Iwas washing up or something ten years ago when an episode of The Reunion with Sue MacGregor came on the radio, the one about the Women’s Liberation protesters who stormed the Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970. I must have known about it already, but it was like I’d never got the point. Listening to that programme, for some reason, took me right back into my dumpy little-girl body, shamed at the sight of those poor women in their horrid swimsuits, shamed even to share a planet with the demonic Bob Hope.
I was seven at the time of the 1970 protest, and I don’t remember whether or not we watched Miss World on television that year. There were so many Saturday evening light entertainment shows with sleazy male comedians, groups of white male singers in blackface, teams of young women in uncomfortable outfits kicking like horses trained to do dressage. At the time I had no words for the wretched feelings such programmes gave me, but looking back on it ‘WE’RE NOT BEAUTIFUL, WE’RE NOT UGLY, WE’RE ANGRY’ – the slogan on the protesters’ banners – covers it quite well.
The shame, I was sad to see, is missing from the recently released movie Misbehaviour, which is based on that radio programme, and stars Keira Knightley as the feminist historian Sally Alexander. It’s positioned – as Pride (2014) was to Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in the 1980s, and Made in Dagenham (2010) was to the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 – to allow viewers some minutes of unchallenging celebration that sometimes, passingly and briefly, the people who deserve to win really sort of do. At one point, the film shows us Alexander’s little daughter, prancing round the lounge, simpering and chanting ‘Look at me, I’m a Miss World lady,’ but it’s like sex-and-gender-based oppression is a sore head or a streaky patch on a window. Find the remedy, and it’s gone. Limbo dancing, Peter Hain’s sideburns, the Angry Brigade, King Crimson: these films are always so good on perky period souvenirs, so skilled at avoiding most emotions apart from the fake ones. Though actually, I wasn’t impressed by the period detail in Misbehaviour either, what with Knightley’s centre parting. I’ve seen footage of Alexander from 1970, and it’s clear that she had a fringe.
Nightcleaners (1975), the legendarily hard to watch documentary made by the Berwick Street Film Collective about Daisy, Pat, Annie, Elsie, Jean and the other low-paid women who struggled to unionise in spite of tiredness, isolation and a total lack of interest from the Transport and General Workers’ Union, was reissued on DVD last year in a fancy box set. Alexander was one of several activists from the London Women’s Liberation Workshop who supported the cleaners, and in the film we see her scurrying from the Shell Centre to the Ministry of Defence with her friend and fellow feminist, the historian Sheila Rowbotham, and remonstrating with May Hobbs, the forceful and ambitious leader of the Cleaners’ Action Group: ‘They haven’t got the time to run their own branch, May, never mind their own union,’ Alexander says, and a little later she’s pulling coins out of her purse for yet another donation. ‘A class gulf existed between our lives and those of the cleaners,’ Rowbotham wrote in 2008. ‘We were nearly all young, bouncy, in our twenties … The reality of the women’s lives was remote from us.’ At the time, Alexander wrote that ‘the dreary round of housework interspersed with a menial job during the day, then more housework all night for a pittance, with no sleep all week, aroused our sympathy and concern.’
‘The doctor told me to pack it in,’ says Annie, smoking and sweating through obvious exhaustion. ‘I suppose my body is tired. Affecting my heart and my weight.’ The women had to work, they said, because their husbands didn’t bring home enough money to keep the children, and they had to do nights because they had children and housework by day. ‘No woman does nightcleaning unless she’s really got to,’ Elsie says. ‘There’s a lot of broken marriages, you know, among nightcleaners, I suppose you found that out, didn’t you? You see, they’re tired, they don’t want to know their husband, and – all they want to do is sleep, like, they don’t want to be bothered with anybody … Just the way you get, isn’t it?’
In the decades since it was made, Nightcleaners has mostly been remembered for its rebarbatively avant-garde form: jump cuts, long breaks of blackness, harsh juxtapositions of sound and image, snatches of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. Everything is difficult and uncomfortable and unpleasant, everybody is tired out and knows they’re failing, including, I’d imagine, the filmmakers, who must have known their work would be of no use to the people it was about. And yet, the interviews are great and the faces beautiful. Annie, whom we have seen unwell and defeated-looking, is shown again a bit later, out shopping with her children, everybody smiling. ‘What would socialism mean to you?’ one of the filmmakers asks a group of women. ‘A better life for the working-class people, if that was possible, but it couldn’t be, could it?’ a gaunt woman called Ann tells him. ‘It’s like asking for the moon.’
Already in the 1970s, the Civil Service was ‘hiving off’ – in its own phrase – the hiring and management of cleaners to private subcontracting companies: the same process that has been the focus of recent strike action at the LSE, St Mary’s Hospital, the Ark Globe Academy in South-East London, and other workplaces organised by the newer, smaller trade unions, such as the United Voices of the World. In 1972, however, cleaners at the MOD in Fulham and two other government buildings were supported in strike action by the Civil Service Union: ‘Victory was won after two weeks,’ as Sally Alexander tells it, but ‘on one building the contractor changed over to morning and evening cleaning and none of the women strikers who applied were given their jobs back.’ May Hobbs published a book, Born to Struggle, in 1973, then emigrated to Australia. What happened to Pat, Annie, Jean, all the others, I don’t know.
