Sisters in arms: the Women's Liberation Movement
Mel Sherwood looks back at the emergence of Britain’s Women’s Liberation Movement, and the direct action that paved the way for today’s feminists…
The activists of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1960s-80s discovered that they would need to employ shock tactics in their fight, which largely focused on gaining equality in the workplace, in the family and for rights over their own bodies. Much like the suffragettes before them, many of these women realised that it was deeds, not words, that would win the day. Of course, this direct action went hand in hand with more practical and administrative activism, but it was the subversive and spectacular acts that made it impossible for the world to ignore the inequality they suffered.
A nameless problem
Second-wave feminism emerged in the US in the 1960s. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, in which she called out "the problem that has no name" – a widespread unhappiness among the middle-class housewives of America – she opened something of a Pandora's box. The discontent that she shone a light on was not restricted to the US. Feminists around the world were waking up.
The first action on this side of the pond might, today, seem almost stereotypically polite. Fifty years ago this June, 187 female sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham factory went on strike. They objected to the fact that they were classed as 'unskilled' workers, despite the fact – writes Emmeline Pankhurst's great-granddaughter Helen in her book Deeds not Words – "that they needed to pass a skills test to be employed". This classification meant that they earned less than men in equivalent work. The act may seem civilised enough, but for women to strike at this time took courage and came after years of asking, in vain, for their roles to be reclassified.
The estimated cost, in modern money, that the three-week sewing machinists' strike at the Dagenham factory cost Ford Motors.
On 28 June 1968, all 187 machinists travelled to London and marched the streets of Whitehall before meeting up with MP Barbara Castle, the Employment Secretary. They brokered a deal that ended their three-week strike and which would, ultimately, lead to the momentous Equal Pay Act of 1970. But it was not exactly a glorious victory for the strikers; their conditions were much improved, but they were still considered ‘unskilled’. They were not reclassified or given equal pay until they striked again in 1984.
Many more controversial feminist strikes followed, including the Night Cleaners' Campaign of 1970-72, which sought to unionise the victimised and underpaid women who cleaned London's office blocks at night, and the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories strike of 1976-78, headed up by Jayaben Desai: "A small, middle-aged woman [who] led the 'strikers in saris' on a two-year battle that included a hunger strike," says Helen Pankhurst in Deeds Not Words. This fight for better working conditions saw, for the first time in UK history, Asian women at the forefront of a major industrial action. But, more immediately, the Ford strike inspired thousands of activists to come together into what would eventually become the WLM.
At the end of the sixties, this emerging group of women and feminist thinkers was ready to fight for equality. They had lived through a remarkable era of rapid social and cultural change – many were realising that the sexual liberation that the decade brought did not necessarily bring with it the women’s liberation that had been imagined.
Seven demands that make the womanifesto
The four demands that were decided at the 1970 conference (equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries) were, for a large proportion of feminists, insufficient.
Before the decade was out, three more were added: legal and financial independence for all women (1974); the right to self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians (1974); and 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 (1978). The adoption of the seventh demand shows how significant the fight on male violence over women became throughout the 1970s, and remains especially poignant today.
Women were still expected to earn less while they worked; to give up work when they got married or became pregnant (being sacked upon announcing a pregnancy was not uncommon); to settle down and be good housewives; and to serve their husbands and children. To see any effective change, they had to get organised and be more than a little bit daring.
At the end of February 1970, some 600 activists arrived at Ruskin College, Oxford. Men manned the crèche and made the sandwiches for lunch, while the women settled down for three intensive days of feminist discourse. It was the first conference of its kind in the UK (another seven would follow), and the discussions were groundbreaking.
More like this
Delegates from around the world spoke to the engaged and excited audience. They narrowed their objectives down to four key demands, which they believed would benefit all women in all walks of life: equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries. These were formally adopted at the following conference the next year (a further three were added at a later conference). But it wasn’t all talk, no action. They also planned a demonstration that would capture the whole world’s attention.
In November of 1970, anyone turning on their television to watch the Miss World contest would have been presented with a different spectacle to the one scheduled. Activists descended upon the Royal Albert Hall, the venue for the pageant, to disrupt the event in protest of the way it objectified women. And disrupt it they did, pelting the stage, hosts and participants with flour bombs, tomatoes and stink bombs. People watching at home even went out into the streets to join the protests, and they caused so much chaos that the event had to be abandoned. Five activists were arrested. Though the press coverage of the protest and the ensuing trials was incredibly negative, Women’s Lib had never been so popular.
Just a few months later, on 6 March 1971, 4,000 women took to London’s streets for the first Women’s Lib march. The WLMs demands were brandished on banners, while the mob waved washing lines and chanted “One, two, three, four, we want a bloody damn sight more!” They descended on 10 Downing Street to hand over a petition, which called for the government to meet their four demands, after which the march culminated with a series of speakers at Trafalgar Square.
Timeline: how the second wave of feminism rolled out…
The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s saw huge surges in women’s rights and feminist literature, but that progress was hard fought and hard earned
1961 The contraceptive pill is introduced, but at first is only available to married women. This is partially extended in 1967, and made available to all women in 1974.
1963 Betty Friedan's opus The Feminine Mystique, a call to arms for all the dissatisfied housewives and 'ordinary' women of '50s and '60s America, is published. It is largely considered to have sparked the second wave of feminism.
1964 The Married Women's Property Act is revised, allowing married women to be the owners of any money they earned and to inherit property.
1967 The Abortion Act legalises the termination of a pregnancy at up to 24 weeks in England, Wales and Scotland, but requires the consent of two doctors.
1968 In June, the Ford Machinist's Strike in Dagenham makes the headlines. After brokering a deal with the strikers, MP Barbara Castle becomes First Secretary of State.
1969 Frances Beal's Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female is published in the US.
1970 Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch is published, arguing that the 'traditional' role of the female in a suburban, nuclear family represses women sexually.
1972 The feminist magazine Spare Rib releases its first issue.
1973 The Rape Crisis Network is founded in England and Wales; it is extended to Scotland in 1976.
1974 National Women's Aid (today known as Women's Aid) is established in England to coordinate all of the women's refuges and shelters across the nation.
1975 The Employment Protection Act and the Sex Discrimination Act are passed in the UK. These make discrimination on the grounds of gender, marriage or pregnancy unlawful and introduce statutory maternity leave.
1976 The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act allows women to obtain a court order against violent husbands, without first going through divorce or separation.
1977 'Take Back the Night' marches in Europe inspire 'Reclaim the Night' marches across the UK.
1978 The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent is founded, to fight for issues including immigration and deportation.
1979 Margaret Thatcher becomes the UK's first female Prime Minister. She holds the office for 11 years, and becomes known as the 'Iron Lady'.
1980 The 300 Group is founded to campaign for equal representation in Parliament, 300 being roughly half the seats in the House of Commons.
1981 A group of Welsh women form the anti-nuclear Greenham Common Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire.
1982 African-American poet and lesbian-feminist Audre Lorde's autobiographical novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is published.
1984 Women Against Pit Closures is formed during the Miners' Strike.
1987 Diane Abbott is elected MP of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, becoming the first black woman to gain a seat in the House of Commons.
1988 The first woman wins a case under the amended Equal Pay Act.
1991 Rape within marriage is criminalised in England and Wales.
In the months that followed, away from the dramatic spotlight of direct action, there were more practical, local activists working tirelessly for the cause. Hundreds of groups and campaigns emerged, with membership of London’s Women’s Liberation Workshop reportedly rising from 16 to 66 groups.
Such groups would have ranged from refuges that offered women security in the face of domestic violence to basic centres where women could gain free family planning and legal advice. At these hubs, feminist publications were also circulated. Newsletters and leaflets communicated local feminist news, while magazines such as Spare Rib and, later, Shocking Pink, helped to communicate the messages of the movement, report on any political progress and threats, and to organise and report on direct action – of which there was plenty to discuss.
Though it does not appear among the initial demands, one of the WLM’s great achievements was in making violence against women – a largely invisible crime – visible and impossible to ignore. There was much activity on this front: rape crisis centres were established, anti-rape conferences were held and, by 1977, there were some 170 Women’s Aid refuges in Britain. Arguably, the centre of activity on this front was Leeds, where the most extreme example of violence against women could be found – the Yorkshire Ripper, later discovered to be Peter Sutcliffe, was at large.
- Read more | From running marathons to working the nightshift: 8 surprising things women were banned from doing through history
Between 1975 and 1980, Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and assaulted seven more. At the time, the police advised that women should not go out at night, especially not without a male escort. This was hardly the message to send to a group of empowered women, and it was perceived as an extension of victim-blaming: why curfew the potential victims as opposed to the potential perpetrators?
To the feminists of the Leeds area, this could not be borne. Inspired by similar marches in Europe and in Edinburgh, on 12 November 1977 the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organised a women-only ‘Reclaim the Night’ march through the city, with supporting marches elsewhere throughout the country. Brandishing torches and banners reading ‘No curfew on women – curfew on men’, some 130 Leeds women marched a route that covered many of the sites of Sutcliffe’s attacks. This march was controversial for more than just the intended reasons – the organisers were later accused of racism, as there was a lack of sensitivity to issues of diversity, and also sexism, as these marches excluded men and trans people.
Such rifts had long divided the feminist community, and continue to do so to this day. It is small wonder, then, that through the sixties and seventies, feminism developed a remarkable number of branches. In her book Radical Feminism, Finn Mackay lists liberal feminism, socialist feminism, anarcho-feminism, black feminism, womanism, eco-feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, separatist feminism, pro-feminism and revolutionary feminism as just some of the schools recognised today. National lesbian feminist conferences began in 1974, the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent formed in 1978 and, in 1979, Southall Black Sisters was founded, in order to support all black and Asian women in the fight against racism and domestic violence.
What is fourth-wave feminism?
It is largely accepted that today we find ourselves in the fourth wave of feminism. Where the first wave ran from the 19th and early 20th centuries with a focus on enfranchisement for women, property rights and political representation, the second wave emerged a decade after World War II, pushing to further reduce inequalities such as those in the workplace, in family and in sexuality, and lasted into the 1980s. The third wave appeared in the 1990s, elevating issues over diversity, individuality and violence against women.
The fourth wave began around 2012, when social media began to become the predominant fighting ground. Focused on combating sexual harassment, assault and misogyny, as well as improving gender equality in the workplace and the home, campaigns include The Everyday Sexism Project (www.everydaysexism.com); the successful No More Page 3 mission; One Billion Rising (www.onebillionrising.org); and, of course, Time's Up (www.timesupnow.com).
The MeToo campaign (www.metoomvmt.org) – started in 2006 by Tarana Burke to help survivors of sexual violence, especially young women of colour – made the headlines in 2017 when the #MeToo hashtag went viral, with women all over the world using the phrase in tweets and Facebook posts about their experiences of sexual harassment.
The extent and diversity of feminist support and action at this time was incredible. The primary concerns had increased from the four demands, too. Objectives ranged from political representation to abortion rights and combating racist immigration laws. There were only a handful of topics that truly united them all, but one of them was violence against women.
Into the 1980s, such campaigns increased and became more militant. Activists occupied the office of The Sun newspaper, "to protest at the use of rape stories for titillation", explain Joni Lovenduski and Vicky Randall in their book Contemporary Feminist Politics. They also shattered the windows of strip clubs and, in Leeds, "a woman campaigner drove her car through the front of a sex shop".
It is perhaps all the more alarming then that, today, two more waves of feminism down the line, violence against women, and the sexual coercion of women, are still everyday occurrences. As the Time’s Up campaign says on its website: “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” The activists of second-wave feminism would surely agree.
Mel Sherwood is the editor of Your Home magazine
This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.