Dave Widgery

[Defending Abortion Rights]

(February 1977)

Letter to Radical America, Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1977, pp.75-77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Dear Radical America:

The temptation to make sweeping comparisons between the crisis in Britain and Italy is nearly overwhelming, but ought to be cautiously exercised. The editorial introduction to your three surveys on the British and Italian left (RA, November 1976) bounds in where Marxist angels should fear to tread, and for the sake of some attractive schemata extracts an excessively gloomy perspective.

By singling out the Italian abortion campaign as the sole exception to a general defeat of independent working-class action, you inadvertently underestimate the importance of the Woman’s Movement in Britain. Had Ellen Cantarow been reporting the National Abortion Campaign in Britain over the last two years, she might have drawn a strikingly similar picture. The resistance to James White’s Private Member’s Bill, which attempted to restrict the liberal abortion law of 1967, has seen a public engagement between the forces of sexual conservatism and the Women’s Movement and its allies, the liberals in Parliament and the revolutionary socialists in the streets. This has become the biggest campaign on a woman’s issue since the Suffrage movement, complete with massive demonstrations, backed by local direct action and petitioning in working-class localities, hospitals, factories. The campaign has also included soapbox oratory, street theater, and an International Tribunal in January with over 3,000 people present. Feminists have chained themselves to the altar in Westminister Abbey, and left-wing doctors invaded the British Medical Association’s headquarters. The scale of activity is smaller here, and women’s rights and sexual issues are still steered out of mainstream political debate as far as possible; whereas in Italy the abortion issue was clearly the historical monkey wrench in the historical compromise, landing in just the area the Communist Party is yielding to the Vatican and the Christian Democrats. But it would appear that the British campaign has been rather more successful in gaining the support of organized labor on the basis of “a woman’s right to choose”. This makes possible again the potential link between sexual self-determination of women and the movement for worker’s control, suggested by the sexual radicals of the 1920s like Stella Browne, who first campaigned as a Feminist and a Communist for legal abortion in 1922 using the slogan “Our bodies are our own”, and who argued that “birth control for women is no less essential than workshop control and the determination of the conditions of labor for men”.

Many union branches, including some all-male branches like the Hull dockers and the Yorkshire coal miners, supported the National Abortion Campaign (NAC). The delegates to the 50th Women’s Trades Union Congress (whose own charter studiously ignored abortion) insisted that the leadership take up the issue. The proposing speech made at the national conference of ASTMS, the largest technical and scientific union, shows the kind of arguments raised:

“As a trade unionist I want to stress why it is so important for ASTMS to take up the fight for women’s rights to free and safe abortion. Trade unionists now accept that women should get equal pay, equal job opportunities and equal rights and opportunities to participate actively in the trade-union movement. But these things can only become a reality if women can be freed from their position of having sole responsibility for the care of the family. This means not only campaigns for things like the provision of day-care facilities; it means that the labor movement as a whole must lend its weight to a campaign for women to choose if and when to have children.”

This battle has been renewed now that a Tory MP, William Benyon, has successfully introduced another, more sophisticated restrictive abortion bill into Parliament in February, 1977.

The problem with a direct comparison between Britain and Italy on apparently identical issues is the very different historical background. The authority of the Catholic Church over working-class life in Northern Europe was broken by the emerging bourgeois state four centuries ago; and the modern capitalist state in Britain has attempted to provide free health care. Whereas our comrades and sisters in Italy quite literally fight state power – the police and the prisons – if they perform abortions, in England we are engaged in an attempt to defend and extend the abortion facilities provided by the National Health Service. Italian women are, in historical development, fifty years behind their British sisters in terms of their involvement in paid work and unionism, their access to contraception and medical services, and in the general power of superstition, clericalism and male authority. Perhaps it is the starkness of the contrast between the general state of subjugation of Italian women and the ideas of Italian feminism flowering among the young women of the cities, influenced by the women’s movement in North America and independent of the CP, which produces its explosive potential – a kind of sexual equivalent of the law of combined and uneven development propounded by Trotsky and Parvus to explain the particular force of Marxism as it arrived in the tiny Russian working class. It certainly seems likely that the ideas of women’s and gay liberation, which American revolutionaries have ruefully watched being slowly digested by their social system, might yet prove of shattering importance to the revolutionary Left in Mediterranean Europe.

This ought not to detract from the practical and theoretical achievements of the Women’s Movement in Britain, which has by no means disappeared since RA’s last, rather starry-eyed report (RA, July 1973). It’s hard to generalize about the political effect of a movement notoriously poor at assembling large numbers in one place but very effective in spreading itself locally. It’s clear that independent bodies like NAC, Women’s Aid, The Nursery and Under 5s Campaign, the network of local Women’s Centers and the Working Women’s Charter knit together a formidable patchwork of activity. It is a constant problem that groups initiated to develop women’s own power can end doing a disguised form of charitable work (this was certainly the case in some of Sylvia Pankhurst’s activity); but it’s also the case that, while the Italian left has a tradition of prefacing often quite reformist action with much lavish talk of Lenin and Gramsci, so British workers, especially women, often make very radical attacks on property and authority justified in highly reformist language. There is now in Britain a formal, regional socialist feminist network; but a much broader area of political consciousness would stretch from women from the autonomous movement active in campaigns among working-class women, to feminists who are members of mixed political parties – a range of socialist feminist opinion and approach spanning Spare Rib and Scarlet Woman to the magazines like Red Rag and Woman’s Voice produced by women in the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (formerly the International Socialists). Feminism and sexual politics have produced a considerable if often “underground” impact on the established Left groups, especially since the abortion campaign, and the groups themselves are altering in a way which will probably be fully revealed only in the next wave of political advance for the British Left.

Above all there are signs that working women will play a more active part than ever in the wave of political activity we are now, after two years of stagnation and paralysis, entering in Britain. Women have certainly not been exempt from the general mood of resentful passivity that state control of wages has engendered. But the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, introduced to stave off working women’s restlessness and strike activity, might yet serve to do the reverse, to raise women workers’ confidence, dignity and sense of what’s theirs by right. The difference between men’s and women’s wages; discrimination against women at work, in the unions, in benefits, and in the law; and the pressure on women caring for children are all increasing with inflation, public-spending cuts, and the Social Contract. The twenty-two week strike by women workers in the Trico windshield-wiper factory in London, mysteriously omitted from Ian Birchall’s survey (RA, November 1976), was perhaps the most important strike in 1976: not only in the sheer determination of the women picketers, but in its implications for the wages battle as a whole. And it’s working-class women, especially West Indian women in the National Health Service, but also those employed in the low-prestige ends of the education and social services sectors, who are behind most of the resistance to the re-structuring of the Welfare State which the Labour Government is carrying out under the euphemism of “The Cuts”. Women, probably for the first time ever, outnumbered men in the mass lobby of November 17th, 1976, called by the public-sector unions against the cuts. It is likely that it will be women’s struggles – over work, welfare, and, with Benyon’s new anti-abortion bill, reproduction – as much as the traditionally militant male sections of the class which will find a way out of the present impasse.

The prospects for the revolutionary organizations which have survived the last two years’ setbacks and can find a real footing in the forthcoming wave of mass struggles are by no means gloomy. But real success among working-class women will only be possible to the degree that the Left emancipates itself from masculine domination and a definition of politics and a way of organizing which excludes women. This critical debate, in Italy and England, continues.


David Widgery
February 1977


Last updated on 24.10.2005