Beyond The Fragments:
Feminism and the Making of Socialism (A Local Experience)
by Lynne Segal
An account by feminist & socialist activist Lynne Segal of the grassroots feminist and community organising she was involved in in Islington, North London, in the 1970s.
Nicked from ‘Beyond the Fragments’, Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Lynne Segal.
Reposted here because it’s interesting and useful.
Lynne Segal was born in is an Australia, and became involved in the anti-authoritarian milieu of the Sydney Libertarians (known as ‘The Push’), and has always remained within the libertarian wing of Left politics. She emigrated to London in 1970 and for the next decade her main energies went into grass roots politics in Islington, North London, helping to set up and run a women’s centre, an alternative newspaper, the Islington Gutter Press, and supporting anti-racist politics. It was a decade in which the extra-party Left was on the ascendant, but divided structurally and ideologically.
With Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Segal wrote Beyond the Fragments in 1979, arguing for broader alliances among trade unionists, feminists and left political groups. Its argument quickly won a large following leading to a major conference in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1980 and a second edition in 1981. In 1984, publisher Ursula Owen invited her to join the Virago Advisory Board and write an appraisal of the state of feminism, resulting in her first book, Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism. This book reached a broad audience, with its questioning of gender mythologies, whether of women’s intrinsic virtues, or men’s inevitable rapaciousness, which had been appearing in the work of many popular feminist writers in the 1980s.
This article was originally based on a talk given together with Sheila Rowbotham at the Islington Socialist Centre in August 1978. Since the first edition of Beyond the Fragments I have rewritten sections of it. The sympathetic comment and criticism of the first edition by my friends and comrades in Big Flame and by other independent socialist feminists have been of invaluable assistance to me in clarifying some of the ideas which appeared rather sketchily in the first edition. I am very grateful to all those who participated in this learning process with me.
Certain political ideas and experiences are always more fiercely and critically debated than other on the left. The debate is usually confined within certain orthodox frameworks of discussion. The need for a revolutionary party and programme, the relation between party and class, and the nature of the working-class road to power, are among these classic debates. As the theses pile up on these important debates, the actual experiences of people as they consciously, and less consciously, participate in the struggle for a better life can disappear from history. And that is most unfortunate.
I believe we can learn useful, if limited, lessons from the activities of a group of people struggling for socialism, fighting for feminism, within their own small groups in one local area. I am writing as a woman with a libertarian feminist history, living in Islington since 1972. Islington is an inner suburb of London. It does not have any large industrial base, workers are mostly employed in the public sector, or in small factories. Like me, many people who live in Islington don’t work there. My political experience has been as a community activist; it is not based on the workplace.
I will be trying to draw on my experiences in the last seven years, not just in the women’s movement, but also as part of the libertarian left in London. It is a subjective account, but I hope it will raise general issues concerning women and revolutionary politics and the problems we face. I was lucky in that I wasn’t around in England in 1969 and 1970 when the reaction of the whole of the left to women’s liberation was derisory and dismissive. Though I do clearly remember Sheila’s books being dismissed by left colleagues of mine at work, and declared both diversionary and reformist.
In 1970 a group of women organised a demonstration against the Miss World contest; some were arrested, and they later produced a pamphlet which explained what they had done. And this was just one of the things I remember that influenced and inspired me in 1972-because that pamphlet Why Miss World? not only talked of the humiliation of women as sex objects, but also of the lack of confidence and fear these women felt mounting the first protest against their own oppression. It wasn’t just that women felt frightened to protest politically, but that most of us found it difficult to speak publicly at all; we were used to relating passively and dependently to the world as presented to us by men. We were used to being dominated by men: it was hard not to want to be. And it really hasn’t been easy to change this, either then or since.
For me, in many ways the ideas of the libertarian left and feminism did seem to be in harmony. I will try and explain this. First of all, they both seemed new. The libertarian politics of the seventies did not really owe much to the anarchism of the past. Though anarchism has a very long history, as old as Marxism, the student radicals of the 1968 generation were in the main not radicalised through the efforts of the ‘organised’ libertarian and anarchist groupings. I know this also from personal experience as I was a student anarchist in Australia in the early sixties but I took me a few years to begin to understand the political Ideas that came to prominence after May 1968.
Libertarian politics were more of a genuinely spontaneous upsurge of ideas which drew their inspiration from many different thinkers, from Marcuse, Che Guevara and the early Marx, to Laing and Vaneigem.(l) This upsurge was a product of capital’s period of boom, when everything did seem possible, when in the Western world capitalism’s main problem seemed to be how to keep buying all the goods it could produce. This led to the reaction against pointless consumption; ‘consume more, live less’. The emphasis was on the quality of life in capitalist society and this is why psychological writings seemed important, as did those of the young Marx when he spoke of the effect of alienated labour on the individual spirit and saw the division of labour itself as a stunting of human potential.
To those who had become active in 1968 it seemed a time when anything could happen. Looking back on it, we could say that from Vietnam we drew the lesson that American imperialism, despite its technology, was not invincible. Though I’m not sure that we were aware of this at the time, we only knew whose side we were on. We certainly felt politically inspired seeing a small nation fighting ‘the Beast’ to the death. From the mass workers’ struggles which occurred throughout France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, people drew the lesson that the working class was prepared to fight for a better life, and that it had not been bought off by consumer durables. Students, for example, were inspired by the thought that they had a political part to play, and could act together with industrial workers, as happened in the worker-student alliances of May 1968, and the worker-student assemblies in Turin in 1969. So class struggle was once again on the agenda, and the class militancy which continued in Italy and in Britain in the early seventies showed how difficult it was for the ruling class to keep a grip on the situation in a period of economic boom. That the optimism of the early seventies and the militancy of workers’ struggles which inspired us then, have not been able to survive the capitalist economic recession of the mid seventies is something I will return to later on.
After 1968 the emphasis among the new largely ex-student libertarian left centred on the following issues. First, autonomy – which is not the same as individualism, but meant to us taking control over your own life. Libertarians believed that people could act to change the quality of their own lives; they were more than just the passive tools of historical forces. There was a deep suspicion of any organisation that claimed to do things for or in the name of the people. ‘Power to the People’ was one of the slogans we were chanting, as we watched our friends arrested on demonstrations, or were hauled off ourselves. As we saw it, we were the people, up against the repressive forces of the state, in our attempt to change our lives now. This meant that we were slow to form any alliances with others in our struggle, whether it was to seek support from the organised labour movement or the organised left, or progressive forces in local authorities or the left of the Labour Party. We saw them all as intrinsically reformist and hostile to our attempts to control our own lives. This wasn’t inconsistent with their response to our activities.
Secondly, personal relations – you’ve got ‘to live your politics’. We argued that our social relations now must reflect or ‘prefigure’ the social relations we want to create after the revolution. We said that the desire to change your own life and the world about you now is an important part of building for socialism in the future. So we opposed the Leninist position that you couldn’t change anything under capitalism, you could only build an organisation to overthrow it. We thought that there would be little reason for people to join a revolutionary movement unless it brought an immediate improvement in the quality of their lives, as against those who believed that you could make a split between public politics and private life. We were critical of those who might participate in some form of socialist politics and yet remain authoritarian and uncritical of their relation to their wives or their children at home; or to others in their work situation. We had in mind, for instance, the male militant who left his wife at home to mind the children while he did his ‘political’ work. We wanted our political activity to make room for those with children, and also to include the children.
Thirdly, you organise around your own oppression. You begin from your position as a woman, a squatter, a claimant, etc. This was linked to attacks on the nuclear family. We read both Laing and Reich, and were quite certain that we could never return to the restricted and restricting lifestyle of our parents. We saw that oppression, the power of one person to dominate and control the life of another, could be as much a part of personal social relations as of economic social relations. This led to an emphasis on collective living, collective childcare, and the setting up of nurseries.(2) The family was seen as the producer of neurosis and ‘the policeman in the head’ which leads people to collaborate in their own oppression.
Fourthly, the rejection of vanguards and any hierarchy of struggle. We rejected the idea that the industrial working class must be the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. Libertarians argued that all areas of life were of importance to revolutionaries. The traditional left was seen as only concerned with people at the workplace, not in the community. But libertarians always argued that people who worked at home, minded the kids, etc., were doing as important work as that done in the factories. This was expressed theoretically In a rejection of the Trotskyist left’s permanent illusion that capitalism was on the point of collapse, saved only by props like the ‘permanent arms economy’, as IS used to suggest.(3) We felt this underestimated the role of the state in stabilising the economy, not just through economic measures such as investment policies but through the hegemony of state ideology, and ideas expressed at every level. We saw the capitalist state as far more resilient and flexible than much of the left had previously argued. So libertarians developed richer theories of the role of the state, and its hard and soft forces of repression, not just through the police and the army but via education, health, sex role conditioning, etc.(4)
Before most of the left we: emphasised work with youth. Though left groups did have their youth sections, libertarians were interested in practical work, setting up youth houses, youth newspapers, adventure playgrounds and free schools. This youth work was not only practical but also prefigurative in its stress on young people being able to experience a different situation and develop a sense of self-determination.(5)
We worked mainly in community politics, starting community papers, squatters’ and claimants’ groups, and trying to organise around housing. ‘Decent homes for all’ was the slogan we used, aiming in particular at the failure of local authorities to provide housing for single people.
