Spotlight on London’s grassroots organising: feminism in Islington in the 1970s

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.

 

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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.

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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.

Libertarianism
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.

Feminism

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.

Some Conclusions

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.

NOTES

  1. 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.
  2. See the discussion on libertarianism and personal life ‘Coming Down to Earth’, Paul Holt, in Revolutionary Socialism, no. 4, Autumn 1979.
  3. This theory was outlined by Michael Kidron in Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, 1974.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. For example, Elisabeth Wilson, ‘Women and the Welfare State’, Red Rag, pamphlet no. 2,1974.
  7. This is well illustrated by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in For Her Own Good, Pluto Press, 1979.
  8. This concept is used by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent speech on socialist feminism in Socialist Revolution, no. 26, October-December 1975.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Valerie Charlton, ‘The Patter of Tiny Contradictions’, Red Rag, no. 5, 1973.
  12. See Mandy Snell ‘The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: Their Impact on the Workplace’, Feminist Review, no. 1, 1979.
  13. See Mary Kathleen Benet Secretary: An Enquiry into the Female Ghetto, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. John Ross, ‘Capitalism, politics and personal life’ in Socialist Woman, Summer 1977.
  18. 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.
  19. From the ‘Revolutionary Feminist statement’ to the Birmingham Women’s Liberation Conference, 1977.
  20. From ‘Sex, Family and the New Right’ in Radical America, Winter 1977/78.
  21. 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.
  22. Barbara Ehrenreich makes this point when discussing the importance of developing political morality, ‘Toward a Political Morality’, Liberation, July-August 1977.
  23. See Brooke, ‘The Retreat to Cultural Feminism’, Feminist Revolution, 1975.
  24. See ‘Equal Pay: Why the Acts Don’t Work’, Jenny Earle and Julia Phillips, Spare Rib, no. 86, September 1979.
  25. 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.
  26. B. Campbell and V. Charlton, ‘Work to Rule’ in Red Rag, January 1979.

 

Today in London’s apocalyptic history, 1795: the day London was to be destroyed, according to prophet Richard Brothers

“There started up in London about the beginning of the late war, a new pseudo-prophet whose name was Richard Brothers, who called himself King of the Hebrews, and Nephew of God
… he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court-road”
(Robert Southey)

In 1795, prophet Richard Brothers prophesied that London would be destroyed and the English government be removed, annihilated, utterly destroyed… He announced that 4th June was to be the day of judgement.

Brothers was born in Newfoundland, Canada, on 25 December 1757, to an English soldier garrisoned there (surely being born on Xmas Day helped kickstart Messianic thinking?) He was sent to England as a child for his education; he later became a midshipman in the Royal Navy, aged thirteen. However, his experience of life in the British Navy was not pleasant, leaving him with a lasting repugnance for wars and blasphemy, especially for Christian prayers for military success and mandatory sacred oaths for military allegiance. Brothers semi-retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant on half-pay (potentially available for recall to service) in 1784. His activities and whereabouts for the next five years remain a mystery, though he is thought to have served on merchant ships, traveling to ports in France, Italy and Spain.

At some point in his career, possibly around 1789, Brothers became convinced that God was speaking to him personally, through divine revelation, and that he had been called to be a latter-day prophet and eventual messiah. Well, haven’t we all…?

Around 1789-90 Brothers found himself back in England, in the region of London. His growing belief that swearing oaths to serve the king was wrong left him not only skint (as he had to swear to receive his half-pay) but increasingly questioning religious orthodoxy. During unusually severe thunderstorms in 1791, he fled London, believing that God was about to destroy the city for its wickedness. When London was not, in fact, destroyed, Brothers attributed its temporary salvation to his own prayers to God for its deliverance.

Brothers became convinced that he was a chosen Israelite of the House of David, empowered to call the Jews and other Israelites out from their dispersion among the nations and lead them back to Jerusalem in Turkish Palestine. He claimed descent from the biblical King David and through Jesus’ Brother James the Righteous, making him a “Prince of The Hebrews” and rightful latter day King of Judah, as well as the Messiah. Nice gig if you can get it.

In February 1792 Brothers declared himself a healer and claimed he could restore sight to the blind. He drew large crowds, but not due to his healing ability as much as his small gifts of money to those he prayed for.

Brothers’ prophesy that he would lead all the world’s scattered Israelites back to Palestine and there rebuild Jerusalem tapped into and helped firm up the growing strand that was the British ‘Israelite’ tradition – the belief that Britons and other western Europeans are descended from the biblical ten lost tribes of Israel… a fascinating bywater that has produced some strange and on occasion very dodgy ideas…

The new prophet was sometimes called the “Nephew of the Almighty,” apparently by his growing band of followers, as well as by those who branded him a religious fanatic and a madman.

Brothers’ revelations (accompanied by his own commentary on selected biblical texts) began to appear in print at the beginning of the 1790s and some were compiled into a booklet for public sale in London as early as 1794.

As prophets tend to do, Brothers emerged at a time of great social dislocation, political turmoil. Britain was at war with the revolutionary French regime – a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. Brothers’ prophesies and pronouncements chimed somewhat with the growing radical movement demanding political reform and denouncing war on a revolutionary France which inspired them; his millenarian prophecies excited radicals and the disillusioned and desperate; his followers to some extent cross-pollinated with the tavern-going radical scene. The partial merging of radical, religious and mystical ideas which surrounded Brothers and other such figures produced definite hybrid radical-millenarians like James Hadfield, would-be assassin of king George III.

The time, and the milieu, in some ways echoes the years of the English Revolution, though going back as far as the 16th century there had also been such religio-political rebels who crossed the streams, like the Anabaptists… and a tradition combining millenarian religion and social discontent goes back to the Brethren of the free Spirit, the Taborites, and well beyond…

Brothers’ ‘Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times’ was published early in 1794. Like most self-appointed prophets, his writings claimed a working knowledge of the immediate plans of God, shot through with the (re-rigeur) spicy passages from the Book of Revelation, eg “All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication,
with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies…” Wrath of the almighty, imminent smiting, repent, repent, Etc etc.

Some of his political predictions (such as the violent death of the French king Louis XVI) seemed to be proof that he was inspired.

“Some of his vague predictions could not fail to appear to be fulfilled, and they were recalled to mind when the French armies were victorious.” Members of the radical London Corresponding Society used to visit him: they perhaps even prompted some of his ideas.

William Sharp, a famous, engraver and political reformer, became a disciple (Sharp also later followed another prophet Joanna Southcott).

Richard Brothers

Brothers “wrote letters to the King and to all the members of parliament, calling Upon them to give ear to the word of God, and prepare for the speedy establishment of his kingdom upon earth. He announced to his believers his intention of speedily setting out for Jerusalem to take possession of his metropolis, and invited them to accompany him. Some of these poor people actually shut up their shops, forsook their business and their families, and travelled from distant parts of the country to London to join him, and depart with him whenever he gave the word. Before he went, he said, he would prove the truth of his mission by public miracle, he would throw down his stick in the Strand at noon day, and it should become a serpent; and he affirmed he had already made the experiment and successfully performed it in private. A manifest falsehood, but not a wilful one; in like manner he said that he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court~road … He threatened London with an earthquake because of its unbelief, and at length named the day when the city should be destroyed.” (Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

An 8‑page leaflet was published of Brother’s Prophecy of all the Remarkable and Wonderful Events which will come to pass … foretelling the Downfall of the Pope; a Revolution in Spain, Portugal, and Germany; the Death of Certain Great Persons in this and other Countries. Also a dreadful Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake… . In England there was to be ‘sorrow and great woe, mingled with joy unspeakable’; ‘the proud and lofty shall be humbled, even to the dust; but the righteous and poor shall flourish on the ruins of the wicked; the Palaces shall be ‑‑ and Cottages shall be ‑.’As for the Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake, these were to be seen as metaphorical:

The Famine shall destroy none but the Caterpillars of Spain and _. The Pestilence shall sweep away the Locusts that eat up the harvest of Industry; and the Earthquake shall swallow up the monstrous Leviathan, with all his train. In all these things the poor, the honest, the virtuous, and the patriotic, shall rejoice.