This spring, I’d been meaning to bike round the feminism archives held in London: the Feminist Library in Peckham, the Women’s Library at the LSE, the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton and the Sisterhood and After collection at the British Library, which holds taped and sometimes filmed interviews with Women’s Liberation Movement activists, each of them around six or seven hours long. But we all know what happened then, so I settled for reading Margaretta Jolly’s book. Between 2010 and 2013, Jolly led the team of scholars, curators and technicians who developed the Sisterhood and After collection. Alexander is one of the members of its advisory board, and she and Rowbotham are among the interviewees.
‘Feminist revolution today generates a clamorous soundscape,’ as Jolly understates it: ‘post-feminism, new feminism, third wave, fourth wave, against waves, lean-in woman and lipstick lesbian, gender equality and gender queer.’ How to begin? Her project built on the work done in 2008-9 by the Women’s Liberation Movement Research Network at the Women’s Library, which held and then archived six ‘witness workshops’. After that, all Jolly’s team had to do was read all the books, go through all the archives (several of them new to me), find a methodology for the interviews, then let the subjects talk. The result is generous and capacious, a compilation of voices and angles and gaps and ‘inadvertently caught sounds’ on many scales, from the world historical to the tiny.
Jolly’s book draws on these interviews to construct a new, fresh and extremely readable history of what she calls, at one point, the ‘“long” Women’s Liberation Movement’, highlighting the Miss World protest and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp of the 1980s as two of its most spectacular moments. Like the makers of Nightcleaners all those years ago, however, she is also fascinated by what she calls ‘aural punctum’, the material and emotional textures of the information gathered – accents, idiolects, changes in tone or pace perhaps indicative of ‘memory … blocked or, conversely, overly determined’.
The method picks up ‘patterns’ across the different lives, as the sociologist Gail Lewis, another of the interviewees, puts it, showing ‘what was possible in terms of subjectivity’ for women in the UK from the 1940s on. And, in doing so, it also shows something of how digitisation changes those possibilities, and has changed the subjectivities of a generation of women who have lived most of their lives in analogue. The worlds, pre-internet, known to the women interviewed by Jolly’s team were so much smaller and dingier and more accidental than those of today’s feminisms. Whether or not you knew about this group or that argument depended, pretty much, on who you knew or which bookshop you happened to have nearby. Women’s Liberation really was a movement, physical, embodied, bounded. Ideas and actions were transmitted in a completely different way.
Between 1970 and 1978, UK feminism had a national focus in a series of conferences, the first of them held at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1970 – as seen in Misbehaviour – with Rowbotham and Alexander on its organising committee and other Miss World protesters among the attendees. (It’s true, by the way, that the Situationists sprayed slogans all over the college, and Alexander cleaned up behind them, ‘absolutely enraged’. It’s true too that the crèche was staffed by husbands and boyfriends. Hence the famous and lovely picture of Stuart Hall.) Activists were further linked by flyers, newsletters, zines: thus the Women’s Liberation Movement, the ‘sisterhood’ of Jolly’s title, an ideal of feminist solidarity, ‘an important but imperfect idea’. The first four demands of the movement, passed at the second National Women’s Liberation Conference in Skegness in 1971, were for equal pay, equal opportunities, free abortion and contraception, and free 24-hour nurseries. Two more were added at the Edinburgh conference in 1974: for legal and financial independence, and for the right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians. A seventh demand was passed at the final conference in Birmingham in 1978: for freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status, and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women. Since Birmingham, however, Women’s Liberation has never managed to meet as a non-factional, broad-church national organisation again.
Fifty years on from Ruskin, it can’t be right to keep harking back, as though a movement so diffuse and massive could have come from a single point. ‘Mythic moments of togetherness for some can feel painfully exclusive or simply irrelevant for others,’ Jolly writes, citing Gail Lewis’s speech at an event on the fortieth anniversary of the Ruskin conference, in which Lewis, a founder member of Brixton Black Women’s Group in the 1970s, warned that to ‘fetishise’ such occasions was to repeat their structural exclusion of Black and working-class women. The togetherness seems to have broken down again at a fiftieth anniversary event in February, when the historian Selina Todd’s support for Woman’s Place UK, an organisation that opposes the move to let trans women legally self-declare as women, caused her to be disinvited from the plenary platform when other participants threatened to withdraw.
The first book-length history of the WLM in Britain was Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell’s Sweet Freedom, published by Picador in 1982. I was a teenager then, a first-year student at Edinburgh University: I bought it immediately, read it over and over, and I still think it’s a great book, detailed, well-organised, fair. But it’s old now, inevitably limited in its sourcing and what it could do with the sources that it had. The whiteness, for example, now seems glaring. Neither Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain nor Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women – the best-known Black British anthologies of the 1980s – had yet been published, but Black and Asian women’s groups had been meeting since at least the early 1970s, even if Coote and Campbell don’t mention them. The ‘bitter debates’ and ‘awful factionalism’ which, as Jolly writes, were central to the WLM from the beginning, are not such an issue for them either. They’re aware, of course, of the ‘different … priorities’ of different wings of the movement, but maintain that, if the ‘furthest fringes’ were disregarded, most women had plenty in common. Except that, as tends to happen with the owl of Minerva, one sign this was ceasing to be true was that the two of them had started writing their book.
