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We must ask ourselves … equality with what?

Sheila Rowbotham on the women who inspired her as a young socialist feminist organiser in the 1970s.

Sheila Rowbotham26 November 2021

We must ask ourselves … equality with what?

By February I was back in the British Museum reading about the French women who had participated in the revolutions of the nineteenth century. I was preparing my talk for the first ever British Women’s Liberation Conference, which was due to be held at Ruskin College at the end of the month. 

The French historian Edith Thomas had been an exciting revelation. I had come across her account of women in the 1871 Paris Commune, The Women Incendiaries, in translation and been surprised to see that in 1963 she had observed not only that history was largely written by men, but that ‘the history of half the human species, which has almost always been enacted on the fringes of History, raises its own questions, peculiar to itself’. I found a copy of her Les femmes de 1848, written as a tribute to women in the French Resistance, in the British Museum Library, and this led me to the newspaper library at Colindale. Travelling there on the Northern line, I used to lower my gaze to examine the big black boots of the police trainees heading off to their Hendon College. 

Colindale was a desolate spot, especially in winter, and the library itself emitted a spare austerity, as if to inculcate would-be scholars into the rigours of archival sacrifice. But there, bound in brown leather, to my great delight, I discovered copies of the newspapers the insurgent French women had produced in 1848 demanding social and economic rights for working women.

Even as I was making the long journey from Hackney to Colindale, in my home city of Leeds around thirty thousand clothing workers, mostly women, were going from factory to factory in spontaneous mass pickets bringing workers in the clothing factories out. I was astounded to read of such militant direct action in Leeds. After the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers had agreed to an increase of 5 (old) pence an hour for women and 6 for men, the Leeds workers rejected this and demanded an extra shilling (12 old pence) for everyone. A pent-up anger against the employers and the trade union had erupted onto the streets, and crowds of women were photographed waving joyfully outside the factories. A small, astute clothing worker, Gertie Roche, along with her husband Jim, played a key role once the unofficial strike began.

I had been introduced to Gertie the previous year at a gathering of the left-wing Institute for Workers’ Control, by my friend Ben Birnbaum, a trade unionist in the clothing industry. Born in 1912, Gertie had learned her Marxism in the vast garment factories and the anti-fascist movement of the thirties and had joined the Communist Party. Committed but questioning, she had come to know intellectuals in the CP, including Dorothy and Edward Thompson. 

In 1956, after the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Joseph Stalin and Moscow’s subsequent suppression of the Hungarian uprising, Gertie’s outraged dissidence had resulted in her expulsion from the Communist Party, whereupon she became part of the attempt to create a New Left, in Yorkshire. The Thompsons observed that the Communists had lost many thoughtful working-class members like Gertie in 1956, though predictably it would be mainly the intellectuals who were remembered. As a trade unionist, she identified particularly with women workers, describing herself proudly as a ‘shop stewardess’.

Gertie was adept at expressing complex ideas in direct language, a skill she shared with Audrey Wise, then an official in the shop workers’ union, and both women inspired many of us in women’s liberation. I had come to know Audrey through Dorothy and Edward, and she, too, used to attend the Institute for Workers’ Control conferences. Audrey was twenty years younger than Gertie and her early political awareness had been shaped by Trotskyism before she became active in the Labour Party. She once told me that Gerry Healy, the bombastic leader of the Trotskyist group, the Socialist Labour League, had admonished her when, as a young woman, she had decided to marry – ‘You’ll be lost to the socialist movement.’ Audrey resolved to prove him wrong and to work out her own political views. 

Inspired by the Ford women’s strike at Dagenham for equal grading, from 1968 she had been involved with other trade unionists in the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACCWER).

