of Women Journal, Women’s Voice.

27. Spare Rib (December 1980).

28. A symptom of the extreme man-hating position of the lesbian feminists is their idiosyncracies in spelling. “Woman”, “women”, they spell as womyn, wimmin. Again, instead of using the word “history”, they write herstory. (By the way, they overlook the fact that the origin of the word in Greek – “historia” – means “finding out” or “knowing”; “historia” is actually a feminine noun.)

29. E. Malos (editor), The Politics of Housework (London 1980), p.22.

30. Malos, p.161.

31. Selma James, in an interview with Angela Singer of The Guardian, said: “We should be paid for all the housework we do ... sex included.” (The Guardian, 24 February 1982)

32. Coote and Campbell, p.41.

33. Coote and Campbell, p.43.

34. Coote and Campbell, p.147.

35. Spare Rib (December 1979).

36. Daily Mirror (21 January 1983).

37. S. Atkins in The Guardian (28 March 1983).

38. T. Cliff, The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years, in International Socialism 2:6 (1979), p.47.

39. Time Out (21-27 November 1980), quoted in No Turning Back, p.140.

40. Gay Left issue 10 (1980), quoted in No Turning Back, p.100.

41. A. Oakley, Subject Women (Oxford 1981), pp.318-9.

42. J. Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London 1977), pp.191 and 196.

43. A. Walter, Come Together: The Years of Gay Liberation 1970-73 (London 1980), p.28.

44. Weeks, p.206.

45. Walter, pp.31-2.

46. Weeks, p.202.

47. A. Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality (London 1971), pp.517 and 530.

48. L. Starling, Glad to be Gay: The Gay Movement and the Left, in Socialist Review (May/June 1978).

49. Weeks, pp.210, 213 and 267.

50. J. Lindsay, A Culture for Containment (London 1978), p.5.

51. L. Jones (editor), Keeping the Peace: Women’s Peace Handbook (London 1983), pp.ix, 3, 21, 24, 27, 29 and 56.

52. P. Hain (editor), The Debate of the Decade: The Crisis and the Future of the Left (London 1980), pp.23, 45, 49 and 52.

53. Spare Rib (November 1980).

54. Coote and Campbell, p.247.

55. Coote and Campbell, pp.136-7.


Last updated on 29.8.2002