Coote and Campbell saw the beginnings of Women’s Liberation as a fusion of US and UK traditions, sympathetic to each other, but distinct. ‘Radical’ feminists – groups such as New York Radical Women and Redstockings, associated with such women as Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone – worked on developing a women-first theoretical framework, repurposing concepts from the Civil Rights movement and the Bronx communism of the 1930s and 1940s: dialectics of sex, biological materialism, women as the proletarian sex-class. ‘Socialist’ feminism, on the other hand, was more typical of Harold Wilson’s Britain, with its relatively powerful labour movement and bustling Marxist far left. Rowbotham had been a member of the Labour Party and the International Socialists, and worked with members of the International Marxist Group. Campbell was then a communist stalwart, though she has since stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Greens.
By the time Sweet Freedom came out, three years after Thatcher’s election, two years after Reagan’s, feminist energy on both sides of the Atlantic was running low and the wider left was being bashed to bits. Many socialist feminists turned inwards, to theory, to psychoanalysis and to their own careers. Radical feminism decayed into ‘cultural feminism’, as the US historian Alice Echols calls it, an unpolitical or even ‘anti-left’ leisure-and-lifestyle matter that didn’t worry about ‘radical social transformation’ so long as a woman could step from a women-only house to an organic wholefoods co-op, then home to read about goddesses and witches in books by lesbian-separatist Catholic theologians such as Janice Raymond and Mary Daly, mostly published in Britain by Naim Attallah’s Women’s Press. Mid-Atlantic media feminism, meanwhile, took off like a cartoon aeroplane, with a celebrity figurehead at every window: Germaine Greer in her peekaboo Female Eunuch T-shirt, the visionary Andrea Dworkin with her prophetic hair, Naomi Wolf in a vagina-pasta necklace.
Sweet Freedom did not ignore the ‘strange stirring’ Betty Friedan had noticed in the American suburbs of the 1950s or the tunnel ‘dug … through to the women’s movement from the Love Generation’ by the Australian Greer, but both Coote and Campbell had come to feminism in Britain and ‘out of socialism’, as they put it, and British socialist feminism is at the centre of their book. British socialist feminism, that is, along with clitoral stimulation: ‘We were struck,’ they wrote, ‘by how many mentioned in almost the same breath’ the Ford machinists’ strike and Anne Koedt’s ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm’, which was doing the rounds ‘on ill-typed roneoed sheets’ in the early 1970s. ‘The startling disparity between the two catalysts … is more apparent than real. Women clearly sensed that the two were part of the same problem, although few would have consciously spelled out the connection.’
The really important texts for Coote and Campbell, however, were both by British Marxist intellectuals: Juliet Mitchell’s ‘The Longest Revolution’, published in New Left Review in 1966 (Mitchell had hoped to do a whole special issue about women, but the rest of the editorial board wouldn’t have it), and Rowbotham’s ‘Women’s Liberation and the New Politics’, published in Black Dwarf in 1969. The Ruskin conference is fairly important to Campbell and Coote as well, although as Campbell would later confess in her Sisterhood and After interview, she had mocked the Ruskin speakers in the Morning Star at the time as ‘middle-class mothers’, shocked to find themselves trapped in ‘servantless homes’.
The surveys written since Sweet Freedom have been mostly the work of PhD students and, as Jolly explains, dig outwards from that version of history into ‘the unevenness of alliances and different ideas of what political goals should be’: yes the Ford strike, of course the Ford strike, but what about Lillian Bilocca and the fish-processing ‘headscarf revolutionaries’ in Hull in 1968, and what about the mainly South Asian women strikers led by Jayaben Desai at the Grunwick film-processing plant in 1976? Yes the Women’s Liberation Workshop, of course the Women’s Liberation Workshop, but what about the work of Lewis and others in the Brixton Black Women’s Group, and the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative, and the Liverpool Black Sisters? ‘What Samora Machel had to say about women’s emancipation made a lot more sense to us than what Germaine Greer and other middle-class white feminists were saying,’ Stella Dadzie recalled in Heart of the Race. ‘It just didn’t make sense for us to be talking about changing lifestyles and attitudes when we were dealing with issues of survival, like housing, education and police brutality.’
Amrit Wilson published Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain in 1978; Awaz, the London-based Asian women’s group, started the same year, and the Southall Black Sisters the year after. And it was also in 1979, as Dadzie told Jolly’s team, that she was organising the first conference of OWAAD, the Organisation for Women of Africa and African Descent, when Asian women started asking whether they could come along, because they too experienced racism: ‘I can actually remember hand crossing out [laughing] – we’d done all these bloody leaflets, and you see it in the archive, you know.’ This is how OWAAD came to work with Awaz on the Depo-Provera scandal – a single DP injection suppresses fertility for three months at a time, and was being pressed on women from India to Glasgow without informed consent – and the grotesque virginity testing of women at Heathrow Airport, and is the reason OWAAD came to be known as the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent instead.
