Northern ReSisters: Conversations with Radical Women by Bernadette Hyland
ISBN 987-0-9932247-0-6 £5.95
I decided to write this book because I was fed up with the way that the Left, which I have always been a part of, has in recent years promoted writers, comedians and actors as leaders of new movements, campaigns or at demonstrations. Ignoring, I feel, a vital part of our movement, the many working class activists who have put themselves, their family and their livelihood on the line. For me it also reflected a fact that many of the new organisations do not have working class people as activists and do not engage with working class communities.
My own experience reflects my lifetime political activity. Growing up in a working class Irish background in the unfashionable east side of Manchester I followed in the footsteps of my family; proud of coming from a radical Irish tradition and being active in my trade union, in my community and my neighbourhood.
Starting work in early 1980s, I learnt from older trade union activists about the importance of solidarity, collective action and, most importantly, compassion for those not as lucky as me.
In this book I talk to nine other women who have taken a similar path in life but did not always start from the same background. These include:
Betty Tebbs, who is now 97, and has spent a lifetime as an activist in her trade union and the peace movement. Her political activity was reflected the exploitative nature of work; “At the age of 14 years I experienced first hand the double exploitation of women in industry and it seemed quite right for me to work to change this situation.”
Alice Nutter, former member of anarcho collective Chumbawamba and now writer, came from a Tory working class background but had a mother who encouraged her; “She let me be anything I wanted to be, even when I was a punk.She never thought I should get married, and I haven’t.”
In the late 70s there was a culture of radical dissent with people opposing racism, the war in Ireland, cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Tory cuts. This was played out against a background of high levels of youth unemployment. It defined a whole generation of young people, including myself and Alice.
Pia Feig comes from a London Jewish family and has been an activist for forty years. Like many immigrants her family kept their head down but their children were not going to be the same. As Pia recounts; “Me and my sister would answer back to my father and that was the start of a protest position, right from the family dynamics.”
She became involved in politics when she went to university but it was when she went to a big demonstration about Britain’s role in Ireland that she saw the difference between student and street politics; “My very first demo, which was about Ireland, really frightened me. It was the largest police presence I had ever seen and the atmosphere was the opposite to all the student activity I had been involved in.”
In the second part of the book I have selected a number of articles that reflect the importance to me of being northern, working class and a political activist. These interviews include discussions with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey from 1991 and how women of all ages decide where they put their political energies in 2014. Other articles explore the nature of being northern with writers Sally Wainwright, Alice Nutter, Cathy Crabb and Maxine Peake.
But my book is not a nostalgic walk down memory lane for former activists. All the women in my book are still out there on the demonstrations as well as organising meetings and taking an active part in campaigns. Most importantly working with younger generations of women and men in campaigns as diverse as fracking, anti-cuts and Palestine.
The lives of young people who want to be activists is not so easy. Many of them are being harassed through the benefit system or working on zero hour contracts, with large student debts and living a precarious if an independent lifestyle.
It is important to remind them that change for the better is possible and my northern sisters have shown that through their lives. Their message is one of hope for the future, but not one dependent on expecting someone else to do the work.
Christine Clark, one of my northern sisters summed it up; We should start from where they are. I have some interesting conversations with my granddaughter who is black. I try to be on her side and listen to what is important to her. As activists we must listen to them and what they are struggling with and give them support.”
For details of how to buy my book please go to http://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com