Audrey’s great skill lay in translating assumptions she heard around her into far-reaching aspirations. When I had asked her to write about equal pay in the 1969 issue of Black Dwarf I edited on women’s liberation, she had turned the idea of women’s rights into something much bigger. ‘We must ask ourselves … equality with what? Do men have such idyllic lives that we want the same for ourselves? In a world where people are valued as economic units rather than as people, to be an equal economic unit must not be the height of our ambition.’ Audrey remarked how women workers often emphasized the importance of human needs at work over pay. Instead of dismissing this, she dug down to the radical implications it held. 

At our planning meeting in London for the forthcoming Ruskin Women’s Liberation Conference, I pressed for Audrey to be a speaker and for us to reach out to trade union women organizing through NJACCWER. We had no clear idea who exactly would turn up, nor indeed how many. 

Over the course of 1969 small groups had been springing up in London, loosely linked through the Women’s Liberation Workshop (WLW), which had acquired an office. Local groups started to send a representative to a central meeting there and we agreed that each of these would take turns in producing our paper, Shrew – an arrangement that worked fine until there were too many of us! We used the term ‘Workshop’ because, like the Ruskin History Workshop and other left cultural groupings who adopted it, we sought a non-hierarchical approach. Reacting against the vanguardism of the small left groups of the time, we wanted everyone to contribute equally and were wary of direction.

Scattered clusters of women’s liberationists had also cohered in several towns and cities, and the Trotskyist-influenced Socialist Woman magazine, based in Nottingham, had appeared. I was in touch with the Leeds Women’s Liberation Group, through a friend from university, Gloden Dallas, who always used to laugh when socialist men asked her how she had ‘recruited’ members. ‘They just appeared’, she would reply. And it was true, groups emerged simply through women talking with one another. While many of us had been affected by left ideas, women also came along because of immediate dissatisfactions in their daily lives. We gathered in one another’s homes, listing addresses and telephone numbers in Shrew or other local publications

We had heard about ‘consciousness raising’ in the US radical movement and were committed to talking about personal life. This enabled us to explore how we were oppressed and to think through what to do about it. It also helped to secure an atmosphere of mutual trust. No longer isolated, private hurts found collective expression in the small women’s liberation groups. Feelings of inadequacy, and the all-consuming rage that left a sullen exhaustion in its wake, were not simply relieved by being communicated. Startling realizations arose from the fusion of energy that could result. 

Initially, consciousness-raising groups seemed to offer an alternative type of politics open to all women. They appeared to me as definitely preferable to either Labour Party or International Socialism meetings, where personal life was allocated to talking in the pub after the ‘official’ meeting ended. However, I wanted to help make material changes as well as alter consciousness. Many women shared a similar impatience, but we were not sure how to combine internal and external transformation. 

In 1969 I had joined a women’s group meeting in Islington where we mixed consciousness raising with going about giving talks on women’s liberation and attempting to secure more nursery provision. On returning from my summer holiday I learned that the group, having been forced to move from their regular meeting place, had transferred to my bedroom in Hackney.

During 1970 this group kept growing in numbers and, as new women piled in, we ‘veterans’ found ourselves destined to repeat over and over again what women’s liberation was about. This was frustrating on two counts: ideas could not develop further, and it smacked of a hidden hierarchy in which those ‘in the know’ appeared to resemble the dreaded ‘leaders’. Steeped in the clear certainties of the pamphlets circulating from American women’s liberationists, it took us a while to realize that consciousness raising, rather than being the answer, was simply a different form of organizing which had both strengths and snags. But events were moving faster than theoretical ponderings.

The above is an excerpt taken from Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham, a personal history of life, love and women’s liberation.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

In this powerful memoir Sheila Rowbotham looks back at her life as a participant in the women’s liberation movement, left politics and the creative radical culture of a decade in which freedom and equality seemed possible. She reveals the tremendous efforts that were made to transform attitudes and feelings, as well as daily life.

Daring to Hope
In this powerful memoir Sheila Rowbotham looks back at her life as a participant in the women’s liberation movement, left politics and the creative radical culture of a decade in which freedom and ...