The squatting movement, was reduced in strength as people could no longer bear to keep on moving, keep on facing the bailiffs, as they were bought off by councils with licensed short-life houses, and the number of empty houses declined. But it did nevertheless win certain limited victories. In Islington it eventually forced the council to change its policies and begin providing housing for single people: It introduced the notion of ‘shared singles’ to the housing bureaucracy, to add to their ‘family units’. (This can’t simply be dismissed as ‘reformism’ since struggles were not fought in a reformist way.)
This was the time of the ‘gentrification’ or middle-class take-over of working-class .housing in inner city boroughs like Islington. Landlords conspired with estate agents like Prebbles to ‘winkle’ tenants out of their homes. There was a campaign against Prebbles by the Islington Tenants Campaign which picketed Prebbles’ office for many months until a historic high court judgement against them ruled that all non-industrial pickets were illegal. We did extensive research on the activities of the big property sharks like Raine, Freshwater and Joe Levy; and how the housing system worked in general until we felt we could understand what was going on.
We resisted all notions of revolutionary leadership. Living our politics meant sharing skills and breaking down all authoritarian relations now. We emphasised the creative aspects of politics, that it should be fun, and not dreary. All bourgeois social relations around work, the family, ‘pleasure’, possessions and relationships were challenged. This was perhaps why we supported those most oppressed by bourgeois society, prisoners, the homeless, claimants, etc., and believed that you could only fight back if you shared the material situation of the most oppressed. ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’ the tough ones sang along with Dylan. But misery does not always equal militancy, and those most oppressed are sometimes so smashed that it’s hard for them to fight back at all.
Many of these issues which I’ve described as central to libertarian thought were also central to feminist thought.
First, the autonomy of the women’s movement was the crucial issue for women. Though left groups saw this as divisive, we were aware that their programmes of formal equality for women could conceal the actual subordination of women in their own organisations. Women had to organise their own fight against male domination; it could not be done for them.
Secondly, feminists always emphasised the importance of the personal and the subjective, the need for a total politics. By this we meant a politics that saw the links between personal life and the oppression of women at home, and the exploitation of men and women in paid work. Women demanded changes in the social relations between men and women now. We wanted to help to break down the isolation of women in the home, and to begin to change ourselves. We had to change ourselves, because the whole ideology of sexism ensured that we had always seen ourselves, and were seen by men, in ways which made us feel inferior and allowed men to dominate us. We spoke of our sexuality being defined and controlled by men, as well as the suppression of women’s sexuality in most hetero-sexual relationships. We supported the demands of lesbians, and the importance of women exploring their own sexuality. We knew that women’s sexual passivity and sexual objectification by men was linked to our feelings of powerlessness.
Thirdly, as feminists we organised around our own oppression. We also criticised the nuclear family, seeing it as the seat of women’s oppression. But we were not simply concerned with the repressive ideological role of the family but saw ,it as the place where woman do unpaid work, thus creating the basis for our social subordination in general. We argued that the way in which domestic labour, childcare and work are organised today will all have to be changed before there can be any real liberation for women. We saw that the Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle had not proved itself an adequate theoretical tool to conceptualise these changes. While the traditional left was slow to realise the anti-capitalist nature of women’s liberation, feminists were able to show how it was the unpaid work done by women in reproducing labour power and servicing the workforce that was essential to capitalist social relations. ‘Women in labour, keep capital in power’ was one of the slogans painted on the wall at the first women’s liberation conference held in Oxford in 1970.
More thoroughly than the libertarians, women developed new theories of the welfare state.(6) Women as mothers came into contact with the state more directly than men, in the form of welfare, nursery provision, education and health services. So it was more urgent for us to analyse the control of the state over our lives. We were aware that it was the inadequacies of these social services that created the burden borne mainly by women today. And we were aware that the provision which was available to us was not what we wanted. For example, women took up many issues in the field of health care. We demanded control over our reproduction. We exposed the way that doctors, who are mainly men, treat women’s specific illnesses with contempt. We publicised the way millions of women are regularly prescribed tranquillisers and other drugs by doctors instead of them examining the social causes of many women’s problems. Indeed, feminists were able to establish that the medical profession saw femininity itself as in some way pathological.(7) The feelings of passivity, dependence and powerlessness, felt by most women today, are rightly seen by psychiatrists as opposed to mental health. But instead of these aspects of femininity being attributed to the oppressive socialisation of women, reinforced in everyday life, they are wrongly seen by most doctors as natural to women. These are only a few of many such issues.
Fourthly, the women’s movement also rejected ‘stageism‘-the idea that women’s liberation could be put off until after the revolution.(8) We argued that our struggle against male domination, or patriarchy, was as central as the struggle against class oppression.(9) We said that women’s oppression could not be reduced to class exploitation, that though interconnected with it, it pre-dated it and could continue after the smashing of capitalist class relations.
It was women who not only introduced many new issues into socialist politics, but also developed new forms of organisation – ones which would enable us all to participate more fully in revolutionary politics. We introduced consciousness-raising groups, where all women could learn that their misery, isolation and feelings of inferiority were not simply personal problems but common to nearly all women and the product of material and ideological conditions. We introduced the small group as a more supportive and equal way of discussing things and working together. We wanted the experiences of all women to be respected and the movement to grow on this basis rather than through following general principles. We criticised the formal public meetings of the labour movement and the left where inexperienced and less confident women (and men) felt unable to contribute.
We were opposed to all forms of leaderism, and struggled for equality in all our social relations, because we were aware that the forms of dominance and subordination we were fighting could easily remain invisible, as they had been before. We knew that our struggle began with the need for women to believe that what we could contribute was important and valuable. Through writing, poetry, music and film we began to create a new feminist culture, as a part of changing our consciousness and because we knew that men have dominated every aspect of our life, including all areas of culture. We worked locally in the community, at a time when most of the left, apart from the libertarian left, was not interested in this.
Many of these ideas on the form and nature of political activity and organisation can be illustrated by looking at some of the things which the women’s movement initiated in Islington in the early seventies. In August 1972, a group of women opened the first local women’s centre in York Way. This was one of the first women’s centres anywhere in England. The idea of having a centre was in itself different from the way in which most of the left organised. A leaflet from Essex Road Women’s Centre explained:
The Women’s Centre grew out of a need to meet and talk to other women about the particular problems that we all face. Many of us feel anxious that we alone are responsible for the problems we have-like loneliness if we’re stuck with our kids all day and can’t get out, finding a decent place to live, worrying about our health and our kids’ health, or worrying about work and keeping a home going as well.
By meeting and talking to other women we found that we are NOT alone in our problems. And when we find that we do share experiences, it’s not only a big relief, but it makes it easier to try and change things that need changing-whether it’s the planning of the street you live in, or whether it’s about contraception or childcare, schools, problems at work, etc. We think that women are in a really strong position to change things-because they are close to the root causes of the problems of day-to-day living, both in the house and at work.
So the idea of the centre was, firstly, as a place to meet and give real support to any women who were in some way trying to break out of their isolation, and, secondly, to allow us to build our confidence and strength that we as women could change things.
At York Way we began one of the first women’s health groups, taking up many of the ideas of the women’s health movement in the States, We were also active in the family allowance campaign, demanding that it be increased and paid directly to women. At about this time the Wages For Housework campaign Was started and began to demand wages for women working in the home. We agreed that it Was valuable to emphasise that domestic work is work, important work which is undervalued and invisible because it is unpaid. All this was a revelation to some people on the left.
We too saw woman’s unpaid domestic labour in the home as central to her oppression, and also central to the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce (labour power) and thus to the maintenance of the capitalist social formation. There was a theoretical debate here, though we were not all aware of it. Wages For Housework, following the analysis of Mariarosa Dalla Costa.(10) argued that women’s work at home was not only essential to capital as we said, but it also produced surplus value-that is, it directly added to the profits which capitalists could make out of their labour force. Because if there were no housewives male workers would have to pay someone to look after them, and thus would demand higher wages. We thought that this whole debate was perhaps not important, because whether or not housewives and other domestic workers produced surplus value, we were equally concerned to challenge the division of labour which consigned women to the home.
