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Rise and fall of the women’s movement

(Winter 1988)

From International Socialism, 2:37, Winter 1988, pp. 3–47.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The campaign against David Alton’s bill to restrict abortion has once again put women’s issues at the centre of the political scene. At the same time it raises a number of issues about the women’s movement, and its inability to organise large numbers of women. [1]

The early women’s movement

Today the women’s movement is accepted as part of the political scene, not only by the left, but also by a significant section of bourgeois, pro-capitalist parties. The SDP includes within its ranks many feminists such as journalist Polly Toynbee or ex-NUS president Sue Slipman. Even the Tory party maintains a paper commitment to women’s rights.

The impact of feminism on the Labour Party and trade union movement is marked. Most major unions now have a commitment to promoting equality. Some have equality officers or reserved women’s places on their executives. The Labour Party at national and local level also has paper commitments to support for equality. Nearly everyone on the left talks about the women’s movement in a totally uncritical way, hiding its real history behind a cloud of myth. This superficial commitment to the ideas of women’s liberation hides the inadequacy of a movement which cannot begin to respond to the problems facing working-class women today. In order to understand why, we need to look at the history and origins of the movement itself, and why it has taken the direction that it has. The women’s movement has existed for around twenty years. Its birth in the United States in the late 1960s was the result of very specific historical circumstances. Although there was a continuity of ideas between the modern women’s movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage around the turn of the century, the modern movement was in major respects unique. Three factors lay behind its founding. The first was the changed position of women at work. Women as workers – and especially as (sometimes) well-paid workers – demonstrated some of the contradictions of women’s role in capitalist society. They were increasingly expected to carry a role in the world outside the home, but they were also treated as second-class citizens. Women’s inequality was there for everyone to see – demonstrated through low wages, ‘women’s jobs’ or part-time work. Even where women had access to their own income, they were all too often treated as children, rather than responsible adults. So throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, it was extremely hard for women to make any major credit purchase – such as a house or even a washing machine – without the permission and financial backing of a man.

This created a sense of grievance among many women, particularly those of the professional and middle classes. These women not only resented their lack of financial and legal equality with men, but also expressed a sense of lack of fulfilment, of boredom with what even middle-class marriage – and its material comforts – had to offer. Betty Friedan spoke for a generation of such American women when she called this feeling ‘the problem which has no name’. [2]

The problem for these women was no doubt compounded by a second factor which, whilst of real benefit to a layer of women, nonetheless tended to increase their frustration: the expansion of higher education in the post-war years. A quite substantial layer of women – including a number from working-class backgrounds – gained access to higher education and consequently, often, to better paid and higher status jobs. By the late 1960s, there were 150,000 full-time students in Britain [3] and the number was steadily rising. [4]

Greater educational opportunity was a stairway to much better prospects than even most middle-class women would have thought possible a generation earlier. But it also demonstrated how inferior the position of women really was. So women found that they were disproportionately at the bottom of the pile inside higher education itself, and that when they obtained jobs such as teaching, they were again disproportionately in the lower grades. The grievances of Betty Friedan’s ‘problem with no name’ continued to grow.

Education itself fuelled this process. Despite the real limitations of the education system, young men and women found their horizons widened. They discussed ideas and concepts which in some small ways began to challenge the ideas they had grown up with. Some of these new ideas tended to bring them into conflict with some of the basic tenets of capitalist society.

The third factor in the birth of the women’s movement was a product of the changing structure of capitalism itself: the political explosion of the mid and late 1960s and the growth of what became known as the movements. It is impossible to understand the growth of the demand for women’s liberation, and the flourishing of women’s groups, without understanding this explosion – and particularly its effect in the United States, birthplace of the women’s movement.

The founding of the American women’s movement

The US movement was a product of similar factors to those in Britain. There are however a couple of major differences between the two, which had a major bearing on the different developments of women’s liberation in each country.

The expansion of higher education was much greater in the much richer United States – and the academic milieu was, and remains, an important feature of American political life. Also the impact of the organised working class on the women’s liberation movement, or on the student or anti-war movements – which was very great in Britain – was virtually non-existent in the US.

This was particularly true of the student left. It had no real connection with the working class or with working-class organisation in any real sense. That organisation was in any case extremely weak. It had been dealt major blows in the late 1940s and 1950s through a combination of McCarthyism and the Taft-Hartley anti-union laws. Union membership there was much lower, there was no workers’ party even on a par with the Labour Party, and the level of class struggle was relatively low. Any working-class ‘political’ tradition – such as that represented by the Communist Party or the Trotsky-ists – had been severely weakened and effectively wiped out in many parts of the country. All these features combined meant that anyone struggling against their own oppression tended to look for support anywhere but to the only force capable of ending that oppression – the working class. The consequences of this orientation still weigh heavily on American politics.

The student new left was also a product of its time, and its class composition. Its members were the children of Betty Friedan’s generation. They had grown up in the middle-class prosperity of the boom. Sara Evans in Personal Politics, her invaluable book about women and the left in the 1960s, describes what this meant. For the left, despite its radical and liberal approach to the question of civil rights, had much worse ideas on women than the previous generation of Marxist-influenced left-wingers:

the new left embodied the heritage of the feminine mystique far more strongly than the older left had. [5]

The two main organisations from which the women’s movement grew were the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SNCC involved blacks and whites in attempting to fight for civil rights in the southern states. Both organisations developed from people with little or no experience of politics. White students from SDS who became radicalised looked for constituencies of support. They saw their support coming from the ‘poor people’. Their methods of organising meant living in the community, and hence they absorbed many of their ideas and attitudes – including sexism.

The politics of these students was egalitarian. They often lived lifestyles based on those of poor southern blacks. ‘Let the people decide’ was a favourite slogan. But their egalitarianism didn’t extend to women. Women took a secondary role, although many able women organisers went south.

Discontent with some of the male leaders of SNCC grew among some of the women members. The inferior position of women in the organisation, and the growing alienation from the male leaders, prompted some black and white women in SNCC to write a conference paper in late 1964 cataloguing instances of sexual inequality in the movement. The response from a leading black SNCC member, Stokeley Carmichael, was the now notorious: ‘the only position for women in SNCC is prone’. [6]

Things were changing in SNCC in different ways, however. The civil rights movement was becoming eclipsed. Against a background of riots in Harlem and Watts, and the growth of black nationalism around Malcolm X, whites became much more marginal in SNCC. Two white women, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote a paper in 1965 considering what black and white women had in common. [7] But increasingly the movement was splitting on grounds of race, partly as a result of the frustration of failure inside the campaign. Students continued to want to campaign over rights for blacks – though they now concentrated their attention on the northern black ghettos and the appalling conditions which existed there. They also turned increasingly to the movement against the Vietnam war. The vehicle for this protest tended to be SDS. It involved itself in campaigns on a number of issues, but was marred by its practice in all sorts of ways. Students in SDS tended to direct their liberal guilt towards the oppressed of the ghettos, where they set out to organise the economically marginal. In doing so they ignored the working class as a force for change and concentrated instead on those with no economic or political power to change society.

They also based their politics increasingly on personal experience. An SDS leader, Tom Hayden, argued as far back as 1962 that, ‘the time has come for a reassertion of the personal’. [8] But the personal politics came to mean living the same ghetto lifestyles as the most oppressed urban poor. This meant, among other things accepting some of their most backward cultural and political ideas, including a thoroughly sexist attitude to women. The identification of these radical students with the struggles of the oppressed did not extend to any understanding of the oppression of women, who continued to be treated as second class within the movement.

Despite this, the oppression of women gradually became an issue inside the movement: at the ‘We won’t go’ Conference against the Vietnam war, at SDS meetings and at the 1967 SDS conference, where a Women’s Liberation Workshop developed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first theorising of women’s subordinate position from this conference equated women’s oppression with the colonial oppression of the blacks in Africa or the Vietnamese.

Women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognise ourselves as part of the Third World. [9]

This clearly absurd political position was derided by the bulk of the conference – but usually for the wrong reasons. Women were ridiculed at the conference, an offensive and sexist cartoon deriding women’s rights appeared in the next issue of New Left Notes, and, in Sara Evans’s words: ‘SDS had blown its last chance’. [10]

The general fragmentation of the various movements by 1967–8 led the women further along the path to the founding of women’s liberation. Jo (Joreen) Freeman called a meeting in Chicago in 1967 to organise a women’s intervention in the forthcoming National Conference for the New Politics (NCNP). The conference, held in August that year,

provided the final precipitant in an independent women’s movement when white men, engaged in a wave of guilty liberal capitulation to black demands, patronised and ridiculed women making similar demands. [11]

Jo Freeman and Shulamith Firestone, who tried to raise these demands at the conference, were told that there were more important things to discuss than women’s liberation. But for these and other women activists, the women’s issue was the most important. The following week a number of women in Chicago produced a paper ‘To the women of the left’ which raised the idea of women’s liberation with a layer of women disaffected by the new left. Within a year, there were women’s liberation groups in most major US cities.

The nature of the movement

The American women’s movement was therefore not born in a vacuum. Its politics and its practice was a very definite product of the American left. The movement was founded as a left-wing, radical movement, by women who had learned many of their ideas in the student politics in which they were active. So the National Organisation of Women (NOW) founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, was regarded (quite rightly) as thoroughly middle-class and very limited in its fight for reforms. Celestine Ware, an early participant in women’s liberation, described NOW as: ‘regarded much as black militants regard the civil rights organisations. The typical NOW member is middle-class, employed full-time, and married’. [12]

Women’s Liberation Movement members tended to be very different from this. They often challenged the notion of marriage, stressed the importance of alternative lifestyles, and – even if only in a small way – tried to challenge the whole basis of capitalist society itself. They also often identified with other radical political issues. They protested at state persecution of the Black Panthers. One group organised a protest demonstration over Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. The WLM was anti-war. And as befitted a movement for women’s liberation, it organised a famous protest against the Miss America contest in Atlantic City.

The women’s movement was much weaker than the other movements, however. It never succeeded in organising mass actions. And the numbers involved in it were surprisingly small. Far from there being a large and unlimited sisterhood of women, the movement was diffuse and fragmented from the start. Its political ideas were also very limited. Soft Maoism – characterised by a cheering of spontaneity, a lack of orientation on the working class, a contempt for theory – or else forms of libertarianism dominated. The old slogan ‘let the people decide’ summed up the attitude of much of the new left and also of the women’s movement.

There were other close similarities. Massive stress was put on the expression of personal feelings and on the process of consciousness-raising. Today, these are practices which are considered unique to the women’s movement. But in reality, they did not originate from the women’s movement, but were already established in the student movement from which it came. Sara Evans has pointed to a number of common features of the two movements: the anti-leadership bias; the emphasis on personal experience (SDS meetings in the mid-1960s began with the campus organiser describing his or her background and how they became radicalised); the emphasis on the internal procedure of the meetings. [13] Women’s consciousness-raising – the central tenet of the women’s movement – was the logical conclusion of this practice. There may also have been a Maoist influence in its development: consciousness-raising has been likened to the process of ‘speaking bitterness’ during the Chinese Revolution.