‘France must bleed afresh, but none but contaminated blood shall flow.’ ‘Italy shall hurl the Antechrist from his throne…’ Turkey and Russia will be plunged in war, ending in the destruction of the Ottoman Porte, the Mahometan Faith, the Russian Empire and the Greek Church. At the end of these signs of mercy, there will be an era of universal brotherhood. ‘All shall be as one people, and of one mind. . .. The Christian, the Turk, and the Pagan shall no longer be distinguished the one from the other’:

The time is come, and now is the whore of Babylon falling, and will fall to rise no more. Go forth, then, ye Sons of Eternal Light, and instruct the Sons of Ignorance and Darkness…

Then shall there be no more war, no more want, no more wickedness; but all shall be peace, plenty, and virtue.”

The date Brothers fixed when the imminent maelstrom would hit the capital was June 4th 1795. Did people take him seriously? Some did. Reformer and radical printer, John Binns wrote in his autobiography that many believed in the prophesy in the capital: “It would be difficult… to convey and adequate idea of eh nature and extent of the fears and apprehensions to which this prediction gave birth.” As it happened, June 4th coincided with a thunderstorm of ‘exceptional severity’, accompanied by heavy rain and hail, which sent some into a panic; Binns, on his way to a meeting of the London Corresponding Society, took shelter from the downpour in an ale-house, where he found 50 or 60 people (to his amusement and surprise) awaiting Brothers’ foretold apocalypse. See the header of this post also, for Gillray’s engraving, Presages of the Millennium, as Revealed to R. Brothers, published on the very day of the foretold apocalypse.

“Many persons left town to avoid this threatened calamity; the day passed by, he claimed the merit of having prevailed in prayer and obtained a respite, and fixed another …”

Shortly afterwards Brothers announced that London had been spared only as the result of his personal last-minute intervention; and since he obviously wielded such influence with the Almighty his following was doubled at a stroke.

By this time, Brothers himself was behind bars. His pronouncements that the king and royal family would either have to abdicate in his favour or be destroyed by God, and foretelling the imminent destruction of parliament, and the capital to be followed by the apocalypse, were expressed in language that alarmed the authorities. Unlike his more quietist contemporary Joanna Southcott, Brothers had begun to seem a threat to order. He was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council shortly before the foretold Apocalypse, in May 1795, charged with teaching seditious nonsense and claiming that God command England refrain from military action against Republican France… He was then sectioned.

“Government at last thought fit to interfere, and committed Brothers to the national hospital for madmen … Thus easily and effectually was this wild heresy crushed. Brothers continued to threaten earthquakes, fixed days for them, and prorogue them after the day was passed, but his influence was at an end … He was lucky enough to find out better consolation for himself. There was a female lunatic in the same hospital, whom he discovered to be the destined Queen of the Hebrews; and as such announced her to the world. At present he and this chosen partner of the throne of David are in daily expectation of a miraculous deliverance, after which they are to proceed to Jerusalem to be crowned, and commence their reign.”
(Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

Escaping a sentence of treason, by reason of insanity, and with the advocacy of an MP who supported his case, he was committed as a lunatic to a private asylum in Islington (probably Fisher House, which stood off Essex Road). The “Nephew of God” was locked in the madhouse for eleven years.

While he was in the private asylum Brothers wrote a variety of prophetic pamphlets which gained him many believers. But when Brothers predicted that, on 19 November 1795 he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews and Ruler of the world, and the date passed without this manifesting, followers tended to drift away either disillusioned or embarrassed.

He was finally released in 1806, when the authorities decided he was no longer a menace to society.

Besides being widely reprinted under his own name, several of Brothers’ prophesies were included in a popular rendition of apocalyptic predictions published later in 1795, entitled The World’s Doom.

A few of his followers, like George Turner of Leeds, continued  to agitate for his release until the turn of the century (threatening destruction upon the English Babylon if the prophet remained confined).

Due to his long incarceration, Brothers gradually faded from public prominence; to some extent, his mantle as the Chosen One was taken over by Joanna Southcott, who picked up many of his followers over the years. In some of the Southcottian traditions that survived into the 20th century Southcott is identified as identified as Brothers’ successor, a bit like John the Baptist to her Jesus.

Socialist historian EP Thompson theorised that the support for the millenarian and apocalyptic predictions of Brothers and Southcott was stimulated largely by the terrible dislocations of the industrial revolution which were upheaving many long-held ways of life and pushing millions into new and more exploitative forms of work and poverty. This ‘chiliasm of despair’, as he called it, seemed to him a response offering some certainty and an immediate better future in dark times. However, Clarke Garrett, in his study of millenarianism in relation to the French Revolution, ‘Respectable Folly’, points out that to some extent Brothers and especially Southcott’s greatest support came when the dream or belief in an English revolution seemed to have been disillusioned; if people had felt there was a chance of more egalitarian social change or political reform in the favour of the lower orders, this was dissipating in reaction and war. Garrett suggests Southcottianism in particular represented a retreat from political ideals into mystical promise. I do wonder if some of the enthusiasm for Brothers’ prophesies of doom was a kind of nihilistic desire among the despairing to see a society they hated crash and burn…
This kind of draining of social ideals into otherworldly or individual mysticism does seem to follow a pattern; the 1650s saw similar trajectories after the Civil War ended with defeat for the most progressive elements; and check out what happened to all those radicals from the 1960s in the 70s, and the immense growth in meditation, eastern religion, cults and other nonsense.

Richard Brothers died in London, largely forgotten, in January 1824.

The Panacea Society, still holding on to the dream of the Millennium after all these years, have some copies of Richard Brothers’ prophesies in their archive

Spotlight on London’s radical herstory: The Brixton Black Women’s Group

The Brixton Black Women’s Group emerged from the Black Power movements that evolved in Britain in the 1960s-1970s, initially as an angry response to racism and police attacks.

Black communities in the UK were from the 1960s on often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated police raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction. ‘SUS’ was heavily aimed at young black people.

In response to an increasing atmosphere of racism and violence, from police, organised racists, and to the systematic discrimination and deprivation they encountered every day, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began in the mid-1960s to organise resistance. The activities of radical black campaigners and fighters emerging from the US civil rights struggle, in particular the the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others, and the emergence of more self-consciously revolutionary groups: the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, and emerging from the UCPA, the British Black Panthers, and the Black Unity and Freedom Party.

These Black Power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on. In tandem with this the movement set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools, Black Studies groups, libraries, ran social events, with a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

“Three Steps Behind the Men” ?

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The Universal Coloured People’s Association had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late ’60s and early ’70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“Every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’s oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 1970s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was an influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe.

One of the earliest and well-known of the organisations that emerged from this ferment was the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…
We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

In the interview that follows, three members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group give a brilliant insight into the activities, politics and discussions that animated the group.

Numbers in the text refer to notes the follow the article.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Talking Personal, Talking Political

Originally published in Trouble & Strife radical feminist magazine, no 19, 1990.

This interview with Olive Gallimore, Gail Lewis and Melba Wilson is a discussion about their individual reflections/perceptions by the Brixton Black Women’s Group and is not to be taken as the final word of the collective as a whole.

Agnes Quashie talks Gail Lewis, Melba Wilson and Olive Gallimore of Brixton Women’s Group about its activities, strengths and weaknesses, the contradictions of funding and the complex relationship Black women had and have to women’s liberation movement.

Agnes Quashie: Shall we begin with a history of how the group got started?

Gail Lewis: Basically it was a mixed group that started in 1974; women from Race Today [Note 1: See end of article] and women from Sabarr bookshop[2] who were working in mixed organisations and trying to form a women’s study group. The aim was to a space for themselves to look at the questions of colonialism and the nature of capitalist society, African history and these sorts of things. The object then, was probably to locate themselves as women but not particularly as feminists.

The context of Brixton at the time is important because it was when there was a very big local surge of political activity in a number of fields. There was, for example, a very active South London Women’s Charter[3] group that was a predominantly white women’s organisation but very much focused around questions of working class women’s relationship to work/employment. Some of the early Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) women felt that was a women’s organisation that they could have at least some sympathy with because it seemed to be related to questions of class whereas much of the Women’s Liberation Movement was organising in consciousness raising (CR) groups and was deemed to be not really to do with them certainly not to do with working class women as it was thought to be a ‘petit bourgeois’ diversion, if you like.