From the 1970s onwards it has been common to hear Women’s Liberation referred to as the more seaside-postcardish Women’s Lib, and more recently for the more abstract ‘feminism’ to be used as a synonym for both. In Jolly’s telling, however, the WLM and feminism are not the same thing. Feminism consists of schools of thought that grow and shrink and renew themselves on the oceans of world history, but the WLM existed at one particular moment, with one particular ‘opportunity structure’, to use Jolly’s term. ‘Social movement theorists … argue that becoming an activist depends on a range of conditions, some structural, others cultural,’ is the way she puts it, before considering the question of ‘biographical availability’: ‘Does the person have time and resources? Is she plugged into appropriate networks?’
Women’s Liberation, in other words, happened when it did because of the deep shifts in Western societies at the end of the Second World War: more young people, more money, better healthcare, education, jobs, causing ‘new hopes’ to flourish for women of all sorts, ‘despite the deeply unequal starting points’. These hopes might be dashed or compromised in all sorts of ways to do with race and class and gender, but for the women who came together in this particular movement, it was their shared gender that gave them their common strength, as well as the generational improvement in material circumstances that made it easier for individuals and collectives to take risks and contemplate rupture. The activists of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, in other words, were broadly ‘winners’, members of the ‘long baby-boomer generation’. And they are still boomers now they are in their seventies and eighties, and ageing, by and large, with ‘the deep satisfaction involved in living with feminist commitments’.
Jolly’s interviewees were selected, first of all, for having been what she calls ‘instigators’: Jan McKenley for her work with OWAAD and the National Abortion Campaign; Susie Orbach for the Women’s Therapy Centre; Barbara Jones for her work as a woman builder; Sue Lopez for her involvement with women’s football. Around a third of the women were identified as ‘political or intellectual legends’ (sensibly, Jolly doesn’t specify which), and divided into five broad sections: political/public sector, academic/intellectual, grassroots/ third sector, cultural activist/writer, private sector. Ten women are Black or Asian British, 15 are of working-class origin, two are American, one Canadian and one Australian.
Bits of the interviews could be tense. For a feminist instigator, a living legend even, the story of what she did or didn’t do within the movement is going to be ‘precious’ and most likely painful, possibly the most precious and painful story of her life: practitioners of oral history know this, and know to look out for the ‘practised pieces’ and ‘grammatical clichés of feminist memory’, ‘patterns that, although they can work emotionally and dramatically, oversimplify events’. One way Jolly’s team did this was to compare the testimony of their subjects to that of other witnesses, and to the historical record. Another was to listen closely for non-verbal clues in the spoken narratives, marking gaps and hesitations. Sometimes, interviewees mistook the oral history mode as journalistic or celebratory or even took it as therapy. Interviewers had to keep remembering they were collecting data, though as Jolly says, it could be difficult, ‘after accepting tea in someone’s home’. Subjects were invited to lodge their own versions of transcripts alongside the historians’ version or to close their contributions to other researchers for as long as 45 years.
All the interviews concluded with the question: ‘How do you think your life compares to your mother’s?’ Almost everybody, Jolly says, breathed sharply at this question. ‘Very dark emotion flow[ed] around the women’s movement,’ according to the historian Barbara Taylor, all the unconscious rage and resentment women brought into it from their relationships with their mothers, all the unconscious rage and resentment to which their mothers had subjected them. Rowbotham and her co-author Jean McCrindle had been ‘surprised’, when putting together Dutiful Daughters, published in 1977, to find how ‘bitter’ mid-century women were towards their mothers, ‘until we realised that teaching a daughter her role as a future housewife can all too easily develop a sadistic quality when the mother herself is tired, overworked and oppressed by her existence’. The sociologist Cynthia Cockburn, when asked Jolly’s question, paused, and then said: ‘My mother. I don’t remember my mother talking to me about very much at all, ever … But also, I’ve always thought that the exceptionally large breasts somehow kept her at a distance from me.’ ‘In the years that Gail Lewis and I were in the Brixton Black Women’s Group, I had never heard her talk in personal terms about her mother,’ Suzanne Scafe remembered. ‘I don’t suppose I ever talked about mine.’ During her interview, Lewis, who later worked as a psychodynamic psychotherapist, ‘chuckled’. ‘What was I defending against? … Well, we won’t go there now.’
