40 years of women’s liberation

It’s 40 years since the first women’s liberation conference at Ruskin College in Oxford, a significant event in the history of UK feminism. Next month the College is organising another conference to acknowledge the anniversary (more details here).

Today the Guardian runs a piece by Kira Cochrane looking back at this event, which is full of interesting details.

This amused me:

There were many distinct leftwing groups in ­attendance, including Marxist-Leninists “who were most forthcoming to volunteer to take minutes,” says Graessle, “then rewrote them to suit their view of history”

And later:

It simply isn’t possible to work at such a clip for ever. Then there were internal divisions – a chart produced in 1979 defined 13 distinct types of British feminist, including “eurocommunists”, “humanists” and “redstockings”.

But generally this is an interesting – if brief – look at what happened at that conference:

As Graessle’s sticker campaign showed, feminist organising was already under way – there had been the highly influential 1968 strike for equal pay by female machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant; and a 1969 women’s issue of the revolutionary newspaper, Black Dwarf. But the activity was disparate, disconnected, and it was therefore unclear how many people would turn up at Ruskin. Rowbotham says that they were expecting “perhaps a hundred or two hundred people”. Five hundred showed up. “Everybody arrived with their sleeping bags on Friday night,” she says, “which was turmoil, and then they managed to extend the conference into the Oxford Union, an extraordinarily stiff environment that was meant to produce male orators who would become prime ministers. I remember being really scared of speaking in that room.”

In Once a Feminist, Wandor writes that papers were given on “the family, motherhood, delinquency, women and the economy, the concept of ‘women’s work’, [and] equal pay”, among others. Mary Kennedy, who was also at the conference, says that “there was a real buzz of excitement. As a child I had been very angry about being a girl, in terms of the way that I was treated, because the boys and the men had all the power. Then, here came this turning point, and we were all able to speak out.”

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