My review of “Revolutionary Women”

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Clara Gilbert Cole

 

I love this pamphlet. It is a fascinating subject; 13 unknown revolutionary women, their story of how they not only fought for their own emancipation but led other revolutionary struggles.

Revolutionary Women was produced by the Anarchist Federation who not only want to prove that anarchism and women’s liberation are two sides of a coin,  but that very often, and not just in the anarchist movement, women have had to fight their own male comrades to achieve equality.

I was fascinated to find out about Mancunian, Clara Gilbert Cole, (1868-1956) .  She worked as a postal worker and married  artist Herbert Cole. Clara and Herbert were involved with suffragism and he went onto become staff artist at the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Clara took part in some of the most important campaigns of her age. She opposed the First World War, founded  a League against War and Conscription in 1915 and was imprisoned for five months for distributing anti-war leaflets.

In the 1920s she was involved with the unemployed movement and  was arrested again. Clara became an anarchist, supporting the Spanish Civil war. Throughout her life she wrote poems, anti-war articles and was fervently anti-religion.

Maria Roda was born in Como in the Lombardy region of Italy in 1877. Her father was an anarchist and she went to work in the local mills as a teenager.

maria roda

At the age of 15 years old along  with comrade Ernesta Quartirola aged 14,  she organised a strike in a mill for which she was imprisoned for three months.  It was not the first nor last time she was imprisoned for her actions and beliefs. Eventually, with her father and sister, she moved to the USA and was involved with organising textile workers in Paterson and wrote for their newspaper “La Questione Sociale”. Maria founded an anarchist women’s group called Gruppo Emancipazione della Donna (Women’s Emancipation Group) in 1897.

The group linked up with other women’s groups in the USA and internationally discussing issues about how women could be equal comrades whilst taking part in the workers and anarchist movement. And, if that was not enough,  Maria lived with comrade Pedro Esteve, had eight children, and continued to work in the silk mills and was an activist all her life.

Reading this pamphlet reminds me of the phrase: “ordinary women leading extraordinary lives”. One of the most unusual stories is about Japanese woman, Ita Noe (1895-1923). She was born into the landed aristocracy , but ran away after being forced into an arranged marriage.

Ito_Noe

Ito moved to the more progressive Tokyo and at age 18 joined the Seitosha (Blue Stocking Society) and went onto become an editor of their magazine. Ito spoke several languages, and translated the articles of anarchist Emma Goldman about women’s struggles.

She chose to live in an open relationship with anarchist Osugi Sakae which led to the couple being attacked by the media and  to divisions amongst their comrades.

Ito went onto found the socialist women’s group Sekirankai in 1921. A prolific writer,  she produced articles,  as well translating the work of European anarchists and writing several autobiographical novels.

But after the birth of her seventh child in 1923  an earthquake hit Japan and killed thousands of people. The authorities used the situation to blame the anarchists for the chaos and murdered anarchist and socialist militants. Ito and her partner Osugi and his six year old nephew were beaten and strangled by the secret police in September 1923. They were not alone as being an anarchist in Japan at that time meant the chances of being killed by the state were high.

Revolutionary Women is an inspiring read. Not just because of the fascinating history of anarchist women but also because  it’s well written and presented. If we are to convince people that grassroots politics is for them,  and not just for a political class,  then pamphlets like this are crucial to convincing people that they can make the changes to create a fairer society. And at £2 a copy it is accessible to everyone!

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Posted in book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “The Woman Worker” by N. K. Krupskaya

PIIGS 2

Reading this pamphlet reminded me of the report written by Mary Quaile following the TUC Women’s Delegation to the Soviet Union in 1925.  Commenting on the welcome they received Mary said; “Women were there in hundreds, many of them with bunches of wild flowers to give to their British sisters, all of them wanting to shake our hands, some with tears in their eyes, not of sorrow, but of joy at our meeting.”

We do not know for sure, but one of the women that Mary and her comrades may have met  on their visit was Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1869-1939).  She was an important revolutionary in her own right,  but has often been marginalised because of her status as “Lenin’s wife”.  But alongside Lenin she was arrested in 1896 and sentenced to three years internal exile. She then followed Lenin to Munich in 1901 and  on to  London in 1902.

She wrote The Woman Worker in 1899 using the pseudonym “Sablina”. It was published and distributed in 1905, but was banned after the suppression of the 1905 revolution,  and it was not until 1925 that it was republished.

Nadezhda was a lifelong activist, taking part in the October socialist revolution of 1917, and playing a key role in the government as Minister for Education from 1929 until her death in 1939 .