It was the pressures of housework, the double shift for ‘working’ women, and our general servicing role which were the major causes of women’s isolation and exploitation at home and at work, as well as of our low self-evaluation and status. So the Wages For Housework campaign seemed wrong at a practical level, because their solution would institutionalise the division of work in the family. (Then are now ideas to implement such a suggestion in Italy and Canada.) It also seemed wrong at a theoretical level being simply the other side of the economism of tradition a Trotskyism, which sees the only way to get power in that class struggle as that of fighting for more and more money through a wages offensive.
We began to argue generally for the Socialisation of housework, for more nurseries, playgrounds, and so on Here it wasn’t just that we widened the areas of political activity in which the left had been active, in order to include women’s needs. There was also the recognition of the need to have control over any gains we might make.
For instance, in the demand for nurseries, we didn’t just demand money from the state for more nurseries, but helped to create more community-based, non-authoritarian, non-sexist relations in the nurseries we helped to establish. Val Charlton describes this in her account of the Children’s Community Centre in North London which was opened in 1972 after feminists had successfully battled for council funding:
We are trying to break away from the traditional authoritarian mode of relating to children and are attempting to offer them as many choices as possible and as much independence as they can cope with. All activities are made available for children of both sexes but it’s not simply enough to treat all the children equally. The boys have frequently already learned their advantage and are quick to make capital of it. There has to be positive support in favour of the girls, who are generally already less adventurous.(11)
Also in 1972 a women’s Holloway Prison Support Group was set up, to campaign around women prisoners. We picketed Holloway Prison saying ‘Free our sisters, free ourselves.’ In 1973 we protested over the death through fire of Pat Cummings in Holloway Prison. We knew that most women are not in prison for crimes of violence. Petty crime, SS fraud, prostitution, etc., are the main reasons for women being sent to prison-often simply attempting to fulfil their social role of caring for their families on inadequate means. Yet, women prisoners are notoriously violent, mostly self-destructively violent – cutting themselves ip and smashing their cells. Used to providing the caring and affection for just a few people, women in prison face he possible break-up of their families and loss of their children. Women face this more than men because women end to support men more than men support women.
In this vulnerable position, official ideology can easily work to persuade the woman in prison that she is not so much ‘criminal’ as maladjusted or sick-another role which women in our society, through powerlessness and training into passivity, are more likely to accept. in line with this, we tried to expose the fraud behind the rebuilding of Holloway Prison as more of a hospital, creating even greater isolation for the women inside. Over 50 per cent of women in Holloway are on drugs, indeed drugs are the only provision which women can freely obtain in Holloway. The new Holloway Prison, which places even greater stress on the therapeutic rehabilitation of women, simply encourages them to blame themselves for the predominantly material problems which landed them in there in the first place.
But York Way was not a good site for a women’s centre. It closed in 1973, and in February 1974 we opened a new women’s centre in Essex Road. Many women’s groups, campaigns and activities started at that women’s centre. The most successful was probably the health group, which produced literature on women’s health, did pregnancy testing, provided a woman, doctor for advice sessions, learnt self-examination, took health classes with school children, collected information on doctors and their treatment of women, provided information on abortion facilities, and, more generally, argued for the importance of preventive health care rather than simply curative medicine. Less successfully, we wrote and distributed leaflets on housing conditions and the isolation of women at home with children. We supported women’s struggles for better housing, and some of us were active in squatting struggles.
By 1975 many campaigns were being co-ordinated by groups originating from the women’s centre. 1974 was the beginning of the various cuts campaigns against the ever-increasing public expenditure cuts. We began campaigning to prevent’ the closure of our local Liverpool Road Hospital, and fought hard for it to be kept open as a community health resource. Some of us were active in the Islington Nursery Action Group, visiting nurseries to help unionise workers and also successfully pressurising the Council, into abandoning its attempts to make cuts in nurseries, showing how the cuts hit women hardest.
The campaigns for ‘more and better services’ emerged at the same time as the government pressure for cuts. It was in November 1974 that the first government circular came demanding cuts. And that’s when a general cuts campaign started in Islington, with its first meeting held in December of that year, initiated by a group of militants, some inside and some outside the Labour Party. As a broad front campaign it was supported by community groups like the women’s centre, tenants’ groups, public sector workers and, in particular, by the many council-funded community service groups like law centres, Task Force and the Neighbourhood Forums. This was perhaps the first time that we got some relationship developing between the libertarian and feminist milieu and the labour movement. But at this time it was an uneasy alliance. It was never given my real support by the Trades Council, which even came out and attacked the campaign after it had held a day of action. This campaign did not last. Today with the left in a stronger position in Islington there is more hope for the new anti-cuts campaign which is being formed.
The National Working Women’s Charter Campaign was also started at this time, holding its first delegate conference in October 1974. It was never very popular with us at Essex Road. This was because of the dominance of the organised left in the Charter and their wrangles over leadership, and also because it was very schematic, being simply a list of demands, and because it was concerned primarily with women in the workplace. Marxists had always argued that woman’s liberation would be achieved through her full participation in waged labour. In this way they were able to subordinate women’s struggles to class struggle. And it was also in this way that they were able to dismiss the importance of organising with housewives or the struggles of those many women marginal to the wage system, for example, prostitutes.
The Working Women’s Charter, a list of ten demands which would improve women’s situation in paid work, was originally put together by a subcommittee of the London Trades Council. It was seen by some women in left groups as an adequate basis for socialist feminists to organise from. Though the demands did include ones around contraception, abortion and nurseries it was not an adequate platform for the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement to base itself on. (And there have always been socialist feminists in the women’s movement despite the different setbacks we have faced in our attempts to organise ourselves. )
The Charter’s inadequacy stemmed from its orthodox reflection of the position that women’s oppression is due to her unequal share in class struggle. The demands did not even criticise the sexual division of labour, which is central to male domination. It is this sexual division of labour which ensures that even if women can go out to work they will in general have the lower-paid jobs and the lower-status jobs. The point is not just that women happen to be low paid, it is that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in ‘women’s jobs’. And these jobs which are available to women are low in pay and status precisely because they are ‘women’s’ jobs’.(12) The threat to male workers of more women entering a particular career, is that by their very presence in any large numbers, they lower the status of that work. The best-known example of this was the change over from male to female secretaries at the end of the nineteenth century.(13) So even at work women are oppressed as much by their sex as by their class position.
The Working Women’s Charter was basically a trade union response to feminism, and it was good to get some response, but it shared the inadequacies of trade unionism towards women. Some of us did however support the Working Women’s Charter activities, although in fact local Charter groups interpreted and used the Charter in quite different ways-in Islington, women were involved in the local Nursery Action Group, in the Liverpool Road Hospital Campaign, in attempts to unionise workers at Marks and Spencers and elsewhere, and organising a general meeting on women in Islington sponsored by the Trades Council. There were, however, many aspects of feminist struggle that the Charter could not incorporate. In 1975, the Working Women’s Charter was rejected by the Trades Union Congress conference. It had fallen between the two stools of feminist and labour movement politics, and in the end could not survive.
In 1975 a local NAC (National Abortion Campaign) group was formed to fight James Whites’s anti-abortion bill. NAC was also organised as a national campaign. But once again many women were suspicious of the national structure, saying that it was not feminist. They saw it as dominated politically by the International Marxist Group (IMG), and objected to its main focus for activities being that of lobbying MPs, seeing this as reformist. Feminists often felt that any national campaigning structure gave women in left groups an advantage over them, in terms of determining policy, as they were more experienced in that form of centrally organised politics. This has always been a problem in the women’s movement, and one of the causes of the deep tensions between women in left groups and nonaligned women, even in the socialist feminist current of the movement. Outside of left groups we moved more slowly, each of us puzzling over the pros and cons of particular tactics, particular slogans, etc., most of us frightened to push ourselves forward, and therefore hostile to those women who already seemed to have all the answers on the questions of tactics and organisation. Today I feel that, difficult as it is, we must all learn to overcome our fear of political differences and be prepared to argue through our politics.
But many women did become involved in local activity against the threatened restrictions on women’s access to abortion facilities, with stalls in the local market and elsewhere. We also organised colourful public protests against the Miss Islington beauty contest, describing the degradation, violence and restriction on women’s lives created by our status as sex objects for men. It· was especially when we challenged this area of men’s control over women, speaking of the daily rape and violence against women that we were most ridiculed in the local press and elsewhere. For it was here that we were most directly challenging the central ideology of male domination, a sexist ideology which not only attributes certain particular characteristics to women that enable men to dominate us, but also belittles and degrades those characteristics it sees as feminine.(14)
Together with the Arsenal Women’s Group and others we held a local conference to try to organise the women’s movement on. a local area basis. We were also actively involved in all the early socialist feminist initiatives at organising in the women’s liberation movement. Many consciousness-raising and study groups started at the centre, and a women’s self-help therapy group was formed, partly as a support for some women who had suffered severe emotional crises, but also because all the women involved saw mental health as an important issue. We saw that many of our deep anxieties and fears were a reaction to our powerlessness, and often because we could not receive any adequate nurturing from men. We were used to providing emotional support, but not to demanding and receiving it. This is behind the current emphasis on feminist therapy, and the creation of a Women’s Therapy Centre in Islington. We talked on women’s liberation at schools like Starcross, a local school for girls, and some women ran classes on women’s liberation for schoolgirls at the centre. A literacy class was set up for women. There was a group for women working in traditional men’s jobs, and, in fact, so many groups that I can’t remember them all.