The weakness of even the most radical politics showed very quickly. As women’s oppression became the deciding factor of everything, so all other political problems were subordinated. The 1969 statement of principles of the New York Radical Women put it like this:

We ask not if something is ‘reformist’, ‘radical’, ‘revolutionary’ or ‘moral’. We ask: is it good for women or bad for women? We ask not if something is ‘political’. We ask: is it effective? Does it get us closest to what we really want to do in the fastest way? [14]

New York Radical Women soon split. A group which emerged from its three-way division was Redstockings. It continued and developed this view in its own statement of principles:

We are critical of all past ideology, literature and philosophy, products as they are of male supremacist culture ... we take as our source the hitherto unrecognised culture of women, a culture which from long experience of oppression developed an intense appreciation of life, a sensitivity to unspoken thoughts and the complexity of simple things, a powerful knowledge of human needs and feelings. [15]

This anti-intellectual approach, raising individual feelings to the level of theory, was to become the ‘common sense’ of the women’s movement. Overt political positions tended to go out of the window. Women who had never felt that they really ‘belonged’ in the black, student or anti-war movements, now had a movement of their own. The women’s movement became a natural home for those women who both wanted to work round the question of women but also, and just as importantly, felt left out of the existing political scene. An atmosphere and the beginnings of a theory had to be created which would justify this movement of all women.

An example of the confused thinking which prevailed can be seen from the statement of Judy Laws, quoted in 1970 in Mademoiselle magazine. Laws was sacked from the University of Chicago for wanting to do research into the sociology of women’s oppression.

I see the woman problem as the greatest neglected ill. I’m pessimistic about our impact on the war, and I’m convinced that white people can’t participate in the black movement, but I’m not a socialist, and I’m not a revolutionary, I mean – I wear a bra. [16]

But if politics was not a word which guided the early women’s liberation movement, nonetheless political differences soon emerged which caused all manner of divisions inside it. Redstockings, already the most important splinter from New York Radical Women, confirmed the consciousness-raising approach to fighting women’s oppression.

Redstockings believes that liberating women has priority above every other idea; it dispenses with formal political language and finds the key to a woman’s liberation in her own experience. [17]

In 1969, the New York Radical Feminists was founded from a combination of the feminists and the Redstockings. It included in its membership Shulamith Firestone, Anne Koedt and Celestine Ware. These people moved increasingly and quite explicitly away from any notion of socialist politics. So the NYRF manifesto declared: ‘the political oppression of women has its own class dynamic’. [18] Firestone developed this view in her book The Dialectic of Sex. [19] Some took the logic of a separate female class dynamic even further. Valerie Solanis in the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto stated: ‘the male is an increasingly incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene state’. [20]

Any idea that there might have been of a strong, collective and centralised movement against women’s oppression was beginning to disappear. A Congress to Unite Women in 1969 came to nothing. Even the ultra-respectable NOW ran into problems, when its New York branch was nearly destroyed in 1970 over the question of lesbianism. The writer Rita Mae Brown, who was a NOW member at the time, argued that:

Lesbianism is the one word which gives the New York NOW executive committee a collective heart attack. [21]

The movement was therefore diffuse and splintered: because of its legacy from the movements, because of its avoidance of political argument, and because of its orientation on personal lifestyles. Increasingly real political differences manifested themselves in supposedly personal disagreements, which just led to the setting up of more groups. The story of the citywide Women’s Liberation Coalition which met weekly in New York is an illustration of the fragility of the groups at this time. It had a left-wing, pro-working class orientation and tried to attract working-class women. It supported a Panther demonstration in November 1969 against the terrible jail conditions of pregnant Panther women in New Haven. But some Coalition women felt that the demonstration was too pro-Panther, and there was a split over the extent of left involvement. By December 1969 the Coalition had ceased to meet. [22]

The movement faced one further contradiction. On the one hand, its influence grew to a massive scale. By 1971, there were over 100 women’s liberation publications. The mainstream feminist magazine Ms had a circulation of 350,000 by 1973. By 1974, there were women’s studies programmes at 78 educational institutions – with another 500 campuses offering 2,000 courses. [23] But the number of activists involved in the movement remained relatively small in comparison with the general influence of feminist ideas. NOW claimed 30,000 members by 1973 – hardly a mass movement and, given the limited nature of NOW’s demands, a very small number. The more radical wing of the movement fared no better. The WL coalition attracted only 150 women weekly from the whole of New York City. The 1969 Congress to Unite Women attracted 200. [24] Even a socialist feminist conference in 1978 had an attendance of only 2,000. [25]

These figures reflected a problem which still exists for the women’s movement today: vast but passive support for some of the ideas of women’s liberation, but no connection between these ideas and any activity. Passivity in turn leads to tokenism, and to a sectarian refusal on the part of the women’s movement to acknowledge anyone other than itself as having the right to speak on behalf of women, or to act in the interests of women.

The American women’s movement was from the beginning by far the largest and most influential of any women’s movement in the world. It exported its ideas, especially to Europe, and thereby ensured that many of its preoccupations and problems – although sometimes not its vitality – would emerge elsewhere.

The early women’s movement in Britain

The existence of women’s liberation in Britain is usually dated from 1968. It was in that year that the first modern equal pay strike – by women machinists at Ford – took place. In 1968, too, a body with the unwieldy title of the National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACWER) was set up. This committee was based on the unions and in 1969 organised a demonstration in support of the demand for equal pay. Throughout 1969, a number of women’s liberation groups sprang up. They were often comprised of women who were involved in some way with existing left-wing politics. But as Sheila Rowbotham has written,

It was really from the Oxford Conference in February 1970 that a movement could be said to exist. [26]

Over 500 women attended that first conference. It was generally considered an exhilarating experience. For the first time women in Britain were organising along the lines that American women had already been doing for over two years. There were, however, major political differences between the early British movement and its American counterpart right from the outset.

Those other movements, which in the US had exerted such a strong and often negative influence on the women’s movement there, were much less influential in Britain, where the civil rights and black power movements hardly existed. Here, the student movement was important but limited in its impact, and the mass anti-war movement, whilst politicising many, did not have the same cutting edge as its counterpart in the United States – at the heart of the aggressor nation.

The mainstream political situation in Britain was also much more favourable. The second half of the 1960s saw the passage of liberalising laws on divorce, abortion, gay rights and equal pay. The very high rate of unionisation in Britain (about half of all workers as opposed to under a fifth in the US) led many of those on the left and in the women’s movement to see working-class struggle – through the trade unions – as a major feature of the fight for women’s liberation. This conviction was strengthened by the very high level of class struggle in the years of the early women’s movement. Many strikes involved women. The Leeds clothing workers (1970), post office telephonists (1971), and May Hobbs’ struggle to organise the London office night cleaners are all examples.

Sometimes socialists and women’s liberationists were instrumental in helping the disputes, as in the case of the night cleaners. As one contemporary report describes:

A combined picket was set up of cleaners, IS and Camden Women’s Action Group, Socialist Women and the Workshop, which was joined by cleaners of another building which came out in sympathy. As a result of these actions a representative of the TGWU negotiated with the cleaning company and it was agreed that the two shop stewards were to be reinstated; the company was forced to recognise the union, and to agree that there would be no intimidation against union members. [27]

It is hardly surprising that these sorts of results encouraged women to look towards the working class and to the unions as vehicles of struggle. In the same year as the night cleaners, 1971, International Women’s Day (originally organised by the socialist movement near the beginning of the century) was celebrated by a demonstration around the four demands of the women’s movement: free abortion and contraception on demand; equal educational and job opportunities; free 24-hour nurseries; and equal pay. [28]

So the movement in its early years had a lively and outward-looking orientation. One of its first major successes was the picket of Miss World at the Albert Hall in 1971 which caught the imagination of many women. But, as in America, the freshness and vitality of a few early activities were quickly drained by problems and difficulties.

The movement’s core idea was that it was capable of uniting all women to fight against their oppression. At first it seemed possible to win women to this fight through working-class struggle. But as the political differences inside the movement became clearer, this possibility became more remote. Major problems, unaddressed at the Oxford Conference, came out during the Women’s Liberation Conference at Skegness just over a year later. The conference has become somewhat notorious in recent years. Dissent started over the structure of the conference itself. Some women walked out of the Saturday plenary to discuss on their own. It was agreed that evening that there would be more small group discussion the next day. In the plenary the following afternoon, however, a row broke out involving some Maoists and separatists. A Maoist woman was removed from the chair, and a male Maoist ejected from the meeting for disruption. The conference then proceeded to vote to disband the Women’s National Coordinating Committee (WNCC) which had been set up at the Oxford conference, at least partly on the grounds that it was wracked by sectarian division. Skegness marked a turning point. From then on, men were not welcome at such gatherings. And the already existing hostility to socialists was becoming more marked.

‘It is clear from the outcome of this conference that the apparent agreement in the Women’s Liberation Movement which was sometimes seen at WNCC’s does not exist in reality’, said Socialist Woman. [29]

Another report of the conference, in the Women’s Liberation Workshop magazine, Shrew, pointed to some of the problems:

We were worried by the widespread opposition that there seemed to be to any form of organisation ... Organisation and intellectual analysis are too simply seen as authoritarian and therefore masculine; hence bad. [30]

Even here, however, the authors agreed that men should in future be excluded from such conferences. This argument continued at the Manchester conference in March 1972, where it centred on whether men should be allowed to attend the conference social on the Saturday night. The next day the conference split for or against men. One delegate encapsulated the anti-men position:

If there is one woman present who would like to be with her sisters for two days of the year and not be oppressed by the presence of men, surely we could respect that sister’s wish and have a conference for women without men. [31]

The victory of this position was important in two respects. Firstly it showed that the movement was becoming far more internalised, and concerned with the structure and form of meetings themselves, rather than with what the meetings decided. Secondly, it marked a step away from any orientation upon the working class, from the notion that men, as part of the working class, can be part of the solution to the fight against oppression. Instead men were increasingly seen as part of the problem; by the late 1970s this idea was increasingly dominant in the women’s movement.

The argument about men was a reflection of much greater divisions – between those who wanted socialist change and those who subscribed in some way to a ‘women’s revolution’. An interesting report in Shrew tells of a public meeting held in Ealing, West London, in 1971 on women’s liberation – where the argument got round to whether changes in personal lifestyles were enough or whether social change was needed. A speaker from the Women’s Liberation Workshop stated:

there is nothing in socialism in which women are freed. If women are viewed as conservative they would be suppressed in a socialist system. [32]

These arguments were similar to ones being repeated in groups around the country. Increasingly socialist ideas were losing out. In some ways this was partly the fault of the socialists themselves. Socialist Woman, a magazine produced by the orthodox Trotskyist International Marxist Group, stressed class issues but did so in a remarkably formalistic way. Increasingly their theoretical debates hinged round the question of women’s domestic labour – a sometimes sterile and often obscure debate conducted at an abstract level. [33] Their concrete intervention was round the Working Women’s Charter, a list of demands for women at work. This campaign was, however, aimed at influencing the lower levels of the union bureaucracy rather than at mobilising working women. The women’s paper of the IS (forerunner of the SWP), Women’s Voice, had a consistently working-class and activist orientation. But it tended to ignore any arguments taking place within the women’s movement, and so in practice did not challenge the anti-socialist ideas which were coming forward.