In the celebrations of 100 years since the Russian Revolution it is great to see The Woman Worker” being reprinted. I particularly enjoyed reading Nadezhda’s introduction,  and I cannot imagine many male writers confessing that; “As it was my first booklet I felt very nervous about whether I could manage it.” 

Nadezhda wrote the booklet to expose the horrendous lives of women in Tsarist Russia and to show how a socialist system could deliver emancipation for women and men. Reading it you can understand why the Tsarist government wanted it banned. She believed that women needed their economic independence in order to lead free and equal lives with men in society.

She runs through what seem very familiar arguments, even today, about why men need to include women in political struggle. “Stopping women joining in the struggle is the same as leaving half of the workers’ army unorganised.”

Nadezhda et shows how even in the bad times of Tsarist Russia women went out on strike because of low pay and that women were being forced into prostitution.

In 1899 women workers from a jute mill struck and marched to the factory’s offices. They were stopped on the way and locked into a park until  male workers from another factory forcibly freed the women. The governor responded by calling out the army who, for five days, fired on the workers who responded with stones, smashing windows and setting fire to buildings. Unfortunately, the workers then went on to to set fire to local brothels. The women  were angered by the owners who cynically told them that if the pay was not enough they could get additional income working as  prostitutes.

But as Nadezhda states; “Who can blame a poverty stricken woman for selling herself, for preferring the only readily available extra earnings to beggarly existence, hunger and sometimes a hungry death?”

Reading this pamphlet shows why a socialist revolution was inevitable in Russia. It was also the first Marxist analysis of the lives of women in Russia. In 2017, although some of the language sounds dated and there is little discussion of the role of men in the family under socialism,   the message about the importance of women being independent people alongside being part of a trade union is still relevant. I love her statement; “Only when struggling arm in arm for the workers’ cause can women find the keys to “the joyful happiness of freedom.”

The pamphlet was produced by the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School and you can  buy it here   It’s a bargain at  £3.50 plus postage.

Posted in book review, Communism, feminism, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“…the point is to change it”: Remembering Ruth and Eddie Frow and the WCML

frows 11 nov

 

Last Saturday’s event commemorated the lives of the  Frows,  showing  how their belief in communism was about grassroots activity which included the creation of the Working Class Movement Library in the 1950s. They wanted  to encourage  future generations to understand  the importance of  working class history to political activity.

Mike Luft, communist and anti-fascist organiser, opened the event with a reminder of the importance of communism at a time when celebrations of the 1917 revolution were being airbrushed, obscuring  its inspiring message of hope for making the world a more just and equitable place.  He said the Frows were part of that history and had, with many other people, committed their life to communism and political activity.

mike luft 1

Actor, Joan McGee then read Bertolt Brecht’s poem Questions From a Worker Who Reads (1935),  a reminder that it is the people at the bottom who really make history.

joan mcgee

Radical historian Michael Herbert spoke  of Eddie Frow’s involvement in the National Union of Unemployed Workers and how that  had spurred him on to commit his lifetime to communist politics.

mike herbert 1

Charlotte Hughes   of Tameside against the Cuts made the link with today and how life for poor people had deteriorated under the weight of austerity and the  attacks on benefits. But she talked about the work that she was doing  in Ashton-under-Lyne and the campaign against Universal Credit.

charlotte 11 nov

Dorothy Winard spoke about the life of Ruth Frow who had shaken free from her stultifying background of middle class propriety  by joining the WRAF in 1939, becoming a communist in 1945, and  entering into  50 years of partnership with Eddie.

dorothy 11 nov

Hilary Jones of the IBMT then read the Leon Rosselson song  “The Song of the Old Communist”  a eulogy to the thousands of people who took part in communist politics in this country over the years – a message even more important in 2017.

hilary 1

Contributions from the floor included  Royston Futter, a library Trustee, who spoke about how the WCML was brought to Salford in 1987 and Maggie Cohen, chair of the Trustees,  who was friend and comrade with Ruth and Eddie for  over sixty years. I spoke about the generosity of Ruth and Eddie to Irish political prisoner John O’Dowd and a message was read from Alex Ritman about the kindness of Ruth to him when he had to wait for his parents when they were at Communist party meetings.

maggie

Mike Luft spoke about how young people in a largely Jewish area of Manchester, Cheetham Hill,  joined  the Young Communist League and played a crucial role in local and national politics.  Not just in local street politics opposing Mosley’s Blackshirts but in organisations that today have been cleansed of that communist background ie. Benny Rothman  leading role in  the Mass Trespass at Kinder Scout in 1932.

