Celebrating 50 years of the modern Women’s Liberation Movement

Fifty years ago in February 1970, over 500 women met at a conference in Oxford. The event launched the modern women’s movement. Sheila Rowbotham was at this ground breaking event and part of the small group of women who helped to make it happen. Mike Davis spoke to her about the conference and its impact.

In 1969 I was at Ruskin College at a History Workshop meeting where one of the few women trade union students gave a talk about working class women in the 19th Century. When a man said it would be better if women didn’t work outside the home, I disagreed strongly, believing that by working and earning a wage women could achieve a level of economic independence.

Some women, including Anna Davin and Sally Alexander, met together after this workshop and decided to have a bigger meeting to discuss the issues. I suggested a history conference about women, but Barbara Winslow, an American socialist, said we should not just be looking at the history but also at the contemporary situation for women.

Sally was then a student at Ruskin and, along with another student there, Arielle Aberson, did most of the organising within the college. Arielle was an inspiring historian who was already aware of the important part women had played in the French Commune (of 1871). She was tragically killed in a car crash shortly after the conference.

A few women’s liberation groups had started to form and we met on an ad hoc basis to plan the conference in London. Among the people I remember at a planning meeting was Juliet Mitchell (who had written a pioneering article in NLR [New Left Review]) and a veteran Suffragette, who said to me: “You are very lucky to be able to have a hall to meet. They banned us.”

The first Women’s Liberation Conference was held on the last weekend in February and the beginning of March and we were overwhelmed by the numbers. I remember the extraordinary eloquence of really young women, standing up at the microphone and speaking about their local groups on the Friday evening.

So what were the main issues discussed at the conference?

Audrey Wise (a trade union activist and later Labour MP) argued that working for equal rights between men and women was not enough, because the position of working class men was not a good one. Instead of framing demands in terms of ‘rights’, Audrey Wise stressed the need to go beyond this and challenge the meaning of work and life in the workplace, questioning power relationships as a whole. Audrey gave an account of this in a collection of interviews about the conference edited by Michelene Wandor called Once a Feminist.

The Peckham Group – a 1 O’Clock club – described the emotional impact of being enclosed at home doing all the housework and child care. This was an early indication of how personal life began to assume a political aspect.

Sheli Wortis, a US woman active in the Stop It group against the Vietnam War, belonged to one of the first women’s liberation groups in London, the Tufnell Park Group. She challenged the exclusive emphasis in current approaches to child care of the close bonding of mothers with their children and asked what about fathers? She said father deprivation ought to be taken into account. She added too that connecting to a loving group for children need not be limited simply to the family unit. It could be part of a wider shift to cooperation. Her husband Henry was among the men who ran the crèche at the conference.

Some history did get raised at the conference. I spoke on ‘The Myth of Inactivity’ and described the active role played by poor women in all the nineteenth century French Revolutions. Jo O’Brien talked about women’s part in crowd action over food in the early 19th Century. It was interesting that right at the beginning there was an awareness that the organisation and resistance of women had extended well beyond arguing simply for equality with men.

However, the four demands that were to be raised from the conference did emphasise equality in work, education, pay and stressed the need for both child care and free contraception and access to free abortions. Of course these are needed but I thought then and think still now they do not go far enough.

Were there divisions evident between different groupings?

The older women tended to be from the Communist Party with a few from older feminist lobbies. A small number were trade union women. The women I knew there were in their twenties, many had been active in CND, anti-apartheid and against the Vietnam war. We had been influenced by the ideas from Civil Rights and from Black Power about challenging how you were seen and defined, which we connected to our position as women. But some must have just heard about the conference and turned up because they were feeling angry about their oppression simply as women.

Because we met under the umbrella term of ‘Women’s Liberation’ differences were not so evident. The emphasis was on asserting our interests and needs as women. It was not until around 1972 and 1973 that divisions began to emerge between radical feminists and socialist feminists. But for several years we continued to be able to work together.

What were the most significant achievements of the Oxford conference?

Organisationally the event gave enormous confidence to women and boosted feminist groups. We did not feel so isolated. I wrote an early article on our beginnings in the first collection on women’s liberation, The Body Politic (1972) edited by Micheline Wandor, and I reflected then that it was the first time a sense of being part of a movement became a reality.

The immediate result was that we grew in numbers. By March 1971 thousands of women turned out in sleet and snow for the International Women’s Day demonstration.

We got the idea of consciousness raising groups from the Americans. It allowed us to talk about our private life; everything from domestic labour to orgasms became part of politics. This shift in what constituted politics spread out to many more demands and a critique of how women were seen and treated in society. It led the way to a bigger challenge to cultural hegemony and a rebellion against the confining of women through a world bounded by a male lens.

It led too to important organisational innovations like community controlled nurseries and Women’s Aid centres for women who suffered domestic violence. We really stressed control and grass roots democracy.

What we did not, could not envisage was that though a minority of women would move upwards in the work place, the cuts in public state provision would place many working class women in a more vulnerable position.

I think one of the most striking features of the new women’s movement is that young women today, our grandchildren’s generation, are so much more confident. But they face big problems.

What we all need now so badly is an emphasis upon the values of care and cooperation which have been dismissed and dumped. Both women and men would benefit immensely from this turn around in society.

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