Something else that women were involved in at that time was the whole move in Brixton and other parts of the country on the question of housing and the demand for empty houses to be given over to local people to be renovated. At that time a squatters’ movement[4] was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris[5], was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in  expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.

This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.

AQ: How and why did each of you become involved?

Melba Wilson: I came to this country in 1977 from California where I was involved with consciousness raising type women’s groups and I had done a lot of things in terms of Black politics and community politics.

However when I came here I was looking for more of a consciousness raising (CR) group. Also I was looking to get connected to the Black community. I am married to a white British person and so I was cut off from the Black community, so in that sense the group was a sort of mainstay, a grounding.

CR was one of my main thrusts in the group and I kept on pushing that; that the personal is the political. But ultimately the group became for me a political education because, even though I had done a lot of work in the States, it was in the narrowly defined strictures of Black politics and basically it was all aimed at getting a piece of the pie, the American pie. BWG broadened my whole perspective in making me more aware of what Black people outside of the States were doing, and what Black people were doing outside of Britain, and in a sense it opened my eyes to the world.

Olive Gallimore: What was talked about little then was that women came out of different educational experiences or abilities or political understandings of their situations but there was the need to move beyond that. I was brought up in West London, I was a ‘single parent’ living in Vauxhall. I got to know other women, single women, women who were less articulate than the other women who were in BWG and I suppose in that sense I was part of this group of women who came in, but I wasn’t intimidated by that because there was some purpose behind it in sharing and moving beyond our current situation. Lots of things were happening at a community level and people were organising around education quite specifically. What was missing at that time was a clear political or feminist analysis of what was taking place and to find a way of using that to absorb as many women as there were. I think later on that created conflicts and it was quite an important political lesson for everyone involved.

GL: BWG was not the first women’s organisation that I had been involved in. As a teenager I had been involved in things like the Soledad Brothers[6] Support Campaign here, and briefly in something called the Black Liberation Front when it first split off from the [UK] Black Panthers[7]. I developed what I considered to be a Black consciousness, I had always thought of myself as some kind of a socialist as well, and during that period, before the late ’60s, I met one of the women who had been involved in setting up the study group and was introduced to a number of Black political events really, rather than a whole active network. Then I went away for a while because prior to that I had thought that feminism had nothing to do with Black women and working class women of any ‘race’. Then I started to read a few things and thought that maybe there is something in this and then got involved in 1975 in the National Abortion Campaign, as the lone Black woman, in the area where I was living.

I wanted a Black women’s group but was terrified because by this time I had also come out as a lesbian. I heard about a group that met every Sunday and I thought about it for a long time and then thought no, I can’t possibly go to a Black women’s group because I’m a dyke, and then one day I just took courage and went I joined the group because I felt not only did I want to be involved in a Black women’s group, but I wanted to be in a Black women’s group that defined itself as socialist and anti-imperialist.

There had to be some form of continuity for me in terms of my previous political development.

OG: For me came out of the Black Panther, Angela Davis[8] era; you know, the ‘most wanted woman in the United States’ and that kind of thing, and because as a single parent I had been working on those issues and like Gail wanted to belong, I got involved. What I wasn’t clear about at that time was feminism, so to speak, it wasn’t something close to me.

AQ: How were you run, was it collectively? Did you have funding?

GL: At that time we would have rejected funding. Our demand was that there are empty houses; we have a right to them as Black folks; we’re going to take them.

The study group used to meet in people’s houses and by the time we joined in 1978 we used to meet in Sabarr bookshop, in the room at the back. Clearly that was not satisfactory but it was a necessary step, because when we eventually came to discuss whether we should set up a centre there were many long and important discussions about whether an organisation like ours – one that was supposed to be revolutionary, supposed to be about change and centrally supposed to be critical of the state in the way in which it controls all Black people and working class people how could we take money from the state?

AQ: What did the organisation consider were its aims and objectives? Did it have a particular kind of politics; any particular labels by which to identify the people who were involved?

GL: We were a collective, but at the same time we had, like all other collectives, different individual women there. We had different forms of knowledge, we came from different kinds of political histories and political understandings, but there wasn’t one leadership position. On the contrary actually, that manifested itself more in organisations such as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD)[9] than in BWG or in any of the local Black women’s organisations that we developed links with.

OG: I think that individuals were struggling to identify themselves and the community also saw us in a particular way. It was not until later that we sat down and decided who we were and wrote a position paper. It was not an overnight thing that you suddenly had one uniform concept of who we were. There was a lot of individuality within BWG. This is why the identity of the group involved at times a very deep and painful debating, to get those different focuses on the agenda.

MW: I suppose we were all already political women which is what made us come to BWG in the first place. We were all a certain type of Black woman and while we saw ourselves as being very much a part of our community, that did present problems in terms of Black community politics, male/female Black community politics. However, in terms of the workings of the group the coming together around a political basis was what provided the impetus and is what I think got us over a lot of those contradictions – even though we may not have dealt sufficiently with them at the time. For instance, the heterosexual/lesbian divide which is still hanging up the Black women’s movement to this very day, as I am sure you are aware.

At the same time I do think that we did try and deal with these issues, but it was after some prodding. When Gail got up in a meeting and came out to us it precipitated a whole load of discussion, heartache and soul-searching, which was good in terms of the group having to face its own weaknesses.

GL: The group, for most of the years that I was involved, was a heterosexual women’s group. I can remember saying to myself, “I have to tell these women that I am a lesbian”.

I was living with a white woman at the time and I felt this enormous split in my life, in terms of living as a lesbian and with a white woman then, yet being involved in anti-racist and Black women’s liberation politics. But I did not necessarily want to go into a discussion about it because I felt alone. I knew that some other women in the group were lesbians and for one woman in particular it was hidden from the rest of the women in the group for a long time. Granted, there may have been some discussion about lesbianism and what it meant, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s lesbianism was not seen as a political issue; it was seen as something you did privately and was therefore your own business. We really managed to hang ourselves up with that because like every other Black organisation at that time, we had a notion of the Black community as traditional, as homogenous and as unable to deal with difference.

After we got the Black Women’s Centre[10] in 1979/80, a Black lesbian group was formed. I was not a member of that, but they asked at some point if they could meet at our centre, and there was one hell of a furore amongst women from BWG, saying things like, “We can’t possibly have lesbians meeting in our centre, what would the community say? they’ll know”, and all this kind of stuff. By that time though there were enough other women, and not only the lesbian women in BWG but heterosexual women as well, who were saying, “This is crap, are they not our sisters?” So the lesbian group met in the centre but if you talked to any of the women who were involved in that, they never felt as if the centre could be claimed as their own; they always felt hostility.

There are also other questions about other identities and political positions. Some women may not have said that they were socialists as individuals but the group always said it was socialist.

MW: It wasn’t only the lesbian issue that was not adequately dealt with. For instance, I am in an inter-racial relationship and I had great angst about wanting to come out in that way and not feeling that I could. In the end I did pluck up courage and said it and one of my enduring memories is just how many other women in the group were in inter-racial relationships also and we just did not know it.

We were all afraid to come out in that way, which is why my thrust was always the personal becoming the political, because there was that sense that we could not talk about stuff that happened outside in our other lives.

It was like having a split personality, but in a way I felt a bit of a fraud, being in an interracial relationship, coming to a Black women’s group and not being able to discuss that whole other aspect of myself. This is why I pushed for the consciousness raising aspect of the group. Not to the exclusion of the active political campaigning work that we also did and which was the main thrust of the group, but I also thought that other strand was important. So we had these two strands working within the group for very much of its active period. However, I do believe that we began to deal with it in as straightforward a way as we could at the time, given our frame of reference. You have to remember that we were seen as an anachronism within the Black community; we were taking time away from the valuable Black struggle, talking about women’s politics, women’s rights and so on, and that was seen as a white women’s issue diverting our energies away from the Black struggle. There were all these things going on at the same time, which we were just trying to work through on a daily basis.

GL: I was probably one of the most vocal women in the group and I can remember saying, “I don’t want a CR group”. I mean there was an Irish war going on, there was Palestine, there was Southern Africa, there was class struggle in Britain and we had a wealth of information and something to offer. So I wanted to foreground all that stuff.