But, despite all of the creativity and energy which originated from the women’s centre, it was always hard to keep it open to all women for more than a few hours a week, on Saturdays and Wednesday nights. And many women were only active in the centre for about a year, and would then drift off. It was often hard to get the new women who came along involved in the centre, and it was difficult to keep up any good communication between the different groups which did meet there.
Some of us wanted to obtain money for a paid worker at the centre in order to keep it open to co-ordinate and plan activities. But others rejected such an idea out of hand, believing it would be ‘selling out’ to obtain money from the local council or the state, paving the way to our co-option by them. Women also feared that a paid worker would create a hierarchical structure. The first point came from our analysis of the state, which led us to see social workers, for instance, as the repressive ‘soft cops’ of the system. There seemed to be a contradiction between our emphasis on self-help and collective activity and the idea of state funding. Wasn’t the role of the social worker or the state-funded service centre to prevent people taking collective direct action to solve their problems by holding out the false promise of there being some individual solutions for people’s problems? But weren’t we just unpaid radical social workers anyway?
At that time we were less aware of the radical potential for militancy in the state sector workers, living out the contradictions of trying to provide a service for human needs while employed by a state tied to the profitability of capitalism. Many of these workers are very frustrated by the futility of their attempts to meet their clients’ needs. Some social workers, for instance, were already referring people to squatting advisory centres and other groups committed to building struggles around particular issues. It is in the area of social services and the state that the threat to jobs through cuts and closures and rationalisation can be most easily linked to wider possibilities for anti-capitalist struggles, because they raise the question of people’s needs. Many health workers, teachers, etc., are aware that it is not just lack of resources that makes their jobs unsatisfactory. It is also the formal hierarchy and the rigid rules through which the state is organised that makes their jobs so difficult.
The current attack on the funding of so-called voluntary groups, for example, law centres, housing aid centres, and other radical advice centres is precisely because they have been able to provide the space for and have been effective in helping to organise struggles around people’s needs. The money that is being saved by such cuts is often quite negligible, the motivation for them is political. It may be true that these voluntary groups provided new jobs mainly, although not only, for the ‘radical professionals’, but I think that at Essex Road we were not as aware as we might have been of the contradictions over funding, and the possibilities of using it to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.
With others I have thought more recently about some of these problems and think they need more analysis. The modern state is such a huge and complex organisation, the situation being quite different from that in 1917 Tsarist Russia, from which so much revolutionary strategy derives. Then the state’s role was purely repressive, defending the interests of the ruling class. But the modern state has been formed by the ongoing compromise between the working class movement channelled into reformist political strategy and the capitalist class. The state spreads its tentacles throughout society. Nationalisation, health care, education, care of the young and old, research, funding of the arts are some of the ways in which the modern state interpenetrates society in a way it never did before 1945.
For libertarians and many feminists, instances of the creeping hand of state control were everywhere, from community festivals to nurseries and old people’s homes. We tended to argue that the whole system was rotten, and it was useless to tinker with it. We were not wrong to emphasise the extent of this state control over our daily lives, but we were wrong to see the state in all its ramifications as a monolith, and not see that there could be contradictions in its development. This is particularly clear now that the Tory government is trying to sell off state services to the private sector as fast as it can – continuing the attacks on state welfare already initiated by’ the previous Labour government. Today it should be clearer that we must defend many existing state services, from the National Health Service (NHS) to school crossing patrols. It’s no longer simply a question of the overthrowing of the state, but of a strategy which fights for an expansion and transformation of the services it provides-not necessarily in a centralised form. This raises the whole issue of the nature of a socialist state, which we all need to think about, and which is crucial for us as women fighting the sexual division of labour which is basic to women’s oppression.
Today we need a more sophisticated analysis of reformism and the state, which, on the one hand, is not based on the traditional social democratic idea, and in a different way on the Leninist model, which sees socialism as nationalisation plus state planning, nor, on the other, one which turns its back on the need for struggle to expand state provision. This means a strategy which both defends the welfare institutions of the state when they are under attack while arguing the need to go beyond them. On a small scale this strategy can be illustrated by the 160 women’s aid ‘refuges that have been set up over the last few years to enable battered women to escape from violent husbands. The National Federation Of Women’s Aid was able to obtain local state funding for refuges while insisting that the refuges should be run by and for women and should encourage self-help and independence. Similar examples, as Sheila shows, can be given of nursery victories where funding was provided and the people who fought for it retained control over the nurseries.(16)
But to return to my story, when our women’s centre was forced to close in late 1976, we had sufficient anxieties over whether we were going about things in the right way that few tears were shed. One woman, involved from the start, said, ‘That’s good, now we can start again, and build up another women’s centre.’ But we never did. For the next three years there was no broad-based open women’s liberation group in Islington, though we did have a national Rape Crisis Centre, women’s refuges, a NAC group, and other groups organised around particular issues as well as women’s consciousness-raising and study groups. Today there is a new women’s centre in Islington, but there is little continuity between our old women’s centre and the new one which is being opened. It is as though things are all starting again from scratch and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned, or could have been learned, from which this new group of women can begin. Those feminists who were active around Essex Road have not become involved in the new centre, most of them saying, ‘Oh no, not the same problems all over again.’
Feminism and the Left
Meanwhile, the traditional left was belatedly trying to catch up with the energy of the women’s liberation movement. In particular they were impressed by the 40,000-strong pro-abortion march of 1975. They weren’t laughing at the ‘women’s libbers’ any more, though of course they did say we were all middle class, or at least that’s what their middle-class leaders were saying. I don’t feel in a position to give a complete analysis of the left’s position on feminism, but I want to give my impressions of the main left groups, ignoring the smaller groups and those that choose to dismiss feminism altogether.
The reason I want to look at the revolutionary left is not to engage in any form of sectarianism, but because as socialist feminists we accept that women’s oppression is an integral part of the capitalist system. As I’ve said, the subordination of women through the division of labour centred on the family is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist system of existing class relations of exploitation. But women’s oppression (like black oppression) is not simply just another aspect of class exploitation. All men do benefit from it, by having power over at least some women, however exploited they themselves may be. But we do realise that only a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society can overcome women’s oppression, class exploitation, and all forms of social domination. We know we must unite all those fighting their oppression with the struggle against class exploitation.
By the mid-seventies, most of the Communist Party (CP) had come officially to accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement. The CP argues that it wishes to make broad alliances with an autonomous women’s movement. Certain CP women have placed great emphasis on the importance of studying the ideology of women’s oppression, the ways in which women as well as men come to accept ideas of women’s inferiority and invisibility. They have also begun to theorise the role of the capitalist state as it organises reproduction and maintains women’s subordination in the interests of the ruling class. Much of the official contribution of CP feminists has tended to be more of a theoretical and intellectual one, though many CP women do actively support NAC, and other feminist initiatives.
The intellectual contribution of CP feminists is consistent with the direction of the CP as outlined in their publication the British Road to Socialism. This direction encourages an ideological offensive against capitalist domination while doing little to build any form of mass working-class resistance. Indeed the CP often finds itself in the position of having to curb actual militancy, which potentially threatens its broad alliances with reformist leaders of the labour movement. For example, in Islington through their control of the Trades Council they have consistently failed to offer any practical support to the most militant industrial struggles which have occurred in the borough. And again, on the whole issue of unemployment they have failed to respond in any practical way to the five occupations which have occurred against redundancies, the largest being the occupation of n when 300 people were made redundant. They were also opposed to the industrial action of the Tyndale teachers in 1976 who were eventually sacked after a campaign was launched against their progressive education methods, supported by the Labour right of the council. These alliances are part of the CP’s general acceptance of a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism in accordance with what is now called ‘Eurocommunism’.
Thus women CP members could be given the space to develop an ideological critique whilst having little impact on their parties overall political direction. The British Road to Socialism does often mention the importance of the women’s liberation movement. But the political contribution of the women’s movement or of other autonomous movements as they ·affect the actual potential for a real revolutionary unification of the working class is not discussed.
Indeed, in the final analysis the British Road to Socialism does not depart from orthodox Marxist analysis. And this is an analysis which overlooks the significance of existing divisions within the working class, and the demands of the women’s movement and of the black movement that the fight against their ‘oppression must be an essential part of the struggle for socialism.