The ‘dark emotions’ tended to repeat themselves inside the movement, with ‘guilt and shame … ever present … in a perplexing spiral that included feeling guilty about feeling guilty’. A ‘good reputation’, Jolly discovered, high standing among one’s peers, was jealously treasured, and could involve ‘aggressive’, even vicious, competition. One interviewee started getting distressed while talking about being raped, then got the incident ‘traumatically mixed up’ with the time she was subjected to a verbal pile-on by other women at the Greenham Common peace camp in the 1980s. ‘Trashing’, the American Jo Freeman called this distinctively feminist form of bullying in the 1970s, relating it to the question of the way conflict is dealt with in supposedly informal and anti-authoritarian organisations. For Rowbotham, the problem was the ‘sort of American religious revivalist inspiration’ that in her view started taking over the movement from the mid 1970s. ‘Their faith and enthusiasm for participatory democracy landed us, I think, with some of the problems that the Greeks had – when people disagree, the only thing you can do is ostracise.’
Jolly would probably agree with Rowbotham’s diagnosis, though she thinks the nastiness also has to do with the ‘competition to attract limited funding, political opportunities, past traumas, and the psychology of social movements that magnify expectation and disappointment’. In addition, as she says, most groups and movements seem to split, sooner or later, with terrible emotional fallout, suggesting Freud may have been right when he talked about the narcissism of small differences, which Jolly glosses as ‘the competitive impulses that attach precisely to those closest to us’.
But who gets to say which differences are the important ones? Amrit Wilson, for example, on working at Spare Rib in the 1970s and early 1980s: ‘You always felt excluded, you always felt like an outsider who was somehow being given space … I mean, there was always the issue of “What can we do for you?” right, “You poor, poor things, what can we do for you?”’ Feminism, in other words, without explicit socialism and anti-racism, does tend to regress to the posh, white sort: ‘There wasn’t any understanding of the notion of struggle or of solidarity. And ultimately, we felt … that it was just too much, you know. We’d have women crying in meetings, or often I was particularly notorious as somebody horribly aggressive because so many women cried when I spoke.’
‘The whole question of … the privileges of whiteness became very – extremely preoccupying for me, both personally and politically,’ the historian Catherine Hall – white, but married to Stuart, who was Jamaican – said of her experience at Feminist Review in the early 1990s. The only way to shift it, she thought, was by working with a group of Black women, ‘so that’s what we did, and that really did change things, as it needed to. But it was a very, very difficult experience … I mean, it was at every level, the unthinking forms of assumptions about white superiority, to put it at its hardest. And some – I mean, some women couldn’t stomach it and left.’
Oral histories are ‘most revealing’, Jolly writes, ‘on the subject of consciousness raising (CR)’, which she defines as ‘a method of political education through sharing experiences in small groups’. As Juliet Mitchell put it in 1971, ‘women come into the movement from the unspecified frustration of their own private lives,’ and then find that ‘what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament and hence a political problem.’ CR is ‘the process of transforming the hidden, individual fears of women into a shared awareness of the meaning of them as social problems, the release of anger, anxiety, the struggle of proclaiming the painful and transforming it into the political’. In her preface to Jolly’s book Alexander calls CR the WLM’s ‘signature practice’.
‘The pattern of development,’ Michelene Wandor wrote in the early 1970s, ‘is that the more you discuss and analyse, the more appears to be discussed. Gradually a complex and comprehensive picture of social and political structures builds up, in which, as you constantly refer back to your own life and experiences, a basic tension and interaction appear: that between the individual life and the collective life of the society.’ To do this work, groups met frequently and were often closed to new members: discussions, friendships, disagreements all intensified. Some women thrived on the small group method: Alexander, for example, has spoken warmly about her excitement at reading Freud in her feminist history reading group in the 1970s. Others, such as Wandor, found them ‘fantastically helpful’ to begin with, then constricting. ‘I just … dropped out.’
Even in the 1970s, the ‘sharing of feelings about feelings’ wasn’t for everybody. Jolly quotes an Aberdonian youth worker who thought CR was a ‘middle-class Edinburgh women’ thing, like ‘taking your clothes off, face-painting, jewellery-making … writing poetry about menstruation’. Lewis saw it as a ‘petit-bourgeois indulgence,’ remembering a public meeting in the late 1970s at which participants shared their experiences of abortion. She describes ‘feeling uncomfortable and angry, and challenging the white organisers … for an agenda that did not address … the right to have children, and other issues of reproductive control pertinent to poor, Black women’.
Nowadays, much of the work CR used to do has been taken over by professionals. In some ways, this has to do with the depoliticisation that turned American radical feminism into a matter of leisure and lifestyle, but I remember mocking a friend of mine for going to some silly-sounding hippy bodywork nonsense and her gently pointing out that her fellow attendees worked in hospitals, schools, social services. If aromatherapy or reiki or reflexology help such workers to hold themselves together, is it entirely exploitative and worthless? Could there be class and racial dimensions to disdaining shamanism and witchcraft while admiring Freud?
Jan McKenley, for example, thanked the Black Is Beautiful movement for beginning the work of transforming her body from ‘being something slightly nasty and not nice to touch’, a view she had absorbed from her mother, into something better. But it was, she remembers, the sort of workshop that gets ridiculed that ‘gave me my body back’:
I’m lying in the arms of a woman who’s supporting me, my legs are up and I’ve got a speculum inside of my vagina and another woman is holding a mirror so I can see my cervix and my vagina and see how beautiful it is. And that probably epitomises the best of women’s liberation for me because I looked at my vagina and it was beautiful … And that was really powerful and it was magic.