MW: I don’t think it got in the way of our work. It was left hanging, but it was left hanging while we got on with the business of fighting the SUS[11] laws and fighting the virginity testing at Heathrow Airport[12] and doing a lot of really good work. I mean, we did have an agenda, and in those Sunday meetings when we met from three o’clock until six/seven, the things that were on those agendas were about the SUS laws, about how we could organise as a community to stop young Black boys being stopped and hassled by the police. We organised around health, fighting against Depo Provera[13] injections and all that kind of stuff.

OG: There was also the issue of whether or not the group ought to accept partnership money (funding). As I remember it, the discussion was quite fierce and went on for weeks. In the end it was agreed that we would, but Olive (Morris) also insisted that she be statemented as saying she did not want to be a part of this, based on a political analysis of the state getting involved in the lives of Black people and buying them off.

GL: The cost was that we lost individuals. Women would come for a short period of time and then feel that the set-up wasn’t for them. This was usually for different reasons.

Sometimes they would say, “I am not a socialist”; some of them were more separatist; for some it was not a feminist enough type of group. But I think the key thing here is that it was contradictory. It was contradictory in the sense that I was the only out lesbian for quite a while, but I was also one of the people who was arguing against talking personal, that this was a political organisation and not necessarily a friendship organisation.

AQ: How did you see BWG’s relationship to predominantly white feminist organisations; about the idea of women being in sisterhood, Black as well as white women? Did you have close links with other women’s groups that had a predominantly white involvement? Lastly, what do you think about white women who are involved in politics and struggles pertaining to Black women? How do you see these things fusing together, or don’t they?

GL: Let’s start with the ‘easiest’ one about what other women’s organisations we were connected to. We were connected to many, and we also worked alongside many, and we were actively involved in other Black women’s groups that started. We were very much involved in setting up OWAAD. We were connected to other women’s organisations fighting around anti-imperialism: to SWAPO[14] Women, Zanu Women[15] and with women from Ethiopia, Eritrea; with Black American women’s organisations, with Irish women’s organisations. To some extent we were also involved with women organising around Palestine and anti-Zionism. We also mixed with many other organisations, like the Depo Provera campaign for example. We also had links with, but a different type of relationship with, other white women’s organisations that did not have a specific anti-imperialist focus, like reproductive rights. It was a much more tense relationship with such organisations but we weren’t necessarily fighting against each other.

What is problematic is, because there is scanty documentation about our work and aims, both Black and white women have picked up a very wrong picture of the politics of Brixton Black Women’s Group; saying things like we were completely against free and safe abortion on demand on the NHS, for example. We always supported the demand for a woman’s right to free and safe abortion, but we also said that abortion was not the sole issue. I mean from our own experiences, from what we knew to be happening to Black women in this country and from a kind of picture of the world.

MW: With regard to the second part of your question, I think BWG set itself up to be an autonomous Black organisation and I think that was partly because some BWG members had been involved with white women’s organisations/movement, and had come away feeling very disillusioned by the racism that they found within them; as well as the refusal generally to accept that there were issues that concerned Black women, or that Black women were involved with, that meant that we operated within a mixed (female/male) context within our communities and that we did not see ourselves as separate from our communities in their entirety. We consciously organised as a Black women’s organisation because we wanted to address those things. I suppose that it was a reaction to the racism in the white women’s movement as well, and it was also a reaction to the sexism of Black men, so in that sense we were a consciously Black and female organisation.

GL: I don’t think that we had a principle by which we responded to white women feminist organisations or white women socialists or whatever. What guided us, despite the fact that some women felt extremely suspicious of white women’s organisations, even when they were organisations like Women Against Imperialism for example, was saying that we come from a position of Black socialist feminism; our central concerns are the antiracist/ the Black Liberation struggle, the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle against capitalism. Therefore we decided that we would work with, we would make alliances with people as and when we could see that they were also fighting for those things. We acknowledged that alliances are not a matter of principle, alliances have to be strategic.

AQ: Was it difficult to negotiate all those different identities, i.e. at one and the same time being a Black women’s organisation, a community-based organisation and negotiating that with wider women’s issues as you say making alliances and also at the same time acknowledging the racism that can come from those alliances and dealing with them? Was it difficult to negotiate all those things and come out with something that you felt was positive?

OG: It was a minefield. Rather than use the white women’s group terms ‘in sisterhood with’ we would say ‘in solidarity with’. This is because we were still working out the racism or at least forcing them to look at that Again in terms of this concept of ‘in sisterhood’, although I did not have any formal contact with white women’s groups, I think very warmly of individual white women who contributed very significantly to my understanding of what was going on. At the time I did not see how valuable it was to me. However, now I can see that it has been extremely important in shaping and giving me hope.

GL: But I think the way we negotiated it, and negotiated is exactly the right word, was because of the way we operated. We would have our Sunday meetings and then we would go off to do things that we had been collectively delegated to do. The strength of that is that you could always argue with other organisations that you were representing BWG. BWG grew in terms of how much respect it had; it was recognised in terms of socialist feminist networks at the activist level. There was a great deal of strength in that because you knew if there was a problem you could always go back to the group to get some feedback and work out how to proceed.

In many ways the most fraught sorts of negotiations that we had to deal with were with the men involved in the Brixton Defence Campaign[16]. After the 1981 uprising we had close links with the organisations in Toxteth[17] by now the women from BWG and the women and men from the Brixton Defence Campaign joined and went to Liverpool. We still had to make it known that we had something to say; that we were not just the providers of space – they used to meet in our centre – and the people who did the typing.

We still had to fight to be heard. I remember there was a big row, on the coach on the way back from Liverpool, between the women and the men and that created quite a big rift between us. Some of the sharpest contradictions that arose,· arose in relation to Black men rather than in relation to white women.

OG: Although it did not affect me directly in my confrontation with some of those men, I know that some very strong sisters were physically quite shaken by that experience.

Where there were differences between the women in those different groups, we could argue quite forcefully about them, but there still remained a great deal of respect amongst us. However that sort of respect was missing in our disagreements with the men and they were often quite dismissive of us in very derogatory terms and they did not want to look at why they were behaving in those particular ways.

AQ: I am conscious of what I am going to ask next, because at times I get slightly wary of the motives behind questions that are constantly asked about the relationships between Black women and Black men. However, having made my qualification, why do you think your relationships with white women were less problematic than with Black men?

OG: Black men, those so-called political men, saw Black feminism as divisive, in the sense that it was splitting the movement and those of us who had a long and continuing relationship with Black men weren’t communicating with them on that political level. With white women that is the basis on which a lot of relationships have been formed. But the immediate problems between the Black man and the Black woman were not analysed in that way; communication was about personal things the way you treat me, the personal not being the political – and I don’t think that the Black men had grasped that. Also they themselves were struggling through nationalist politics and had become quite entrenched in their own sexism and domination of women. It was only a privileged few of those men who were able to come out and look at all these things in a political context, but even they did not really want to spend a great deal of time looking at those issues we were raising because it struck at the very foundation of their own existence. They would have to undo a lot of things to get it right, but they were not prepared to do that.

GL: We were working with them, we were part of the Brixton Defence Campaign, we were meeting on our territory and some of those guys felt extremely threatened. I mean we did have political time for some of them, but others were just jokers; separatist, chauvinist people that we did not have much in common with politically, over and above Black nationalist politics. Even those that we did have political time for felt threatened. I remember we had this Hindi poster with a woman holding a machete type thing and some of those guys would come into the meetings saying that they really couldn’t handle the poster. They would say things like, “I don’t know how to be with you any more, just talking to you individually”. I can also remember being asked, “Do you think that Black feminism is becoming so strong now that all Black women are going to become lesbians?” There was also some disagreement as to how these tensions could be rationalised.

Some of the men and a few of the women would say it was all about personal relationships and others of us argued that it was about politics.

OG: These problems show where we were at that time and I think we have made tremendous strides since then, with still a long way to go and we are very hopeful because I don’t think that we are in a position to cut off any form of voice because we are all oppressed in one way or another. However, being oppressed does not mean at the same time you cannot oppress others. That was always another issue: was it possible for us to oppress each other within the group? As you can imagine some of us said “yes” and others said “no”, but I do think that at times we did intimidate one another.