So the CP support for the autonomous women’s movement does not seem to have served to educate its leadership when they write:
Only socialism can overcome the basic contradiction from which every aspect of the crisis flows. Socialism replaces private ownership by public ownership. The basic contradictions of society are removed. [My italics. British Road to Socialism, line 465.]
It seems that CP women have been allowed to do what they wanted, while the CP leadership did what it wanted. Though even this situation of tolerance for feminism has begun to change within the CP today. As the CP and other left groups begin to scent the long-awaited revival of industrial militancy, feminists in the party will be told not to obstruct the ‘turn to the class’.
The International Marxist Group (the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International), does appear to have a more consistent theory and practice in support of the need for an autonomous women’s movement.
Their weekly paper, Socialist Challenge, now takes the question of women’s oppression seriously. But while (‘(aiming to support the women’s liberation movement in its totality, there is still a strong tendency to reduce women’s oppression entirely to class oppression. For example, in 1978 a centre spread in Socialist Challenge which argued for women’s liberation made no analysis of women’s oppression as distinct from class exploitation. It gave no analysis of patriarchy.
The point about this is that while the IMG are prepared to accept women’s right to organise separately, they don’t seem to accept what we have to say on the limitations of orthodox Marxism.16 The way in which they want to integrate feminism and socialism is by adding on ‘women’s demands’ to their existing programme, adding on demands for nurseries, abortion facilities, etc. But again they do not seem to see the need for feminism to transform the whole nature of working-class politics and the left.
As feminists we argue that we are not simply fighting together with men against capitalism as a more exploited section of the class. We are also fighting against male domination now, which manifests itself in all aspects of life, both within and outside of the working class. (Black people of course have a similar theory about their oppression.) So women are central to the struggle against capitalist social relations not only in the workplace but also in the home. We are demanding that men change themselves, that they change their relations to women, and to children, and take on some of the nurturing and caring work which women have always done.
And this is the way in which we want to transform the nature of working-class politics, and overcome the divisions within the working class. It is presumably because of our talk about everyday life, about finding new, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian ways of relating to and caring for each other that the women’s movement has been dismissed by certain leading members of the IMG as a ‘cultural movement’. The analysis is that because we are not simply making demands on the state, we are not making ‘political demands’. In 1977, John Ross, who sees the women’s movement as a social movement which can make political demands, stated that the issue of women’s rights to abortion only became political when it began to make demands on the state.I7 Such an analysis obviously would be rejected by most feminists.
So while the lMG has accepted the organisational autonomy of the women’s movement, and indeed have now set up women’s caucuses within their own organisation, I don’t think that they accept the political autonomy of feminism as adding a new dimension to the nature of class politics. The fact that we believe that women’s oppression cannot be understood simply within the Trotskyist analysis of ‘the historic interests of the working class’ does not necessarily mean that we as socialist feminists ignore the working class and fail to prove ourselves true revolutionary socialists. The fact that some of us may not have joined a revolutionary organisation which we feel has not adequately taken up and integrated the insights of feminism does not mean that we are not a part of the struggle to build one.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group in the Trotskyist tradition in Britain and one which has broken from many orthodox positions of Trotskyism, does not accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement at all. Their basic attitude to the women’s movement is determined by the way they see themselves as the only ‘real revolutionaries’. This means that for the SWP, fighting for women’s liberation, like building the class struggle, is one and the same thing as building the SWP. If you accept the need for a revolutionary socialist perspective, then you join the SWP, they say. So they reject the need for either the organisational or the political autonomy of the women’s movement.
‘Class struggle is a form of warfare, and in warfare there has to be a single leadership,’ says Chris Harman from the central committee of the SWP, echoing Lenin, in What is to be Done? in 1902. So the need for any organisational independence of women is rejected. Women’s oppression is derived from capitalist exploitation, he argues, so they reject the need for a political independence for women organising.(18)
When the SWP comes to write about the women’s movement, all that I have ever found are jibes about it being middle class. Thus Anna Paczuska, one of the SWP’s leading writers on women’s politics, dismisses the 1979 socialist feminist conference like this:
All we’ve got is a movement of middle class women, many in their thirties, polishing their memories for the glossy magazines, complacently surrounded by mortgages and monthly subscriptions to Which magazine … The movement is dying on its feet or rather in its Habitat armchairs. It is being choked to death by respectability, nostalgia and direct aid from the state and the Establishment. [Socialist Worker, 7 April 1979.]
The term ‘middle class’ is one of the favourite terms of abuse used by the SWP. Of course, they never bother to define the contemporary working class, or the position, for instance, of teachers. For the SWP, teachers are working class when they are in the SWP or are attending union meetings, but middle class when they attend a women’s liberation conference. I think that many workers would be surprised and insulted to learn that they have never had mortgages, magazines or comfortable furniture. It is true that we do need to distinguish a person’s class origin from their class perspective, but the SWP certainly makes’ no attempt to do so. As they are aware when it suits them, there is a real need to develop a new understanding of the working class which includes proletarianised white collar sectors such as teachers, technicians, etc. So why resort to mere hypocrisy?
In this piece and many others which have appeared in Socialist Worker the weekly paper of the SWP, and elsewhere, Anna shows herself to be not just ambivalent about but quite blatantly hostile towards the women’s movement. She is concerned to dismiss us and our activities altogether.
In a more recent article in which she is referring to the three of us writing this book, she comments:
They do not believe that the working class has the capacity or the creativity to win the struggle for women’s liberation. They have no trust so they separate off their struggles for themselves. [Socialist Worker, 18 August 1979.]
Here Anna is illustrating the SWP position, which I have referred to as the orthodox Marxist position, which takes no account of divisions within the class as barriers to class unity. Against this position, we argue that a strong and independent women’s movement, which seeks to understand and organise itself around the struggles of women, is a political necessity for changing the nature of the left and, more importantly, overcoming the divisions within the class and society.
Moreover statements made by Anna should not be seen as the voice of an individual-they represent the views on women of an overwhelming majority on the male-dominated Central Committee of the SWP. However, within Women’s Voice, the women’s magazine and organisation started by SWP members, the situation is more complex. The Central Committee of the SWP want Women’s Voice to be a ‘periphery organisation’ of the SWP, organising with working-class women, primarily in the workplace, in order to draw ‘the best of them’ into the SWP. However, many SWP women in Women’s Voice are opposed to this position. They want a greater degree of independence for Women’s Voice as a sister organisation of the SWP, and they do want to give more importance to women’s struggles against all aspects of their oppression. Unfortunately, however, many of them still continue to dismiss the women’s movement as middle class and reformist, unorganised and unable to relate to working class women. It was this sort of attitude which led them a few years ago to organise a separate abortion demonstration after the official NAC one.
Contrary to this view, I believe that there are many women in the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement who do also want to locate their politics in the current situation and build a working-class base to the women’s movement. The SWP is not alone in holding this perspective, though they have perhaps done more about it. Although we may not get many working-class women along to our conferences and local meetings, many of the initiatives of the women’s movement in Women’s Aid, rape crisis centres, nursery campaigns, cuts campaigns like the one to defend the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, and others, clearly do involve working-class women. The women’s movement did mobilise in defence of the Trico women on strike for equal pay, and the Grunwick strikers who were demanding union recognition. Many feminists have been active in trades councils and tenants’ associations. We don’t deny that we have problems in developing a working-class orientation, but we think that it is politically wrong for Women’s Voice to dismiss the importance of the women’s movement and to deny what they have learned from it. Even the success of their new Women’s Voice magazine came after it began to model itself more closely on the women’s liberation magazine, Spare Rib, borrowing many ideas from that publication.
I also cannot accept the degree of workplace orientation of Women’s Voice which leads them still to accept a priority of struggle which places many of women’s central struggles against male domination at the periphery. Thus Lindsey German writes of women’s movement initiatives:
Working class women are related to in most areas where they are weakest (in battered wives’ homes or rape crisis centres) rather than where women are strongest (in unions and tenants’ associations) … [Socialist Review, November 1978.]
And ‘Reclaim the Night’ demonstrations, against the harassment and violence which women daily face in the streets, are referred to as ‘a “soft” issue’. There is an argument for considering where women are strongest. But in fact women are not strong in unions today, and are not getting any stronger, even, if their membership is rising numerically. We believe that the only way women in unions will get stronger is if they are supported from the outside by a strong women’s movement. It’s a dialectical process, which the SWP in spite of its Marxism, seem unable to see. Of course, ‘Reclaim the Night’ and NAC are helped by support from women in trade unions, and women in trade unions are helped by the support they can get from the women’s movement.
