In the series of Women’s Political Life interviews from the Manchester Studies oral history collection (conducted between 1977 and 1978), the interviewees are asked for their thoughts and opinions about today’s Women’s Liberation movement.
The Women’s Liberation Movement was formed by young women in the 1960s who began to question their lives and the everyday inequalities they faced in society. This second wave feminism focused not just on politics but on wider issues affecting women including healthcare, sexuality, employment and education.
By the time of these interviews there had been changes in legislation aimed to improve women’s rights, such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Employment Protection Act 1975 and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976. Social and cultural changes included the publication of Spare Rib magazine (1972), the formation of the National Women’s Aid Federation (1974) and the first Reclaim the Night march (1977).
In the late 1970s national campaigns and protests would have made news headlines, while at a local level, smaller, grass roots feminist groups were forming and organising. Is this something the Manchester Studies interviewees would have recognised and could relate to?
Mrs. B was an active communist party member who attended public meetings, went on demonstrations and was involved with women’s groups including the Women’s Mortality Group. She states she wishes she had been born in this period and goes on to talk about her daughter and her politics, who in turn, may have influenced her own husband. (1103-756(2)_09) transcript here / download here
“She used to be in the YCL [Young Communist League] my daughter but wasn’t very active. ‘ Course she starts courting and, er, the boy she was courting thought it was a load of nonsense, you know, about politics and that…”
Mrs. C became a trade union shop steward, joined the communist party and lived in Russia for a number of years. When she returned, she also joined the Labour party and was an active member of the Left Book Club and the Co-operative Guild. She and her husband were able to work together to organise their home life and childcare around attending party meetings. However, this was not the case for other families in the communist party. (1103-757(1)_02) transcript here / download here
“I had to fight with some of the men… to release their wives to come to a meeting…”
Mrs. C points out that she wants a better life for her children and grandchildren, not like her own upbringing, even if she learnt hard lessons. She ends the interview on the importance of continuing to be involved, on being active, even at her age, approaching 76!
The balance of raising a young family with political involvement is something almost all of the interviewees discuss. (1103-758(1)_03) transcript here / download here
Mrs. F: “…It was most certainly a problem, unless you were lucky enough to have a relative or friend, that you could, you know, that you could leave the children with. And if you were working class people it just was very difficult, because you couldn’t afford to say I’ll pay a babysitter, that you could not do.”
Mrs. F grew up in a family where politics was discussed at home; her father was imprisoned for being a pacifist and a conscientious objector. She later joined the Young Community League and met her future husband at a literature meeting. In her interview she later talks about her interest in the Women’s Liberation movement that sprang up in the 1960s and the class she attended. “I hoped to learn what was actually meant by Women’s Liberation.” (1103-758(1)_04) transcript here / download here
“I felt that I had a certain sympathy with a lot of their aims, but that they went beyond where I could sympathise with them when they insisted that women had to be, as it were, a separate force, a separate entity from the men. And that rights for women were so paramount that it did not matter about the rights for men. And when they reached that stage I fell away from their beliefs because I feel that the rights that women can achieve can only be achieved alongside rights for men. That you can’t have a liberated woman unless you liberate men with them. ”
Mrs. F goes on to talk about how this was the first time she had engaged in a “…formal sort of set up where I listened to and discussed matters affecting women’s liberation.” She had, obviously, talked with female friends and they was aware of what was happening in America and aware of the work of feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan. (1103-758(1)_05) transcript here / download here
“Good luck to them, I say” is how Mrs. J initially responds to the question of her views on Women’s Liberation from the 1960s onwards. Later in the interview subtle, maybe generational, differences in opinions become clear. (1103-761_03) transcript here / download here
“…it was an altogether different world…when I see pictures, or on the telly or in the paper of these girls screaming for abortions, you know, ‘abortions on demand’, ok go and have your abortion love, I don’t mind, you know, I don’t…I don’t think abortion is an answer really, I would have hated to interfere with myself in that way…”
Mrs. J was a member of the communist party and was told of the Worker’s Birth Control Clinic in Greengate, Salford by a doctor and fellow party member. She also remarks in her interview that women’s reproductive health was not talked about at that time, not even amongst friends.
It is fascinating to listen to the women reflect back on their own campaigning and activism from the 1930s alongside a comparison of their modern lives in the 1970s. What will today’s listeners think of these recordings? How do their opinions differ?
British Library, Timeline of the Women’s Liberation Movement
London School of Economics and Political Science, Women’s Liberation Movement
Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.