Womens liberation and radical feminism 1970-early 1980s

This is the text of a talk that Lynne Harne gave at a London Feminist Network feminar on Saturday 10 April, 2010.

Different versions

There are many different versions of the women’s liberation movement often depending on where you were living. This is partly because it operated mainly through a local and small group format – there were national demonstrations and conferences and larger meetings held in local areas and in London the Women’s Liberation workshop but the local group and what was going on in your local area often affected women’s experiences in the movement.

‘We are not beautiful we are not ugly we are angry’

I choose to start with the 1970 Miss World Protest, because for me and many others it marked a key moment – what would now probably be called an iconic moment in terms of what Women’s Liberation was about. I wasn’t present but reading and hearing about it from other women it was one of the actions, alongside the first women’s liberation demonstration which struck a chord and made me want to join the movement.

The final of the Miss World Contest was held in the Albert Hall and was being televised to nearly 30 million viewers. It was run by the Mecca organisation and was compered by Bob Hope and the judges were a panel of men. Hope went on about taking the Miss World contestants to visit the soldiers in Vietnam and how it made them hot and fight better, there were associations made between objectifying women’s bodies and racism and imperialism.   Women who were part of the protest got tickets to attend the event and at a signal – a whistle – threw flour bombs, stink bombs and smoke bombs and waved rattles, blew whistles, and threw leaflets – there was also a demonstration outside. It was made clear that the protest was not against the contestants. One of the leaflets read:

The competition will soon be over we have been in the Miss World Contest all our lives, as the judges judge us, living to please men, dividing other women into safe friends and attractive rivals, graded, degraded, humiliated. We have seen through it

Mecca are super pimps selling women’s bodies ………

Women’s bodies used by business men to sell their garbage, but they are only small time pimps in our everyday prostitution, -

Legs selling stockings, corsets selling waists, cunts selling deodorants

Mary Quant selling sex – our sexuality is being taken away from us, turned into money for someone else, then returned deadened by anxiety,

Women watching why are you here

The man’s making money out of us

We are not beautiful we are not ugly we are angry

The women who organised the protest were mainly from women’s liberation groups in London as their pamphlet says

There were differences and antagonism – a lot of tension- the only thing we were all agreed on was wanting to stop the contest.

Women involved compared what they were doing to the first militant and illegal protests of the militant suffragette movement and in the later trial of four women, defending themselves as a form of protest.

Nevertheless the women were terrified by what they were doing,

It was a blow against passivity – not only the enforced passivity of the girls on the stage, but the passivity we felt ourselves – we were dominated while preparing for the demonstration by terror of what we were about to do – to take violent action, interrupting a well ordered spectacle, drawing attention to ourselves, inviting the hostility of thousands of people was something we previously thought was personally impossible as women and against the norms of bourgeois behaviour.

There was extremely negative media after the contest – the ‘angry’ in the leaflet meant that the women were associated with the Angry Brigade and there was hostility as well as ridicule of the women who took part, but the membership of Women’s Liberation workshop doubled in a month after the protest and was still being talked about in women’s groups a year later.

The pamphlet set the context of the action as part of the growing WLM.

Now the women’s liberation movement is part of the growing revolutionary movement in England ………. Radical feminism is opening out the revolutionary struggle in new areas we want control not only over the means of production but over reproduction as well – which is why we are organising around abortion, contraception and childcare questioning our sexual conditioning changing the family structure, fighting institutions, publications, programmes that maintain women’s oppression and promote the traditional submissive female.

An autonomous movement

However, there was an initial struggle to gain an autonomous women’s movement and this wasn’t achieved until the national conference held in Skegness in l971, when leftist men who wanted to lead the movement were evicted from the conference. It was decided that the movement would be self-organised without leaders or a hierarchy and federated between different groups around the country.

Consciousness-raising and breaking the silence

Getting to the point of protests like Miss World came about because of conscious-raising in small groups. Some areas of women’s conditions are hard to imagine today – the destiny for middle class women even if they had been to university was that they would get married, not work and have children. Women were regarded as passive objects – the objectification of women was not only as sexual objects but passivity was viewed as ‘naturally’ part of the character of women, women who had been politically involved in New Left movements were expected to make the tea and not speak out politically or even have a view.

The personal is political

Women began to speak about their own ‘private’ lives how they felt about themselves, how they experienced the world for example the constant sexual harassment on the streets, relationships with men, sexual relationships, experiences of motherhood, housework, isolation – women being defined as inferior to men and as mere adjuncts of men. Women lacked confidence to speak even at first in groups of women always thinking we would be judged – consciousness raising related to different forms of activism which developed for example around rape and pornography even into the late l970s and early l980s.

