My review of “second world second sex” Kristen Ghodsee

 

second world second sex

 

In this new history book Kristen rescues an important episode in the history of women’s activism at the United Nations – the contribution of women from the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe (“the Second World” as they called themselves).   Equally  importantly she reminds us of how important communism was to the lives of these women in giving them hope for a better future within a world turned upside down.

Kristen uses the experiences of socialist countries such as Bulgaria and socialist Zambia to highlight the way in which connections were made between the Second and Developing worlds,  leading to the spread of ideas about women’s equality and how women could be part of creating a new world in which  women played an important role in shaping society.

These ideas contrasted sharply with the lives of women in advanced capitalist countries such as the USA where Cold War politics marginalised progressive women and their hopes and dreams for a more equal society.

As a fluent speaker of Bulgarian Kristen was able to go and speak to some of the surviving women to find out how and why they became involved in women’s politics. She  explains the difficulties of interviewing women such as Krastina Tchomakova, a nonagenarian, who had been involved with communist politics from the age of 18 years.

For her it was a mixture of personal experience of being denied an education (unlike her brothers),  the revolution of 1917 and her own readings of Marxist literature that drove  her towards communist politics. As Kristen points out: “How could a poor peasant girl such as Krastina Tchomakova,  born in rural Bulgaria to illiterate parents, ever rise up to become a member of an official delegation to a United Nations conference halfway across the world?”

Women such as Krastina worked within the political constraints of the communist world they inhabited,  playing a clever chess game that weaved together socialist tracts with the country’s need for women in the workplace.  “Compared with the post-war situation in the USA Bulgarian women were leagues ahead of their American sisters by 1975”.

All women were working within the Cold War politics that had male politicians in the East and West still in control but it was the Second World women who worked hard to push women’s needs up the national agendas of their countries. At that time African, Asian and Latin American countries were emerging out of their colonial status after liberation struggles. To  women in these countries the socialist bloc provided a more positive alliance,  offering support to rebuild their countries and provide  the women in the countries with programmes for education, healthcare and training.

Kristen chooses Zambia as her example of a former colony that chose to go down the socialist route under charismatic leader Kenneth Kaunda. She interviews Chibesa Kankasa,  who was the President of the United National Independence Party Women’s League and a member of the Central Committee.

For a post independence country adjacent to  racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa choosing to make alliances with the socialist bloc led to the rise of women such as Chibesa  and the promotion of women’s issues in Zambia while links with the Bulgarian women’s movement ensured their position at international conferences during the UN Decade for Women in 1975.

How this international status played out for the ordinary Zambian woman on the ground is more difficult to assess,  but Kristen concludes; “Zambian women saw the most improvements to the material conditions of their lives during the UNIP era, particularly when one considers the free access to education and healthcare they once enjoyed.”

The United Nations  International Year of Women  and  its three conferences over the decade were promoted by Second World women who worked in alliance with their sisters in the developing worlds. They wanted to ensure that the needs of women would be on the international agenda. But the tensions between the different philosophies put them at loggerheads with countries such as the USA who promoted freemarket ideology while  socialist women believed in the primacy of the state as a catalyst for women’s equality . And for all the problems faced by socialist women in countries such as Bulgaria and Zambia their strength lay in working together to shape the international agenda about women’s issues.

Kristen has written a very important book. Not just in terms of reminding us of an important aspect of women’s history,  but in allowing individual women to tell their story and show the price they have paid for their political activity.

Reading it reminds me of interviewing Betty Tebbs, a British working class  woman who became involved in socialist politics in this country which led to her involvement with Valentina Tereshkova and a life long commitment to peace activities. Betty’s autobiography, which she wrote in 1997, was self published, and like many other Left women she has never been given the recognition that she deserved.

I think Kristen’s book is a reminder of how important this history is and how much it has been ignored and marginalised in the history of the left across the world.

Read more about Betty in my book Northern ReSisters

Buy “Second World Second Sex” here

 

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Posted in Betty Tebbs, book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women, peace campaigns, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

My review of “Trico A Victory to Remember” by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt

trico book

 

Why is it some strikes, many of them defeats for the labour movement, are constantly being replayed  ie Miners Strike, Grunwicks and Ford Dagenham women but successful strikes such as Trico have been forgotten. One of the big problems is that the people who need to write up that history are often excluded from the means of doing so. Or they, often women again, don’t think what they did was that important.

