A study of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain of the 1970s shows how essential it is to grasp the relationship of class and oppression, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh
The women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was undoubtedly a successful movement which improved the lives of very many women and to which modern feminists owe a great deal. The US and UK movements however have a reputation of being mostly middle-class, both in terms of the class background of the majority of members and in their inspiration and concerns. The movement, it is argued, expressed the frustrations of women who became housewives when they had their first child, experiencing ‘the problem with no name’, as Betty Friedan called it in The Feminine Mystique.
With this orientation, the women’s liberation movement was less able to express the concerns of most working-class women, who had always and continued to have to work outside the home, and represented an essentialisation of white, middle-class women’s experience. For the UK movement, however, such an orientation is also something of a paradox, since it is also acknowledged that the women’s liberation movement here began with an upsurge of female industrial militancy, shown for example in the Dagenham women’s strike in 1968. This strike, Stevenson argues, ‘placed the importance of “cross-class” alliances at the forefront’ (p.5), and made a direct link between working-class trade unionists and middle-class liberationists. The question of class in the UK women’s liberation movement is therefore not necessarily as straightforward as the historiographic conclusion that it was all middle-class may make it appear.
Class in the women’s liberation movement
Stevenson’s study, based on interviews with working-class women involved in the women’s liberation movement, particularly in the north east, as well as on contemporary written evidence, aims to integrate ‘working-class women and class politics into the story of the 1970s Women’s Movement’ (p.1). In so doing, Stevenson is questioning not just a historiographical verdict on the women’s liberation movement, but a conclusion about its class politics which was shared by many contemporaries. Juliet Mitchell noted in 1971, for example, that ‘most women are poor, yet like students and Youth revolutionaries, the women in the movement are largely middle-class.’[i]
Mitchell went on to argue that the middle-class composition of the movement should not be seen as a problem, since the middle-class liberationists could fight on behalf of their poorer and less politically aware sisters. For most of the Left, however, the perceived middle-class composition and orientation of the women’s liberation movement was both a sign and a result of a rejection of class as a means of understanding women’s oppression.
Stevenson sets out how this verdict on the class composition of the movement had been adopted by much of the movement itself by the mid-late 1970s: ‘It seemed that in a number of instances across Britain, the WLM [Women’s Liberation Movement] had internalized the Far Left’s critiques of the movement’s “bourgeois” attitudes and composition in understanding itself as entirely middle-class’ (p.134). While this resulted in earnest discussions about how to engage more working-class women in the movement, it was clearly frustrating to working-class women who were already involved.
The unintended consequence of the movement’s acceptance of the idea that only middle-class women were liberationists was a position where working-class women were by definition passive, unengaged and in need of enlightenment and liberation. Working-class women remembered having to defend the reality of their class background to middle-class liberationists who tried to argue that they were really middle-class by virtue of their participation. Stevenson quotes a revealing document from 1979, which describes movement members as having privilege, and therefore not being working-class, if they were educated or if they were ‘more articulate and confident’ (p.133). The implication was, of course, that working-class women could not be articulate.
Working-class women’s experience of the women’s liberation movement’s concern about its class composition could therefore be, as one feminist wrote in 1977, that ‘we all know the women’s liberation movement is middle-class because middle-class women are always telling us it is’ (p.132). A contributory factor to the middle-class orientation of the movement seems to have been the movement’s fear that it was middle-class.
Stevenson makes a case that, despite its middle-class reputation, the women’s liberation movement in Britain did have a basis in working-class struggle. This was consistent with the important foundational effect of the Dagenham strike, but continued with other major industrial struggles by female workers, like the Night Cleaners’ Dispute of 1970-73. Many of the women Stevenson interviewed in the course of his research had come to the women’s liberation movement from the wider Left, and would go on being involved in other struggles during and after their activity in the movement. For these women, Stevenson argues, their involvement in the women’s liberation movement was not an explicit rejection of class politics, but ‘a desire to no longer be treated as secretaries and sex objects by male comrades’ (p.5).
Class and separatism
It is well known that the difficulties of getting women’s oppression taken seriously on the Left were an important factor driving a separatist form of struggle. As Sheila Rowbotham commented in 1973, trying to make male comrades consider women’s oppression was often an uphill struggle: ‘If you are working-class they’ll humiliate you with your sex and class ignorances, if you are middle-class they'll call you a petty bourgeois deviationist.’[ii] Stevenson identifies a number of accounts of women leaving Far Left groups as a result of these sorts of difficulties. He quotes for example an account by women leaving the International Marxist Group in 1973, in which they complained of the group’s failure to recognise that ‘the “imperfection” of all relationships under capitalism did not relieve male socialists from scrutiny of their personal lives in terms of their treatment of women’ (p.30). Their conclusion to women on the Far Left was ‘Come out, sisters. Stop “intervening” and make your contributions to your own movement’ (p.31).
