My review of “Wages for Housework A History of an International Feminist Movement 1972-77” by Louise Toupin (2018)

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In this new and fascinating book about the Wages for Housework campaign we are looking back to a period of history when  radical women were redefining  the nature of women’s work and   challenging the role of women in  society.

The author, Louise Toupin, has produced an international history of the Wages for Housework movement which takes us from  Canada to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, USA and  England.

Wages for Housework challenged the overriding view at that time which said that  calling for women’s work in the home to be paid was reactionary and would chain women to the home. Instead they proclaimed that the personal was political,  and in 1972 in the founding manifesto of the International Feminist Collective they  advanced a new definition of class. “This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity ie. the exploitation  of the labour of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it.”

Rejecting the traditional definition of Marxism that class equalled productive work,  they reached out to people from the unemployed to peasants, to those caught up in slavery to colonised people.  It was an internationalist approach that challenged the division of labour with the central figure in the analysis being the  houseworker. It brought to the fore issues of domestic violence and  the criminalisation of prostitution and lesbians.  Classic texts such as Sex, Race and Class,  written by Selma James, co-founder of the IFC and Wages for Housework group in London were  circulated and remain popular today.

Through the International Feminist Collective (1972-77) this political analysis was taken forward by a network of groups, mainly Italian, English, American and Canadian women. Innovative for its time,  it was a feminist “International.” Toupin says,   “it was a body for coordination and encounters, for exchanges of information on mobilizations underway in the network, for reflections and discussions on situations of the moment, and for concerted actions.”  

Fascinating is how the movement took part in actions:  either   initiated by a Wages for Housework group,  or  initiated by other women’s groups and supported by Wages for Housework groups. Their campaigns involved mobilising around women’s invisible work, both  inside and outside the home.

Women's army protest in Tameside

Tameside Wages for Housework protest against Govt spending on war.

Activities varied,  depending on the different countries involved. In Italy work was done on issues around women’s health,  including abortion, pregnancy and hospital services.  In Britain it focused on defending universal family allowances which the Conservative government wanted to replace with tax credits.

One of the interesting stories about campaigns around invisible work outside the home was the struggle by waitresses in Canada to end differentiated minimum wage rates in the tourism and restaurant industries   which discriminated against women; women who were often not in a union,  who were often the sole breadwinner and unskilled immigrants.

The Toronto Wages for Housework included women who were waitresses and formed the Waitresses Action Committee.  This was an important struggle which one of them summed up; “Waitressing is the work of serving and satisfying other people, only on a public instead of a private scale. That’s why I call it housework. All women are taught to do this from the day we were born. In fact our very identities are tightly bound up in this work, whether we are secretaries, mothers, nurses, waitresses or full-time housewives.”

The Wages for Housework was a key movement in second wave feminism. It was totally original in its philosophy and  threw light on the unrecognised and invisible forms of labour that are performed mainly  by women. It is  summed up in this comment by Claudia von Werlhof:  “Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy”.

Wages for Housework is published by Pluto Press and costs £19.99 Buy it here

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My review of “A Massacre in Mexico” Anabel Hernandez

a massacre

On  26 September 2014 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College went missing in Igula, Guerrero, Mexico. The cries of their parents and supporters reached  out across the world   – even to urban Manchester- as local students protested and called on activists to support their demands for truth about the disappearance of the students.

A Massacre in Mexico  by journalist Anabel Hernandez is a gripping and gruesome insight into the events before and after the student’s disappearance,  but is also a revelation about the corruption of the Mexican state. As Anabel says “This is an investigation conducted not only by a journalist, but by a citizen who was forced out of her country by violence and impunity, and who then returned to Mexico because of the violence and impunity meted out to others.”

The students were travelling to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlateloclo Massacre of 2 October  1968 when Mexican soldiers and police murdered hundreds of innocent protestors.  The  security forces hunted down the unarmed students, killed six  people, injured dozens and then “disappeared” the 43 students.