It has taken over  forty years but Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt have produced this landmark history of a most successful strike; Trico.  The women not only won equal pay, they  also showed that the new Equal Pay Act was about decreasing pay levels rather than raising up women’s pay, and that a community-based strike with  strong trade union support could defeat an American multinational company.

Sally comments; “The Trico women’s strike has an important place in history: the strikers were remarkable role models in the struggle for equality, and understood the importance of building alliances of solidarity and inclusiveness.”

trico 6

Written by Sally, who was the Publicity Officer for the strike, and Vernon , who was a supporter, it is a brilliant example of taking a very important history and producing a well written and well produced book.  Central to the book are the words of the women strikers and some beautiful photographs.

On the afternoon of 24 May 1976 400 women walked out of the Trico factory in Brentford, West London demanding their right to equal pay with their male colleagues for doing the same work. Supported by 150 men they won one of the most important, if now largely  forgotten,  equal pay campaigns.

Trico first march

This was the 1970s with  a Labour Government while  trade unions still existed in a large manufacturing base with whole communities working in factories close to their home. Trico had a large female workforce working on the assembly line  which was  separate from the men. It was a workforce that was multi racial, including the Irish, Afro Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese and French.

trico 5

Trico, like many companies, were trying to keep their costs down and saw women as a good  source  of cheap labour (or so they thought).  But they had a trade union, the AUEW,  that was  prepared to back the women over 21 weeks to ensure that they achieved victory.

The strike at Grunwick film processing factory was only eight miles from Trico and they came out only a few months after their strike began. Unlike Trico they did not have a union to support them. Solidarity between the two groups of workers led to the poorer Grunwick strikers offering a donation to the Trico women.

The Trico women, unlike Grunwicks, won their strike because they had a strong union with local officials from the left and they kept all the negotiations in their own hands. As Sally points out; “The Strike Committee and their officials understood the dangers inherent in relying on a law rigged in favour of the employers (in our case the Equal Pay Act) and they knew the power of working class collective action for the securing of a just result.”

trico 3

Reading the story of the strike is a reminder of how organised and supportive the trade union movement was in the 1970s. We casually use the words solidarity and community,  but the story of the Trico strike shows the real meaning of the word. Trade unions up and down the country donated to the strike fund,  as well as organising the boycott of Trico goods. Locally people supported the picket line and provided food and money. Sally says; “We found that it was working class people, ordinary folk, even down to pensioners who could only afford to send a few stamps to help-it was these people that were our backbone.”

The heroines were, of course,  the working class women who led the strike  against all odds  – and won. Here are some of their comments.

Bella (Davis) Young , “I knew I was in the right. No man could do the same job I do and get more money than me when I’m working hard. If I had to do it again I’d do it again.”

Rhoda (Fraser) Williams said “I was proud of what I did. You never know, when people read the book, it might inspire them to do something if they are in trouble.”

Phyllis Green “It was a good time. I enjoyed the strike. I was glad I was part of women getting equal pay, well equal pay as far as it went – there’s still a way to go yet.”

 

Sally Groves, the Publicity Officer for the strike, speaks at the WCML on Wednesday April 10 at 2pm.

Posted in anti-cuts, book review, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “I Have No Regrets: Diaries, 1955-1963” Brigitte Reimann

brigitte reimann 1

 

 

Brigitte Reimann was an East German writer and  an avid chronicler of her own  life through her diaries. In this new book we follow her as she becomes a successful writer, but at a turbulent time for her and  the GDR in the years between  1955 and 1963.

Reimann was like many people in their 20s; too much drink, too many men, and too much doubt about her future as a writer. The diaries are unusual for this period in  detailing her affairs with  numerous men. It seems a very modern book in that sense – reflecting a present day obsession (now played out in social media) with the importance of  self. She says “The diary is not dedicated to my adulterous escapades; it’s not about love and liaisons – I want to record whatever happens to me on my journey to becoming a writer.”

But self and navel gazing was not what was expected of writers  by the GDR state. Reimann knew this,  and in the diary  says, . “I want to dedicate my whole life to this one aim;to help people through literature, and fulfil my duties, the duties we share with humanity”.

Her first two books were rejected by the publishers on the grounds they were counter revolutionary, decadent, morbid, bizarre and this  took a toll on Reimann. “It was a damned hard blow, and it took me a long time to recover.”

