Through my friendship with Eddie and Ruth Frow I have met many women like Betty who had been activists in the CPGB and the trade union movement. We came from different generations – and had quite different views on feminism and politics – but I was always impressed by these women because of the struggles they had taken part in, not just in being women who had come through the Second World War, but all the battles they had to fight to assert themselves as women, inside the home, inside the CPGB and in their campaigning lives.
I first met Betty in 1991 at the International Women’s Day event at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. She was on the committee that ran the centre when it still had some politics. The IWD event was about women in struggle and included a woman from the North of Ireland, a Palestinian woman and me.
I spoke on behalf of theIrish in Britain Representation Group, an organisation set up in 1981 to represent Irish people of all generations who lived in Britain and to campaign for equality and against discrimination. After I spoke I remember Betty making a comment which showed that she really did not understand the position of the Irish and other ethnic communities in this country. It did not surprise me because it was a standard response from many left people at that time who believed that class trumped ethnicity and sex inequality.
Betty had not only been an activist all her life but, unlike a lot of women, she had produced her own autobiography. In Mark Metcalf’s new book “Betty Tebbs a radical working class hero” (shouldn’t that be heroine?) he has been able to use this material, alongside stories and comments from her daughter and friends to produce an engaging story of her life which is illustrated by some lovely photos of Betty and her family.
She was born in 1918 and lived a long and activist life. Growing up at a time when trade unions were a dominating force in the industry where she got her first job at the age of 14 – the paper mills. She came from a working class family and her life began like most working class girls, where they were treated as second class workers, like Betty, on less money than the young man sat next to her doing the same job. She joined the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers and spent her lifetime campaigning for equality.
Injustice fuelled Betty’s life, and her involvement in the trade unions. She was married and had a child at an early age, but was widowed at 21 when her husband Ernest was killed in action. Widowhood meant her allowances were immediately cut which enraged her, while the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led her to vow to work for peace, a vow she maintained until her death.
After the war she married Len Tebbs and they both joined the Communist Party in 1952. But it was Betty’s responsibility to work, do the childcare and attend union meetings. And throughout her autobiography there is no analysis of this double burden that many women who were parents and activists had to shoulder.
In 1952 she joined the National Assembly of Women, an organisation which was mainly made up of Communist Party women. By the 1980s Betty was the chair and she was able to travel to meetings, mainly in the Soviet bloc.
Running through this book is Betty’s committment to trade unions and to improving the lives of women at work through pay equality. Her trade union membership enabled Betty to improve her own education and in 1963 she became a Labour councillor in Bury.
Her commitment to CND meant that at the age of 89, alongside her comrades, Neville, Alan and Jean, she travelled to Scotland and blocked the road to the Faslane submarine base.
My only criticism of this publication would be (and this goes for Betty’s own autobiography) there is too much information about her personal relationships and not enough analysis of sexual politics. But maybe that reflects the era that Betty grew up in and the way in which women of her generation chose to live their lives.
Metcalf has produced a well-written and beautifully illustrated history of an inspiring working class woman activist who in a different era would have been a trade union leader.
This pamphlet was produced by Unite the Union contact http://www.unitetheunion.org.
Read Betty’s autobiography “A Time to Remember” at the WCML.