The students were from a rural training school based on a Marxist-Leninist ideology  on a model of “student governance” with the objective of training teachers who speak Spanish without having to give up their native indigenous languages and could teach in their own communities.  Most of the students come from campesino families and becoming a teacher is the only way of obtaining a professional job.

Politics is at the centre of the school which is  a community. “Along with training in agriculture, the students are training politically and ideologically, reinforcing their attachment to their surroundings, as well as their contentment with what they have,” writes Anabel.

In  her  reconstruction of the event of September 2014 we can see the complicity of the State’s involvement in the disappearance of the 43 students.  Anabel   gets access to government internal documents; she sees video surveillance that the government tried to hide and destroy.  Her bravery in undermining the government’s official version is astounding:  this book  is a superb case study of investigative journalism. As she says, faced with state violence, “The only thing I could do to protect myself was to keep investigating.”

The government’s attempts to create a false story  or,  as they put it,  the “historic truth” about the disappearance of the 43 students is incredible. Anabel proves that the  government were quite prepared,  not just to fabricate a fake case with fake evidence,  but also to  arrest dozens of “suspects” whom they tortured to provide fake confessions that would back up the government’s version.

Apart from Anabel there are many heroes and heroines in the story. Not just the 43 students and their determination to go to the Tlateloclo  Massacre,  but their families and supporters who refused to accept the government’s story of the events of September 2014. The Mexicans who protested on the streets of the country shouting; “jFue el Estado!” “It was the state!” and  those ordinary people  who “during those dark hours of fear and desolation, as the Mexican state hounded, murdered and disappeared young students, …opened their doors to save the lives of a least sixty other students, enabling them to tell the tale of that night.”

The 43 students are still  “disappeared “and the Mexican government can still not provide any credible story as to  what happened to them. Anabel  believes that any Mexican person could find themselves in the same position:  arrested, tortured and  “disappeared”. Her story  interweaves  with that of the students and all Mexicans. “This is not merely a question of justice for the families who continue to search for their loved ones. It also means giving the example of justice to a country that needs to pull itself out of an abyss of corruption, impunity and violence.”

 

Buy it here

 

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My review of “Nightmarch Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas” Alpa Shah

nightmarch

 

 

Alpa Shah is from an East African Gujerati background. Her family moved to England when she was 15 years and she followed the usual  liberal middle class journey to Cambridge,  and  on to jobs ranging from international development organisations to the World Bank, and then  back to Cambridge and a PHD.

Aged 23 , she decided to undertake her research in the field: going to India but not to her relatives, instead  going  to the remote forests and hills of Jharkhand, living with the Munda Adivasi  tribal people in a village of mud houses with no electricity or running water.  “A good base from which to understand, from the grassroots, the virtues and limits of the various attempts at addressing poverty and inequality –whether it was by international development agencies or by grassroots social movements.”

Alpa dons her fatigues and  joins communist guerrillas, the Naxalites,  on a 250 mile trek through the hills and forests of eastern India. Her timing was not brilliant as the Indian government in 2008 launched its counter insurgency policy  “Operation Green Hunt,” putting  thousands of troops into the area surrounding the Adivasi hills.

Journalists and human rights activists were jailed if they tried to get into the guerrilla areas or report on the government’s human rights abuses. Alpa was now going to be one of the few outsiders and the only woman who was going to take part in this night march. “Hunted ruthlessly by the state, we had to march in the safety of the darkness –all under cover of night and without the light of a torch to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.”

For decades the Naxalites have been engaged in a long struggle against the Indian state. It is a movement made up of middleclass, well educated revolutionaries and poor people outraged by the discrimination and inequality they experience who  have decided to take on the highly militarised might of the Indian state.