Reimann was regularly visited by the Stasi. She had spoken up for writers who had been persecuted by the State and was not surprised when they turned up at her door. Forced to sign a statement of secrecy and adopt the code name “Caterine”,  she agreed to pass on “legitimate complaints about errors and inadequacies to the Stasi so they can take remedial action.” Reimann  refused to name names,  but she still believed in the socialist state. “When compared with capitalism, it represents a higher development, a progression of mankind.”

brigitte 2

But  when her husband is imprisoned she has to  call on the Stasi for help,  whilst knowing that there will be a price to be paid.  It is not clear from the diaries what this is,  as she continues to rail against the authorities and is given a job working in a refinery,  as well as being a writer in residence.

With her second husband, Daniel,  Reimann moves to Hoyerswerda, a new town,  to take up their jobs in the refinery. They are expected to work in the laboratory,  as well as taking  on responsibility for a group of workers in a workers writers’ circle. She says; “The plant is starting to squeeze their money’s worth out of them. We’ve been reading manuscripts, giving receptions for writing workers, having hour long discussions; now we’re style-editing a brochure.” This is on top of working on the shop floor,  including  grinding valves which seems  to bring her more satisfaction. “Felt wonderfully strong in overalls and with dirty hands-a new feeling, slightly exuberant.”

Reimann confesses to being “middle class”, no doubt  brought on by working side by side with manual workers. Inspired by her time there she writes a classic of socialist  realism  Arrival in Everyday Life,  the story of three young people who postpone their studies to work in a plant in Hoyerswerda.

But her successful career is dominated by the  politics of the Cold War. Her brother escapes the country, the Wall goes up,  and the political atmosphere for writers depresses Reimann. The diaries are revealing for her continued affairs with men and her failed marriages – she marries four times – excessive drinking and much personal unhappiness. She died  in 1973 of cancer, aged just 40.

My copy of I Have No Regrets did not include an introduction,  and so I do not know who agreed to publish the diaries.  Maybe they should have been edited as I did feel the reader was given too much information about her love life.  I felt sorry for her that she had no close female friend with whom she could have shared the doubts and depressions of her life. Reading the diaries without being able to read Reimann’s novels is also a problem and hopefully the publishers will  now consider publishing them.

Buy it for £19.99 here

 

 

 

Posted in book review, Communism, education, novels, political women, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My review of “High Wages” Dorothy Whipple

high wages cover

 

High Wages is set in 1912 and describes the lives of many young women of that era who had  limited educational and career options. Jane Carter, the heroine of this novel, is a Northern young woman who has to leave school and get a job as a shop girl after the death of her father.  Jane is one step up from the local mill girls. She woke to the blackness filled with clogs. ..Dark shapes streamed across the market place. “Thank goodness I don’t go to the mill” breathed Jane, plunging back into bed. “I couldn’t get up at half-past five.”

But Jane’s life as a shop girl in reality  is little  better than the mill girls. She works long hours,  lives above the shop where she  shares a bedroom with the other shop girl, and is paid considerably less than mill girls. Unlike them she is isolated in the shop, her life is dominated by the owner and his wife, and she does not have the solidarity and growing militancy of the mill girls.

Friendship with   Maggie, the other shop girl, brings her to the local Free Library and friendship with the library assistant Wilfrid. He introduces her to the radical  novels of H.G.Wells and the poetry of William Blake. The three of them escape the town and, like thousands of other working class people in this era,  spend their limited free time walking on the local moors.

Jane is a feisty young woman and challenges the shop owner over his low wages and the way he tries to cheat her out of commission. But she quickly  realises  her subservient position. “She remembered Mr. Chadwick had the power to turn her away at a day’s notice, without wages. She remembered that she would have great difficulty in getting another job in Tydsley, if she left for such a reason as this. She remembered that she had nowhere to go-but her stepmother’s house.”

Jane, who has a good eye for fashion,  proves herself invaluable to Mr. Chadwick and his customers. But times are changing in the retail business and his shop – the old fashioned draper’s selling to a local elite of rich women-   is being supplanted by a ready to wear market selling to a much broader group of women.