The formal similarities between CR and psychotherapy and oral history interviews can also lead to confusion. Some oral historians, Jolly says, think that ‘deep listening’ can support ‘a processing, even if not a full articulation, of wounding experiences’, though she is sceptical about this. ‘It is not obvious,’ as she says, how the oral historian should ‘respond to hearing or sharing past traumas’. Is it sympathy, justification, revenge or redemption that those who tell these stories are looking for? How do their needs and wants square with those of the historian, and how does the historian stop herself getting sucked in?
Movements themselves, as Jolly says, can create their own traumas, ‘even as they reactivate old ones’. Nowhere did the WLM see that happen more devastatingly than as its activists came to realise the prevalence of male violence in the lives of so many women, including rape and domestic violence and incestuous and institutional child abuse. ‘Among the Sisterhood and After interviewees,’ Jolly writes, ‘there are two accounts of incest by fathers; four of rape and more of attempted rape, including rape in marriage; two of domestic violence; and one of an attempted forced marriage. Everyone could remember experiences of sexual harassment, always by men.’ Such frequencies were not untypical in the 1960s and 1970s. They are not untypical now.
What really was untypical, however, was that it fell to women of the WLM generation to start talking about this violence, to start building the facts and frameworks with which male violence, sexual violence, violence of all sorts against women and children are currently, if imperfectly, dealt with and understood. WLM campaigns, as Jolly recognises, helped shape the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Acts, both 1976. It was the work of the Southall Black Sisters that overturned Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s conviction for murdering her abusive husband in 1992; it was the work of Justice for Women that overturned the murder convictions of Emma Humphreys and Sara Thornton in 1995; it was WLM campaigners who established the domestic violence refuge network and the rape support network. Child protection work in particular is extraordinarily hard, and distressing, and compromised, and thankless. If the people who try to do it find aromatherapy helpful, well then, fine.
Jolly cites the shock felt by volunteers at Rape Crisis Scotland in the 1980s: ‘I can remember the very, very first call,’ one woman told an interviewer in 2009. ‘The first caller was a woman who had been abused as a child and of course we just didn’t expect that … I mean, that wasn’t on any radar at all.’ Within the first six months, another said, ‘a third of our calls were from women who’d been sexually … abused as a child.’
Stranger danger was the phrase, I seem to remember. Rape, you were taught, was something that might happen to a woman when she was walking home alone, late at night, along a dark alley, an image much strengthened in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the media feeding frenzy around the Yorkshire Ripper. But the vast majority of rapes are carried out by men the victims know: as many as 90 per cent, according to government figures in 2013. But if this didn’t happen to you, you didn’t know about it, until Women’s Liberation organisations started telling you. And if it did, you had no one you could turn to, until Women’s Liberation organisations started offering safe spaces.
From early on, however, this work had a troubled relationship with the wider movement. In Leeds in 1977, for example, after police told women that the best way to protect themselves was to stay at home after dark, women responded by organising the first of many Reclaim the Night torchlit marches: ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.’ ‘No curfew on women – curfew on men.’ The marches were exciting, empowering, exhilaratingly defiant, as the best of marches are, but as one volunteer explained, they were weirdly dissonant with the work Rape Crisis was trying to do: ‘Most feminists were fairly young and it was a kind of freedom-for-us-to-do-what-we-want kind of thing … You didn’t think you were going to be finding out about little kids … being terrorised for years.’
In the bestseller Against Our Will, published in 1975, the American Susan Brownmiller characterised rape and the threat of rape as ‘nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. The abuse that stealthily destroyed the lives of so many girls and women was only one iteration of an institution that has existed ‘from prehistoric times to the present’, and organises the very category of woman as sex-class, and a system which, according to the Leeds Revolutionary Feminists’ main theorist, Sheila Jeffreys, ‘dominates and pollutes my day-to-day existence: through my fear on the streets at night, the eyes, gestures and comments of males in every contact with them etc’. ‘The WLM is, and should be seen to be, a threat,’ Jeffreys continued, in a paper delivered to the WLM conference in 1977. ‘I cannot see that it serves a useful purpose to represent it as a mixed Tupperware party with men doing the coffee.’
The following year, Jeffreys and her comrades were on one side of the dispute that derailed the final WLM conference in Birmingham, resulting in a split ‘so bitter and painful’, in the words of Coote and Campbell, that ‘no one was prepared to organise another such gathering’ again.
It started with a proposal from revolutionary feminists to abolish the Six Demands agreed in Skegness and Edinburgh, on the grounds that it was ‘ridiculous for us to demand anything from a patriarchal state – from men – who are the enemy’. The conference organisers, however, ‘deliberately, obviously’ left the proposal off the agenda, according to Jeffreys in an interview given to a young Australian historian called Jeska Rees in 2004. Infuriated, the revolutionary feminists started interrupting other speakers and singing what Rees calls ‘war songs’. One was reputedly called ‘My Old Man’s a Wanker.’ Another one was ‘Women Are a Girl’s Best Friend.’