Alpa’s discussions and analysis of the movement and its role amongst a rural community is fascinating,  as well at the same time reflecting her own lack of political experience.  Her own views about political violence were tested when she was confronted by the guerrillas making bombs.  And,  whilst she could draw the links between their use of political violence in response to that  of the Indian state towards the poor,  she was less sure about the Naxalites use of violence when it came to its own comrades. “What about those who were co-opted by or turned to the other side? Or those whom the Naxalites shot dead as police informers, betrayers or traitors?”

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Alpa meets up with female comrades.   “Despite the existence of women’s organisations of the Maoists, the number of women to take up guns was small and their participation was  often fleeting.” And,  not unlike many male comrades in the West,  when it came to women becoming mothers the same conservative attitudes came to the fore: Naxalite women would then return to the villages. “They became important, providers of food, trusted messengers and couriers and much needed guarantors of safe houses and security.” As Alpa comments; “Perhaps involving fathers in childbearing might help resolve the issue of women leaving.”

Nightmarch is a fascinating insight into a war going on in one of the world’s largest democracies. A war that is largely unreported in the west, maybe because the revolutionary nature of the communist guerrillas is too challenging to the politicians and parties that dominate in the UK and Europe. Unlike the UK where post war ideas about the Welfare State seem revolutionary the Naxalites fighting in the forests and jungles of eastern India,  as Alpa comments. “…strive for a utopian human community, devoting their lives to fight together, when the circumstances were so set clearly against them.”

 

It costs £20 if you can buy it here

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My review of “Staging Life The Story of the Manchester Playwrights” by John Harding

staging life

 

Manchester used to  have its own municipal theatre, the Library Theatre based in Central Library and its southern sister at the Forum in Wythenshawe. In those days going to the theatre was more democratic. For many Mancunian school children like myself, it was where we were introduced to theatre through its annual Xmas play.  It was a theatre that was unpretentious and attracted a working class audience searching out for ideas and escapism through drama.

The  days of the municipal funded  theatre  have long gone,  alongside the history of Annie Horniman and the Manchester Gaiety Theatre which spawned the life of repertory theatre locally and nationally.

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Gaiety Theatre

John Harding’s new and very well-researched book, Staging Life,   on the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester is much more than the story of one northern theatre company over ten years. It highlights Manchester’s significant role in the history  of repertory theatre in Britain.

In 1907 Annie Horniman (AH), inheritor of a tea fortune, decided to site her new repertory company in Manchester with the aim of promoting  drama written by and about local women and men who lived and worked in the city.

AH

Annie Horniman

 

Annie was the driving force. With no training in the theatre she was a great enthusiast for the new avant garde European drama of writers such as Ibsen.  She  had  bankrolled her friend W.B.Yeats in setting up the Irish National Theatre,  but politics  –  both national and personal  – drove her out of Dublin and on to Manchester to set up a new kind of theatre.

Her cast included theatre manager  Iden Payne,  who  was  idealistic and ambitious to create  a permanent theatre company, produce new plays, stage foreign plays, and most importantly, have a  change of play two or three times a week.

Iden was the power behind the throne of the Gaiety. “ He was by instinct a teacher and he set about creating a style of performance that would help to transform the way drama in Britain would henceforth be presented.”

Key to this new drama was the one-act play. In the first three seasons of the Gaiety  some fifty-one plays would be staged:  most of them by new Manchester-based playwrights. They were mainly  by men, middle class and professional, who had been to the “best” local schools such as  Manchester Grammar or  to university.

But for once local plays written by local people were getting a venue to be performed in. And creating a body of work that would be a key feature of the legacy of the Gaiety Theatre.

Manchester in 1908, when the Gaiety opened,  was going through hard times. There was a slump and in response to a proposed pay cut of 5% workers went on strike. Many of the actors were socialists and they wanted to appeal to the working classes and “spent much of their free time campaigning and proselytising, while the Gaiety itself would become a focus for left-wing-leaning individuals.”

A.H.  was a suffragist and recognised the barriers facing women playwrights. Gertrude Robins, another  local suffragist, was one of the more successful women  playwrights at the Gaiety. Her play Makeshifts appeared on the fourth Gaiety bill in October 1908 and as Annie Horniman said it “was one of the best one-act plays…performed at my theatre.”