While some strains may have arisen as a result of a growing view of women’s liberation as a non-class issue, an organisational division between the women’s liberation movement and the Left would in its turn have further encouraged the development of the view that class was not relevant for fighting women’s oppression. The view that ‘every man is a policeman for male supremacy’ and that a feminist revolution would be ‘the only revolution in history to cut across class, race and nationality’, as a group of radical feminists argued in 1972 (p.34), clearly would have made organising with men on the Left seem pointless at best, if not actively counterproductive.
It was possible to argue that while women needed to have their own organisation, this should not mark a turn away from class politics or working with left-wing men. Sheila Rowbotham, for example, wrote that ‘we must go our own way but remember we are going to have to take them with us.’[iii] The results of Stevenson’s research highlight however how many liberationists accepted the first half of Rowbotham’s sentence, and not the second. Thus, Stevenson concludes that the women’s liberation movement was ‘both a rejection of the Left and a powerful component of it’ (p.186).
Women or workers?
Stevenson’s research demonstrates that the middle-class identification of the women’s liberation movement in the UK has been overstated and that this ignores the considerable contributions of individual working-class liberationists and the important role of women’s industrial struggles. This is not to say, however, that the extent to which the movement came to represent a rejection of class politics did not pose a problem, nor that there were no issues with class in the movement.
While women’s liberation groups supported industrial struggles like the Night Cleaners’ Dispute, Stevenson argues that there was a clear class gulf between the strikers and the liberationists who were leafleting their picket lines. Stevenson considers that it is not possible to generalise about the extent and nature of the support trades unions in the 1970s gave to women’s industrial struggles, as the response was so varied from union to union, and sometimes from dispute to dispute. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that women taking strike action tended to consider themselves as workers first and women second. The women taking action in these disputes were very aware of themselves as exploited workers, and that awareness alone drove a wedge between them and the women’s liberationists who did not take that class position.
The women’s liberationists’ stress on oppression on the basis of sex, rather than on class exploitation, often, Stevenson comments, made little sense to working-class women, who could see their husbands suffering the same exploitation that they did at work. The position that women, regardless of class, have interests in common and no interests in common with men, was less likely to chime with working-class women’s experience of exploitation. It was also the case that important campaigns for the women’s liberation movement, like the Wages for Housework campaign, were more relevant to middle-class women, who were more likely to be housewives, than to working-class women who worked outside the home.
The women’s liberation movement could therefore seem irrelevant to working-class women. As Selina Todd recounted in The People, rather than addressing the injustices in their lives, women’s liberation groups could be dismissed as ‘just talking.’[iv] As Stevenson establishes, it was by no means the case that there were not working-class women in the movement, but the class differences between women in the movement could itself cause problems. Todd found that in one group in Coventry, her working-class interviewee had ended up working as a cleaner for several of the middle-class liberationists she met there. As Todd comments, ‘as the end of the 1970s approached, some middle-class women’s fight for liberation continued to be eased by the labour of less privileged women.’[v] The extent to which campaigns which were dominated by working-class women, such as the Claimants’ Unions, tended to be suspicious of involvement from women’s liberation groups, is evidence of the effect of class in the movement.
While the British women’s liberation movement cannot be regarded as simply a middle-class movement, it is a demonstration that women’s oppression cannot be opposed effectively without a class analysis. As Stevenson concludes, ‘despite coming together in struggle, and a shared political commitment to the goal of ending women's oppression and challenging capitalist class society, the political actions of working-class women and middle-class women remained divided by class in ways that shaped their political identities’ (p.122).
One of the lessons of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s is that we cannot fight women’s oppression unless we understand exploitation. Another, though, is that regarding oppression as a distraction from the important business of fighting exploitation will only lead to division. Only by understanding oppression as part of exploitation under capitalism can we hope to organise together against both.
i Juliet Mitchell, Women’s Estate (Penguin Books 1971), p.21.
ii Sheila Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (Penguin Books, 1973), p.38.
iii Ibid. p.38.
iv Selina Todd, The People. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (John Murray 2014), p.308.
v Ibid. p.308.
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Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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