Jenny Wolmark has lived in Yorkshire since 1972, when she completed her MA at Leeds University. As well as being a member of the Communist Party, she was active in the women's movement and in her trade union for many years. She teaches in higher education, and is an Editor of the Journal of Gender Studies. She is currently getting used to the idea that she is middle-aged.
The pleasure-pain of feminist politics
In 1982 Anna Coote and Bea Campbell published Sweet Freedom, an account of the contemporary struggle for women's liberation. They describe, amongst other things, the way in which women have constantly had to rediscover themselves and their histories from the obscurity to which they have been consigned, and one of the declared aims of the book was to prevent a recurrence of this process. And yet, here we are, already having to rediscover the feminist seventies, rescuing them, if not from oblivion, at least from indifference.
Coote and Campbell ask what might seem to be an apocryphal question - 'Shall we late-twentieth-century feminists be reduced to fragments of political archaeology before we are even in our graves?' (10). In the event, this is a very prescient question: the struggles and achievements of the 1970s are not so much consigned to oblivion as de-emphasised and marginalized, simply through being taken for granted. To a much greater extent than ever before, women can now expect to be treated as equals, even if the reality falls short of genuine equality. At its most negative, this sense of equality 'as of right' stems from an assumption that many of the political battles have already been fought, and largely won. In the context of this kind of assumption, then, it would seem that we are already 'reduced to fragments of political archaeology'. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly clear that, though the social, cultural and political context has moved on, issues that were 'live' in the 1970s remain unresolved and on-going. This suggests that the broad nature of political activism in the 1970s not only remains relevant, but has also resulted in a significant continuity of interests and debate.
The radical politics of the 1960s had an enormous influence on the way in which politics were defined in the 1970s, and the CP was one of the few, if not the only organised political party in Britain that was prepared to respond positively to the need for redefinition. The combination of activism and openness to new ideas was one of the reasons for the tremendous influx of younger activists, particularly feminists, into the party. The seventies were marked by enormous global change, and one felt that it was almost a personal responsibility to be involved in what was going on. The engagement with politics at the time was so exciting because of the sense that it was both possible and necessary to move between contradictory constituencies in order to bring about real social and political change.
Looking back on the complexities of feminist political engagement in the 1970s, there is no doubt that we experienced moments of great difficulty in combining our feminism with membership of the CP, and negotiating the often contradictory agendas of the women's movement and the CP was exhilarating but also exhausting. The opposition voiced in the women's movement towards most kinds of traditional politics stemmed from a deep sense of frustration at the resistance to change at an ideological and organisational level, and we shared this frustration. But as feminists who were also communists, we struggled to develop what we felt to be a more politicised strategy for a thoroughgoing democratisation of all social, economic and political structures. As feminists in the CP, we argued for the need to make broad and democratic alliances with diverse groups and grass roots organisations to achieve change. Given that there was deep suspicion of feminism amongst members of the CP, and an equal suspicion of any form of left-wing party politics amongst sections of the women's movement, this strategy was not easily accepted. The debates around this issue, inside the party and the women's movement, were absolutely impassioned and at times both comradeship and sisterhood were often sorely tested. Despite this, we were sustained by an enduring sense of shared convictions and trust that largely accounts for a strongly remembered sense of the pleasure of politics in the seventies. This sense of shared agendas meant that it was possible to move across organisations and groupings in a very sophisticated way and networking became not only a necessary but also a highly enjoyable form of political activity and engagement.
The groundbreaking idea that the personal is political1 meant that key issues within the women's movement could be put on the agenda in a range of organisational environments from which such concerns had previously been excluded, such as the trade union movement. This was significant for us, because as feminists who were also communists and members of the trade union movement, we were able to develop strategies for getting issues such as equal pay into trade union discussion, often through the women's committees of trades union branches and trades councils. Even highly contentious issues such as abortion on demand became key items for debate in trade unions. Whil this was a difficult issue for many women, to find it on a trade union branch agenda was unprecedented. There were, of course, many women in the trade union movement who weren't necessarily sympathetic either to the idea of abortion on demand or to other demands of the women's movement. Indeed there was some antagonism towards the whole idea of women's liberation, a reaction that wasn't always understood by those sections of the women's movement in which it was felt that the experience of simply being a woman was enough in itself to produce a shared agenda.