But the main reason for the growing weakness of socialist ideas inside the movement lay in the distorted view of socialism which predominated. Most feminists’ view of socialism was a completely eclectic variety of ideas, as one veteran feminist – late of the Spare Rib collective – articulates:

By the late 1960s the politics coming out of [such] struggles included observations, analysis and practice which women in turn seized hold of to help them define themselves ... Mao, black power, Fanon, Vietnam, Reich, libertarianism, sexual liberation. [34]

This political confusion coloured the new women’s liberation movement, which adopted the voluntarism of Mao, the cheerleading of the oppressed from the national liberation movements, sexual radicalism and individualism from the libertarians. Because the politics were so unclear and eclectic, there were many things which these women could not begin to explain. If, following Stalin and Mao, one third of the world was already socialist, why were women in these countries still oppressed? Why did women’s liberation not come about as a result of colonial revolution?

The questioning of ‘socialist’ theory grew, especially in the mid-1970s. The failure of the late 1960s and early 1970s struggles to shift anything fundamentally had its effects on many women. For them, the women’s movement provided a convenient stepping stone out of organised socialist politics.

Involvement in left-wing groups was regarded as increasingly unacceptable to many feminists, and left-wing organisations were accused of sexism, as if they had been in any way comparable with the Tom Haydens and Stokeley Carmichaels of the US left. In reality many of the women articulating these ideas had always been hostile to left groups – and had at best been on the margins of them. There were even some who had shown little interest in ideas of women’s liberation while in left groups, who now turned against the left. It was widely accepted that all left-wing men were the problem. Some left-wing feminists went along with this and some – at first tentatively – asserted that they were feminists first. Red Rag, produced by a collective of various left-wing women but increasingly under the influence of the Communist Party, stated in its first issue:

The organised labour movement – that is, the trade unions, the co-ops and the left political parties – is the decisive force in this country for social progress and for socialism. [35]

The language could have come straight from Stalin himself, but at least the commitment was to working within mixed working-class organisations. By the fourth issue of the magazine a change was under way: ‘our first commitment is to the Women’s Liberation Movement’. [36]

As the socialists moved closer to a cross-class feminism, so the non-socialist feminists became more confident. A Women and Socialism conference was held in Birmingham in the autumn of 1974. Even here radical feminists went on the offensive against socialist feminists:

socialist women were challenged to demonstrate their commitment to women, all women even ‘fascist’ women, and to put women above their ‘polities’. Violent statements about men have appeared in the [Women’s Liberation] Newsletter unsigned; women with boy children have been turned away from the Kingsgate women’s centre; women in the office have refused to speak to men over the phone. [37]

Although such antics were greeted with a sense of outrage, they became more and more common as radical feminists tried to impose much greater separatism on the movement. The politics of the socialist feminists was such that they were incapable of taking the radical feminists on. Eventually, as we shall see, they were to capitulate on a theoretical and a practical level.

But the political weakness of the movement did not lie simply in the politics of the individual women involved; it was shaped by the social composition of the movement itself, and of its underlying basis. Like its American counterpart, the British movement was not based on working-class women. It attracted women from that thin layer who were educated, aware, higher earners if they were in work. [38] Sheila Rowbotham describes one group:

They were predominantly American and in their mid-20s. Some of them had been active in Camden Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, most of them had husbands who were very deeply involved in revolutionary politics. Many of them too had small children and felt very isolated both as housewives and as foreigners. They started to meet in Tufnell Park and were later to have an extremely important influence. [39]

A survey in Shrew in 1972 gives a very similar picture. A student interviewed seven out of 12 women in a London group. Four were over 30, and only one under 25. They were all from middle-class backgrounds. Three had been born in North America and four in Britain. [40] Their political views were as usual diverse: ‘there was no one coherent radical ideology that was expressed. We had not sorted out the relationship between the class struggle and women’s struggle.’ [41] But this lack of coherence was beginning to show a negative side. ‘Only one of us was optimistic about the future. The most pessimistic of us felt that the movement, because of its lack of concrete purpose, might fizzle out and felt it necessary for us to work for concrete, goals.’ [42]

This study, together with Sheila Rowbotham’s recollections of the Tufnell Park group, is impressionistic but fascinating. Two points are worth making: the women were not particularly young or new to the political milieu. They had been around the left and clearly looked to the movement to provide them with a political purpose greater than that of passive spectators. In this they were quite different from the people who tended to gravitate to the revolutionary left at the time. In addition, there was also a very high proportional involvement of Americans in the early British movement. This is evidence of the huge influence of the American movement on the British, and explains how many of the political ideas got carried into the women’s movement in Britain in a very direct way.

The nature of the movement – the fact that it was not linked to struggle, the fact that it could at best only relate to a very small number of working-class women on an individual basis, led to the sense of powerlessness and pessimism, experienced by the women above. Into such a movement, the central perspective of consciousness-raising fitted perfectly: middle-class women could spend endless hours talking about what was oppressing them as individuals. Inevitably the concept led away from class struggle. An article in Shrew in 1971 entitled Organising Ourselves described what a women’s liberation group was like. Each group would be small – 10 to 15 members – and locally based. The point of the group was to act as ‘a model for political work and a microcosm of a future good society’. [43] So the group was not there primarily to organise in the outside world but to raise the level of ideas of its own members – and therefore to create a pleasant, feminist consciousness regardless of the objective circumstances in the wider world.

This attitude had an effect on the practice of the women’s movement in more ways than one. The groups became more and more inward-looking. Some became closed to new members, which meant that the movement really was developing into an internalised, charmed circle. [44] Because ‘the personal is political’ became the accepted slogan, discussion of personal problems became as valid as fighting for social change. The orientation on the personal also meant the movement stayed small. It seems that there were never more than 60 women’s liberation groups in London [45] and given the optimum size of 10–15, these could only have organised a few hundred women. Conferences and demonstrations also tended to be small: the International Women’s Day demonstration in 1971 attracted 2,000 people – of whom a quarter were men. [46] The publications fared a little better. Spare Rib was launched in 1972 and quickly built up a large, though not a mass circulation. But even in December 1971, Shrew was bemoaning the fact that ‘we don’t even sell the 3,000 copies that are printed each month. ‘ [47] Red Rag, Women’s Voice, Socialist Woman, Wires and the others did no better.

By 1974 signs of crisis were everywhere. The initial enthusiasm of the movement had gone, many of the activists had run out of steam, the radical feminists were going on the offensive. That year Socialist Woman wrote: ‘most working-class militants do not turn to the WLM to centralise and coordinate their struggles’. [48] Shrew did not produce an issue for two years from late 1974 to 1976. [49]

Yet this period was one of significant struggles among women. Equal pay was the impetus for many: SEI and Wingrove and Rogers in 1974, Electrolux in 1975. But there was a long list of struggles which flared up over other causes: Asian women at Kenilworth Components; teachers in Hackney; Rolls Royce and Dunlop workers in Coventry. Individual members of the women’s movement related to the strikes as individuals. There was no sign of a mass movement of women committed to helping these women win their fights. Instead, where struggles were successful, it tended to be where fellow trade unionists had played a key role. [50]

The abortion campaign

In 1975, surprisingly, a new struggle developed. If anything was a key ‘women’s issue’, this was. It provided the opportunity for mass mobilisation for the first time since the formation of the movement. But, when it was tested, the movement was found wanting.

The issue was abortion. In 1967, an Abortion Act had been passed which allowed for legal abortion for women if continuing with the pregnancy would affect the mental or physical health of the woman. Although this criterion obviously imposed restrictions, it also allowed far more women to obtain safe and legal abortions. The rate of abortions shot up. In 1969 there were 53,000 legal abortions. By the mid-1970s this figure had reached well over 100,000. [51] The anti-abortion lobby – unhappy with the original Act – attempted to restrict the law still further. A right-wing Labour MP from Glasgow, James White, introduced a private members’ bill reducing the grounds for abortion and attacking the clinics which provided essential back-up to the NHS in enabling women to have abortions.

A meeting at the House of Commons in April 1975 heralded the beginning of the National Abortion Campaign, set up to fight White’s bill and to defend the 1967 Act. From the start the campaign was heavily influenced by socialists, who carried a lot of the work. Members of the International Marxist Group in particular (then numbering several hundred) were involved in the national structure of NAC. The International Socialists were very active in the campaign, especially at a local level. The largest left organisation at the time, the Communist Party, supported the campaign, but was much more passive in its approach. The campaign had great success in its early months. The NAC petition was used to organise street meetings, factory gate meetings and local activities. Labour MPs were pressurised to oppose the White bill. Most importantly, the issue was taken up in workplaces and in union branches. This line was particularly pushed by IS, who argued that the issue was essentially a class issue, since rich women always had the money for safe and legal abortion – it was the poor who were penalised by restrictive abortion laws.

The right to abortion proved surprisingly popular. Petitioners experienced a lot of support from many sources – that of middle-aged and older women (many of whom would have experienced illegal abortion) was particularly noticeable. Where the issue was raised among workers, it was clearly getting a good response. Even all-male workplaces or union branches could be committed to support for the campaign. In June 1975, NAC’s first national demonstration in London mobilised 40,000. A further 700 marched in Glasgow and 100 in Dundee. On the London demo, banners included the Hull Docks Shop Stewards Committee, a couple of AUEW branches, and branch banners from the UPW (post office workers), NUJ, COHSE, NUT, ASTMS, NALGO and eighteen trades councils. [52] Beth Stone, a member of the NUT executive and of IS, got a good response when she told the demonstration that White’s bill was ‘part of a concentrated attack on working people’. [53] The demonstration was a great success. But divisions arose on the question of what to do next, which reflected the growing divisions in the movement itself. Women inside IS who attended the NAC steering committee argued that the June success should be built on and repeated as the most effective way of defeating White. Others in NAC put increasing faith in the capacity of sympathetic Labour MPs to win their case. Yet despite a Labour government, the abortion issue continued to be regarded as an issue of individual conscience by Labour, and a substantial minority of Labour MPs continued to support White.