While Women’s Voice has shown itself at times to be effective in mobilising support for women’s struggles, I think the priority which they place on recruiting to the SWP, and the fact that they accept the identification of joining their party with holding a revolutionary perspective, means that Women’s Voice could not itself become the focus for building a mass women’s movement.
What we have got to get right in the women’s movement, to confront the left and the labour movement, is the interplay between sex and class oppression. Not only are they both central, but they feed off each other. And they are not reducible either one to the other. Whereas the orthodox Marxist analysis puts class before sex, and Lindsey German writes: ‘The fundamental division is not between the sexes, but between those who produced the wealth in society and those who rob them of it’ (Socialist Review, September 1979) there are also ‘revolutionary feminists’ who put sex before class. They say: ‘Women’s revolution is the revolution. Sex struggle is the struggle .. .’(19) This is not the place to develop a critique of revolutionary feminism. Though I see a political theory which seems to write off half of humanity as a biological enemy as absurd. However, some of the issues revolutionary feminists have emphasised, those of rape, pornography and male violence against women are central to feminism and need to be taken up by socialist feminists and the socialist movement as a whole.
But I would argue now that it is not sufficient simply to talk of organising around your own oppression, as libertarians and revolutionary feminists have done. For instance, although we are all oppressed as women, it is not true that we are all oppressed in the same way, even as women. Black and working-class women are oppressed in distinct ways, and we need to understand this in order to build solidarity amongst women. Without a more general perspective we won’t be a part of many of the most important anti-capitalist struggles today, struggles which involve women obviously, black struggles, anti-imperialist struggles, and the growth of the new working-class offensive that is needed in this period of ferocious Tory attacks on the working class. Feminists do need a socialist perspective, but a Marxism which does not base itself on feminism, which does not recognise that the division within the working class and society as a whole necessitates a strong and autonomous women’s movement, is not what we call ‘socialist’. It will not liberate women.
Socialism in One Borough
The main left groups did not seem to have found adequate ways of integrating Marxism and feminism in their theory or practice. But by the mid-seventies it was also becoming increasingly clear to me that there were problems and limitations in the political perspectives of many of us active simply within the women’s movement. Most of us did believe that full women’s liberation depended on the destruction of all hierarchical relations, of class, race, and sex. ‘There will be no women’s liberation without revolution. There will be no revolution without women’s liberation.’ The women’s. movement alone, however, didn’t seem to equip most of us with a full interpretation of modern capitalism, and the way things were moving in the struggle against it, both nationally and internationally.
A split remained between women’s politics which produced a clear understanding of personal relations and personal oppression in everyday life, and the politics of the left groups which seemed more able to produce an understanding of the world as a totality. This in turn reflects, of course, the traditional division between women’s concern about people and their feelings and men’s concern about practical matters and the big wide world. We could always take up the subjective side of struggles, but in some areas could not always go further than this. This was one of the reasons why towards the end of 1974 I started shifting my energies more towards a local political paper, the Islington Gutter Press. This was a libertarian socialist and feminist paper which some of the women who set up the women’s centre had also worked on.
It was our inability at Essex Road to get working-class women involved, as well as the fact that women who had established the centre were no longer enthusiastic about it, that led me to seek new political initiatives. But it had been the writings of, and the discussion in, the women’s movement that enabled me to get a clearer theoretical perspective on the world, or at least a real understanding of women’s subordinate place in it. Our activities at Essex Road did increase our confidence that we could contribute politically, and so we became more confident both emotionally and theoretically. I think this point is made more generally by the American socialist feminist Linda Gordon when she writes …
…once people do connect deeply felt personal problems to larger political structures, they often go on to make political sense out of the whole society rather quickly. This is- not merely hypothetical; many women in the last decade moved rapidly from complaints about sexual relationships to feminism to socialism.(20)
Working on the Gutter Press gave us an understanding of the area we lived in. It took us several years to get to grips with the complexities of the local political scene. We began to understand some of the workings of the local state, and how local authority finance worked. We made more contact with local men and women. We learned more about housing problems in the borough, the various struggles for better services, the inactivity of the Islington Trades Council, and the activity of the small Labour left in trying to get more progressive policies adopted inside a Labour council.
We tried to make the links between the different struggles and activities we were reporting on; for better housing, and against the abuses of private landlords and property boom speculators, against the decline of local industry, for better education and for more space for youth, against racism, against sexism, against all welfare cuts and for control over services. We were not parochial in our approach to these issues, but always tried to place them ‘in a global perspective’ declaring ourselves interested ‘in what went on, in Hackney, in Haringey or even Haiphong’.
We had remained independent of any of the left groups because we didn’t want them to tell us what to do. We thought they were all authoritarian, hierarchical and male dominated. Though, of course, similar problems of professionalism and male’ domination cropped up continuously-on the paper. More importantly, we also knew that apart from Big Flame they. did not take seriously our politics which emphasised local work and attempts to organise on an area basis, which differed from their focus on industrial activity or particular national campaigns.(21) We believed, and rightly I think, that their emphasis on recruitment and party building, and their reliance on launching national campaigns, could interfere with our attempts at sustained local organising in a way which was open and sensitive to the particular activities and needs of all those engaged in any form of resistance or struggle. But we did also worry about becoming isolated as a small group producing a local socialist paper but not being accountable to any wider socialist grouping.
In May 1978, the Gutter Press organised a local socialist conference, partly to overcome our own feelings of isolation, and our own failure to grow as a collective and get more people directly involved in the paper. We also wanted to see if there were ways in which the paper could become more efficient in its attempt to provide support for and link different areas of struggle, by becoming more accountable to a larger grouping of socialists with a similar political perspective to ours. We wrote that we wanted, ‘to help stimulate enduring organisational links bridging the community and industrial struggles … We feel that it is possible to. create greater co-ordination and support between people involved in local struggles. In the absence of a militant Trades Council, which could do just such a job, we are looking for new possibilities of co-ordination.’ (Gutter Press leaflet, March 1978.) At the conference, which was attended by 150 people, we found that there were a large number of people, inside and outside of left groups, and inside and outside of the Labour Party, who were keen to set up a socialist centre in Islington. This socialist centre now meets weekly in a local pub, and is supported by most of the left, in particular by individuals in the Labour Party, the CP, the IMG, and Big Flame as well as by most socialist feminists and many non-aligned socialists.
The centre has organised many very well-attended and successful meetings, on Ireland, on feminism, on racism and on fascism, on struggles internationally and nationally, as well as attempts to understand the local situation in more detail and provide entertainment and pleasure. Evenings are planned to fit in with wider struggles; for example, a meeting on Ireland before or after a big Irish demonstration. It has therefore provided a useful base for meeting other local militants. It has increased the possibilities for more regular joint work when struggles arise, as well as providing political education, and entertainment which strengthens the growth of an alternative socialist and feminist culture. I think it was the consistent work done by the Gutter Press in establishing contacts and trust between militants that made the centre a real possibility in Islington. The paper collective has also now expanded, and become politically more diverse.
The socialist centre has therefore, in part, served to validate attempts made originally by those outside of the traditional left to find new ways of organising. It is true, though, that at present the centre serves better as a focus for co-operation and discussion between the left than as a place for extending our base further within the working class. Some of us are hopeful that the support that we can give to people in struggle will begin to overcome this problem. Others are less worried about it. In fact, one of the most interesting, or perhaps most distressing, aspects of the centre is how clearly it often defines and separates the two groups of people, those most concerned with creating left alternatives and those most concerned with class struggle. Nevertheless, most of us still feel that the centre does create real possibilities for strengthening co-operation amongst socialists and feminists, as well as a way to reach out to working-class women and men in the area. This does not mean that. we reject more traditional forms of political work centred on the workplace and the unions.
In this last section I want to return to some of the problems created by the way we organised in the women’s movement and the libertarian left. As I have illustrated, we always emphasised the importance of local activity and tended to under-emphasise, and were suspicious of, national organisation·. In national structures we felt women, in particular, couldn’t overcome the problems of male domination and leaderism and feel able to contribute their own experiences. This of course contrasts with the traditional revolutionary left who tend to have an overemphasis on national and international politics and to dismiss attempts at local organising as mere localism. The national organisation which the women’s movement has achieved is only around particular struggles, for example, NAC, Women’s Aid or WARF (Women against Racism and Fascism). But this leaves us with problems, even in linking up these particular struggles. How do we arrive at any overall perspectives, decide which activities to get involved in and evaluate the results of our work?
I think the final collapse of the Essex Road Women’s Centre and our failure to replace it are linked to the general problems which can occur for any loose network of small local groups. It’s not easy to work out where you are going on your own as a small group, or to work out where you have succeeded and where you have failed. It’s difficult for other people in other places to learn from your experiences, and for you to learn from them. We could have benefited from more regular exchange of experiences from other groups, comparing and contrasting our activities.