Later, the conference tried to formulate a seventh demand, condemning violence against women. The argument over this one concerned the phrase ‘male supremacy’, which many considered a revolutionary feminist mystification that obscured the role of social structures – poverty and racism, a carceral justice system, bad housing, bad education, bad health – in male aggression and violence against women. A seventh demand was passed, but amid what Rees, in a paper published in 2010, calls ‘uproar’. Then the sixth demand had to be revisited. End discrimination against lesbians, or defend the right to a self-defined sexuality, or both? A quick fudge moved the right to a self-defined sexuality to the general preamble at the top, leaving the support for lesbians to stand proud. It was passed, but too late to save the conference or the movement. ‘By this time, many women had left either in disgust or in order to catch transport from Birmingham to their homes.’
As Rees explains, most of the women who have written personal accounts of the WLM in Britain have been on the socialist wing of the movement, and tend to blame revolutionary feminist ‘negativism … bullying and … bitterness’ for the disintegration of the Birmingham conference and the inability of the movement to find a way back from it. But Rees wants to complicate this: ‘Revolutionary feminists were brash and demanding, but a narrative that empowers them – a minority within the WLM – to the role of perpetrators of a devastating split in the movement should be revisited.’ The movement in 1978 was ‘at a crossroads’ anyway. Soc-fem intellectual haughtiness (Althusser! Lacan! Christian Metz!), organisational problems and the wider sociopolitical situation all played a part in the collapse.
But then, in a second article also published in 2010, in History Workshop Journal, Rees wrote at length about the difficulties she had experienced while working on her study of revolutionary feminism in Britain between 1977 and 1983. Some of her source material was marked ‘Women Only’, a stipulation she found ‘absurd and almost childish’, though she endeavoured to respect it. Two interviewees were so suspicious of her that they refused to consent to their quotes being used ‘until I showed them how I had used each and every excerpt in context. This meant that my doctoral thesis was held up before submission while they scrutinised where their words were used and which points they were used to illustrate.’ Some interviewees refused to talk to her until they had quizzed her about her life and motivations, including ‘questions about my sexuality, for which I was unprepared. To the question “Are you a lesbian?” I answered (truthfully) that I did not yet know, having rapidly calculated that this response would be less damaging than either saying “No” or arguing “I am a student of postmodernity and I don’t subscribe to the value of such fixed categories.”’
And then, devastatingly, Rees mentions that a paper of hers was ‘recently’ the subject of a seminar in London:
The paper in question was an analysis of narratives of decline within the English WLM, and used testimony by revolutionary feminists to question received ideas about certain events. I included their testimony where it appeared to be verified by written accounts, but still came under fire from one woman present, a Women’s Liberation activist still well known in London feminist circles, for including misleading data. So incensed was she that I had accepted the revolutionary feminist version of events that she monopolised a good portion of the seminar by disputing my interpretations. Among her objections was that the revolutionary feminists were responsible not only for the interview material that I had collected but also the documents I had used to back up their accounts and both were, she said, incomplete, partial accounts. Her anger was, it now appears, justified, and I have altered my account of the events in question accordingly.
I wrote to Rees to check that it was the paper about the 1978 conference she was referring to here, and she confirmed it was. I was sad to discover that such a clever and creative scholar had dropped out of academia, and I asked her why.
As I discussed in ‘Are You a Lesbian?’ the older women … had relative power over me in terms of both the wealth of knowledge that they could give or withhold, and in terms of age and experience; and in that moment [the moment Rees was, as she put it, ‘humiliated’ by the WLM veteran] that power was on full display. Until then and based largely on the written record, I thought I had found a community of people … whose ideas were not only fascinating but also, given the emphasis on ‘sisterhood’, safe. Safe to explore feminist ideas, safe to be the feminist nerd that I felt I truly was.
After the seminar incident and a couple of others, however, she realised
that to some (most?) of the women I was writing about, extending sisterhood to me was not nearly as important as using the power they had to ensure I told the ‘right’ story, and [to] settle old scores. Which to me not only let the notion of sisterhood drift out of sight but also paid little respect to the idea of academic freedom …
For the first five or so years after I left academia I did grieve, and reflect often on how and why it has gone wrong … I felt very lonely even as I was surrounded by feminists, and the disappointment of that was too difficult to process for some years.
Memory, ‘even when traumatic’, must as Jolly says be ‘kept conscious’ if you want to do anything with it: except that the very definition of trauma is of shock and injury so extreme that words cannot be found for the experience, at the time or maybe ever, causing ‘perplexing spiral’ after ‘perplexing spiral’ of the sort Jolly wrote about finding in recurrently recursive patterns of feminist guilt and shame. Abuse and victimisation, your own and that of others you wish you’d known about, and had helped. The things you did wrong, the things you didn’t do but should have. The privileges you had and others didn’t, if only you’d had the nous to see it like that at the time.
My own early memories of Women’s Liberation are almost entirely traumatic, not because they were obviously scarring, but because they felt like glimpses with important bits missing or obscured. I bought Coote and Campbell’s book, as I said, but it might have been the Chronicles of Narnia for all the relation the world inside it bore to the one in which I spent my daily life. The forms of feminism immediately available in Edinburgh in the early 1980s were all about being women-only in the face of unremitting male violence: Reclaim the Night across Jawbone Walk in the Meadows, Gyn/Ecology from the women-only bookshop, a group hex round a bonfire at Greenham Common, a mortifyingly sanctimonious performance around Andrea Dworkin’s ‘I Want a 24-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape’ speech. I felt shame at the time, I remember, both for participating and for not feeling wholehearted about it. I feel shame now, for having wasted all that time and energy on feeling bad. For me – and maybe for others – I can’t help feeling, the shame in all its repetitions and spirals was and is the main point.
Where were they, in the Edinburgh of the 1980s, the more modern and political forms of feminism I’d read about in Coote and Campbell, and in lots and lots of other books? Coote and Campbell warned of ‘the danger, in the bitter climate of the 1980s, of being forced into retreat’: they saw it coming but they couldn’t stop it. Is that what happened? It’s not that Coote or Campbell or Rowbotham or Alexander stopped writing and publishing and doing things, because they didn’t. But socialist feminists in the 1980s and 1990s, as Melissa Benn wrote in the Guardian in 2000, ‘were suddenly considered unfashionable, dull’. Benn, who as a young journalist worked on Sweet Freedom as a researcher, characterised Rowbotham in particular as ‘a ghost at the feast of the politics she helped create’.
One surprise for me, half-nice, half-terrible, was realising, as I flipped through the works of Rowbotham and Mitchell and Wandor, that I’d read most of them before. I’d owned copies of half of these books, in fact, and then lost them, during one or other of the 27 house moves I did between the ages of 17 and 35. The WLM activists of the 1960s and 1970s hadn’t known what was going to happen when they turned their backs on marriage, housewifery, compulsory heterosexuality. But for most of them the expansiveness of their times kept them bobbing upwards nonetheless. They got tenured jobs in academia and the public sector, they bought their council flats or handsome inner-city doer-uppers; they grew increasingly complicit, as Jolly paraphrases Mitchell, with ‘a longer-term change in capitalism that set middle-class women’s new employment against working-class women’s and men’s redundancy’. This opened a generation gap with younger women, for whom material considerations could not be so charmingly left to chance. And a bigger one with yet younger women, for whom the very idea of material stability, let alone advancement, has become a bad joke.
Sometimes, it was feminism itself that ‘enabled’ the ‘midlife improvement in circumstance’ experienced by WLM activists, ‘through teaching women’s studies or other professionalised feminist activities’. There was competition, nepotism, careerism: ‘I was sad to see,’ Rosalind Delmar said in her interview, ‘women in the women’s movement behaving, when they did get university jobs and so on, rather like male professors.’ There was a lot of writing about consumption, desire, pleasure, desiring consumption, consuming pleasure. Jolly makes a nice comparison between a salade Niçoise recipe donated to a feminist cookbook by Linda Bellos, the leader of Lambeth Council, in the mid-1980s – ‘best accompanied by a glass of dry champagne’ – and Betty Cook’s memories from the miners’ strike of 1984-85, of ‘soup-kitchen fare for miners’ families … of liver or stew meat, Yorkshire puddings, potatoes and vegetables, and always a sweet, something with custard or rice pudding’. One of the few pictures in Jolly’s book is of the banner Cook helped make for the Barnsley Miners’ Wives. On it, it says: ‘They Did Not Starve.’
Interviewees, Jolly says, were often ‘abashed’, ‘ashamed’ even – shame again! – to reflect on how cosy and comfortable their lives had become in middle age as middle-class professionals. It’s outside her time frame, but I have been wondering a lot, lately, why it seems mostly to be older and richer and often quite celebrated feminists who retreat into weirdly fundamentalist positions regarding sex work, trans and non-binary people, and the fashion and grooming choices of teenage girls. Are they trying to find a way to purge their own bad feelings about their wealth and good fortune? We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry. Whose fault is it that so many people feel so terrible in their lives, their bodies? Whose fault is it that there’s so much so horribly wrong with the world? ‘The tension over womanhood as something to defend or transcend, prioritise or contextualise, remains central,’ as Jolly cautiously puts it. ‘The ongoing appeal of radical feminism is that it addresses primal fears of sexual violence, alongside equally primal pleasures in women’s community, desire and love.’
‘The revolutionary who is serious must listen very carefully to the people who are not heard and do not speak,’ Rowbotham wrote in ‘Women’s Liberation and the New Politics’ in 1969. ‘Unless attention is paid to the nature of their silence there can be no transmission of either memory or possibility and the idea and practice of transformation can accordingly not exist.’
‘I propose, paradoxically, that silence be part of the new oral history,’ Jolly says towards the end of her book. ‘The silence I encourage here is simply that of critical thought and mutual respect, a silence “at the edge of sound”: not resigned, nor repressed, but one astutely listening, ready, indeed, to return to the archive and listen again.’