MW: Not intentionally.

OG: I believe that we can turn oppression on each other: I can oppress you at one time, and you can oppress me on another. Whether it is intentional or not, the effects linger on.

AQ: So do you think the conflicts that came out of all that were productive, even though it was a hard and painful struggle?

OG: In the main.

GL: I agree, but with costs, because we lost some good women. I mean there was so much going on, there was friendships breaking down.

OG: It was too much to handle.

AQ: How did the group change, in terms of its earlier days, to that point at which the group as a collective ‘dissolved’ itself?

GL: We began to document our history. By then we had come to some agreement that documentation was quite important. Before, we would just write position papers which we discussed, because this was a way to encompass the division of interest amongst us, a way to share information, If you look in the earlier newsletters, nothing was given an individual person’s name, besides the poetry and contributions that came from other organisations.

Later it became the case that you could write individual pieces in Speak Out [18] for example.

Another move that we made was to become very definitely and very statedly socialist feminists, actually saying we were a socialist feminist organisation.

OG: We also started moving towards taking up lesbian feminist struggles, for example. But going back to what Gail said about the organisation losing many good women, we have to acknowledge that some of those women left because they did not agree with the direction in which they thought the group was going. Some of those that left wanted to become engaged purely in practice and they thought that BWG was becoming an elitist organisation by, say, sitting down and writing ‘position papers’ on these areas.

MW: There was also some recognition of the personal as well, towards the end. And in fact when we finally closed BWG, one of the things that came out of it was a group called “Sisters in Study”. This group not only dealt with study but with our personal interaction with each other and this was now an equal part of our agenda.

GL: We also moved from the earlier days where we were about creating a space in which women could meet together, for whatever purposes, to being a Black women’s organisation which foregrounded gender relations.as being the object of political change.

OG: Even the day and time that we met was an empowering factor in our lives. I mean, we met on Sunday afternoons between two and whenever, and that was generally a time of day when people stayed at home.

MW: In fact that was quite liberating for many of us, because to get that space was not easy for some BWG women; you know to leave the cooking and all the rest of it.

GL: I suppose the puzzle is, with all that going for it, why did it end?

MW: Many of the issues changed, for a start.

Many of the issues that we were involved with – Depo Provera, SUS, disruptive units – in a sense had been won. At the same time, while we were looking for a new focus, younger women were coming into BWG. I think we began to feel a bit like old fogeys and some of us who had been involved in that ten year period of high activity felt as if we had given as much as we could at that point and that perhaps it was time to make room for the younger women coming along with new ideas.

GL: But they couldn’t hold the group together either. I think that to a certain extent we had won some of the battles but there still remained other issues. For example, policing as an issue is still there. I think a split appeared in the group between women who had been involved in the organisation for a long time and who had come to formulate a ‘shared’ perspective, and between women coming from outside who did not share that perspective and many of whom would not define themselves as socialist. There were some who did not see the campaigning issues as being the same ones as we would have.

OG: Also some people were just physically exhausted.

MW: We were just tired. I mean it is hard to get across the level of intensity during that period. It required a lot from all of us, in addition to the rest of our lives – you know, working and living and families and children and that kind of thing.

OG: There was also the effect of losing certain sisters at that stage in the group; the death of Olive, the death of Sylvia[19] and others was quite a devastating experience as well.

GL: The other thing that happened was the grants strategy; you know, we became a bloody management committee with workers -we became employers. We stopped doing the things that we used to do, like standing on street corners selling papers – or more usually giving them away. We weren’t knocking on doors any more. All we had to do by then was to give out a few leaflets through the council premises. At first we didn’t; at first we would go out and encourage women, but we weren’t doing that any more; instead we just put it through the internal Lambeth mailing. We had become bloody managers, and this is what happens so often. You know, to get funding you have to meet certain criteria; to meet those criteria you have to adopt certain structures and to a great extent the structures dictate the relationships.

OG: Also, those who hold the purse strings know that we have certain unmet needs and goals and it’s like a carrot dangling. I think the obvious thing is that we had not thought it all through, you know; what it meant to acquire those things through those means.

MW: I think we did think them through, but we thought that we could overcome them.

OG: And we might have done, could have done; if we had tried even harder still.

GL: Maybe, if we were still the same group, but obviously we weren’t any more. You see the membership changed and was fluid by this time. Also, things might have worked out if we were centred around a particular project like Southall Black Sisters[20], who organise around the whole question of women and violence and everything that stems from that. We were more amorphous. We were also victim of not only the internal dynamics of BWG but also the fracturing of Black political activity; the fracturing, if not the demise of women’s liberation political activity and the general political environment.

OG: With all its imperfections, if we were to do it again I would still be a member of BWG. But, you know, I take the African saying that there are no mistakes in life but only lessons to be learnt, and I know that my life has certainly been enriched by that experience.

GL: Oh yes, I totally agree.

MW: Definitely, and in that sense it has not finished, because all those people who went through BWG in those early years remain committed to its principles, to its ideals, and conduct their lives in that way. Of course we carry it through in different ways: for example I am a freelance journalist, so whatever I do, whatever I am involved in is informed by those years. Olive is an educational social worker and acts accordingly in the work that she does. Gail lectures in trade unionism at a polytechnic and her work is also informed by her years in BWG. So in that sense BWG lives.

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Also well worth a read for more on the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the wider Black Women’s movement in the UK:

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985. Now back in print over 30 years after its first appearance – a vital read.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online at http://organisedyouth.tumblr.com

Notes on the text
Compiled by past tense

1 – Race Today: Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today was a black-run political magazine, which adopted a socialist position. It moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), the magazine became a strong voice in the 1970s and ‘80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

2 – Sabarr Books: Sabarr Bookshop is sometimes called the first Black Bookshop in Brixton, (though in fact the Black Panthers had set up Unity Bookshop in Brixton’s Railton Road in 1973. which had been burned to the ground when a firebomb was placed in the letter box). Sabarr Bookshop opened at 121 Railton Road, after it was re- squatted around 1974. Sabarr was later moved from 121 Railton Road to 378 Coldharbour Lane, at some point around 1980: the building where the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage and then the Black Cultural Archives were subsequently located during the 80s and 90s. (121 Railton Road was shortly afterward re-squatted by an anarchist collective, and ran as an anarchist centre, bookshop, cafe and gig and meeting space until 1999.)

3 – South London Womens Charter: Probably means a branch of the socialist-feminist current which appeared during the time of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign, which laid down its aim as producing a synthesis of socialism and feminism.
The Working Women’s Charter was drawn up by the subcommittee of the London Trades Council in March 1974. At its height it had 27 groups in towns and cities across the UK and was supported by 12 national unions, 55 trade union branches, 37 trade councils and 85 other organisations; it also published a monthly newspaper. The driving force behind the WWCC was the International Marxist Group and other smaller left groupings. The campaign attempted throughout the 1970s to support women in trade union disputes, most notably at TRICO (equal pay). It worked jointly with the London-based national nurseries campaign over the extension of nursery facilities and against cuts in local authority nurseries. The WWCC emphasised the importance of women pursuing their claims through direct action rather than by taking cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act — the preferred option by the trade union bureaucracy. The women (and some men) active around the Charter in the main regarded themselves as socialist feminists and saw the Charter as a way of taking feminist ideas into the trade union and labour movement.

4 – Black squatting in Brixton: In the late 1960s and early 70s, Brixton became one of the most heavily squatted areas in London, for a number of reasons, but mainly because of high homelessness and a high demand for housing, especially among young people in the area, the presence of hundreds of empty run down houses (many compulsorily purchased for a massive redevelopment scheme which never happened), and a growing counter-culture which adopted squatting for the possibilities it offered. Although a large white squatting scene emerged, many local black youth also began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, from their squatted HQ in Vining Street (which was attacked by racists in August 1983. They later moved to Kellet Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were on occasion fractious. Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.”

Read more on squatting in Brixton

5 – Olive Morris: In 1969, aged 17, Olive, who grew up in Brixton, went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts… Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went through school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”
“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabarr Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.”