In 2017 one of the organisations which is encouraging young peoples’ activity is the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union and Lauren McCourt explained about how she had  became involved in trade union activity at work. Lauren gave an inspiring speech about how the recent first ever strike at McDonalds in the UK had encouraged many young workers to join the union. She said it was about organising workers including migrants and  supporting people across the world to take on exploitative employers. Her speech showed how the message of communism; about how liberating one person can lead to the liberation of everyone is as relevant today as in the 1930s.

lauren 2

 

Balladress Jennifer Reid and actor Joan McGee ended the day with a series of songs and poems that reflected the lives of the Frows and their many comrades locally, nationally and internationally.  This included a poem called “Freedom” written by author and anti-fascist activist Ethel Carnie  and  “Parkside Occupation” a song about the Miners’ Wives in the 1984-5 Miners Strike.

jennifer

 

Thanks for  photos by Steve Speed contact him at slspeed@hotmail.co.uk

Posted in anti-cuts, Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, music, political women, Salford, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Political Women; Lauren, Trade Union Activist and Revolutionary Socialist

Lauren

Lauren, aged 22 years, represents a new generation of young workers who are following in the footsteps of past activists such as  Mary Quaile,  who never wavered in her belief that trade unions were the key to women and men achieving proper pay and decent conditions.

Unlike Mary who left school at 12, Lauren went to Manchester Metropolitan University and gained a degree in accounting and finance. It was at university she became interested in politics,  taking part in the Feminist Society. Lauren says she  is a feminist because: “We live in a patriarchal society and we have to get rid of it if we want to be free as women.”

Lauren joined Stand up to Racism and has taken part in a number of demonstrations and meetings. She is now on the steering committee of LGBT against Islamaphobia in Manchester. Lauren also became involved with refugee campaigns because of the way in which she felt that the media demonised refugees,   and  went down to Calais as part of activities to support them.

Like many young people today Jeremy Corbyn has inspired her but “I am not a member of the Labour Party because I believe we need an uprising of the working class if we are to change society.”

After leaving university Lauren got a job in the fast food industry, and after working there for six months  joined the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union. She says: “They are the only effective union working with fast food workers. They are serious about supporting workers in McDonalds and the recent strike showed that.”

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BFAWU is the largest independent trade union in the food sector in the UK. They  have spearheaded the ‘Fast Food Rights’ campaign which has brought many young people, like Lauren, into its trade union.

The union has joined up with fast food workers across the world fighting for fairness at work for some of the poorest paid workers. In the USA, McDonalds has come under significant pressure as part of the “Fight for $15” campaign – supported by the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU). As a result of this campaign, more than 10 million workers in America are on a path to $15 an hour, and 20 million workers in  total have won wage increases since 2012.

In August 2017 BFAWU balloted its members in McDonalds for strike action.  Ian Hodson, National President of the BFAWU, summed up the mood of the union;
“We, at the BFAWU, fully support the historic decision by these brave McDonald’s workers to stand up and fight back against McDonald’s – a company that has let them down one too many times…McDonald’s has had countless opportunities to resolve grievances by offering workers a fair wage and acceptable working conditions. Instead, they have chosen to ignore their workers by tightening their purse strings – filling their CEO’s pockets, at the expense of workers here in the UK and across the world.”

The result, 95.7% of workers balloted voted in favour of the first strike by McDonalds workers in UK history which took place on 4 September. Although only two branches of McDonalds came out on strike Lauren says the effect was much more widespread. “Before,  there were 3 of us in my workplace who were in the union and now there are 13. And people from across the country are contacting the union about joining.”    After the strike fellow workers were approaching Lauren about joining the union.  “The strike inspired other people to believe that together in a union we could challenge the wages and conditions at work.” In the long term  Lauren would like to become  a union representative.

McDonald strike

McDonalds workers walking out on strike

Lauren has spoken at events across the country. “I do not need to tell people that it is not great to work at McDonalds,  we deserve better as workers.” And her message to young workers; “Join a union and get involved.”

Lauren is speaking this week at the WCML on 11 November at “…the point is to change it” -celebrating Ruth and Eddie Frow”. Its now sold out but you can join the reserve list at trustees@wcml.org.uk

Join BFAWU here

 

Posted in anti-cuts, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Salford, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of “Workers’ Playtime”, edited by Doug Nicholls

workers playtime

In this new book Workers’ Play Time  seven scripts written about the struggle for workers and trade union rights are published.  The editor Doug Nicholls reminds us of the importance of culture to the struggle for trade union freedom. “Cultural work is central to and an essential part of our struggle; if you ignore it, you blunt your campaign, deaden your organisation, dull your education programme.”