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Gertrude Robins

The Gaiety was attracting left wing writers including Harry Richardson, a journalist, who was  involved in setting up the National Union of Journalists in 1907. Angry and bitter at the state of the world he poured it into drama. In his first play The Few and the Many he castigated employers for paying their women workers low wages which forced them into prostitution.

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Harry Richardson

But it was  playwrights such as  Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse  that   gave Manchester some of its best loved plays,  including  Hindle Wakes, Hobson’s Choice and the now  forgotten The Conquering Hero.

Over ten years the Gaiety attracted an audience of working class socialists, including factory worker Alice Foley, who were looking for drama that would speak to their lives and experiences.  “As a member of a group of socialists I hoarded my scanty pocket money…so I could afford with them the luxury of a monthly matinee.”  Harding would have liked to included more about the way in which the Gaiety brought in mill girls such as Alice,  but she was unique in writing up her memoirs.

Alice Foley, 16

Alice Foley

Staging Life   not only commemorates the legacy of Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester,  but as John   Harding reminds us, “It was a pioneering institution that would have far-reaching effects for drama in the United Kingdom.”

 

Buy  it  here

John Harding and Tim Gopsill of the NUJ will be speaking in Manchester on November 10 at 3MTheatre. Further information contact maryquaileclub@gmail.com

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My review of “A Most Unladylike Occupation” Lisa Wright

a most unladylike

 

Lucy Deane was one of the first female Factory Inspectors in 1893. In this novel, Lisa Wright, a distant relative of Lucy’s, captures the life and history of a pioneering woman.

It was the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, who appointed Lucy and three other women inspectors to travel across Britain and Ireland and inspect and  report on the working conditions of working class women.

Lucy documented  her work through a series of  diaries and it is these historical documents now in the L.S.E that Lisa uses to re-create her life as an Inspector.

Lucy is given advice by one of the first women lawyers, Eliza Orme, about the importance of keeping records. “but not to buy smart leather bound note books, but soft cheap 3d school exercise books and indelible pencils; to keep one in her private handbag at all times, and to write immediately after any meeting, in cabs, hotels, trains, factories; and to keep a record of everyone and everything and everywhere she travelled; and to record her opinions and descriptions of everyone she met.” Unfortunately Ms Orme continues with some derogatory remarks about working class women, trade unions etc.

Lucy’s privileged background does mean that she is paid more than the women Sanitary  Inspectors who are appointed by local authorities. They are paid £78 per year while  Lucy as a national Inspector is paid £216. Today’s equivalence is £9,700 to £26,000! Lucy is also given money by a rich patron of several hundred pounds per year. An irritating aspect of the book is Lucy’s flitting between the two worlds of privilege and poverty with little real analysis of the unfairness of the class system.

For me the book comes alive when we find out about the lives of the working class women workers. Women in the 1890s, were working in some of the worst industries while  trade unions were only just beginning.  The work of the female inspectors was crucial in raising issues about the working lives of women, the use and abuse of child labour which then fed into new legislation which would protect women and children.

As Lucy finds out, her role is not popular with the local inspectors who were generally male and some of them quite obstructive of her work. She started by shadowing the more experienced  Inspector May Abraham. “Lucy made copious notes and learnt that Miss Abraham was more abrupt and brusque than she was, that she never rang a bell and went straight to the workrooms, that unlike Lucy, she always asked the supervisors questions and spoke to the workers, that overtime was her bugbear, whereas Lucy’s was overcrowding.”

The novel is peppered with real life people. For me one of the problems with the novel  is that some of the comments attributed to them, presumably fictitious, are  contrary to what we know about them through historical documents.

Lady and  Sir Charles Dilke were Liberal reformers and fought for women’s suffrage, supported trade unions, free education and factory reforms. Lady Dilke became the President of the Women’s Trade Union League and every year attended the TUC conference.

