UK Women's Liberation was a feminist movement which emerged with force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Women's movements had been a force for change since the suffragist and suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But this new wave gained great prominence through different forms of direct action and debate.
The movement was built around networks of local women's groups' national conferences where representatives from local groups could meet for strategic discussion. The movement established networks for support, analysed women's roles and relationships in society and defined a set of demands for the social and economic equality for women.
Over 27 and 28 February and 1 March 1970 women's groups from around the country met at the first National Women's Liberation Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford to discuss the challenges facing women and the liberation movement and to work out a series of demands. Later in 1970 the newly formed Women's National Co-ordinating Committee announced the resulting four basic demands:
Equal education and job opportunities
Free contraception and abortion on demand
Free 24-hour nurseries
The movement's demands were printed on banners and on a petition handed to the prime minister on 6 March 1971 when 4000 marched through London on the movement's First International Women's Day march.
The London Women's Liberation Workshop was formed in 1969. In its first year it began to publish its newsletter Shrew.
The cover of this early edition of Shrew, from December 1970, reports on the First National Women's Liberation Conference where members of the movement discussed the issue of misrepresentation.
The problem of misrepresentation made the existence of publications like Shrew and other prominent feminist magazines such as Spare Rib (launched in 1972) all the more important. They not only allowed the movement a platform for self-representation but, on the back of media headlines generated by direct action, also reached a wider female audience. Feminist magazines provided alternatives to typical women's magazines of the time in which women's issues were defined as beauty, romance and domestic life.
The most headline-grabbing direct action of this period was a demonstration staged in November 1970 at the Miss World competition at the Albert Hall in London. This demonstration followed similar action at the Miss America pageants in 1968 and 1969 where, by throwing stilettos and other symbols of oppression into a 'Freedom Trashcan', demonstrators claimed a great deal of publicity and a false reputation for bra burning.
At the Miss World competition, demonstrators carried placards reading 'Miss-fortune demands equal pay for women, Miss-conception demands free abortion for all women, Miss-placed demands a place outside the home'. Their slogan was: 'We're not beautiful, we're not ugly, we're angry' .
Bob Hope is quoted in the December 1970 issue of Shrew: 'Their condition is the condition of all women, born to be defined by their physical attributes, born to give birth, or if born pretty, born lucky; a condition which makes it possible and acceptable; within the bourgeois ethic, for girls to parade, silent and smiling, to be judged on the merits of their figures and faces' . (Bob Hope - 'Pretty girls don't have these problems').
Hope's implication is that 'pretty girls' don't have the problems that 'plain' girls might?in finding a husband or making a successful career. such logic would also state that W.L. (women's liberation) girls must be plain, because only plain girls would have an interest in attacking the system (Shrew, December 1970, 'Miss World', pp 16-17).
The protest, at which demonstrators were arrested on assault charges for throwing flour bombs, tomatoes and stink bombs, was also a publicity-raising spectacle. It gave profile to the movement and public voice to its demands. The protest was successful in this aim and gained widespread newspaper and television coverage. Five of the protesters arrested at the demonstration faced trial at Bow Street Magistrates Court.
The movement's campaign was very successful. Women gained a stronger voice and began to take more powerful positions in public life, and between 1970 and 1976 a series of laws were introduced that signalled greater equality for women:
- The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 granting equal wages for women and men doing the same work.
- The Women's Aid Federation was formed in 1974 providing support and refuge for women and children experiencing domestic violence.
- The Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975 outlawing sexual discrimination in the workplace.
- The Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1976 enabling married or cohabiting women to obtain a court order aimed at preventing further violence and to exclude her violent partner from the home.