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Celebrating the women of the coalfields

Banners will be raised in Durham on Saturday to celebrate the Women Against Pit Closures movement. PETER LAZENBY reports

WOMEN from Europe, the United States and across Britain will gather in Durham on Saturday to celebrate the Women Against Pit Closures movement (WAPC).

The movement, which was founded in Barnsley in South Yorkshire in 1984 during the miners’ strike against pit closures, is credited with prolonging the year-long strike for at least four months through its fundraising and political campaigning.

Thousands of women from pit communities mobilised. For many, the strike changed their lives for ever.

WAPC also inspired women from coalmining communities in Europe and the US to take action in support of Britain’s miners, their families and their communities.

By Saturday delegations of women from France, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States will have arrived in Durham to take part in celebrations which include a march, rally, speeches, music and comedy.

Heather Wood from the former mining community of Easington in County Durham is national secretary of Women Against Pit Closures.

She told the Morning Star: “It was last year at about this time I said to my husband John ‘We must do something for the 40th anniversary.’ He said ‘OK but keep it small.’

“We went to Barnsley to meet Betty Cook [one of the founders of WAPC in 1984]. Then we thought about Scotland and Wales, Lancashire, Kent and Yorkshire. Then it was some friends who had met American miners, so we got in touch with them. At first they said they would do it online by live stream, but then they said ‘we’re coming over.’

“The Lancashire group will only have one woman who was active in the strike, but there’ll be younger women coming with her carrying the banner.

“Then some friends in Germany rang and said they were coming, then Dutch people, then France. A lot of them were women who were in support groups during the strike. And if not them then it’s their daughters and granddaughters. They’ve found their banners so quite a few of the original women’s banners are coming over.”

Betty Cook, who helped found the Women Against Pit Closures movement with Anne Scargill, will be at Saturday’s event.

Wood established the miners’ first food kitchen two weeks into the strike and helped mobilise hundreds of women to support what they recognised would be a long, hard struggle. Her own mining community of Easington in Co Durham was solidly behind the strike.

Easington was the target for a huge police mobilisation during the strike, after a Tory MP publicly criticised police for failing to protect a sole scab from another village who wanted to break the strike at Easington, which employed more than 1,000 miners. The police response was to mobilise 2,500 officers, many in riot gear, to occupy the village.

Villagers were attacked and arrested. The violence spread throughout the community. Many other mining communities were given similar treatment during the strike.

Their pits may be long gone but the events are not forgotten. Such incidents will be recalled on Saturday when the actions of the women of the coalfields are celebrated.

Throughout the week the Durham women have been running a temporary “pop-up shop” exhibition in Durham’s Prince Bishop Centre where banners are being gathered and displayed, new WAPC badges created and events staged. Events are taking place every night in Durham in the build-up to Saturday’s celebration. 

“On Monday night we had Amber Film Collective. They made a film five years ago called What Happened,” said Wood.

“On Saturday the shop will still be open and women will pick up their banners to march,” she said..

The marchers will assemble at Palace Green outside Durham Cathedral at 12.30pm setting off with banners raised, down Saddler Street. The march will be led by women and their banners and a band, followed by trade union banners.

The march will pause outside the Swan and Three Cygnets pub near the County Hotel where the WAPC song, Women of the Working Class, will be sung, written by Mal Finch in 1984 as the WAPC anthem.

The women will then march through a “guard of honour” of Durham miners’ pit lodge banners.

The celebration resumes at Dunelm House, the Durham Students’ Union building, where speakers will include Civil Service union PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote, Bakers Food and Allied Workers’ union general secretary Sarah Woolley and Durham Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy.

Celebrations will continue on Saturday evening with entertainment and music including socialist singer-songwriter Joe Solo.

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