Olive re-squatting 121 Railton Road

They faced three illegal eviction attempts, but always managed to get back in and stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and they had to move out. But the building was then re-squatted by others for use as Sabarr black bookshop; and was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when in its the later incarnation as the 121 anarchist centre it was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)
After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was involved in setting up Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, moved to Manchester to study Social sciences at university, and helped to found Manchester Black Women’s Co-op. She later travelled to China. However, in 1979, aged only 26, Olive died of cancer.
Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department…
[In April 2020, in the midst of the Corona virus lockdown, the council decided to begin the demolition of this building – putting builders working there in danger or spreading the virus, since social distancing on demolition sites is impossible… and also spreading dust around Brixton Hill during a respiratory crisis. Nice one Lambo.]

Recently interest in this amazing character has revived; there is a brilliant website dedicated to her memory
They have also published a book: Do You Remember Olive Morris?

6 – Soledad Brothers: The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills, at California’s Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970. George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette. The case achieved huge publicity and notoriety. Jackson in particular had become well known as a Black Panther, and was targetted by the prison authorities and justice system in retaliation for his political agitation. In August 1970, Jackson’s 17-year old brother Jonathan was killed during an armed attempt to take hostages and free the Brothers. Two weeks later George Jackson was killed in an armed escape attempt (possibly set up by the prison guards). Seven months later the remaining two prisoners were acquitted of the murder of Mills. Jackson’s prison writings have since raised him to important status in radical circles as a modern theorist of US imperialism and racism.

7 – Black Panthers and Black Liberation Front: Brixton’s West Indian community had faced racism and police violence from its inception, increasing in the 1960s, when local police labeled their roaming of the streets to beat up and arrest young blacks as ‘nigger hunting’. In the late 1960s-early 70s, a combination of street resistance and political thinking (influenced by both US black nationalism and African liberation movements) helped give birth to the British Black Panther Party, whose Brixton chapter was one of its mainstays and whose base of operations was around the ‘frontline’ (their HQ was in Shakespeare Road). Local actions concentrated on resistance to police oppression, education programs for black kids often excluded by mainstream schools,
and a lot of cultural expression. Targetted by police but always at the forefront of fighting back… Such luminaries as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy emerged from its ranks; Race Today and many other groups also emerged from the breakup of the organisation.
The Black Liberation Front was a splinter that emerged from the Panthers in London, mainly based in West London (notably Ladbroke Grove, one on the other main strongholds of the early Panthers). The BLF maintained a bookshop in Golborne Road, Ladbroke Grove, Grassroots Storefront. It developed links with liberation struggles in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, and regularly organised the annual Africa LiberationDay celebrations in co-operation with other organisations in Britain. By establishing supplementary schools, community bookshops, affordable housing for black families and support for black prisoners, the movement focused on developing Pan-African consciousness, consolidating black political identity and challenging the impact of racism in Britain.

A very basic introduction to Brixton policing in the 1970s, the black community and the Black Panthers, can be read ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, published by past tense, which can be bought online at: http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html and several good radical bookshops in London.

8 – Angela Davis: Leading US black radical, communist and thinker, close to the black Panthers, who remains active and writing today. An academic at the University of California, and also active in social and political activism, Davis was targetted by state governor Ronald Reagan who tried to have her barred from teaching in 1969 because of her outspoken attacks on police racism. She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers (see above), and bought the firearms used by Jonathan Jackson in his armed attack on a courthouse in August 1970. As a result Angela Davis as charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” of a hostage judge. Davis went on the run, was arrested and held on remand. Her case became another huge international cause celebre: she was eventually acquitted. She remained active in the Communist Party until 1991.

9 – The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a national organisation founded in 1978, by a number of groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group; it sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. Many of those who set up OWAAD were students living in Britain who came from Africa. Women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example the Futters Strike, in Harlesden in 1979), to women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions, to women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation, and opposing virginity tests for migrant women (see below). However divisions over a number of issues led to OWAAD’s effective collapse in 1982.
Here’s an interesting short perspective on OWAAD’s formation and activities, written by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

10 – Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC): The Brixton Black Women’s Group was initially based at 65 Railton Road: later they set up the Black Women’s Centre, located at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aimed “to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

11 – SUS laws: The massive widespread use by police of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to stop and search and then arrest, people on suspicion that a crime ‘may have been about to be committed’, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed to get a conviction. SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests. Daily use of SUS was a major factor in provoking the 1981 riots in Brixton and elsewhere.

12 – Virginity testing at Heathrow Airport: At least 80 women from India and Pakistan hoping to emigrate to Britain to marry were intimately examined by immigration staff to “check their marital status” in the late 1970s.

At that time, immigration rules stipulated that an engaged woman coming to Britain to marry her fiance within three months did not need a visa, whereas a bride required a visa in order to join her husband. If immigration officers suspected a woman was married, but was pretending to be engaged to avoid the wait for a visa, she would be taken away for an examination.

In 1979, the Home Office admitted to just three tests (after initially denying the practice). The technique was banned in February 1979 after the Guardian revealed that a 35-year-old Indian woman was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow to check whether she was in fact a virgin.

The Home Office initially denied that any internal examination had taken place.

13 – Depo Provera: A birth control drug, widely proscribed in developing countries and to poor women particularly in both the developing and developed world, on many occasions without their knowledge or consent. Depo Provera has been widely linked to permanent sterility and infertility, the development of breast cancer and an increase in a person’s chances of acquiring and transmitting HIV/AIDS, as well as a number of other serious medical conditions. Black and radical activists and feminists have raised the accusation that DP was deliberately used by manufacturers and health organisations (including Pfizer, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the US Agency for International Development(USAID), the UN, the World Health Organisation, the Center for Disease Control, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities) of promoting DP as part of a eugenics agenda, aimed at reducing the birth rates of the poor, and especially africans and african-americans.

14 – SWAPO Women: SWAPO is the South West African People’s Organisation, formerly a national liberation movement, fighting to free the African country of Namibia from colonial rule by Apartheid-era South Africa; since 1990 the governing party of Namibia as an independent country.

15 – Zanu Women: The Women’s League of Zanu PF, in the 1970s the main Zimbabwean national liberation movement – since 1980 the governing party in Zimbabwe.

16 – Brixton Defence Campaign: In the immediate aftermath of the April 1981 Brixton riot/uprising the Brixton Defence Campaign was set up to defend the several hundred arrested, both legally and politically. Founded immediately after the riot, the first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre:

“The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

17 – Toxteth: Otherwise known as Liverpool 8, an area of Liverpool’s inner city, like Brixton with a large black population, and subject to similar tensions around racism and policing. Centre of several riots in the city from 1981-85.

18 – Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group’s newsletter.

19 – Sylvia: Sylvia Erike, another member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, who like Olive Morris also died tragically young.

20 – Southall Black Sisters: A black feminist group, which emerged among Asian women in Southall, West London, still going strong today. Established in August 1979 in the aftermath of the death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach, who had taken part in a demonstration against a National Front rally at Southall Town Hall, the SBS was originally established in order to provide a focus for the struggle of Asian women in the fight against racism, but became increasingly involved in defending the human rights of Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence and in campaigning against religious fundamentalism.
Contact Southall Black Sisters

More here: Gail Lewis talks about the BBWG, consciousness raising and action.

Spotlight on London’s radicals: The Deptford Infidels

The 19th century saw a ferment among working class radicals around freedom from religion and ‘freethinking’. Throughout the Victorian age, religion was a dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of the UK population. The Church of England exerted a powerful influence; the parson dominated the village. Until 1836 parsons received a tithe from residents of the parish. Social life for millions of people revolved around choir and Sunday School outings; employers insisted that their employees go to church and sacked those that didn’t, or would only hire orthodox believers. Most people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, although there were some Catholics and increasing numbers of Non-conformists, Quakers and Methodists. Until 1829, anybody holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines, which meant that Catholics could not be civil servants, Justices of the Peace or judges. No university would even admit a non-Anglican, let alone a non-believer.