In the novel, Lady Dilke,  explains to Lucy why she will not be liked by the Trade Unions.  “And all the Labour Organisations. Because you are “Upper Class” in the face of their candidates.” She goes on to  complain about a  trade union representative,  “very strong and very talented, certainly but very conceited and very aggressive. When I met her here I felt she was only working for her own ends.” To me, this does not ring true, but I would be interested in any proof for these comments.

Another objectionable aspect of this novel is the creation of the maid, Mrs.O’Casey, an Irish woman who takes to the drink. I do not think this racial stereotyping is acceptable. And of course Lucy replaces her with two English maids who fulfil the stereotype of the “faithful servant”.

In my work transcribing the Minutes of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC  I learnt about the importance of the female factory inspectors in supporting the work of women trade union organisers such as Mary Quaile. It was an important partnership but unfortunately I feel this is missing in this novel.  Marrying  historical documents with fiction is not easy, it does rely upon a high degree of understanding a historical period and being able to convey that in a  readable and sympathetic style.

Unfortunately, although there is a lot of interesting material in this book, it fails in conveying a realistic view of the complexities of a fast changing and exciting period of women’s history. Perhaps it may lead to the publication of Lucy’s diaries?

 

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My review of “The Miami Showband Massacre A survivor’s search for the truth” Stephen Travers and Neil Fetherstonhaugh

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On 31 July 1975  as the  popular group,  The Miami Showband, were travelling back home across the border in the North of Ireland, they were stopped by a fake army patrol made up of Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers and  members of the Loyalist paramilitary  Ulster Volunteer Force at a fake checkpoint outside Newry.

As the men were lined up outside the bus the soldiers tried to hide a bomb on the bus. The bomb exploded  prematurely killing  the bombers . Their compatriots then opened fire on the band, killing Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy. Band members Des McAlea and Stephen Travers were the only survivors.

In this new book Stephen Travers,  alongside journalist Neil Fetherstonhaugh,  reveals the truth about that night. The truth that “British soldiers were sent out to murder innocent people.  The truth that “collusion took place between the security forces and terrorists.” The truth that “Britain colluded in murder, and is therefore, guilty of murder, she must answer the charges.”

The book is Stephen’s story,  the story of a young working class man from Carrick-on-Suir,   a small town in Ireland, who went on to to become a member of one of the most popular bands in Ireland.  Like many people in the south of Ireland in the 1970s he was aware of the so-called “Troubles” but his life was his music, his wife and his family.

The Miami Showband was a band made up of Catholics and Protestants  who would entertain audiences right across Ireland. It made no difference to them or their fans what their religion was, but religion  was the deciding factor that led to the events of July 1975.

In this deeply moving book Stephen Travers uncovers the truth about that night and about  how the British government through its security services colluded with Loyalist terrorists. These “death squads” comprising  serving police officers, locally recruited British army soldiers and well known assassins made up the Glenanne Gang which targeted the Miami Showband,  as well as taking part in many other atrocities.

Stephen writes,  “While the Miami killings were particularly shocking because the band was a household name and the attack therefore received a huge amount of publicity, for the men who who had carried it out it was not very different from the dozens of other, less-well known murders that they had notched up.”

In his search for the truth Stephen not only has  to deal with the events of that fateful night, but come to terms with  his own mental health issues arising from his own survival.

It is a painful book to read as he traces his experiences from being seriously injured to recovery and the dawning reality of his small part in the bigger picture of what was  really  a war going on in part of the country he lived in.

Everything has changed since 1975,  including a peace process,  although the chapter where Stephen meets up with a representative of the UVF, who were behind the murders, is chilling and reflects the reality lived by a section of the Protestant community in the North of Ireland.

The book spans the forty years since the Miami Showband Massacre but,  whilst the events described are horrific, they are also a testament to Stephen, his family and supporters in their search for the truth about a  night that changed his life forever. Neil Fetherstonhaugh should also be commended for making the journey across the years with Stephen and collaborating in this important book.

