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Women and the miners' strike – a fresh look at our history

Recent research projects seek to re-examine the role of women during the 1984-5 miners’ strike by focusing on fact rather than prevailing formulaic imagery created by the media at the time. LYNNE WALSH reports

THERE are couple of lines in Mal Finch’s great song, Women of the Working Class: “In fighting for our future we found ways to organise. Where Women’s Liberation failed to move, this strike has mobilised.”

The strike in question was, of course, the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Some of the women in question were groups up and down the country, part of Women Against Pit Closures [WAPC]. The mention of Women’s Lib, though, is a lot trickier to pin down. The movement had already been demonised, not only in the tabloid press, but in working men’s clubs, workplaces and, hush-hush, even trade unions.

Spurious tales of bra-burning were rife, the strike for equal pay at Ford’s Dagenham plant had ruffled feathers, and there was a female prime minister in No 10.

Three self-defined feminist researchers decided recently to look at one aspect of this febrile time, conducting an oral history project with more than 100 of the WAPC women. Dr Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Dr Victoria Dawson, both of the University of London [UCL] and Dr Natalie Thomlinson of the University of Reading, reported on “Women and Feminism in the Miners’ Strike” as part of UCL’s Festival of Culture over the past week.

Sutcliffe-Braithwaite said the idea for their work came to them in 2015, when they heard “claims about valiant women caught up in a feminist transformation.”

This week, she reported that “The idea that WAPC represented a working class feminist movement is problematic.”

Some of the researchers’ interviews focus on the most visible part of the women’s support, when mountains of food were prepared. Many of us will remember the TV coverage of that year, when we witnessed two powerful sets of images: the men, on picket lines, in confrontations with police, and the women, counting tins, or dishing out meals to hungry children.

The media’s formulaic approach helped to cement a view, then and now, that the men had taken heroic action and the womenfolk concentrated on keeping the home-fires burning — even if they had to break up their dressing table for fuel. There is precious little footage of female pickets. There is even less of the men who kept house while the women worked.

This project has captured some vibrant memories, always a worthy endeavour. Interviewee Christine Bell speaks of their women’s group getting together: “We met in one house, so we only had to light one fire.”

Pat Smith, setting up a WAPC unit in Dinnington, said they were not welcomed by the NUM lodge at first. Her husband Dave said: “I advised them to ‘picket’ the meeting!”

In scenes reminiscent of the superb 1954 film Salt of the Earth [made by blacklisted writers and actors in the US; the story of a zinc mine in New Mexico where the women take to the picket lines when their men are arrested] the women in 1984 addressed the all-male meeting.

Speaking in public was a huge feature of the women’s support work, and Sutcliffe-Braithwaite reported: “A trope that came up again and again was that this transformed their sense of confidence. They became very confident and enjoyed their new-found freedom.”

True for some, though surely not for the likes of Roni Chapman, not only a librarian at Coal House [the National Coal Board’s regional HQ] but also a Doncaster councillor. She speaks eloquently in the short film made by the project team.

Many would say they were too busy fighting capitalism to have a go at the patriarchy

Some of the older women had lived through the 1972 and 1974 strikes, both lasting only weeks, and Sutcliffe-Braithwaite concedes that these were formative. “If those strikes had been longer, there may have been women’s groups in the same way as in 84-85.”

This seems to miss a fundamental factor in mining communities’ psyche at the time. That ’74 strike had brought down a Tory government. A decade later, working class areas had weathered more than five hard years under Thatcher. I interviewed, and chatted with many women in miners’ support groups; they were keen to defeat another Conservative government and its leader.

One young mother in the village of Glyneath summed it up, in 1984: “I can stir the cawl [stew] with one hand, and feed the baby with the other — and just because I’ve got my hands full, doesn’t mean I can’t take this chance to get rid of that cow.”

It may well have seemed, to outsiders, that women were constrained by domesticity. Many were, but that didn’t mean there was no time to meet, discuss and plan. WAPC was a political organisation, with a strategy to overthrow the establishment. Women who seized that opportunity during the strike found other chances.

By 1984, hoards of women had already spent time at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, some of the Welsh sisters from as early as September 1981.

For others, there had been countless actions in their own communities, often struggling to get local authority attention and funding for neglected areas. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite said: “We wanted to see if they had experience [of activism], and there were sometimes small things, such as agitating for a new crossing outside a school. Perhaps we wrongly see those as small things.”

That’s a point made well in the work of Jean Spence and Carol Stephenson.

Female Involvement in the Miners’ Strike 1984-1985: Trajectories of Activism points to a stereotypical assumption that women moved from a kind of passivity and domesticity to politicisation — and then probably returned to the kitchen.

They pierced that stereotype: “This depiction is based on a masculinist view which sees political action as organisationally based and which fails to recognise the importance of small scale and emotional political work which women did and continue to undertake within their communities.

“In reality, many women were politically active and aware prior to the dispute though not necessarily in a traditional sense. Women’s activism is characterised by continuity: those women who have maintained activism were likely to have been socially and/or politically active prior to the dispute.”

It seems an interesting enough oral history project, to ask the WAPC if they defined themselves as feminists. Some said they were in favour of equality between the sexes, though not positive discrimination, some expressed irritation that they were depicted in the media as women’s libbers, some viewed feminists as men-haters.

Does this project add to the public’s understanding of what motivated Women Against Pit Closures? Is there some media-formulated version of a fairy tale, where housewives became radicalised, and rallied in support of their men, without having a desire to declare themselves feminists?
Or does the problem lie in asking women to choose a label?

I’ve known plenty of these women; many would say they were too busy fighting capitalism to have a go at the patriarchy. If researchers asked them if they were class warriors, now that would tell a different tale.

The chorus of the Women of the Working Class song says: “United by the struggle, United by the past.”

In the old mining communities, the present struggle and the fight for a better future is always informed by the past, isn’t it?

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