On the one hand, religious ‘revivalism’ was massive – John Wesley’s Methodist Church and other newer strands of protestantism attracted many among the exploding urban centres, where millions dislocated by industrialisation were ripe for conversion…

On the other hand, doubt and questioning were filtering through society. The industrial revolution had broken numerous bonds that bound classes together, and a ferment of political and social subversion was spreading, especially among working class people radicalised by the naked exploitation of capitalism in its most voracious phrase. Belief in a supreme being was on the wane, particularly where people were already questioning belief in supremacy of the powers above them on earth…

A provocative and courageous tradition runs through the nineteenth century, influenced by Thomas Paine, but finding a solid focus around Richard Carlile, and from him spiralling out through the unstamped press agitation, cross-fertilising and feeding into the Owenite co-operative movement and the political movements it helped to germinate. Carlile’s bookshops around Fleet Street, and the lectures that took place at his Rotunda in Blackfriars Road (early on featuring the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’, Robert Taylor) were hugely influential in spreading the questioning of religion… Carlile acted as mentor to other ‘blasphemous’ writers and speakers, including the pioneering female secularist Eliza Sharples, who herself helped to form the ideas of the later titan of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh. As Chartism waned and economic prosperity led to a (temporary) decline in the movement for political reform, many old Chartists and radicals formed the backbone of a network of working men’s clubs, sprouting through the 1860s-70s, dedicated to discussion of ideas, self-education, through lectures, debate, sharing of publications and spreading knowledge. Many were infused with ideas from the co-operative and early trade union movements; motivating ideas ranged from liberalism through to a class-conscious revolutionary proto-socialism. The clubs formed part of a transition from Chartism to a radical/liberal milieu from which the earliest recruits to Marxism and anarchism later emerged, (eg the Social Democratic Federation). And a vocal questioning of religion formed an important strand in this tradition. 

Below we repost an article on the secularist movement in just one area of South East London, written by Terry Liddle, a long time socialist activist and writer on the history of secularism and radicalism. This kind of agitation was mirrored all around the capital and other cities, especially in the 1860s-1890s.

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THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS
Terry Liddle

This is not a concise history. Rather it is a thumbnail sketch of secularism and related radicalisms in South London and nearby areas of North Kent in the 1870s. This was the period between the decline of Chartism as a national movement and the rise of socialism. It was also the period of a short but intense republican agitation triggered by the fall of Napoleon le petit and the restoration of a French Republic.

The area has a long radical tradition. A Chartist organisation was formed in Greenwich in the 1830s. In the 1840s mass Chartist rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and in the 1850s Chartist activities in the area were regularly reported in Deptford man George Harney‘s Red Republican.

As Chartism declined, many Chartists, freethinkers already, moved into secularism. (Note 1) The first secular society was formed in 1854 by Augustus Dinmore, a rope maker and Advanced Liberal. And in 1865 Le Lubez formed the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society (DGSS) to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed. In the 1860s the Deptford United Irishmen held a march in support of the Fenians while Woolwich and Plumstead secularists held a tea party and soiree to celebrate Thomas Paine. In March 1870 a Mr Babbs called on members of DGSS to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed.

In 1873 a branch of the First International was formed in Woolwich, its secretary was H. Maddox. It stopped German workers scabbing on a strike by engineers at the Siemens factory.

By 1871 the National Reformer, a weekly edited by Charles Bradlaugh had a number of agents in Deptford including a Mr Laverick in Friendly Street. It also had three agents in Woolwich including one near the Dockyard gate. That year John Joseph of Woolwich was listed as an active member of the National Secular Society. 2
At a meeting held in March of that year G. French of 6, Naval Place, Amersham Vale, New Cross, was elected secretary. At the meeting there followed an “animated conversation” on PA Taylor opposing the dowry of Princess Louise. 3

In May of that year the Southwark Republican Club, secretary Belliston, held a public meeting. 4
In June 1871 the Greenwich Advanced Liberal Association (GALA) issued an invitation to a conference to be held in October to members of the Radical Party in and out of Parliament. The secretary was T S Floyd of East Street Greenwich. 5
The GALA, formed in 1869 at a public meeting of 500, wanted independent working class representation in Parliament, and so found itself in conflict with mainstream liberalism. A leading member the secularist William McCurly stated : “It was now time for the working classes to think for themselves and manage their own affairs.” Another leading secularist was E W Balbin who secretary of the Greenwich Reform League which agitated for the vote for adult male workers. In the Beehive of April 14, 1865 he wrote “Numbers of slaves (slaves of capital) and hungry bellies are the millionaires joy.”
Following a local agitation in support of farm labourers, members of GALA formed the Deptford Radical Association.
At the time the main form of propaganda was the open air public meeting. The Greenwich and Deptford secularists held these at Deptford Broadway. The National Reformer reported that on June 18, 1871 Mr Antill had spoken, giving his reasons why the gospel should be rejected. In July that year at a meeting in the Duke of Cambridge, Deptford High Street, a Mr Bishop lectured the Advanced Liberal Association on taxation and expenditure. 6 Also in July Mr Wade lectured on the Broadway on Republicanism and the Bible. The following Sunday at 7pm on Blackheath Mr Mesh lectured on the atonement. In August Mr Bishop was speaking on prophecies of the Bible. “There was a deal of opposition at the close”. 7

On August 28, 1871 Charles Bradlaugh spoke in Deptford Town Hall on the impeachment of the house of Brunswick, the title of his Republican pamphlet.“The lecture was loudly cheered at the close.” The following Sunday Robert Forder was speaking on the Broadway on gentlemen of the Bible. 8

In September Thomas Motteshead was speaking to South London Secular Society on the Commune and its mission. 9
By now the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society was holding three open air meetings on Sundays at Deptford, Blackheath and Woolwich. Subjects included Dr Bate on the prophets, Kirby on moral evidence of Christianity and Forder on external evidence of the existence of Jesus. At the conference of the National Secular Society, G. French was elected a member of the council.

In January 1872 several members journeyed to Northfleet where they met the secular friends of that neighbourhood. The owner of the Royal Charlotte Music Hall had put a room holding 150 for a meeting. Soon after a Northfleet Republican Club was formed. 10
The National Reformer of May 26, 1872 reported a meeting in Camberwell of the Universal Republican League where ‘Citizen Chatterton’ spoke on ‘land and money lords’. Could this have been Dan Chatterton whose paper Chatterton’s Commune was filled with his Chartist memoirs and challenges to the clergy, usually not accepted, to debate?
Camberwell Republican meetings were held on Sunday morning in Church Street and in the evenings in the Rose and Crown in Acorn Street. 11

In July at a meeting of the Advanced Liberal Association Thomas Mooney lectured on the structure of the Swiss and American Republics. In Camberwell a Mr McAra was speaking on the necessity of the direct representation of the working class in parliament. 12
At meetings of the Kent Secular Union W Ramsey spoke in Rochester in the afternoon on ‘Hell and damnation’ and that evening in Chatharn on ‘God’s chosen people’. These were followed by meetings in Chatham where G W Foote spoke on Cromwell and John De Morgan spoke on the International. 13

By January, 1873 the National Reformer had two agents in Greenwich, three in Deptford, and one each in Plumstead and New Cross Gate.
On March 23 a Mr Riddle spoke to the Camberwell Discussion Society on land nationalisation and the following week G W Foote spoke to South London Secular Society on Napoleon. 14
At the Republican conference held in Birmingham on May 12 Le Lubez represented Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society. At a meeting of this body to be held in the Lecture Hall, Deptford the speaker was to be Harriet Law.

Come 1874 the National Reformer was advertising meetings of Deptford Radical Association in the Duke of Cambridge. At a meeting of the South London Secular Society held on January 11 a Mr Wood spoke on ‘was Christ an historical figure’.
In the spring of that year meetings continued on Deptford Broadway. Mr Hale spoke on the teachings of Christ to a “numerous and attentive audience”. Forder spoke on the improbability of the gospel history. 15
On June 14 1874, the Secularist Mr Antill visited Blackheath to find a temperance advocate holding forth. Antill suggested Jesus had manufactured wine at a wedding and a considerable debate followed in which Antill set out “at some length his objections to Christianity.” 16

In June a conference of Kentish Freethinkers was held in Northfleet, people travelling by river boat from Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. There followed a tea at 5pm. 17
In August the South London Secular Society had debated spiritualism. A Mr Law denounced spiritualism and called on the audience not to put any credence on a system so palpably absurd and ridiculous. 18
By September a Woolwich Freethought Association had been formed and a member of the Corresponding Council of the NSS was duly appointed for Woolwich. “The Freethinkers of Woolwich, Plumstead and Chariton are now organised and there is every probability of a strong society being the result.” Information could be had from R. Forder at 36 Taylor Street, Woolwich. 19
Bradlaugh spoke in Woolwich on ‘is the Bible true?’. “Judging from the repeated cheers of a crowded audience and the weakness of the replies of three opponents, the answer was a decided negative.”
This was followed on October 13 by Mrs Law lecturing on ‘is the Bible a good book?’