The problem of not really operating within an experience sharing and learning process is a difficult one. At a recent conference on women’s centres in July 1979 all the old debates and conflicts came up, as though for the first time. Were women acting as unpaid social workers? Should men ever be allowed in? Should centres be funded? Why was it hard to reach working-class women, and was this important?
Resolving the conflicts seemed to be as hard as ever. There was no agreement on how the centres fitted in to an overall strategy for achieving liberation. These recurring conflicts do seem to be a strong argument for some form of national organisation. Though it is also true that national organisations can be slow to learn if they rely on old formulas and dogma seen as universally valid, instead of learning from new movements. For instance, issues like sexism, racism, national autonomy, and energy policies are all ones which the revolutionary left has been slow to take up. But the women’s movement does need some way of assessing its past effectiveness, and using this to develop future directions in less random ways.
At Essex Road we did learn that it was hard to extend our politics outside of ourselves, and to relate to local working-class women, but we never really knew what to do about this. It is not an easy problem to solve. But if you are trying to involve working-class women, you sometimes need to take up issues which don’t relate only to women, for example nurseries, housing, etc. Though you can carry a feminist perspective into these issues, you will need to go outside of your women’s group to do this, extending the base of your activity. Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved. I know of one woman who used to walk past our women’s centre every day before she had fled from her violent husband, and never dared to come in. She now works at a women’s refuge, but in those days, not knowing who we were, it would have been difficult for her to have looked to us for support.
This is linked to another problem. Women correctly realised the importance of including a struggle around personal relations within the struggle for socialism, and argued that without this many women would not become involved at all. ‘The personal is political’ was a central slogan of the women’s movement. But this slogan did come to be interpreted in a very vague way, as though it meant that whatever you do, your actions have political significance. I don’t think that this was the idea behind the slogan. What it did assert was that there is a connection between how you choose to live and relate to people and the struggle for social change.(22) This was all the more obvious to women in that our training into inferiority and passivity made it even more difficult for us to struggle or to feel a part of a male-dominated left. We had to create new supportive structures if we were to feel confident enough that what we said and did in our struggle against patriarchy and capitalism was important. Women said that how we relate to each other in everyday life is a part of the struggle for socialism, and in this way socialism can begin to grow within capitalism itself, but the struggle against oppression remains to be fought and won.
Over the ten years since 1968, however, there has been a complex development in the often overlapping areas of libertarianism and feminism. It does seem that many libertarians have overstressed the prefigurative lifestyle element. This has led many of them to retreat from public political activity and class politics into rustic bliss, or mysticism, or whole foods or ghetto-ised co-ops. But these forms of retreat are not options which are open to many people; in particular, working-class people do not have the freedom to choose them. They are more trapped within the capital-labour relationship, both at home and at work, as they do what they must to support themselves and their families. But this withdrawal from consumer and urban life does have deep roots in English socialism (Carpenter, Owen, etc.) and it does maintain a visionary strand in the socialist movement that we can ill do without. It exists most clearly today in what is known as the ‘communes movement’. Some parts of the women’s movement have shown the same tendency, which others have characterised as ‘cultural feminism’, on the analogy of cultural nationalism.(23) Perhaps it is also possible to talk of a ‘cultural libertarianism’. These politics do show us the possibilities of new and better ways to live, but exactly how they relate to the building of a combative feminist and socialist movement is something that remains ambiguous both historically and in the present.
The preoccupation more with lifestyles than with building the women’s movement increased -in Islington once the women’s centre had closed. Because then it became less clear how women could help build a movement which was open to all women in their struggle for liberation. Women in their different groups, whether women’s groups or mixed groups or campaigns, found it more difficult to get support from each other. We became more isolated and have difficulty in responding to specific feminist issues as they arise. In Islington there are now moves from one local study group to change this, by organising open discussions on women’s liberation locally. Obviously in many areas socialist feminist groups are working towards a similar goal. Nevertheless, I think it’s true to say that at least some women have lost some of the confidence they had in the early seventies in the struggle to build the women’s movement and have become even more suspicious of any overt political work.
Part of the problem is related to the general crisis of the profitability of capitalism, and the defeats of the working class. As I said at the beginning, the early seventies was still a period of economic boom. In these conditions it was clear that militancy did payoff. In many places people were able to fight for, and win, particular struggles, whether it was setting up a nursery, the funding of a youth project, improved housing conditions, or the establishment of a workers’ co-operative, such as the women’s co-operative at the shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk. People could feel more optimistic about the possibility of changing their lives collectively, and feel that it was worth the effort of trying to do so.
In the women’s movement we did seem to be winning some of the things we fought for in the early seventies, even if in a deformed way. For instance the demands for women’s liberation did seem to get rid of some of the more superficial forms of women’s oppression. It is now becoming more and more acceptable that sexual discrimination in jobs, pubs and clubs is wrong, and its days may well be numbered. Though it is still clear that, despite equal pay, the relative position of women to men in the workforce, as the most exploited wage earners, was not changing very fast-in fact it has got worse since April 1978.(24)
But the economic recession of 1975 began to undermine the earlier forms of militancy, both in the workplace and the community. The ruling class – at first through a Labour government, and now with a Tory government – has been able to launch a general offensive against working-class organisation. So we began to see unemployment rise, the thorough-going dismantling of welfare services, increasingly restrictive and racist immigration policies, and the continuous expansion of state repression, seen daily in Northern Ireland but also used against any large-scale industrial or oppositional militancy whether at Grunwick, or in the housing struggles of Huntley Street in London, or in the anti-fascist demonstrations at Southall.
In this situation industrial militancy was on the retreat, forced back into more sectoral and negotiating tactics, as each group of workers tried to have themselves declared a ‘special case’. In this way they hoped to fight off the attacks on their living standards caused first of all through the ‘social contract’ (government-imposed limits on wage increases) and state expenditure cuts. Today, under the Tories, the workforce is being further disciplined primarily by the threat of unemployment as the state cuts its public spending even more drastically and reduces its subsidies to industry. This means that both in the workplace and the community, victories, whether local or national, have become much more difficult and there is an increasing demoralisation amongst militants in all sections of struggle. So it is also becoming clearer that there cannot be local victories against the forms oppression is taking; for example, cuts in the NHS are nationwide. This is the reasoning behind the creation of national organisations such as ‘Fightback’ in the area of health care, campaigning both against all hospital closures and cutbacks and against low pay as well as for better services in general.
This means that it is forms of organisation which have national and international perspectives and links which seem to be even more necessary for successful struggles today. It’s also true that, more urgently than ever, the current period demands that we ally with the traditional institutions of the labour movement. We need to understand the possibilities and the limitations of these institutions. The tendency in the past of libertarians and some feminists to by-pass these institutions (trades councils, union branches, etc.), which perhaps was never really justified, is quite definitely not possible today .. There is always the danger that these forms of national organisation and these alliances can lead to a dismissal of the dimensions of struggle which libertarians and feminists brought into the political arena. A sense of urgency Can create a stronger pressure on the left to push aside the significance of the more personal areas of struggle. This danger will now be with us for a long time. And so the split between feminists and the traditional left remains, despite the attempts on both sides to build new bridges.
What I am wanting to focus on in this last section are three main problems which need a lot more thought. First, the relation between feminism and personal politics, and left groups and the general political situation. Secondly, the relation between local organising and national organising, and how this relates to the conflict between libertarians and feminists and the traditional left in the Current situation. Thirdly, how we move on to a perspective for building socialism which can incorporate both feminists’ politics and the new ideas and ways of organising which have emerged over the last ten years.
The problem for both libertarians and feminists, focusing on the importance of local work and the need to build local organisations, is how to create a larger socialist and feminist movement. A movement, built from the base up, which could mobilise enough people to fight and win, not just anyone struggle – difficult as this is-but strengthen us so that the experience of each struggle is not lost but contributes to the next. Libertarians tried building a network of local groups to link up experiences and activity. There were three national conferences in 1973 and 1974. But there wasn’t the political will to maintain any national organisation at that time. The libertarian rejection of vanguards meant that we could not really accept the necessity for any politically coherent central organisation. But, we cannot assume that links will just happen spontaneously as they are needed.
Today the women’s movement also finds it difficult to take political initiatives, except in very specific areas such as fighting off attacks on women’s access to abortion. Yet right now we face an enormous ideological attack on all our recent gains. Women are under attack not just in our struggle for equal pay, for more nurseries and better health care (now all threatened by Tory cuts), but attacks on even more basic things, such as the threat to women’s right to maternity leave. This amounts to an attack on women’s rights to waged work at all, if we have young children. Thus we increasingly hear, as was argued recently in the House of Lords, that ‘unemployment could be solved at a stroke, if women went back to the home’. As a way out of the economic crisis, the ruling class! is seeking to strengthen the ideology of sexism to justify its attacks on the working class in general, and women in particular, thus revealing more clearly than ever the links between sex oppression and class exploitation.