At a NAC planning meeting in September 1975 a split opened. Representatives of the IMG, the Communist Party and Labour Party opposed the call for another national demo. As an article in Women’s Voice put it, they were ‘effectively arguing for the burial of the campaign’. [54] Similar divisions occurred at NAC’s conference in October that year. Women grouped around IS and Women’s Voice argued for and successfully won the adoption of the slogan ‘Free abortion on demand – a woman’s right to choose’ as that of the campaign. But a mass demo by the anti-abortion SPUC was consciously ignored by the conference organisers. It was left to a Women’s Voice initiative to call a picket of SPUC. Two hundred women left the conference and joined the picket. [55]

Revolutionary politics could clearly appeal to a minority of the activists. But the main direction of the campaign was going elsewhere. It tended to reflect a growing inclination for much of the left to look to the Labour Party for change. So the IMG put more and more faith in MPs like Jo Richardson (even though Labour minister Barbara Castle was already trying to restrict private abortion ‘abuses’ – thereby throwing a sop to the anti-abortionists). [56] The fact that James White’s bill was ultimately defeated by parliamentary means – although very largely because of extra-parliamentary pressure – increased this orientation. The socialists in the campaign tended to be on the defensive. Individuals on the steering committee had as much weight as whole political or union organisations, and the atmosphere was always against the socialists. Any attempts by socialists to raise the political level of the campaign were denounced as attempts to split the movement. The bulk of women in organisations like the IMG or CP tended to tail-end, and sometimes to encourage, these sentiments. So instead of NAC becoming a campaign which could genuinely involve large numbers of workers and so transform the nature and priorities of the women’s movement, it became just one small – and increasingly marginal – part.

The movement itself had come a very long way. Its unresolved political problems were partially and temporarily concealed by the growth of NAC. But by the mid-1970s, the excitement of the new movement had died. Sisterhood was revealed to contain all sorts of contradictions and as many political differences. By the mid-1970s, too, radical feminists’ attitudes were hardening. Their ‘common sense’ views were to crystallise around the theory of patriarchy – a theory which was increasingly adopted by the socialist feminists to explain women’s oppression.

The hopes of the early years of women’s liberation quickly turned sour. By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, the women’s movement and the feminist ideas which underpinned it were charted on a very different course. Yet it was precisely in the mid-1970s – and not in its early period – that feminism became a dominant idea on the left in Britain. Two separate trends – which reinforced each other as time went on – began to dominate the movement from then on. The first was the sheer respectability of much of the movement, which led to its incorporation into the system at all sorts of levels. The second was the development of radical feminism as the dominant trend within the movement as a whole.

Respectability became a hallmark of the United States movement, a thin layer of women moved up into top jobs or into newly created ‘equality’ posts. An interview with Robin Morgan, a leading US feminist, in 1978 showed the extent to which this had happened. She herself worked on Ms magazine, a mainstream women’s magazine and saw no contradiction between this and her feminist politics. She spoke approvingly of the acceptance into mainstream politics of a friend of hers,

Eleanor Holmes Norton whom I first met almost fifteen years ago when she was counsel to the black women’s liberation committee of SNCC. We have been teargassed together. She now heads the Equal Opportunities Commission, and I would stake my life that she is not selling out. [57]

American capitalism was well able to incorporate a layer of former radicals from the women’s, black and student movements into working within the system, and set out consciously to do so. Private industry provided similar openings. Today 44 per cent of accountants in the US are women, compared to only 16 per cent in 1960. In 1986, 30 per cent of MBA degrees were awarded to women, as against 8.4 per cent in 1975. [58] This trend was accompanied by a level of ideological conservatism. In particular, some women returned to the traditional roles that many of them had eschewed only ten years before. The feminist historian Linda Gordon described herself in 1978 as ‘very alarmed’ about the baby boom then taking place among many feminists. They seemed to be valuing all the things – marriage, the family and motherhood – which they had always believed were at least part of the causes of women’s oppression.

I know a million women here with babies, and I’m the only one who is working full-time. Everyone else is living in families with a restoration of straight sex-roles ... practically every one of them has got married. I’ve experienced the conservatising effect on myself; having a baby throws me in more and more on the little quasi-family that I live in. [59]

A sure sign of the incorporation of much of the movement lay in the designation by the United Nations of 1975 as International Women’s Year. As is the case with all the unfortunate causes singled out by the UN for special attentions, International Women’s Year did nothing to alter the unequal position of working women within society. It did, however, produce a massive jamboree – a conference in Mexico. The conference served only to highlight the massive class differences which existed between its different participants. These class differences were particularly accentuated by the presence of third world women, such as the wife of a Bolivian tin miner, Domitila Chungara. Tin miners in Bolivia worked in the most appalling conditions and died at an average age of 34. The main struggle of these workers and of their wives was against the mineowners and the government, not against each other.

Domitila was shocked at the priorities of the bourgeois feminists at the conference. Betty Friedan, leader of the National Organisation of Women, criticised her and other women like her for talking about politics too much. Discussion of politics clearly demonstrated too sharply for Betty Friedan’s liking the divisions which existed. Domitila answered the bourgeois women:

Every morning you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand, I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed like someone who has time to spend in an elegant beauty parlour and who can spend money on that, and yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffeur in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t ... Now, señora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine? Is my situation at all similar to yours? So what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us? If you and I aren’t alike, if you and I are so different? We can’t, at this moment, be equal, even as women, don’t you think? [60]

Two years later another massive women’s conference took place, this time in Houston, Texas, in 1977. The Equal Rights conference was, like Mexico, hailed as a huge success by many feminists. Yet it marked the degree of rightward drift of the American movement. It was graced by the presence of three First Ladies (wives of American presidents): Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. All three were extremely rich members of the ruling class, who could know nothing of the problems of ordinary women. The conference attracted 15,000 people. But an estimated 20 per cent of delegates were ‘pro-family’ conservatives who were opposed to abortion, lesbian rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. An all-white delegation from the racially segregated state of Mississippi, which included four male members of the Nazi party, was admitted to the conference. [61]

The idea that politics could be forgotten as feminists celebrated the sisterhood of all women proved totally false. The conference, far from being a force for change, was able to become a reaffirmation of the most conservative and traditional values. This was something which most feminists didn’t understand at all. So Robin Morgan could herald it as a breakthrough because it attracted so many women:

Women came who had never been involved in the women’s movement, in politics or anything of the sort. They came because they were angry about a traffic island on the corner for their kids, or a job, or because they’d been raped. They discovered that feminists were against pornography, and that was a big shock. [62]

But the breakthrough was in fact going in the opposite direction from women’s liberation. The mass of women Robin Morgan talked about were not adopting the ideas of women’s liberation; instead one-time women’s liberationists were making concessions to the right. The net effect was a shift to the right which has continued ever since.

Those who did not swim with the current tended, in the US at least, to move into lifestyle politics as an attempt to build a feminist culture and society in the here and now. This lifestyle feminism was often built around lesbianism as a political theory and practice. Women could build a lifestyle – at least in a few big cities – which cut men out of politics, of social life, of sexuality – sometimes even out of work. Jan Clausen’s novel Sinking, Stealing, about a lesbian’s fight for custody of her dead lover’s daughter, paints a vivid picture of this separatist world in her descriptions of lesbian communes or of the political scene in New York:

Rather like someone embarking on a moderate exercise programme, I decide to start going to demos. A call comes through soon enough from Lesbians for Reproductive Freedom, a group on whose phone tree I remain an honorary twig even though I haven’t attended a meeting in two years. A five p.m. picket and rally are scheduled three days hence in front of the Waldorf Astoria to protest the arrival of a certain right-wing Central American leader ... LRF feels it’s particularly important to support this action given the US role in victimising women throughout Central and South America. [63]

Although this form of lifestyle politics was far preferable to the open careerism of some ex-feminists, it was essentially a retreat into a cosy environment which ignored the realities of the society outside. In Britain, it was much harder for feminists to go as far as their American counterparts along the paths of respectability or complete lifestylism. But nonetheless the two developments were repeated in Britain, although in less extreme form. And the theory behind much of the lifestylism increasingly challenged and eventually displaced socialist feminism as the dominant set of ideas inside the women’s movement. The most notable feature of the British movement in the mid and late 1970s was, therefore, the rise of radical feminism.

This was not obvious at first. It was hidden primarily by the continuingly high level of class struggle, which helped those still arguing for socialist ideas within the women’s movement to win an audience. There were, for example, major strikes involving women of which Trico – in 1976 for equal pay – and Grunwicks over union recognition a year later are the two best known. There were fights against cuts in public spending or against hospital closures, such as that over the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London. And there was another attempt to restrict abortion – the Benyon bill – which had to be fought off in 1977. [64] But the direction in which the movement was going became increasingly clear. It had raised four demands – for equal pay, education and job opportunities, contraception and abortion, and nurseries. In 1975, the demand for legal and financial independence was added, and in 1978 an end to discrimination against lesbians and an end to violence. These new demands were the logical conclusion of the direction the movement was travelling: away from collective struggle, and towards individual and lifestyle feminism.

Violence against women first became an issue inside the movement in 1974, when Women’s Aid came into being. By 1975 there were 90 refuges around the country. [65] They were mainly funded and run by volunteers. Women’s Aid served to highlight a major scandal: that many women lived in fear of physical beating from the men they lived with, and that the capitalist state itself colluded in this situation. The police would not normally interfere in domestic disputes, and local councils would not rehouse women made homeless through violence. The idea of the refuges was that women would at least have somewhere safe to go where they could be safe from battering. Very quickly they became accepted, even by some Tory councils.

Similar arguments arose over issues like rape and pornography. There were a number of controversial rape cases at the time, and in 1975 the first Rape Crisis Centre was set up. The following year saw the establishment of Women Against Rape. WAR was dominated by the same people who had set up the Wages for Housework campaign two years previously. It therefore combined a strongly anti-men radical feminism, a location of women’s oppression in the home and a level of activism which ensured that it gained some support. [66]

Pornography was provoking similarly strong responses. The movement to Reclaim the Night took off in 1977. Its aim was to reclaim the streets for women, especially in areas like Soho, where sex shops and porn cinemas abounded. Tactics were often extremely militant – and the women clearly annoyed the porn racketeers. A demonstration through Soho in December 1978 was brutally attacked by the police, and sixteen women arrested. Many women continued to march in different cities around the country, however by the late 1970s, Reclaim the Night was one of the most dynamic features of the women’s movement.

But this change in orientation – towards individual problems of race or violence, and away from collective struggle – was not an accident. It resulted from the increased adoption of a theory which saw not capital or class society as the enemy, but all men. So the women arrested for reclaiming the night were described as ‘the victims of men’s defence of pornography’. [67] An extremely influential and cogently argued book, Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, stated as its main thesis that rape is ‘a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. ‘ [68] Theories of violence were ideal from a radical feminist point of view. They did not fit neatly into a class analysis; the ruling class was not obviously culpable; indeed a more direct guilt appeared to lie with individual men. Hence the need, so the argument went, for a separate ‘women’s revolution’ against male power and dominance. A whole spate of radical feminist theory backed up these ideas. Women like Mary Daly and Dale Spender represented a new and forceful trend in radical feminist ideas, as they denounced all things male and recreated their own parallel of bourgeois history in the history of bourgeois women. [69] The socialist feminists, who had been in the ascendancy in the early days of the women’s movement – at least in Britain – now found themselves pushed very much onto the defensive and challenged in every area of basic theory.