In the Lecture Hall in Nelson Street, Greenwich M McSweeny had lectured on ‘heathen mythology, the basis of Jewish and Christian theology’. 20
Forder was elected secretary of the new group, J. Sinclair its president and a Mr Roberts its treasurer. It had members over the river in North Woolwich and Silvertown as well as in Woolwich and Charlton. 21
The Kingston and Surbiton Progressive Society had lectures on phrenology, the Bible and science not in harmony, and GW Foote on the “impeachment of Christianity at the bar of history” The secretary, T Edwards, spoke on ‘why I reject Christianity’. At meetings in Kingston the National Reformer was on sale alongside the Secular Chronicle and Republican Chronicle. In May 6 a tea party attended by 45 people was held “Mr Godfrey presided most admirably on the pianoforte”. 22

On April 4, 1875 Mrs Besant lectured in Powis Street, Woolwich on civil and religious liberty. Several soldiers attended in uniform. “The lecture was admirably delivered and excited great enthusiasm.” 23  On June 1 Bradlaugh lectured in Woolwich on the French Revolution. Local freethinkers agreed to form a branch of the NSS, which would be represented on the NSS Council by Robert Forder. Bradlaugh returned on June 19 to lecture on ‘Washington and Cromwell’ and on September 5 was speaking in Deptford Lecture Hall on the limits of human thought. 24
The secularists now came under attack in the local press. The Kentish Mercury published an article signed “a friend of the working class” accused them of “flaunting their atheism” and complained that people who brought their children to listen to temperance and religious speakers were upset by this. Three weeks later an article signed “a Christian” attacked a lecture by Mrs Law on ‘how I became freethinker and why I remain one’ delivered in Woolwich on September 21. 25

The Deptford Broadway meetings now encountered considerable opposition, speakers having to be taken by the police to the station to escape the mob. The secularists rallied to defend their pitch and peace was soon restored.
All was not doom and gloom. After a meeting to arrange a lecture by Mrs Besant, Mr E J Lee entertained members by submitting for their examination various interesting objects through his very powerful microscope. Mrs Besant “lectured on the marriage question on a wet net night to an audience of 250.” 26
The next week Bradlaugh spoke on ‘is the Bible a revelation from God?’.

Open air meetings continued on the Broadway and on Blackheath. Forder had been arrested for allegedly destroying fences in a protest at attempts to enclose Plumstead Common. The demonstrations had been led by John De Morgan a veteran Republican, anti-vaccinationist and member of the Magna Carta Association, who had been brought to Plumstead by a young solicitor Edmund Kimble. In 1876 Dilke, an apostate Republican, had raised the issue of Plumstead Common in Parliament. De Morgan and Forder were to have a very acrimonious fallout, which ended in a highly disorderly meeting in a Plumstead pub. Matters were not helped by De Morgan having been a stern opponent of Bradlaugh in the Republican movement. 27
Forder who worked in Woolwich Arsenal in the shell foundry was described as an “intelligent mechanic with extreme views ill fitting with the views of society at large” (W T Vincent, The Records of the Woolwich District, Vol 11, 1887). He was associated with the Advanced Liberals. Eventually, he was brought to trial in Maidstone charged with riotous assembly and malicious damage. Robert Martin, treasurer of the Forder defence fund which raised £46, and Le Lubez were defence witnesses. Forder was acquited while De Morgan was imprisoned for a month with a £50 fine or a further month. 28 Despite collections in the Arsenal, he was determined to stay in prison.
However, he was released after 17 days and returned to Woolwich where he addressed a crowd of over 20,000. Elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879, he failed to win the Liberal nomination in a by- election and emigrated to America. 29
Forder continued his career as a secularist speaker addressing meetings all over London. For example, he spoke on signs of the zodiac to South London Secular Society and to Walworth Association of Freethinkers on early witnesses to Christianity and their opinions. 30  He was also an auditor for the NSS and involved in the London Secular Tract Society which published several thousand pamphlets. Some meetings were held in the newly opened Deptford Secular Institute on Union Street. “Our hall is well filled every Sunday evening” reported Reynolds News (December 10, 1876) Christian hecklers who were thrown out were not readmitted. On Christmas Eve George Stranding spoke there on the French Revolution.

By 1878 Forder is listed as a member of the education committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. The RACS maintained reading rooms at its branches and moving in a socialist direction began to take such papers as Workman’s Times, Clarion and Labour Leader. In 1886 a branch of the Social Democratic Federation was formed in Deptford and slightly later Robert Banner formed branches of the Socialist League and then the ILP in Woolwich. Woolwich and Deptford were the first two constituencies in South London to elect Labour MPs.

This is not the end, rather it is only the beginning of a much larger study. It is hoped it will encourage readers to undertake studies of secularism in their areas.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Freethought History, bulletin of the Freethought History Research Group, no 1, Vol 1, 2003. They produced some fascinating glimpses into the history of secularists, atheists and freethinkers… 

REFERENCES TO ‘THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS’

1 . Geoffrey Crossik, An Artisan Elite in London, Croom Helm, London, 1978.
2 . National Reformer, 1/8/1871
3 . National Reformer, 5/3/1871
4 . National Reformer, 12/5/1871
5 . National Reformer, 4/6/1871
6 . National Reformer, 16/6/1871
7 . National Reformer, 13/8/1871
8 . National Reformer, 3/9/1871
9 . National Reformer, 10/9/1871
10. National Reformer, 21/1/1872
11. National Reformer, 26/5/1872
12. National Reformer, 7/7/1872
13. National Reformer, 15/9/1872, 23/10/1872
14. National Reformer, 30/3/1873
15. National Reformer, 5/4/1874
16. National Reformer, 14/6/1874
17. National Reformer, 21/6/1874
18. National Reformer, 2/8/1874
19 . National Reformer, 6/9/1874
20. National Reformer, 23/10/1874
21. National Reformer, 6/12/1874, 10/1/1876, 16/5/1876
22. National Reformer, 16/5/1875
23. National Reformer, 7/7/1875
24. National Reformer, 5/4/1875
25. Kentish Mercury, 4/9/1875, 25/9/1875
26. National Reformer, 27/2/1876
27. Sylvester St Clair, Sketch of the Life and Labour of John De Morgan, Orator, Elocutionist and Tribune of the People, Leeds, 1880.
28. National Reformer, 29/10/1876
29 . Leeds Times, 17/4/1880
30. National Reformer, 12/11/1876

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Terry Liddle, who originally wrote the above, died in 2012, after many decades of involvement in socialist, anarchist, green and secularist politics (among much more!)

There’s a couple of obituaries of Terry, here

here

and here’s a short notice which includes Terry’s self-penned ‘Death Song’:

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Although Terry’s account above is fairly dry and factual – the street meetings he briefly mentions must have often been quite lively affairs. Secularist street speaking often took place on or around local ‘speakers corners’, use of which developed over decades. These local speaking pitches were often crowded or contested – with local churches, religious groups, evangelical cults as well as radicals, socialists, liberals and any amount of other factions vying for space and fighting to be heard. The term ‘marketplace of ideology’ is literally accurate in many cases, as speakers corners were sometimes on the edge of local markets; others on open spaces, or on the high street. Christians, cops and various authorities took a dim view of these godless plebs articulating dangerous and subversive ideas, and secularists often faced harassment, a tussle over speaking pitches, and sometimes arrest. Bystanders might come to listen, hackle, or just to enjoy what disorder might arise…
But the secularists formed the shock troops of a process that was taking place at various levels of society, a long, slow dissolution of the deadening and suffocating influence christianity had over people. The undermining, questioning and debate that secularists and radical clubs hosted and took part in in the latter half of the 19th century helped push an already tottering edifice into collapse…