As feminists in the CP, we felt it was necessary to make alliances rather than make assumptions, even if some in the women's movement sometimes saw this approach as betrayal. One example of the success of this strategy was the Working Women's Charter2, whose impact on the trade union movement was profound. It was feminists in the Communist Party who were instrumental in drafting the original charter from which the national Working Women's Charter campaign developed, with its key demands for equal pay, contraception and abortion on demand, more generous maternity leave and childcare facilities. The struggles at local level to get the Charter implemented succeeded when the necessity to work with other politically sympathetic groups and individuals was recognised. This generated a shared sense of commitment and also a sense that solidarity around particular issues was the way to bring about change. This was certainly my personal experience in Hull, where the previously moribund Women's Committee of the Trades Council was radicalised as a broad alliance of feminists and non-feminists campaigned to get the Working Women's Charter accepted as policy.
Generally, trust and shared agendas meant that a great sense of solidarity emerged from women working together over various issues. More often than not, this sense of solidarity overrode the factionalism that stemmed from the restrictive structures and practices of both the party and the trade union movement. It also gave women the confidence to push for change in the face of considerable opposition. Although struggles around fundamental rights such as equal pay or availability of childcare weren't always won, they began to be taken increasingly seriously. The overlap between the personal and the political also meant that politics was a very intense activity - we lived our politics, and that meant in social and sexual terms as well. There was a shift away from the notion that social and sexual relationships were 'private' and off limits. Nothing was off limits, and there was a radical rethinking of social and sexual 'styles' of behaviour and an openness to change, however painful it might be. Increasing numbers of women became increasingly aware of the hierarchical structures that permeated all social and sexual relations. Relationships, and the forms of intimacy that structured them, were subject to intense scrutiny and not all of them survived intact.
There was also a profound sense that ideas were allied to real and achievable outcomes, and so there was a great flowering of debate and creativity that manifested itself in a plethora of journals, books, films and so on. Numerous conferences and festivals facilitated shared links and interests, and evinced an overwhelming desire to be as inclusive as possible. The CP articulated its own responses to current political debates through a number of national events that acquired considerable political and cultural influence: it established an annual series of Communist Universities each summer which included a staggering array of renowned academic speakers; it held the 'Moving Left Show' at the Roundhouse in Camden which featured nationally & internationally known creative and entertainment figures; it organised a gigantic 'People's Jubilee' at the Alexandra Palace in London in response to the Queen's Silver Jubilee; it initiated the 'People's March for Jobs' as a response to increasing unemployment. Equally important to those of us who were feminists and members of the CP was the fact that we had outstanding role models available to us amongst a number of women who had a high profile in the Women's Movement and were also members of the CP. As journalists, academics and film makers, feminist Communist Party members such as Bea Campbell, Judith Hunt, Nina Temple, and Elizabeth Wilson demonstrated that it was both desirable and possible to combine style, cultural leadership and radical politics.
In my own experience of the CP, education, political activity and socialising were all connected - it was one of the few times when things were 'joined up' (to borrow an over-used phrase from New Labour). There had always been women's groups in the CP, as in all the traditional parties, but they had tended to be about supporting the existing hierarchies in which men dominated. With the influx into the party of feminist women who were also in the women's movement, the character of CP women's groups became much more independent, much more challenging, and - largely because of the diversity of the women who attended - much more fun. What was extraordinary about the occasions when women in the CP came together was the way in which debate about political events on a national and global level easily meshed with open debate about the details of women's lives. There was also a high level of awareness about the need to reinforce ideas about the liberation of women through practical and organisational support structures. In the CP, this meant that we not only argued for appropriate childcare to be available at all events, including week-end schools, day schools, and local and national conferences, but we also ensured that we got it.
This period of intense creativity on the part of both the CP and the Women's Movement lasted only about ten years and was, therefore, relatively short. As the momentum faltered and a changed transnational political and economic environment emerged, both the CP and the Women's Movement fragmented. Despite this, however, the impact of both has been considerable, not least because both were at the forefront of an intellectual shift towards recognition of difference, multiplicity and complexity. The notion that the personal is political was a profoundly important starting point for many women; for those of us who sought to combine feminism with the politics of democratic centralism3, the notion of the personal as political became a very complex one to negotiate since it entailed working across contradictory sets of ideas that could not easily be reconciled. Although the ideals of the Women's Movement and those of the CP coincided over a surprising number of issues, they remained, perhaps inevitably, at odds with one another. For me, that is the source of the dual character of my experience of politics in the seventies, in that it combined an equal measure of pleasure and pain.