Jane makes friends with a local woman, Mrs. Briggs, who was originally from humbler roots,  and together they upset the status quo. When she gives Jane tickets for the Hospital Ball, even Mr.Chadwick is impressed and is happy to go with his wife and Jane. But their presence is a scandal as the local matriarch Mrs. Greenwood comments. “How do tradespeople get the tickets? I impress on all ticket sellers that they must be most careful, but in spite of all I can do, the tone – the TONE is lowered year by year.”

Financed by Mrs Briggs Jane escapes the drudgery of Chadwick’s to open her own ready to wear shop.  She now can employ staff, travel to London to buy stock , and establish herself in the town as an independent person.

High Wages is a well written novel, with a sympathetic heroine, but something is missing.  The author, Dorothy Whipple, was from Blackburn and the novel is set in Preston, but she chooses not to mention the vibrant political culture in these northern towns during this time.  There is no reference to the suffrage movement and the growing militancy of working class women who formed the backbone of workers in these towns.

Also for a novel about shop girls there is no mention of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants which was set up in 1891. Margaret Bonfield, who started her working life as a shop assistant, was Assistant Secretary in 1898 and regularly spoke at meetings across the country.  Mary Quaile heard Margaret speak in Manchester in 1908 and it encouraged her to become an activist in her trade union.

High Wages was published in 1930 but you have to go to Ethel Carnie’s novel Miss Nobody, published in 1913,   to get a more political view of women’s lives in this period.  Both women were from northern towns,  but Ethel and Dorothy were quite different characters. Ethel originally worked in a mill, Dorothy came from a middle class background and was a secretary. Ethel came from a highly politicised community in the mills and factories of the north and channelled that radicalism into her political activity and her  novels.

Dorothy does capture the life of a young woman and her search for an independent life. Jane is a very sympathetic heroine who fights against injustice and is kind to those who are not as strong as her.  It is a well written novel that has a strong sense of female friendship and captures the changing lives of women in this period.

Published by Persephone Books (2016) there is an excellent introduction by Jane Brocket.

 

 

Posted in book review, feminism, labour history, novels, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “You Can’t Kill the Spirit!” Houghton Main Pit Camp, South Yorkshire;the untold story of the women who set up camp to stop pit closures

you cant kill the spirit 1

 

This is the inspiring  story of a group of working class women who decided to fight to stop further pit closures seven years after the momentous Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. They set up seven women’s pit camps outside the most threatened colleries.  This new and  fascinating history book concentrates on the Houghton Main Colliery in the Dearne Valley in the South Yorkshire Coalfields.

The women’s aim was: “To challenge a government that, as a matter of policy, was bent on destroying the publicly owned mining industry, with little regard for the economic and social consequences on local mining communities.”

By 1992 there were only 50 remaining deep mines.  Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, announced on 13 October 1992, following the election of another Tory government, that 31 of these would be closed.  Not reckoning on the public outcry Heseltine  ordered a government review of the industry,  but this review only included 21 pits and not the 10 earmarked for immediate closure.

This sparked the setting up in January 1993 of the women’s pit camps at seven of the ten most threatened pits. These were Grimethorpe, Houghton Main and Markham Main in South Yorkshire, Parkside in Lancashire, Rufford in Nottinghamshire, Trentham Colliery in Stoke and Vane Tempest in Durham.

badge wapc

In an interview Lynne, one of the women,  summed up their determination: “The attempt to walk all over us, wipe us, our families, and our villages out has had the opposite effect…we are not bowed, not depressed, not about to admit defeat because we have got everything that is dear to us to fight for and absolutely nothing to lose.”

The women’s camps were set up outside the collieries and  had the support of the miners as they went into work each day;  the National Union of Mineworkers; local people;  and the children, who were included in all the activities – because it was  for them the women were fighting for, for their future and  for that of their communities.

kids against pit closures

Many of the women involved in setting up the pit camps were veterans of the 1984-5 Miners Strike and  had made links with other justice campaigns, including  the Greenham Women’s peace camp.

The pit camps were organised around principles influenced by the women’s peace movement  including non-violent protest, creativity and encouraging sharing skills, information and decision making.

After Heseltine’s announcement the National Women Against Pit Closures called for women and their communities to get ready to fight the closures. A lobby of parliament and a national demonstration showed that people were outraged by the threat of more pit closures.

Trade unions

Sheffield WAPC issued its first Bulletin in October 1992,  pledging their support to the fight to keep the pits open and,  most importantly,  making the links with other industries, showing that closing mines meant the decimation of other industries from rail, power and engineering to factories, retail and service industries.