Naming the problems

Consciousness-raising enabled the naming of problems, there were initially no words for what was happening to women, the word sexism didn’t exist and had to be coined, we initially called men male chauvinists – as seen earlier, women were still being called girls – all this gradually changed and language changed not only the coining of new words such as sexism and sexual harassment, but in terms of changing the meaning of male defined language (see Dale Spender, Man-made language, l975).

There also became a growing recognition of the difference between anatomical sex and gender, where gender was viewed as the socialisation of women into femininity.  Anne Oakley’s book Sex, Gender and Society published in l970 was significant in informing this analysis and challenged the idea that women are ‘naturally’ inferior. We later began to use the term male supremacy to define men’s oppression of women.

Communication and propaganda

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the creation of the first WLM newsletters and publications – ‘Shrew’ and ‘Women’s Report’ and pamphlets on different topics such as the Miss World pamphlet – before this there were no specific publications for WLM and the media was totally hostile so these were needed just to communicate to other women. Early l970s activism was very diverse – the creation of local women’s centres – some lived in collectives – the focus was on changing our lives now – there was a great variety of campaigns for example supporting the Night Cleaners strike, occupying Wimpey bars to get them to be open to women after 10 pm at night, lots of marches against restrictions on abortion, opening up of first refuges and rape crisis centres, many feminists were also becoming lesbians and squatting housing and creating lesbian collectives.

Radical feminism By the mid 1970s, radical feminism became more clearly defined as different from socialist feminism focussing on only organising around women’s oppression, rather than being in mixed sex leftist groups, as was the case with many socialist feminists. There had been numerous debates about the significance of patriarchy and capitalism in relation to the main causes of women’s oppression. Radical feminists did not abandon an analysis of the inter-relationship of patriarchy with capitalism but argued that women needed to be recognised as an oppressed sex/class prior to capitalism which continued in capitalist societies.

There became much more focus on women organising for themselves with the setting up of feminist printing presses and publishing houses, since men would not publish our writings women’s, bookshops such as Sisterwrite, Spare Rib the movement magazine, women’s bands e.g. ‘Jam Today’  women’s discos and bops and the emergence of feminist collectives of artists, photographers and cartoonists and feminist culture. Women were also challenging sexism in school education, mixed sex schooling and developing school curriculum to address sexist stereotyping and challenging the constructions of female and male sexuality in sex education.

Ideas and early key texts

Most of these came from other countries. UK radical feminism was more focussed on activism and practice, rather than in the early days developing theory, but these texts were significant in defining radical feminism and became more accessible when feminist women’s bookshops were set up.

Simone De Beauvoir (1949) The Second Sex. Defined how women were constructed only in relation to men – ‘one is not born but rather becomes a woman’.

Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics, published in the UK in 1971 was probably the first second wave text to use the term patriarchy to describe the different structures of male power. She described how patriarchy controlled every aspect of women’s lives from sexuality, the family, literature and the media, education, work, reproduction, violence and described how force was used where necessary to control women, drawing on anthropological and historical analysis she also demonstrated the depth of patriarchal cultures. She began her thesis with quotes from pornographic male literary texts, to illustrate the extent of men’s sexual control of women.  Andrea Dworkin’s Woman-hating (1974) was another early key text to theorise pornography and comparing it with patriarchal fairy tales analysed men’s contempt of women.

The second half of the 1970s saw the beginnings of more coherent collective activism against men’s sexual violence in the form of reclaim the night marches. In London these went through Soho but were attacked by male club owners and the police. In Leeds the ripper murders and the subsequent police advice to women that they should stay at home and not go out at night at least without a man stimulated first Women against Violence against Women protests (WAVAW) – and later actions against sex shops, cinemas showing increasingly sexually violent ‘mainstream’ films and spate of spray-painting of sexist and pornographic advertising and the use of stickers to put on posters. The slogan ‘pornography is violence against women’ and groups going around removing pornography in galleries and public spaces, the ‘pornography’ slide show which was taken around to mainstream women’s organisations to show women what pornography actually consisted of.

The patriarchy study group was analysing the constructions of sexuality and how this informed sexual violence against women and Feminists against Sexual Terrorism (Fast) were organising against rape, sexual harassment and ‘flashing’.

The early l980s saw the beginning of some institutional change, radical feminists were recruited to work for the Greater London Council to develop policy on women  and in the creation of local authority Women’s Committees which brought about some change e.g. in London stopping sexist advertising on the tube, changes in the school curricula and the beginnings of some public funding for women’s groups e.g. for Rights of Women, Women’s Manual Trades – however there were also contradictions and some co-option that emerged through these moves, as well as other differences which were arising in the movement and an increasing resistance or backlash against Women’s Liberation from the patriarchal right wing – this was the era of Thatcher after all.

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