The development of the theory of patriarchy as a major force in the movement dates from this time. It marked the defeat of socialist feminism. The term patriarchy had always been in use, and ‘patriarchal’ has also been used to describe various sorts of feudal and peasant families, where the ‘patriarch’ (often the grandfather) dominated socially and economically within the family and oppressed all other members of it. (This sort of patriarchal family was, of course, unlike the capitalist family a productive one.) But the term came to take on a much wider usage. By 1979 Sheila Rowbotham could write:

The term has been used in a great variety of ways. ‘Patriarchy’ has been discussed as an ideology which arose out of men’s power to exchange women between kinship groups; as a symbolic male principle; and as the power of the father (its literal meaning). It has been used to express men’s control over women’s sexuality and fertility; and to describe the institutional structure of male domination. Recently the phrase ‘capitalist patriarchy’ has suggested a form peculiar to capitalism. [70]

By the late 1970s it came to mean virtually anything to do with male domination. It had tended already to replace theories of the family as the root of women’s oppression. But the conclusions from their theory were, however, fairly uniform: that male domination is not simply a product of class society or specifically capitalism, but is something quite separate which will endure after the overthrow of capitalism. It is this which provides the theoretical justification for women’s separate organisation.

The problem of how to explain patriarchy was at first simply wished away. Many feminists, subscribing in any case to the idea that women’s oppression and its structures were quite autonomous from class society, regarded patriarchy as simply a separate sphere. ‘We are dealing with two autonomous areas, the economic mode oil capitalism and the ideological mode of patriarchy’, argued Juliet Mitchell. [71] Two socialist feminist historians, Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor, embraced this view in 1980:

It was precisely because a Marxist theory of class conflict, however elaborated, could not answer all our questions about sexual conflict that we tried to develop an alternative. If we need to keep the two areas of analysis apart for a time, then so be it. [72]

On this definition, the dominance of patriarchy was ideological, and therefore could be challenged simply through ideological struggle. This implied autonomous groups of women fighting against patriarchy through consciousness-raising and thus defeating it on the level of ideas. The strength of patriarchy theory among socialist feminists meant that many of them were already making major concessions towards idealist and non-materialist theories. But the theory still presented a problem for socialist feminists. Patriarchy did, after all, have to be rooted in some material reality, if socialist feminists were to retain any credibility as Marxists.

Marx himself had stated in the German Ideology that ideas did not have an independent existence, but were rooted in the circumstances in which men and women lived and worked:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [73]

Patriarchy could not therefore be explained simply as existing. There had to be reasons for those patriarchal ideas coming into existence and – more importantly – for their continued existence from feudalism to capitalism, despite the fundamental changes in society which had accompanied the transition from one mode of production to another. It was this essentially idealist and ahistorical approach that to some socialist feminists to question the theory of patriarchy. Sheila Rowbotham pointed to various periods of struggle in history when women have acted together with men to achieve their aims, when

women’s public political action has often challenged not only the ruling class, the invader or the coloniser, but also the men’s idea of women’s role. [74]

And she argued that at least Marxist theory took account of historical changes and their implications, whereas patriarchy was a static concept:

Within Marxism there is at least a possibility of a dialectical unity of transience and moment. But it seems to me that the concept of ‘patriarchy’ offers no such prospect. [75]

But she was already fighting a losing battle. A major and influential attack on Marxist ideas in the form of an article by the American feminist Heidi Hartmann, became the justification for a generation of socialist feminists accepting wholeheartedly the theory of patriarchy. Hartmann’s thesis in The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism [76] was a persuasive one. She argued that patriarchy had a material base, which ‘lies most fundamentally in men’s control over women’s labour power’. [77] So women are denied access to the economically productive resources of capitalism. In order to achieve this, men go into an alliance with capital, by raising and winning demands for protective legislation and the family wage. Hartmann was expressing what was to become a very common view among socialist feminists: that men, and especially male trade unionists, have colluded with capital to keep women down. This view was popularised by a number of arguments relating to the family wage and was used as a justification for some quite reactionary ideas such as support for a feminist incomes policy.

A number of serious historians have provided a challenge to this view. They have pointed to the fact that most working women and men accepted and welcomed protective legislation; that the family wage only applied to a minority of working-class families; and that the overwhelming majority of men weren’t even in unions at the time. [78] But the dominant view became the crude and simply erroneous one outlined above. This had two serious implications for socialist feminists. It led firstly to a rejection of male workers as part of the struggle for women’s liberation. If men were indeed in alliance with capital, then at least part of the struggle had to be against men. The second implication was an acceptance of more radical feminist ideas. After all, the early radical feminists in America had identified men as a major enemy, on the basis of biological differences. Here was a theory which once again stressed the biological difference between men and women as a major source of oppression, rather than the social system within which they existed.

From the late 1970s onwards, theories of the family as the root of women’s oppression, which explained it in class terms, were increasingly replaced by patriarchal theories based not on class but on gender. By 1982, two socialist feminists could, while defending socialist feminism, demonstrate how far it had strayed from basic Marxist ideas. Beatrix Campbell and Anna Coote’s Sweet Freedom pointed to aspects of women’s oppression which ‘cannot be accounted for in Marxist theory of class exploitation’. [79] For them, ‘socialist feminists have begun to develop an exacting critique of theories of class exploitation. They insist on the centrality of ideological struggle, which has been all too glibly nudged to the periphery of politics by much of the left.’ Reproduction and family relations are placed at the heart of social and economic theory and strategy.

It is at this point that the gap between radical feminism (in its non-biological determinist form) and socialist feminism is at its narrowest. What distinguishes the two is that socialist feminists’ politics entail neither a rejection of men nor a withdrawal from them, but an urgent necessity to fight both in and against male-dominated power relations. [80]

Campbell and Coote were right to say that the gap between radical and socialist feminist theory was growing narrower. But what they didn’t understand at all was how the balance of forces between the two had shifted, and what the implications for the future were. The wholesale adoption of patriarchy theory only served to strengthen the radical feminist wing of the movement.

Things were in any case moving very fast. The national Women’s Liberation Conference in Birmingham in 1978 was an indication of that. The conference is remembered – somewhat notoriously – as the last to be held in Britain. Its debates were so acrimonious that no one individual or grouping has taken it upon themselves to organise a repeat. Over 3,000 women attended the conference. All the different wings of the movement were represented there – but some were more dominant than others. Many radical feminists were becoming increasingly impatient with any strategy of change which involved men or socialist (therefore by implication male-defined) politics. Among them were the Revolutionary Feminists – so called not because of any adoption of socialist ideas, but because of their uncompromising hostility to any collaboration with men.

Revolutionary feminism had emerged at the previous year’s women’s liberation conference, when Sheila Jeffreys organised a workshop entitled The Need for Revolutionary Feminism – against the liberal takeover of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Two hundred women turned up to discuss

a political feminism. There was sex-rolism, lifestylism, and socialist feminism. I was in a desperate search for radical feminist theory which talked of the power of men and how to take it from them. Politics was taken to mean socialism, and theory the extension of Marxism. [81]

Jeffreys hit a nerve. By the time of the 1978 conference anti-socialist ideas were much more widespread. The conference was split on every major issue. The report in Spare Rib gave some indication of this. The conference was divided into workshops which discussed three issues: how do we oppress each other? what is the nature of campaigns, how effective are they and what is the alternative? and how do we come together in terms of our own internal organisation? The atmosphere was acrimonious. As the report’s writers, Anny Bracx, Gail Chester and Sara Ranee put it:

one concept which we have developed hardly surfaced in this set up: sisterhood ... there was little sympathetic listening; it was mainly a question of attack and defence. [82]

Debate centred around the phrasing of the new seventh demand of the movement. Should it be preceded by the phrase ‘male violence against women is an expression of male supremacy and political control of women’?

After a protracted shouting match, it was voted to delete the incriminating sentence from the new seventh demand. [83]

But the damage had been done. Women who had gone to the conference hoping to experience the movement as a real sisterhood of women were bitterly disappointed. This was reflected in Spare Rib’s letters pages in the following months. A Birmingham woman wrote:

the threatening stances, arrogant posturings and self-indulgent introspection I and my friends witnessed at conference have ensured that none of us will ever try to establish contact with the movement again. [84]

A number of feminist groups including Lesbian Left, Rights of Women and Women against Racism and Fascism wrote, on the other hand, that the movement had to be ‘broad enough to accommodate our differences’. [85] And members of Brighton Women’s Liberation wrote defending those who had argued:

While the plenary was disastrous and upsetting it revealed genuine political differences within the movement which we have been afraid of facing up to.

This statement was undoubtedly true. There were real political differences. The letter described them thus:

Our politics are feminist. We analyse our oppression as due to male supremacy, to the patriarchy. Men are our oppressors, the enemy, and not some abstract ‘system’. The system is created and perpetuated by men for the benefit of all men. Capitalism, class, racism, fascism, colonialism and imperialism are all male institutions, current manifestations of male rule – the patriarchy. [86]

These feminists were absolutely clear about their politics, and they were developing more confidence in expressing them: oppression came from the patriarchy; it could be fought not by focussing on issues like class or imperialism but by fixing on male rule as the primary source of women’s oppression. Such an analysis clearly left no room for any political activity which involved men. This analysis was miles away from the established socialist feminism – Sheila Rowbotham’s writing on history, the domestic labour debate, issues like the night cleaners, the National Abortion Campaign or Trico. But the socialist feminists had a problem. They had conceded the theory of patriarchy and therefore at least some of its conclusions. Now many feminists were taking these conclusions much further than the socialist feminists had wanted.