Reading the plays is a history lesson in itself. From Neil Duffield’s play, Bolton Rising, set in 1812 during  the Luddite rising to Jane McNulty’s Dare to Be Free,  which links the  early C20th  and the struggle for cafe workers rights  to the C21st  and fast food workers.

Unlike most of mainstream theatre,  the plays remind us  of the importance of the ordinary person’s desire for justice, and how this really fuels political activity and change in society.

One of the most interesting chapters is Neil Gore’s explanation of how he researched We Will Be Free! about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. He drew on poems,  songs, historical documents and previous productions. It is fascinating,  and revealing about the creative process.

we will be free

James Kenworth’s play A Splotch of Red shows how major historical figures such as Keir Hardie,  and less well known activist Will Thorne,  can bring to life local politics and remind people about their important radical history.

Eileen Murphy’s play  Hannah about north west suffragette and socialist Hannah Mitchell is one of my favourite dramas. Through the use of a monologue Eileen captures the highs and lows of being a working class activist,  as well as mother and wife.

Hannah mitchell

Workers’ Play Time reminds us of a  golden era in playwriting and producing,  as shown  in the introduction to Out! on the Costa del Trico. In the 1970s the Women’s Theatre group worked as a collective  with the women sharing the acting and directorial role. They  concentrated  on taking their work out to the excluded,   including girls in youth clubs, schools and working class women factory workers.  But this production about  a six month strike by women for equal pay at a US-owned factory Trico in 1976 was not without controversy,  particularly using white women actors to portray Asian workers and the criticism of the theatre company by some women union members.

del trico

Our play, Dare to Be Free,  was a much more limited production. As a small group of volunteers we had to raise funding from individuals and trade unions and were lucky to get a playwright, Jane McNulty,  and director,  Bill Hopkinson,  who took us through the whole process of getting a play out into the world.

MQ play

Our aim was not just to remember Mary, a tremendous fighter for equality for women at work, but also to link  it up her activity  with fast food workers today.  The play took the audience from 1908 to 2016.  This led to important links with trade unions including Mary’s own union Unite, as well as the Hotel Workers Unite in London, and the GFTU – for whom Mary also worked – and the BFAWU locally.

Worker’s Play Time showcases  some powerful productions,  but also  reminds us that the issues  highlighted in the plays have  not gone away,  including justice and equality at work. The Chambermaids, which was written in 1987,  could be set today in the hotels across the country,  and shows how the bread and butter issues of working conditions are still to be fought for by unions such as Unite Hotel  Workers branch.

The GFTU and Doug Nicholls are to be applauded for getting this anthology out into the public arena. It is  a reminder of the power of political theatre and how we are all diminished by its scarcity in 2017. Jim Allen, one of my favourite writers said about drama that it should make you angry, angry enough to want to go and do something. I hope this collection will inspire and stir up workers out there…

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My review of “Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Feiner” by Margaret Ward

hanna

In the 1980s massive changes were taking place in this country. One event was the arrival of 40,000 Irish people each year looking for work. It was not a new occurrence, but the latest in a series  of waves of emigration  underpinned by Britain’s occupation of part of the island of Ireland and the underdevelopment of the south.

At the same time people like me, second generation Irish,  joined progressive organisations such as the Irish in Britain Representation  Group  as I sought a  way to reflect my Irish identity and become part of an Irish community that had a respectable and respected history of struggle to achieve independence for Ireland.

Young women, such as myself,  searched the histories handed over – either orally or in books our parents had in their homes  such as Speeches from the Dock –  for the stories of Irish women who had been active in the republican movement. Apart from seeing Bernadette Devlin on television there were few other women that we could look up to.

So when historian Margaret Ward produced Unmanageable Revolutionaries in 1983 it was a revolutionary act in itself. It showed how Irish women had always played a crucial role in the struggle for Irish independence; from the Ladies Land League to Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan.

unmanageable revolut

It was a trailblazer as  the renaissance of the Irish community in Britain in the 1980s  saw many fiction and non-fiction books that put Irish women at the forefront of history, literature and culture.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is Margaret’s latest book. It tells the story of one of the most dynamic and influential of activists in the struggle for votes for women and liberation of Ireland. What makes this a fascinating account of her life is the inclusion of Hannah’s memoirs; we hear her voice and  get to walk alongside her as she recounts her experiences in campaigning for the vote, her imprisonment, the murder of her husband Frank  by the British army in 1916,  and her continuous political activity until her death in 1946.

Hanna was born into a middle class political family. The Land War of the 1880s shaped her father and uncle’s political activity and Fenianism remained in  the background of Hannah’s life as she carved out her own political path. She lived through some of the most turbulent times in Irish history – and never failed to be part of that history.