This book is a manual for how to organise political activity. Not just a written history, but one that interweaves individual women’s stories through their words, diaries, photos and news clippings.

It shows the importance of grassroots organising: involving the local community, involving children, making links with other groups fighting injustice, and, most importantly,  keeping the solidarity work going even after the demise of the camp.

One aspect of organising a campaign has changed from 1992-3 is that activists today can use social media – which is direct and  can straight away  speak to thousands of people. But in 1992  the women organised using “snail mail” and telephone trees. “Each telephone tree started with one woman, who rang the next two and so on.”  But they also talked to each other, and used a camp diary and messages to keep the activists involved with what was happening.

messages page

In the book there are pictures of the telephone trees, the camp diary and the message book. But they also wanted to inform as many people as possible.  “We wanted control over our message: the campaign was not about pay, but about people’s livelihoods and communities, and our children’s future, just as it was in the 1984-5 strike.”

You Can’t Kill the Spirit is a brilliant book on many levels. It is interesting, accessible,  and gives a crucial account of a significant period of working class history. It is an example of how to set down and record working class history.  Most importantly it shows you  how to run a campaign .

There are modern day parallels,  particularly the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign in 2016-2017,   which again was about a group of mainly women workers fighting injustice at work but aware of the bigger issues about “women’s work”, the importance of education and community.

There are big questions to be asked about organising in 2019 and why so many people feel alienated from trade unions and political parties and why  ideas of community and solidarity are often seen as speaking in a different language.

But Socialist Tony Benn is quoted and his comments sum up the story of the women’s pit camps and why some people, often the poorest and most disadvantaged,  are still fighting . “You cannot obliterate from the human spirit two things – the flame of anger at injustice and the flame of hope for a better world.”

You Can’t Kill the Spirit can be ordered by emailing SWAPCPitCamp1993@gmail.com or by writing to SWAPC, c/o 6 Burnside Avenue Sheffield S8 9FR. The book costs £12 including post and packaging, though a solidarity price of £20 is suggested. Cheques should be made out to SWAPC Pit Camp Project.

Posted in book review, 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 “Our Woman in Havana Reporting Castro’s Cuba” Sarah Rainsford

our woman in havana

 

Sarah Rainsford was the BBC’s correspondent in Cuba from 2011-14. Known as “Our woman in Havana”  it  feels  like  a throwback to a time when the UK was a world power that needed  to send out foreign correspondents like missionaries. An irony probably not lost on Raul Castro as he did not grant her an interview during her tenure.

She arrives in  Cuba as the country is once again having to reboot the revolution.  Raul Castro unveils a new economic agenda,  opening up markets for citizens to buy and sell houses and cars, set up businesses and travel in and out of Cuba.

Life is not easy for Rainsford as she faces difficulties sending her reports back to the UK, government restrictions on her work  and the self-censorship of local people as she goes around interviewing the Cuban woman and man on the street.

She uses Graham Greene’s 1958 novel “Our Man in Havana” to explore the last days of the Batista regime, linking  it to present day Cuba. At first Greene wallowed in the licentiousness of Havana,  but  was quickly revolted by it, and went over to the revolution and a lifetime commitment to the socialist state.

our_man_in_havana_(novel)_cover

Rainsford also explores the life of another female correspondent American  Ruby Hart Phillips who reported from  Cuba from 1937 to 1961.

In her interviews Rainsford  does show how Cubans, particularly the younger generation, are looking for a lifestyle similar to what they see on the internet:  this  is the challenge facing Raul Castro and his successors.

The Cuban revolution is still alive, but the constant assaults on it have led to the rise of new forces –  including Christianity –  which Rainsford highlights,  although she  fails to explore the ways in which it is being funded by the USA.

Likewise whilst interviewing Cubans who want to leave the country (and then do) she does not follow them abroad to see if the American dream has become  a reality for them.

Rainsford’s reporting is at its best when she puts aside her own personal prejudices and allows the reader to experience  the uniqueness of the history  and beauty of Cuba.

Published by Oneworld Publications”, cost £18.99. Buy it here

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My interview with Sheila Rowbotham about her groundbreaking 1969 article “Women: the struggle for Freedom”

black-dwarf-year-of-the-militant-woman

 On 10 January 1969 in an article  called   “Women; the struggle for Freedom”, published  in the Marxist magazine Black Dwarf, socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham  poured out her anger and resentment about the inequality and injustice of women’s lives:   “A much less tangible something – a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction – which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.”