It was at this time that socialist feminism really went into crisis. But instead of reasserting any sort of Marxist tradition, they responded by attacking at least some of the socialist ideas that they had previously embraced. This in turn reflected how far the socialist feminists had moved over the years. A telling comment on this came from a leading American socialist feminist, Kathie Sarachild – a former founder of Redstockings. Interviewed in Spare Rib in 1978, Sarachild said:

New York Radical Women had always contained a contradiction between what then were called the politicos and the feminists; later you would call it the socialist feminists and the radical feminists. But then, the politicos didn’t call themselves feminists. They were against feminism. [87]

By the late 1970s the ‘politicos’ certainly weren’t against feminism. Their defensiveness at being socialists was indeed reflected in nearly all the socialist feminist publications. Red Rag – by now totally dominated by Communist Party feminists – went through a crisis in 1980. Its editorial stated:

Our crisis ... came from our assumption as socialist feminists that because the WLM existed, men would change. But the pain of our personal and political lives over the past couple of years has been the discovery that the second doesn’t follow from the first. [88]

The editorial continued: ‘socialism has not only failed to confront patriarchy, but socialism in Britain has just about killed off socialism.’ [89] Socialist Woman went through a similar crisis in 1978, over whether to organise a socialist feminist current; [90] and the SWP’s Women’s Voice saw in the bitterly divided 1978 Women’s Liberation Conference a sad betrayal of the earlier unity of the movement. In an open letter issued after the conference it looked back to the 1970 founding conference in Oxford and said:

There we were, not knowing how our movement would develop, not knowing each other, not yet having proved that we could build any campaigns among the masses of women who hadn’t even heard of us. But there was far more sisterhood and solidarity and sense of purpose in that meeting than there was in Birmingham. Is this what we’ve achieved in our eight years? [91]

All these statements provided evidence of the deep crisis in which socialist feminism found itself. But the solutions to this crisis weren’t forthcoming. Or if they were, they tended in every direction other than towards an attack on radical or separatist feminism. Feminists around Red Rag, particularly Beatrix Campbell, increasingly adapted radical feminist theory to attack the male working class and the trade unions – with predictably reactionary results. The SWP and Women’s Voice went through its own internal crisis, partly at least centred on the need to resolve the relationship between Marxism and feminism. Other feminists turned to a form of organisation which did not exclude men and indeed welcomed them. But they did so by launching a major attack on Leninist organisation, which allegedly had nothing useful to say or offer to women. Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright published their influential book, Beyond the Fragments in 1979. [92] It drew strongly on libertarian politics and polemicised against Leninist forms of organisation. Its main thesis, however, was that left politics had to be transformed by women and by the experience of the women’s movement. Beyond the Fragments was praised by nearly everybody on the left. It was even the subject of an adulatory article written by Jill Tweedie on the Guardian women’s page. Tweedie stated in support of the book that

political and industrial jargon is too often used to make people feel inferior, ignorant, powerless. Godheads like Lenin and Marx are invoked to put you in your place and the ordinary person fights back in the only way possible – by dropping out. [93]

This really was standing things on their head. Women’s liberation started as a movement against oppression which was caused by the system, and perpetrated through the dominant ideas in the system – those of the ruling class. Here, so the argument went, women’s oppression was maintained not just by men, but by socialist men – the very ones committed to ending this oppressive system! Just to rub the argument in, the article was accompanied by a picture of two women pensioners captioned ‘waiting for the revolution: are they failed by the organised left?’ [94] This was the message which many would-be socialists took from Beyond the Fragments. As Lynne Segal later admitted, some saw it as justifying abandonment of class politics – others as the green light for joining the Labour Party. [95] This may not have been the intention of its authors, but it was nonetheless the reality. The fragment conference in Leeds in 1980 was hugely popular. Yet little came out of it. Attempts to set up local fragment organisation foundered on two things: the decline of local ‘fragment-type’ groups around the end of the 1970s; and the massive influx of those influenced by fragment-type arguments into the Labour Party. This was the key political direction for socialist feminists in the 1980s.

Women and Labour – a force for change?

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to a flood of activists into the Labour Party. Thousands of socialists and activists, frustrated and disillusioned that their years of operating in left groups, movements or campaigns had not resulted in any real social change, now saw transforming Labour as the alternative. Nowhere was this more true than among a layer of feminists, who by the late 1970s accelerated the already growing trend into the Labour Party.

The guru of Labour’s new left was Tony Benn, a former cabinet minister who moved to the left in opposition. A sign of the rise of the Labour left was the major interview with Benn carried in Spare Rib’s hundredth issue in 1980. Benn argued, in the face of some hostile questioning, for a form of socialist feminism, operating through the Labour Party. [96] There were increased demands among Labour women for change inside the party which reflected this feminism. There were calls for the revival of women’s sections, for women’s committees attached to local councils to ensure that women’s demands were met, and for positive discrimination to create more women MPs, women council leaders and so on. Labour made a party political broadcast on the question of women in 1981, and in 1982 there was a women’s festival in London organised by the Labour Party. The GLC in particular was identified with trying to bring change for women, and its women’s committee attracted a great deal of publicity.

What was the attraction of the Labour Party for so many feminists? It had, after all, a particularly poor record on fighting for women’s rights. Indeed the Callaghan government, which fell in 1979, had gone out of its way to stress the virtues of traditional family values, and at one time had even proposed a Minister for Marriage. [97] At least part of Labour’s attraction lay in the nature of the party itself. An editorial in Feminist Review put it like this:

A number of features peculiar to the Labour Party and its left wing may have made it attractive to feminist ‘entryism’ in the past year or so ... the Labour Party seems more like a forum than a political party and it is not, of course, a democratic centralist party. It is not a party that’s claimed to have a worked out line on the emancipation of women or a worked out policy for them. Women may therefore have expected less of the Labour Party than they did from Marxist groups, and perhaps also felt that their feminism was less under attack – or remained more intact, simply because the Labour Party is less ‘ideological’. [98]

The Labour Party had always been a ‘broad church’ in that it contained wide divergences of opinion – and sometimes directly contradictory views – within its midst. In the late 1970s and early 1980s in particular, when the left in the Labour Party was on the ascendant, this made it a much more attractive option than a more rigorous Leninist organisation, especially to that layer of educated women in high paid full-time work who – along with their male counterparts – have tended to become the backbone of the party in recent years. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the feminist move into the Labour Party was the sense that direct actions and struggles had failed, and that the only solution for women – as for the working class – lay in the election of a Labour government! This meant, in particular, that many socialist feminists could ignore the fact that the women’s movement was now dominated by ideas which were totally anti-men. Indeed they could subscribe to at least some of these ideas, whilst continuing to feel that they were doing something practical in the here and now to help women. So, for example, women flooded onto the massive Labour Party demonstrations against unemployment in Liverpool and Glasgow in 1980–81.

This support for Labour showed many contradictions, however. The occupation for jobs by women at Lee Jeans in Greenock, which started in 1981, was largely ignored by Labour, as were most industrial disputes. And the same day that 80,000 marched against unemployment in Glasgow, 2,000 women joined a London Reclaim the Night march. The 2,000 were composed of a strange amalgam of strongly anti-men radical feminists and the SWP’s student women who argued class politics against much hostility. [99]

The passivity of Labour Party feminists was also shown by the incident which marked the biggest demonstration yet in defence of abortion rights – against the Corrie bill in 1979. The massive demonstration was called by the TUC, which in itself was an unprecedented step. It was built for in trade union branches up and down the country, and on the day 80,000 women and men turned up. Union and workplace banners were well represented. The TUC had, however, called the demonstration for its own ends, and was determined to control it. In this, the National Abortion Campaign, led by Labour Party women – many of them ex-revolutionaries – was all too happy to comply. A number of women activists – many of them radical feminists – objected to men leading the march. Several hundred of them spontaneously took over the front of the march, to the fury of the TUC bureaucrats.

The socialist/radical split once again came to the fore. Women bureaucrats and Communist Party members Judith Hunt and Terry Marsland defended the march order in Spare Rib; Susan Hemmings justified the breakaway in the same issue. [100] The outcome of the demo was to lead to an increased alienation from what was seen as the left. A letter in Spare Rib from Lesbian Left said that they had met after the march to discuss their future. At the meeting they talked of

the contradiction between feminist politics on the one hand and male-defined left politics on the other. Most of us decided at the meeting that we can no longer accept the term ‘Left’ because its politics does nothing to challenge Patriarchy. [101]

Yet both sides in the argument were wrong. The march should have been led by women, but women rank-and-file trade unionists – not by male (or a few female) bureaucrats. Nor should it have been led by the radical feminists, who had no interests in involving working-class women in their struggle, and still less conception of the need to win working-class men to support for abortion rights. This one incident encapsulated much of what was wrong with the involvement by the early 1980s. Socialist feminists looked passively to Labour and to the trade union bureaucracy to deliver reforms for women. In practice this usually took the form of advancement for themselves and women like them, in the employ of the GLC or other left councils – or as women councillors or MPs. Radical feminists tended to remain the activists in the movement but were totally removed from any notion of class struggle. The two reached a synthesis in the extreme separatist action of the Greenham Common peace women, and in the extremely uncritical support for it from feminists inside the Labour Party.

Greenham Common was one of the major influences on politics in the early 1980s. The women were part of a gigantic, if largely passive, movement for peace which swept Europe in response to US plans to site Cruise missiles there. Its motivation was opposition to the view that Europe could be used by the superpowers as a ‘contained’ or ‘limited’ theatre of war. The Greenham women originated in a march organised by one woman to the proposed missile base in Berkshire in 1981. Once there, they set up a women’s peace camp. The camp sparked very strong support from CND members and others concerned with the threat of war. The privations suffered by the women, and their brutal treatment at the hands of military personnel and the local council, only added to this support. Demonstrations around the base attracted many thousands. Tony Benn in particular added his support and stressed that the actions of the Greenham women should be followed. Here once again was an issue where a women’s campaign could attract mass support.

But the campaign had two major weaknesses. The first was that it relied on a small number of women to act on behalf of others. This only added to the passivity of the movement, which could cheer on the actions at Greenham, while doing virtually nothing itself. The second weakness lay in the politics of the campaign. The protest was a form of non-violence. But the non-violence was celebrated as a particularly female thing. Such ideas were extended to include the belief that nuclear weapons were a product not of the capitalist drive to war, but of male aggressive values. ‘Take the toys from the boys’ was a popular slogan at the time. As one view put it:

Our present hierarchies are based on the need to control and feel superior. The model for this is men’s domination of women ... women have a different consciousness. Although we have believed in our own passivity and helplessness, few of us are really taken in by male heroic values. [102]

But what were the values which were to replace the male heroic? values? Essentially they were that women’s traditional role as wives and mothers equipped them for campaigning for peace. Theirs were almost by definition peace-loving occupations. Such a view was embellished by a whole series of mystical and semi-religious ideas: the idea of female goddesses; of dragons; of weaving webs around the base. This last action was inspired by women who wove a web round the Pentagon in Washington as a protest against war.

There were cheers, chants, and whistles, and women sang as we wove, Generals minced their way through woman-made webs, amidst laughs and admonitions about their daily work. 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. [103]

Women looked back to pre-capitalist times in order to celebrate their femaleness, and following Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology [104] adopted the term ‘spinster’ with pride. A peace group in Vermont, USA, called itself the Spinsters and used spinning and weaving as a means of combatting male violence. A leaflet they issued started like this:

We will meet, all of us women of every kind,
we will meet in the center, make a circle;
we will weave a world web to entangle the powers that bury our children. [105]

These politics were ultimately reactionary. They harked back to a mythical golden age and, because they did not confront the power of the capitalist state, in the end could not point a way forward in terms of getting rid of nuclear weapons. What the movement around Greenham Common did do, however, was to underline the dominance of radical feminist ideas inside the women’s movement – and at the same time to deny the validity of any form of class analysis in fighting women’s oppression.

The present day

Events were on the side of this radical feminist analysis. The level of class struggle was low, unlike the early 1970s. By the early years of Thatcher rule the picture looked very different. There were, it is true, a number of quite significant strikes involving women. In 1981 women textile workers at Lee Jeans in the west of Scotland occupied to prevent closure. Typists employed by Liverpool City Council embarked on a long strike over regrading in the same year. Asian women at Chix in Slough struck for union recognition in 1980, again beginning a dispute which was to bring them widespread support. In 1982 hospital workers took action over pay. But all the disputes eventually ended in at least partial defeat, and none of them generalised to such an extent that other workers took up their example.

Fragmentation was the order of the day. The movement took dozens of different directions. One indication of this was the crisis undergone by the collective which produced Spare Rib. The magazine had always been hailed as one of the great successes of the movement, and had been produced monthly since 1972. It was by and large an approachable and lively magazine. But as its 100th issue approached in 1980, the collective was forced to bring in a group counsellor to sort out its problems. These were caused by bitter political divisions in the collective. Initially these took the form of whether or not to publish an article which criticised lesbians. As Spare Rib put it:

Publication was blocked. Personal rifts and political disagreements opened up that had until then lain relatively dormant. Since then it has been difficult to produce work and get along in a sisterly spirit. [106]

The group counsellor did not work, as was admitted in a later issue. Further splits continued, especially on grounds of race. Allegations were made that white feminists were oppressing their black sisters. A row broke out over whether by supporting Palestinians and attacking the state of Israel, some feminists were not also oppressing Jewish women. The net result was an almost total turnover in the composition of the collective, and the dominance of a much stronger third worldist approach – pushed specially by many of the black women who now comprised much of the collective.

The black/white split was characteristic of the movement’s fragmentation. The logic of seeing oppression as the central determining factor in society, and therefore concentration on organising round oppression, meant that different oppressed groups became more concerned with how others oppressed them than with fighting that oppression. The establishment of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in 1979 as a separate black women’s organisation was a sign of this. But OWAAD was dogged from the beginning by sectarianism. It always looked to what separated it from the rest of the left and the rest of the movement. This can be seen, for example, in the statement issued at its second Black Women’s National Conference in 1980:

those of us who tried to involve ourselves in the anti-racist/fascist movement (primarily the Anti-Nazi League) found that the mainly white membership was ignoring institutionalised racism (e.g. racist immigration laws, SUS, etc.), preferring instead to channel its energies into combating the symptoms rather than the cause. [107]

This simply wasn’t true, as the record of the ANL and the groups participating in it shows. All too often, indeed, campaigns on issues like immigration laws or SUS were set up and found little or no resonance among the black communities. But it was a convenient peg on which to hang separatism. This is what happened, and the result was still more fragmentation and internalisation inside the movement.

There was only one beacon of light during these years for women who had a socialist approach to organising, and who believed that working women had to organise as part of their class to achieve liberation. The movement of miners’ wives in support of the strike of 1984–5 took everyone by surprise. Women Against Pit Closures showed the strength and solidarity of the wives and families of the miners. Women started by duplicating their traditional roles in the home – cooking, buying food – but they quickly went on to do much more. Women were involved in speaking at meetings, collecting money and picketing. They travelled the country in the process. A national demo in London in August 1984 attracted thousands, as did a rally in Chesterfield at the end of the strike.

The women were an inspiration for socialists and feminists. Many feminists were, in any case, involved in building support for the strike, and socialist feminists like Jean McCrindle were instrumental in building WAPC. But the campaign was inevitably bound up with the fate of the strike and so could not really be sustained after its defeat. Attempts by the women to win affiliation to the NUM at its 1985 conference failed following the opposition of the so-called soft left in the union. And although the campaign represented a real advance for many of the women concerned, it remained firmly in the control of the union leaders. It was led by Betty Heathfield and Ann Scargill. Nonetheless, it offered a glimpse of the strengths of women workers. And it helped at least temporarily to win the argument that the key division in society was one of class, not of gender. Unfortunately the defeat of the strike not only led to the dominance of much more right-wing feminist ideas. It also dealt a blow to the idea of class struggle as a means of changing the world. This in turn affected the development of the women’s movement – for the worse.

The women’s movement today

We are told that today the movement is going from strength to strength. Feminist ideas, according to the gurus of the movement, have never been stronger. Alleged proof of this assertion is cited as the success of feminist publishing, or the plethora of women’s studies courses. Women are in more positions of power than ever before – from private industry to the prime minister herself. Even the Church of England is bowing to pressure for women priests. Some socialist feminists who should know better are even influenced by these types of argument, which can only be sustained by totally abandoning the original principles of the women’s movement. For although there have undoubtedly been major advances for women in the past decades, these have been nearly all advances for bourgeois women. They have been about a minority of middle- and upper-class women gaining access to the once closed worlds of men – in business, finance, journalism or higher education. These sorts of advance have in fact led to the dominant ideas inside the women’s movement being more right-wing than ever. At the same time there are less real gains for working women, and indeed some major attacks on hard-won rights.

As usual, it is in the United States movement that these features are most apparent. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book on the women’s movement, A Lesser Life [108], shows how most women’s rights groups are supporting a court case – the Garland case – which denies women the right to reinstatement following maternity leave, and so effectively denies maternity leave. She quotes Dianne Feinstein, the San Francisco mayor and a feminist, as supporting Garland on the grounds that if women want equality, they have to be treated equally with men and not expect any special privileges!

What we were asking was to create a special group of workers that, in essence, is pregnant women and new mothers. I just don’t happen to agree with that. I don’t think the work market has to accommodate itself to women having children. [109]

This is also apparently the position of the National Organisation of Women. As Hewlett points out, this results in women having less right to leave for childbirth than if they are incapacitated in a skiing accident – because only women can have children, whereas anyone can have an accident. The position is an astonishing one for anyone who calls themselves a feminist to take. Yet it shows precisely the contradiction of American feminism. On the one hand it is extremely widespread, on the other it is moulded and limited by the society in which it exists. Therefore in Reagan’s America, with less than a fifth of workers in unions, it adapts to all sorts of backward and anti-working class ideas. Under Reagan, the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution also fell. ERA was passed in the US Senate in 1972 by 84 votes to 8. But ten years later the deadline for ratification passed with only 35 of the necessary 38 states having ratified it. [110]

ERA had been the hope of the mainstream feminists. It had been a central plank of the strategy at the Houston conference. Yet the support for women’s liberation had been frittered away. What remained was only the chance of self-advancement for a sizeable minority of women – while poverty, unemployment and discrimination remained, and remain, the lot of most women workers.

In Britain, once again, things are not quite so extreme. But the patterns are nonetheless clearly repeated. Activity inside the women’s movement over recent years has virtually ground to a halt. The campaign against Victoria Gillick – the reactionary who won a court case in 1985 preventing doctors and clinics from giving contraceptive advice to under-16s – attracted only a pathetic three thousand women to its demonstrations. And of these half were brought by the SWP on one occasion. Luckily the Gillick ruling was reversed – but had it not been, there was little evidence of the women’s movement’s ability to mobilise against it. [111] The same was true more recently when an anti-abortion male student tried to use the courts to prevent his girlfriend from having an abortion. The women’s movement response was nil. Greenham Common has also sunk into sectarian arguments, with the Wages for Housework women now also representing the Greenham Yellow Gate.

Neither are the International Women’s Day demonstrations serving as any sort of focus for feminists. In some years they have been virtually non-existent. In 1986 the demonstration was at Wapping in support of the printers’ wives and families. It was composed mainly of striking women and wives, and left-wing groups. Feminism had little organised expression on the march. In 1987, the demo was unpublicised and tiny. Publicity went instead to International Women’s Week – a series of events spreading over a week or even longer, usually organised by Labour councils in London and funded by them. Once again, municipal feminism became a substitute for any serious mobilisation.

Of course the FAB (Fight Alton’s Bill) campaign will make a difference. There are already signs that the campaign has widespread support. But there are also signs that the past few years have taken their toll in terms of mobilisation. Socialists should not be complacent about the need to actively involve women in the campaign.

Why is the movement today in such a sorry state? The answer lies in a combination of organisation and politics. The decline in class struggle over the past ten years has led to major crises among socialists and feminists. They have faced defeat and a massive ideological shift to the right. They have seen their ranks depleted. But the socialist organisations have survived this process incomparably better than the women’s movement. Although some groups have disappeared completely and the Communist Party has totally lost its once-dominant industrial role, there are still many thousands of socialist activists – in the SWP, in Militant and many non-aligned socialists inside the Labour Party. The very structurelessness of the women’s movement – so beloved by the authors of Beyond the Fragments – has resulted in disintegration and decay. This is in many ways a logical conclusion of the movement’s politics. If you believe that the purpose of liberation is consciousness-raising, then why not carry on with that in the privacy of your own home? If academic feminism is equally as valid as struggling to change the world, then why engage in activity?

But the women’s movement nonetheless survives. Its ideas are widely accepted inside whole sections of society today – in academia, in local government, in bourgeois politics and even in some private industry. Further it has an ideal life support system – the Labour Party. The past eight years of Thatcher rule have seen an increase in women candidates standing for Labour – although the proportion still remains pitifully small. Positive discrimination has meant a number of women winning positions previously held by men. Two black women – Merle Amory and Linda Bellos – have led Brent and Lambeth Labour councils in London. Another woman, Margaret Hodge, leads Islington. Labour made the creation of a Ministry for Women a major plank of its election campaign. It is committed to improving women’s safety from violent attack in the streets.

Labour is today a major prop for feminism. Funding for local council women’s committees ensures that a level of feminist activity is maintained in many of the inner-city areas – because professional feminists are paid to ensure that this happens. There are therefore a number of high-salaried jobs earmarked for feminists, at least in London. Publications like Spare Rib and Outwrite would appear to be at least partly subsidised by advertisements for these same jobs, and for other activities of the women’s committees. Until the abolition of the GLC, they also received direct grants from its Women’s Committee. [112]

’Feminism on the rates’ is not just a right-wing slur, but an actuality. However, given the crisis of British capitalism – and given the reformist and gradualist nature of the Labour Party – this brand of feminism becomes less and less able to deliver. Since the failure of the fight against ratecapping in 1985, this inability to deliver has become more acute. Women’s units can deliver nothing in terms of real change for women. More and more they talk about their role as ‘listening to women’ and attempting to patch up a very shaky system. Little different is promised on a national level. Jo Richardson has promised that her women’s ministry will be a listening ministry. Listening is probably all that it will be able to do.

The crisis of socialist feminism

The dominance of either bourgeois or radical feminism – or a combination of both – inside the movement provides a problem for socialist feminists. How do they resolve the dilemma of the relationship between class and gender? Can they comfortably remain in left-wing organisations? These are major questions which have not yet been settled. And because they have been thrown onto the defensive by the dominance of anti-working class ideas, many socialist feminists, too, accept that a large part of the problem lies with men – and especially working-class men. Indeed such is the strength of this argument that it has become the accepted common sense of the movement. Its chief and most polemical propagator is the Eurocommunist journalist Beatrix Campbell. She has been on the offensive over the question for ten years now. In an influential article, Work to Rule, written with Valerie Charlton in 1978 [113], she attacked the

craft-defensive male trade union movement in excluding women from the labour process. A singular feature of this process seems to have been men’s assertion of their wage as the family wage. [114]

The article argued that men’s and women’s interests as workers are basically antagonistic, attacked the notion of free collective bargaining and called for a redistribution of wages in favour of women. She took this argument further in another Red Rag article in 1980, typically entitled United We Fall. [115] Again in Sweet Freedom, with Anna Coote, she returned to the theme. [116]

Over the years, Campbell’s attitude to male workers and to the trade union movement has become more hostile. We have dealt with the substance of the arguments elsewhere. What is important here is to stress their impact on an already retreating and fragmented movement. They served to strengthen the arguments of those who were moving away from socialist politics and towards a cross-class feminism. After all, if men had traditionally been as great a problem as the capitalist system itself, then there was surely little point in engaging in struggle alongside them. This indeed was the conclusion of many feminists, who regarded the trade unions as the ‘men’s movement’.

Other socialist feminists sometimes found all this too much to stomach. Some, like Angela Weir and Elizabeth Wilson, tried seriously to bring the question of women’s liberation back to that of class and in the process aimed some effective blows at Campbell’s theories on feminist incomes policy and the family wage. [117] Others, like Anne Philips, sat on the fence – vacillating about class, gender and much more besides. [118] None the less, the theory has become widely accepted. It is propagated with ceaseless and monotonous regularity by Campbell through City Limits and Marxism Today. Yet studies which seriously challenge the theory remain locked into an academic debate and are not publicised in the same sort of way. [119] The net effect has been that these theories are used to bash the left.

One feminist who has tried to come to terms with this crisis of socialist feminism is Lynne Segal, a co-author of Beyond the Fragments. In a recent book, Is the future female? she begins by stating her worries over the direction of the women’s movement:

I wanted to write this book because I was disturbed by what has been emerging as the public face of feminism in the eighties ... What is most troubling to some older feminists such as myself is the turnaround in feminist writing from an initial denial of fundamental difference between women and men in the early seventies to a celebration of difference by the close of that decade. [120]

She goes on to lambast currently widespread theories, such as those concerning rape, pornography and violence. She is scathing of those who present men as the enemy. It isn’t as simple as that, she argues. Men aren’t an undifferentiated biological mass. Are those who are socialists or pro-feminist to be treated in the same way as those who want to keep women in the home? She pleads for a real socialist feminism which can direct its energies to fighting the real enemy. Lynne Segal’s approach is – compared to most of her contemporaries – a breath of fresh air. But her analysis, too, is flawed by two major features which, in their different ways, affect Weir and Wilson too. The first is that all accept variations of the patriarchy theory as being the key to women’s oppression. This is, as I have tried to show earlier, both wrong theoretically and a major tactical mistake in allowing ground to anti-working class and anti-socialist theory. In the case of socialist feminists like these writers, who want to remain true to the name of socialist feminist, this leads to, at best, a contradictory consciousness in order to end their oppression.

The second problem is the nature of the socialism itself. Weir and Wilson support the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party. Their view of socialism and women’s liberation is therefore distorted by their support for the ‘socialist’ countries. Segal is a libertarian socialist, which means that she swings the other way, rejecting all forms of party organisation (except of course for the Labour Party which puts no demands on anyone) in favour of autonomous movements. Yet today one thing at least is absolutely clear: the movements have not grown, often they have not even held together, and are farther away from their aims than ever before.

Only a political organisation which attempts to present a challenge to the whole of class society can lead to the successful overthrow of capitalism and therefore to laying the basis for the complete liberation of women. The failure to understand this means that even the best of the socialist feminists cannot see a way out of the problems of women’s oppression today. That is why those seeking genuine liberation through the women’s movement will be increasingly forced to look elsewhere – to socialist organisation.


1. This article is based on chapters in a forthcoming book. It therefore omits or skates over a range of questions: the theoretical basis of the women’s movement, the detailed relationship of the left to the women’s movement, etc.

2. B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

3. Social Trends, 1970.

4. Social Trends, 1986.

5. S. Evans, Personal Politics (New York 1979).

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. C. Ware, Women Power (New York 1970).

13. S. Evans, Personal Politics.

14. Principles of New York Radical Women, in R. Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Powerful (1971).

15. C. Ware, op. cit.

16. Quoted in C. Ware, op. cit.

17. C. Ware, op. cit.

18. C. Ware, op. cit.

19. S. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex.

20. V. Solanis, The SCUM Manifesto, in Sisterhood is Powerful.

21. B. Sinclair Deckard, The Women’s Movement (Harper and Row, 1979).

22. C. Ware, op. cit.

23. B. Sinclair Deckard, op. cit.

24. C. Ware, op. cit.

25. B. Sinclair Deckard, op. cit.

26. S. Rowbotham, The beginnings of women’s liberation in Britain, in The Body Politic (London 1972, stage 1).

27. Report in Shrew, vol. 3, no. 1, February 1971.

28. S. Rowbotham, 1972.

29. Socialist Woman, no. 1, 1972.

30. Report in Shrew, vol. 3, no. 9, December 1971, by J. Mitchell and A. de Winter, from the N7 Women’s Liberation Workshop.

31. Shrew, vol. 4, no. 3, June 1972.

32. Shrew, vol. 3, no. 9, December 1971.

33. See for example Socialist Woman, Autumn 1974. Also debate in New Left Review.

34. S. O’Sullivan, Passionate Beginnings: Ideological Politics 1969-72, in Feminist Review 11, 1982.

35. Red Rag, no. 1, 1973.

36. Red Rag, no. 4, 1974.

37. S. Alexander and S. O’Sullivan, Sisterhood under Stress, in Red Rag, no. 8, February 1975.

38. See on this, S. Rowbotham interviewed by E. Dallas and A. Hatchett, Socialist Review, no. 3, June 1978.

39. S. Rowbotham, The beginnings of women’s liberation in Britain, 1972.

40. Shrew, vol. 4, no. 1, 1972.

41. Shrew, vol. 4, no. 1, 1972.

42. Shrew, vol. 4, no. 1, 1972.

43. Shrew, vol. 3, no. 2, March 1971.

44. Of 41 groups listed in Shrew in 1972, 28 were open to new members, 13 were closed. Shrew, vol. 4, no. 5, October 1972.

45. S. Rowbotham, 1972. Figures for groups listed in Shrew tend to be much lower, so this is a generous estimate.

46. Shrew, vol. 3, no. 3, April 1971.

47. Shrew, vol. 3, no. 9, December 1971.

48. Shrew, autumn 1976.

49. Socialist Woman, autumn 1974.

50. For example at Wingrove and Rogers, EP strikes in Glasgow and Coventry (TASS AUEW).

51. Abortion Statistics 1985, OPCS.

52. Women’s Voice, no. 19, July 1975.

53. Women’s Voice, no. 19, July 1975.

54. Women’s Voice, no. 21, September 1975.

55. Women’s Voice, no. 23, November 1975.

56. Women’s Voice, no. 23, November 1975.

57. Interview with Robin Morgan in Spare Rib, no. 77, December 1978.

58. The Economist, 14 March 1987.

59. Interview with Linda Gordon in Spare Rib, no. 75, October 1978.

60. Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moema Viezzer, Let Me Speak (Monthly Review Press, New York and London 1978).

61. Spare Rib, no. 68, March 1978.

62. Interview with Robin Morgan, op. cit.

63. J. Clausen, Sinking, Stealing (The Women’s Press, London 1985).

64. See Women’s Voice no. 2 (new series), February 1977.

65. Women’s Aid Federation, Battered Women Need Refuges (1975). (Reproduced in No Turning Back, The Women’s Press, London 1978.)

66. See Women at WAR (Falling Wall Press, 1978).

67. The Soho Sixteen and Reclaim the Night, 1978 leaflet reproduced in No Turning Back, op. cit.

68. S. Brownmiller, Against Our Will (New York, 1975; Harmondsworth 1976).

69. See, for example, D. Spender, Women of Ideas (RKP, London 1982).

70. S. Rowbotham, The trouble with “patriarchy”, in New Statesman, 28 December 1979.

71. J. Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and feminism (London 1975).

72. S. Alexander and B. Taylor, In defence of “patriarchy”, in New Statesman, 1 February 1980.

73. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Moscow 1964).

74. S. Rowbotham, 1979, op. cit.

75. S. Rowbotham, 1979, op. cit.

76. H. Hartmann, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, in Capital & Class, no. 8, Summer 1979.

77. Ibid.

78. See for example J. Humphries, Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working Class Family, in Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 1, no. 3, September 1977; and B. Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem (Virago, London 1983).

79. Beatrix Campbell and Anna Coote, Sweet Freedom (Picador, London 1982).

80. Campbell and Coote.

81. Women’s Liberation 1977, in Spare Rib, no. 58, May 1977.

82. Spare Rib, no. 70, May 1978.

83. Spare Rib, no. 70, May 1978.

84. Letter in Spare Rib, no. 71, June 1978.

85. Letter in Spare Rib, no. 71, June 1978.

86. Letter in Spare Rib, no. 73, August 1978.

87. Spare Rib, no. 79, February 1979.

88. Red Rag, August 1980.

89. Red Rag, August 1980.

90. Socialist Woman, Spring 1978.

91. Women’s Voice, no. 17, May 1978.

92. S. Rowbotham, L. Segal and H. Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments (Merlin, London 1979).

93. J. Tweedie, What every fragment knows, The Guardian, 29 January 1980.

94. The Guardian, 29 January 1980.

95. L. Segal, Is the future female? (Virago, London 1987).

96. Talking with Tony Benn, interview in Spare Rib, no. 100, November 1980.

97. Spare Rib, no. 75, October 1978.

98. Feminist Review, no. 12,1982.

99. Women’s Voice, no. 50, March 1981.

100. Spare Rib, no. 89, December 1979.

101. Spare Rib, no. 89, December 1979.

102. Nottingham Women Oppose the Nuclear Threat, in L. Jones, ed., Keeping the Peace (London 1983).

103. Y. King, All is connectedness: Scenes from the Women’s Pentagon Action, USA, in Keeping the Peace.

104. M. Daly, Gyn/Ecology (Boston 1978).

105. C. Reid, Reweaving the web of life, in Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the web of life: Feminism and non-violence (New Society Publishers, Philadelphia 1982).

106. Spare Rib, no. 98, September 1980.

107. Spare Rib, no. 95, June 1980.

108. S.A. Hewlett, A lesser life (New York 1986), p. 146.

109. Ibid.

110. J.J. Mansbridge, Why we lost the ERA (Chicago 1986).

111. See Socialist Worker, May/June 1985.

112. Indeed Outwrite seems to be in danger of closing as a result of not getting this grant. See Outwrite, April 1987.

113. B. Campbell and V. Charlton, Work to Rule, in Red Rag, no. 14, November 1978.

114. Work to Rule.

115. B. Campbell, United We Fall, in Red Rag, August 1980.

116. Campbell and Coote, Sweet Freedom.

117. A. Weir and E. Wilson, The British Women’s Movement, in New Left Review, reprinted in Hidden Agendas (Tavistock, London 1986).

118. A. Philips, Divided Loyalties (Virago, London 1987).

119. See J. Humphries, Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working Class Family.

120. L. Segal, Is the future female?.

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