Like many activists she struggled to write her memoirs, always seeing activity as more important. “‘I have lived too long’ I said to myself as I stirred up the dust: It is later than I thought.’ Many of my comrades have gone, some have fallen out, much of the toil and passion of the years will never be told, or will be lost in old newspapers or dusty museums….But at least it’s up to me to leave a personal record of a life that has been chequered, but which had had moments.”

For me Hanna is an influential figure because she saw the crucial importance of political activity and joined the dots between equality for women and the freedom of Ireland. Hanna was prepared to pay the price and was  imprisoned on several occasions. Although what is missing is how she  and Frank managed  this as parents. There is one interesting insight when her house gets raided again,  but this time,  instead of taking Hanna,  they take her maid. We do not get to know the name of this woman.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the legislation that gave some women the vote, which was and will be again a contentious subject for all feminists. Hanna was clear about her views (we have to remember at this time all of Ireland was a colony of Britain).  On 30 March 1918 she wrote; “We Irish women are proud of the fact that the Irish Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916, just two years ago, was the first in the world’s history to lay down from its inception the principle of equal suffrage for both sexes.” It is a viewpoint that will not go down well in 2018 in the UK even today!

Hannah was politically astute about the comrades she worked alongside,  particularly her comments about Michael Collins and Eamonn De Valera and their innate conservatism. The murder of her husband and her  comrades,  including James Connolly,  by the British State did not destroy Hanna.  Instead she says; “Sometimes it is harder to live for a cause than die for it. It would be a poor tribute to my husband if grief were to break my spirit. It shall not do so. “

In these memoirs and writings are revealed the true cost for individuals, and particularly for women,  of being part of a revolutionary movement. What is shocking, even today, is the sheer terror perpetuated by the British government from 1916 to 1922 in its attempts to  hold onto the island of Ireland. Heroic is an overused word,  but it seems totally appropriate when you read of the life of Hanna, her husband,  as well as the thousands of unnamed women and men who were prepared to give everything for the freedom of their country.

In 2017 Ireland’s unresolved political relationship with the UK is centre stage with the crisis called Brexit.  This makes the life of Hannah and her history relevant to any debate about the future of the island of Ireland. I hope this book does not got lost in the cosy cul-de-sac of   history conferences for academics. Hanna’s life as a political activist is inspiring for me , and I hope for all those today who want to change society either here or in Ireland.

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Posted in Bernadette McAliskey, biography, book review, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran

women who blow

 

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and writer. Her books and writings have taken up issues at the heart of the state of Turkey,  exposing human rights abuses against Kurdish people, the Armenian dispute and, closer to home, the Gezi uprising in 2013.  The atmosphere in Turkey is now toxic for journalists like Ece and, after being fired from her job in 2012,  she moved to Tunisia to write this novel; Women who Blow on Knots.

The title is from the Koran; “The verse begins with a decree..’Keep away from the inauspicious women who blow on knots’. Keep away from the inauspicious enchantresses..For God knows just what we are capable of.”

I have to say I do prefer the  title used in other countries; “What good is a revolution if I cannot dance to it,” referencing anarchist and writer Emma Goldman who believed in the absolute importance of the individual whilst promoting collectivity in action.

This novel starts out as a road trip,  but it’s no Thelma and Louise. Three young women set out on a journey with the mysterious Madam Lilla across Tunisia to the Lebanon against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. One of them is a Turkish journalist who is wary of returning home,  fearful of the mass arrests going on and that she will be picked up. The other women are Amira, a Tunisian woman,  and Maryam from Egypt.

Through their stories we learn more about the lives of women in these countries, the impact of the Arab Spring,  and the continuing debate about what kind of future can exist in the region.

Layering their discussions are many references to Arabic music, history, and religion,  but central to it is the story of the women. “We were three women fated to take refuge in a story, looking out for each other as we moved forwards, three women soon to become four.”

Unlike many western novels this is a highly literate and intellectual story,  laced with the myth of Dido and numerous references to Arabic culture and religion. It is totally understandable that it has sold over 120,000 copies in Turkey. It speaks to those women and addresses not just the politics going on,  but bigger themes about the links between women, about sisterhood and the complex and difficult lives that many women in the region face.

It is also a funny book,  picking up on the way that women rib each other and puncture  selfishness and pomposity. For me, as a western woman,  it gives me an insight into the lives of women in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Egypt. It gets beyond the usual stereotypes of women in these countries and challenges western views of their lives and hopes for the future.

 

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Posted in book review, Communism, feminism, human rights, Middle East, novels, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , | 2 Comments