In this deteriorating situation, it’s going to be harder for the women’s movement not to feel politically marginal, unless we can find ways of making alliances with all those in struggle, both women and men, to co-ordinate actions to defend women’s interests. We are not well organised in the women’s movement. Although the socialist feminist current is trying to organise regional networks, and has been quite successful in some areas, it has been less successful in others. The useful national socialist feminist newsletter Scarlet Women has not yet managed to serve as a co-ordinating focus. We know that socialist feminists are not a minority in the women’s movement-over a thousand women attended our last two conferences. But in the coming period we do need the support not just of a strong and autonomous women’s movement but of the general perspectives and priorities of the socialist feminist current within it. The structures we agreed to build at our last conference mean that we must put a lot more energy into developing our regional socialist feminist organisations, and use them to co-ordinate the different campaigns we are involved in.(25) This would enable Scarlet Women to be more effective as a national co-ordinator.
I think we are also going to have to go beyond a criticism of the left and labour movement forms of politics, however correct we are to say that they have failed to take up the issues of feminism except in a tokenistic way. We do have to relate to both the left and the labour movement, but only by insisting that they learn from what we have to say as feminists. The left will have to understand and criticise the way in which working-class organisations through the labour movement have consistently failed to fight women’s oppression. A wages offensive, for instance, is of little use to women unless it also recognises the need for more nurseries, for a shorter working week, and actively seeks to change women’s position both at home and in the workforce. We need to argue, for example, that the struggle for a shorter working week is a crucial struggle for women because it allows men to share in the childcare and housework. A recent article in Red Rag makes this point as follows:
Implicit in our strivings of the last years has been an adaptation to the world of work, rather than an adaptation of that world to one that allows time for children, leisure, politics … (26)
This means that we insist that the labour movement takes into account the needs of women not just as waged workers, but also as housewives and consumers. At the same time we must strengthen our ideological offensive against the acceptance of separate spheres fo’r women and men on which our subordination rests.
For women who want to be active in left politics outside of the women’s movement, I think it is also true that male domination, elitism and passivity can exist in unstructured local groups and sectoral campaigns as well as in national organisations. People who are less confident, and less experienced at organising, or who have less time, will find it harder to participate effectively in such groups. I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat ‘leaderism’ within the small group, as interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms, rather than as political manifestations. Nevertheless, we do need to find alternatives to the old structures of organising used by the left and the labour movement, of large meetings and platform speakers which clearly silence people and do not encourage any sort of mass involvement.
There is no easy solution to the problem of creating new political structures which overcome rather than reproduce existing hierarchies of sex, class and race. For this reason most feminists could not take seriously any national organisation which did not actively support the autonomy of groups to organise against their particular oppression, which did not realise that it had as much to learn from as to teach those in struggle, or one which ignored what women have said about how to organise, using truly egalitarian and supportive structures which build the confidence and participation of all involved. Alongside the need to organise in workplaces, I do think it’s important to build up open and active local, organisations which can increase left unity, and can be easier for people to participate in. I have in mind the sort of structures which have been developed in socialist feminist groups, community papers, socialist centres, and other community resource centres, which are different from those characteristically used by the left.
But for me today as someone wanting to be active both within and outside of the women’s movement, local organisations are no longer sufficient. I also want to be a part of an organisation which is trying to build upon and generalise from different situations, and thus develop overall strategies. I don’t think that it is possible to build a single unified revolutionary organisation in Britain in 1979, or that anyone left organisation has all the answers. But revolutionary groups do have a vital role in helping to build the widest possible support for all areas of struggle, and the widest possible unity on the left.
What possibilities are there for combining socialist and feminist politics in a national organisation which is not subject to the degeneration, splits and paranoias which plague all the left groups? Could such an organisation work out a supportive practice in relation to the autonomous groups and activities which occur all around the country? We will not all agree on the answers. My own way to find out has been to join Big Flame, a group which in its theory and practice seems to put the class struggle before its own organisational development, which recognises the need to fully support and help to build the autonomous organisations of women and other oppressed groups, and in general strives for a vision of socialism which includes a theory of personal politics. Time will tell whether I was right.
- It would be hard to draw up a list, but some of the most important books for us were Marx: Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology; Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man; Laing: The Divided Self; Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life. Henri Lefebvre, in The Explosion-Marxism and the French Upheaval attempts to give an account of what led up to the ideas and actions of May 1968.
- See the discussion on libertarianism and personal life ‘Coming Down to Earth’, Paul Holt, in Revolutionary Socialism, no. 4, Autumn 1979.
- This theory was outlined by Michael Kidron in Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, 1974.
- This relates, as many people will know, to Althusser’s now famous essay on ideology, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy, New Left Books, 1971, in which he argues that class relations are produced through two kinds of interrelated state institutions, the ‘repressive state apparatuses’ (the police, etc.) and the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (in particular the education system which slots a person into their class position through a process whose operation is disguised from that person). Some Marxists today point out that Althusser is only a modern and vulgar variant of earlier Marxists like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Back in the thirties Gramsci was writing in his Prison Notebooks of the importance of ‘civil society’, referring to those institutions like the family and the media, which are not directly controlled by the state, but nevertheless play a crucial role in maintaining existing class relations and the capitalist state.
- An attempt to do youth work in the local community in Islington from the base of a libertarian squatters’ group, is colourfully described in Knuckle Sandwich by David Robins and Philip Cohen, Penguin, 1978.
- For example, Elisabeth Wilson, ‘Women and the Welfare State’, Red Rag, pamphlet no. 2,1974.
- This is well illustrated by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in For Her Own Good, Pluto Press, 1979.
- This concept is used by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent speech on socialist feminism in Socialist Revolution, no. 26, October-December 1975.
- Patriarchy has been defined by Heidi Hartman as ‘the systemic dominance of men over women’, referring to the social structure and all the social relations through which men dominate women. (‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’ in Capital and Class, no. 8, Summer 1979.) There is a debate over the usefulness of this concept, because some people feel it does not explain the way in which women’s subordination, though universal, is different in different societies. I do find the concept useful, but for a fuller discussion see R. Mcdonough and R. Harrison, ‘Patriarchy and Relations of Production’ in Kuhn and Wolpe, Feminism and Materialism, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), and Z. Eisenstein, ‘Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism’ in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1978, and P. Atkinson: ‘The Problem with Patriarchy’ in Achilles Heel, no. 2.
- Mariarosa Dalla Costa, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, M. Dalla Costa and S. James (Falling Wall Press, 1973). For a fuller discussion of this debate see Jean Gardiner, ‘Women’s Domestic Labour’, New Left Review, no. 89, 1975.
- Valerie Charlton, ‘The Patter of Tiny Contradictions’, Red Rag, no. 5, 1973.
- See Mandy Snell ‘The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: Their Impact on the Workplace’, Feminist Review, no. 1, 1979.
- See Mary Kathleen Benet Secretary: An Enquiry into the Female Ghetto, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
- Despite some claims to the contrary, radical and revolutionary feminists were not the only ones to talk about rape and violence against women. Though it is true that recently they have perhaps been the main impetus behind some of the large demonstrations on these issues.
- Similar victories of this sort over a nursery, play space and other community facilities are described in Jan O’Malley: The Politics of Community Action, Spokesman, 1977.
- The limitations of orthodox Marxism in its analysis of women’s oppression has been discussed elsewhere, for example, in Rosalind Delmar’s, ‘Looking Again at Engel’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” “ in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976 and Heidi Hartman, ibid.
- John Ross, ‘Capitalism, politics and personal life’ in Socialist Woman, Summer 1977.
- This account of the SWP’s present position on women’s politics and what is described as ‘the crisis’ in Women’s Voice is obtained in part from detailed discussions with SWP comrades.
- From the ‘Revolutionary Feminist statement’ to the Birmingham Women’s Liberation Conference, 1977.
- From ‘Sex, Family and the New Right’ in Radical America, Winter 1977/78.
- Judging from the impact of the first edition of Beyond the Fragments in the Trotskyist press, where this section on local organising was completely ignored in almost all the reviews, the ·situation has not changed very much. I had hoped that it might have.
- Barbara Ehrenreich makes this point when discussing the importance of developing political morality, ‘Toward a Political Morality’, Liberation, July-August 1977.
- See Brooke, ‘The Retreat to Cultural Feminism’, Feminist Revolution, 1975.
- See ‘Equal Pay: Why the Acts Don’t Work’, Jenny Earle and Julia Phillips, Spare Rib, no. 86, September 1979.
- A discussion of the points of agreement which were reached at the Socialist Feminist Conference in March 1979 can be found in Scarlet Women, July 1979.
- B. Campbell and V. Charlton, ‘Work to Rule’ in Red Rag, January 1979.