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‘Women remain the exploited, oppressed as workers and oppressed as women’

50 years ago SHEILA ROWBOTHAM wrote a landmark article about the real problems women had in society and in socialist parties. Bernadette Hyland talks to her about the continuing struggle for working-class women’s liberation

ON January 10 1969 in an article called “Women: The struggle for freedom,” published in the Marxist magazine Black Dwarf, socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham poured out her anger and resentment about the inequality and injustice of women’s lives: “A much less tangible something — a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape — a muttered dissatisfaction — which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.” 

Rowbotham lived in a communal house in London, worked part-time teaching at a local FE college, and was involved with socialist politics.  

But she saw her male comrades as part of the problem. 

“They, like the left generally then, treated women with derision when we spoke up about how we felt about our lives,” she told me when I spoke to her.   

This came to a head when she became involved in producing an issue on women’s issues for Black Dwarf. 

Rowbotham remembers that when her male comrades tried to make out that it was she that was the problem, not all women, the 17-year-old secretary, Ann Scott, spoke up: “It’s not just Sheila, it’s all women.”

As Rowbotham explained to men in the article: “We still get less pay for the same work as you. We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful in which we have any responsibility. We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised. The present set-up of the family puts great strain on us.”

Rowbotham was part of a minority of women who had got to Oxford, but it was not an easy position to be in. 

“The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually is in a peculiarly isolated position. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally towards boys as friends.” 

In the 1960s everything was changing. Civil rights movements across the world were kicking off and there was a widespread belief that things would change dramatically.  

Rowbotham was researching women’s history, finding links with the writings of women such as Alexandra Kollontai, who in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution drew the links between the personal and the political. 

Rowbotham’s own analysis of women’s discrimination was (and still is) grounded in her respect for working-class women. 

She realised how divided women are by men and society, but that the position of working-class women was much worse. 

“They remain the exploited, oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.”

While some women were still intellectualising about feminism, working-class women such as Lil Bilocca and the Hull fishermen’s wives in 1968 were defending the lives of their men at work on trawlers.  

As Rowbotham recognised, “It was unusual to see a woman fighting publicly and speaking, and men on the left listening with respect, tinged admittedly with a touch of patronage.”

At the same time as some women, mainly middle class, were taking part in workshops, conferences and setting up the first Women’s Liberation groups, there was a parallel movement of women activists in their workplaces. 

The women at Ford in Dagenham, led by Rose Boland, showed that women could organise themselves and take strike action. 

It also had a ripple effect on the left. “The Ford’s women also helped make the question of women’s specific oppression easier to discuss on the left,” says Rowbotham. 

Women’s groups spread across the country, culminating in January 1970 when the first nationwide meeting took place at Ruskin College Oxford. 

Rowbotham was amazed at the response. “We thought perhaps 100 women would come. In fact more than 500 people turned up, 400 women, 60 children and 40 men … it was really from the Oxford conference that a movement could be said to exist.” 

They settled on four demands to begin with: equal pay, improved education, 24-hour nurseries and free contraception and abortion on demand. 

For Rowbotham it was not all analysis. In 1971 she was involved with the Hackney Women’s Liberation Workshop and the night cleaners campaign. 

They were a very badly treated group of women workers: Rowbotham and some of her sisters became involved in the campaign. 

They leafleted the women’s employers and held meetings with the women. It was controversial as some of the HWLW felt that they should not get involved with organisations such trade unions that also included men.

Over the last 50 years much has changed for women in this country. But Rowbotham comments that few people now talk about an alternative vision for society, and that while and race and gender are dominant issues, class has been  marginalised.  

“Inequality has increased. Women have been pushed down and working-class women pushed down even more.”  

She believes that the values of the left in the 1960s, which were about solidarity and caring, have been replaced with ideas of individual rights rather than ones of collectivity and the possibility of creating a different society.

In 1969 Rowbotham concluded her article: “But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. They then can liberate the colonisers.”  

In 2019 this still seems a worthy aim for women, to liberate themselves — and then liberate men.   

Verso will be republishing Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties in June.

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