Sheila  lived in a communal house  in London, worked part -time teaching at a local F.E. college, and was involved with socialist politics.  But she saw  her male comrades as  part of the problem. “They, like the left generally then, treated women with derision when we spoke up about how we felt about our lives,” she told me when I spoke to her.   This came to a head when she became involved in producing an issue on women’s issues for “Black Dwarf”.

11sheila rowbotham 1969

Sheila in 1969

Sheila  remembers that when her  male  comrades tried to make out that it was her that was the problem, not all women, the 17 year old secretary, Ann Scott, spoke up:  “It’s not just Sheila, it’s all women.”

As Sheila  explained to men in the article: “We still get less pay for the same work as you. We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful in which we have any responsibility. We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised. The present setup of the family puts great strain on us.” Sheila was part of a minority of women that had got to Oxford, but it was not an easy position to be in. “The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually is in a peculiarly isolated position. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally towards boys as friends.” 

In the 1960s everything was changing. Civil rights movements across the world were kicking off and there was a widespread belief that things would change dramatically.  Rowbotham was researching women’s history,  finding links with the writings of women such as Alexandra Kollontai, who in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution  drew the links between the personal and the political.

Sheila’s own analysis of women’s discrimination was (and still is) grounded in her respect for working class women. She realised how divided women are by men and society,  but that the position of working class women was much worse. “They remain the exploited, oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.”

Whilst some women were still intellectualising about feminism, working class women such as Lil Bilocca and the Hull fishermen’s wives in 1968  were defending the lives of their men at work on trawlers.  As Sheila recognised,  “It was unusual to see a woman fighting publicly and speaking, and men on the left listening with respect, tinged admittedly with a touch of patronage.”

lil bilocca

Lil Bilocca

At the same time as some women, mainly   middle class, were taking part in workshops, conferences,  and setting up the first  Women’s Liberation groups, there was a parallel movement of women activists in their workplaces. The women at Ford’s in Dagenham, led by Rose Boland,  showed   that women could organise themselves and take strike action. It also had a ripple effect on the left. “The Ford’s women also helped make the question of women’s specific oppression easier to discuss on the Left” says Sheila.

ford women 1968

Ford Women

Women’s groups spread across the country,  culminating in  February 1970 when  where  the first nationwide meeting took place at Ruskin College Oxford. Sheila  was amazed at the response. “We thought perhaps a hundred women would come. In fact more than 500 people turned up, 400 women, 60 children and 40 men…it was really from the Oxford conference that movement could be said to exist.” They settled on four demands to begin with: equal pay, improved education,  24  hour nurseries,  and free contraception and abortion on demand.

For Sheila  it was not all analysis. In  1971 she was involved with the Hackney Women’s Liberation Workshop and the night cleaners campaign. They were a very badly treated group of women workers. May Hobbs was one of the central activists as Sheila comments:  “May Hobbs came to my bed room to speak about the cleaners and various people came from London Women’s Liberation Workshop to hear her in autumn 1970. There were certainly not crowds volunteering to leaflet in the city at night! Partly because women were busy campaigning for nurseries, contraception abortion- issues that related more to their immediate lives and it was not possible anyway for women with children to go out at night. Those of us who volunteered tended to assume that if we recruited women the union would support us.”

may hobbs of nightcleaners

May Hobbs of Nightcleaners Campaign

Over the last fifty years much has changed for women in this country. But Sheila comments that few people now talk about an alternative vision for society, and  that while race and gender are dominant issues,  class has been  marginalised.  “Inequality has increased. Women have been pushed down and working class women pushed down even more.”  She believes that the values of the left in the 1960s,  which were about solidarity and caring have been replaced with ideas of individual rights  rather than ones of collectivity and the possibility of   creating a different society.

In 1969 Sheila  concluded her article:  “But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. They then can liberate the colonisers”.  In 2019 this still seems a worthy aim for women, to liberate themselves –  and then liberate men.

You can read the whole of Sheila’s article here.

Verso are republishing Sheila’s autobiography   Promise of a Dream; Remembering the Sixties in July  2019.

Posted in biography, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments