Political Women (4) Pia Feig
Retired active socialist feminist
Pia has been a political activist for over 40 years. She did not come from a political family but;
They were avowedly non-political, we did discuss politics at home but there was a real fear of getting involved because of being Jewish, of being immigrants, yet there was lots of discussion about it. Me and my sister would answer back to my father and that was the start of a protest position, right from the family dynamics.”
Her parents were both Jewish. Her mother was British and from an orthodox Jewish working class family. Pia’s father had fled Poland after his life there destroyed. He was grateful to Britain for asylum and for the right to be openly Jewish.
In 1970 Pia went to Oxford University and became active in university politics. It was three years later, when she took part on a demonstration about Britain’s role in Ireland, that she saw the big diference between student and street politics;
My very first demo which was about Ireland really frightened me. It was the large police prescence and the atmosphere was the opposite to all the student activity I had been involved in.
She identified as a feminist and became involved in the women’s movement:
The women’s group gave me fantastic support. It was very important in developing my thinking about being a woman, it was a source of emotional support, it encouraged me to have independent relationships. By this time I had moved to Glasgow and the women in the group were from a variety of ages and backgrounds.
Pia was now training to be a teacher and she joined NATFHE and the International Marxist Group, a small, hyper-active, Trotskyist group linked to the Fourth International:
Glasgow in the 70s was a highly political place. People understood their history and the May Day was a big event with people from all different parties taking part. I used to sell papers at factory gates and was treated with respect by the workers.
By the mid-70s race politics was a big issue for the left in Britain. The rise of the National Front and the increasing attacks on black people led to the rise of anti-racist activity. Pia moved to Wolverhampton, which at that time had had Enoch Powell as MP, and like many places in Britain at the time there was a lack of opposition to racism at all levels of society;
I lived in a mainly Sikh and Caribbean area of the city. I got involved with an anti-racist committee which included the Indian Workers Association. We campaigned against the (West Midlands) police harassment of black people and one thing we did was to convince the local Labour Party that the NF were fascists.
It was a time when to be involved in political activity was all encompassing;
I attended 5 meetings a week, plus paper selling and meetings at weekend. I felt connected with the world and part of a community, part of a struggle, part of a movement for change.
Although, like many people on the left at that time, she identified race as a key issue for herself to be involved in, she did not see her own ethnicity in the same way;
In my political development I lived in the here and now and looked at all the new possibilities for me. I didn’t integrate where I came from, as a person from a Jewish orthodox immigrant background, with my politics, at that time it didn’t seem as important. It does seem strange now, but it was partly because I was young but also because of the nature of the race politics at that time.
She did see the link between the harassment of black people and cases such as the Birmingham 6 and throughout her political life has been involved in many similar campaigns.
By the 80s Pia was no longer involved in a women’s group, but was still active as a union representative in her college:
I left the IMG because of political differences. I felt it was ineffective and was not relating to the political reality of the time.
She is still looking for a political organisation to become involved in but it would have to be one that reflected her political analysis;
It would have to reflect a class analysis of society, have an internationalist viewpoint and be anti-imperialist.”
In the mid-80s she joined the Labour Party, as a tactic, and became involved in Irish politics.
I have always seen the issue of Britain’s role in Ireland as crucial to politics generally. I was involved with the Labour Committee on Ireland which sought to influence the Labour policy on Ireland. During the Miners’ Strike I was involved with two delegations to the North of Ireland which included Miners’ Wives.
More recently Pia has been involved with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and out of that came her involvement with the Jews for Justice campaign:
It (JfJ) was a conscious raising group. I lived in Spain in the 90s and became more aware of my own identity. Being brought up Jewish had had an influence on me. It wasn’t about the religious aspect, but about the social and political context.
Pia was quite happy to use her Jewish identity to counter the way in which Zionists wanted to smear activists on the Palestinian issue as anti-semites.
She has been involved in her Unison health service branch for the last 8 years. She has seen the growth of the involvement of women in her union and she has been part of a radical union branch. But she feels that Unison has not reflected this level of female activity;
Unison is male dominated at an officer level. Nearly all the full timers are white and men.
This year Pia retired from work and is now starting to look at where she will put her energies:
Work has never been a substitute for my political activity. I will still be involved with the PSC. The issue of the Palestinians is very important to world politics. I am also still going to be involved with Unison, in organising a local retired members group.
And her message for young women?
I am not sure I have one! I have been impressed with the young women I have worked with in Unison. Some of them have told me that they have learnt from me and they admired my determination. I hope more women will come forward to take the leadership roles, not to end up as facilitators. That they will not be held back by gender or expectations of gender and will be involved in determining the direction of politics.