For readers it is also in microcosm the story of the war in the North of Ireland,  and the way it changed not just Stephen’s life,  but the history of Britain and the Republic of Ireland.  Today  the truth about that war is being played out in the courts as Stephen and the other band members are suing both the Ministry of Defence and the Police Service of Northern Ireland over alleged collaboration between serving soldiers and  paramilitary killers.

Stephen has come a long way from the carefree musician of the 1970s.  In the epilogue he reflects on past events. “Every day, the British government accuses Syria or Iran or some other far-flung place of aiding terrorists – they should examine their own consciences. They sent their trained soldiers out to murder a pop group on their way home from a concert. We cannot be complacent and believe it could never happen again.”

Buy it here

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My review of “Ants Among Elephants An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” Sujatha Gidla

ants among

 

Sujatha Gidla’s new book is not about the modern India of bollywood, nuclear weapons and a thriving economy. It is her family’s story set at the end of British colonial rule,  a family of “untouchables” – part of the caste system  which dictates  their  role in society and even where they live. The title of the book sums up the “untouchable” experience, being an ant among elephants, at the bottom of a system that is determined to squash you.

One in six people in India are born as “untouchable:  “whose special role – hereditary duty – is to labour in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all.”

It was when Sujatha left India to study in America that she decided to talk to her family about her background. Her uncle K. G. Satyamurthy, known as SM, was a founder in the early 1970s of a Maoist guerrilla group, which the Indian government designated as the biggest threat to national security.  His sister and Sujatha’s mother, Manjula –  who against all odds  becomes a teacher-  is the  heroine of the book.

 Ants Among Elephants is  both her family’s  story and that of the independence movement in India. Sujatha’s account of discovering her family’s history is a fascinating as the story itself. It is based on taped interview with her mother and uncle and their contemporaries over fifteen years. She also visited the places where her family had lived, to remote villages where she came across people who were happy to share their memories and backed up the stories that her mother and uncle  had told her.

The story begins in the 1800s in Khamman district where her grandparents were part of a nomadic clan. They were not Hindus,  but had their own tribal goddesses living a remote forest based existence. But when the British cleared the forest for teak plantations their family was forced out, took up farming and lived alone near a lake. They were also now designated as despised outcasts and  “untouchables”. But it is a familiar story in India where to this day  tribal people are often driven off their land and forced to become  landless labourers.

Ants Among Elephants  is a story of how people, however poor and marginalised,  can and do fight back.  The book takes the reader through a complex history of mass and individual opposition to poverty and injustice. It is an era in which  politics are writ large,  one that  delivered independence to India but one that sold short the untouchable community.

Satyam became an important member of the Communist Party, sacrificing everything, including  a normal life and his family, to take up the struggle for justice for the poor. He carried on this political work to the end of his life when he could hardly walk and his supporters had to carry him on their backs through the jungle.

Manjula’s story is the most poignant. Her struggle for an education and a decent job is heartbreaking.  But her own philosophy kept her going. “Owing to the twin influences of Christianity and Communism, Manjula believed that the task of removing all the immorality, injustice and corruption from the nation rested upon the shoulders of people in positions of responsibility, however slight, and that everyone must do his or her part.”

At the age of fourteen Sujatha followed  her family’s politics and   joined the Radical Students Union, the student wing of the People’s War Group. And when she took part in a strike at college she was arrested – the only girl. “The police made it impossible for our families to find us by continually moving us from one precinct to another. We were deprived of food and water and sanitary facilities for long periods and tortured.”

She now lives in the USA and is the first Indian woman to work as a conductor on the New York subway. “When I left and made friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things  we had done, became stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.”

Ants Among Elephants is not just a story worth writing down, it is an important part of Indian history and one that hopefully will inspire other people to follow in the footsteps of Manjula, Satyam and Sujatha.

Buy it here

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