Activism and the Women's Liberation Movement

Activism and the Women’s Liberation Movement

The Women’s Liberation Movement was formed of young women living in a period of rapid social and cultural change. Many were also active in civil rights, peace and new left movements and had the skills to spread their message in powerful and varied ways. Read this introductory article to discover the campaigning methods used by the WLM and the differences in approach, method and political starting point.

The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s gathered together women, most of them young, who were living lives of rapid social and cultural change. These changes made them question the conditions of their lives, and their relationships with men, other women and children. Some were active in the 1960s in political movements that campaigned for civil rights, peace and the new left. As you read through this section, you will learn about differences in approach, method and political starting point. But all records of the movement’s practical actions show that love, friendship, empathy and often extraordinary idealism kept women going through the sheer hard graft and attention to detail that building and sustaining a campaign required.

Sue Crockford recalls the first conference on Women's Liberation

Grass-roots activism

Activists drew attention to their causes in many ways, sometimes using traditional political methods such as lobbying and marches, but more often developing alternative, locally based actions. Many campaigns grew out of small groups and women’s centres, which were set up all over the UK in the 1970s and became a unique way for members of the WLM to meet up. These centres were often basic rooms in houses and community centres where women provided advice and, in the early days, pregnancy testing and sometimes temporary refuge for women in domestic trouble. They were also alternative spaces where women could socialise, hold meetings, run workshops and much more. Feminist publications – magazines, leaflets, posters and newsletters – were often produced by the groups of women who met at these centres. Women’s centres still exist, often now more professionally connected to social services, and are one of the many legacies of the WLM.

Jalna Hanmer talks about consciousness-raising groups 

Protests and marches

In 1970 feminists flour-bombed the Miss World contest, protesting at the objectification of women. You can find out more about the reasons for this protest in Bodies, Minds and Spirits. Feminists came from far and wide to the Royal Albert Hall in London to disrupt the proceedings, watched by tens of thousands on TV. Some women who witnessed the spectacle at home ran out into the streets to support the protest. Eventually the chaos in the Royal Albert Hall forced the live show to be cancelled. The events of that evening, the arrest of five women and the ensuing public trial of four defendants who conducted their own defence, put the spotlight firmly on feminism, although press reports were heavily critical of the protest. The Times, for example, published an editorial on 21 November, which began:

Six months have passed since the successful agitation against the South African cricket tour, and now the call has gone out for an end to the Miss World competition.... Once again an activity traditionally regarded as quite harmless by most people has been denounced as an offensive exploitation of a wronged community. Then it was race: now it is sex.

The editorial is interesting for its concession to demands for equal pay, but when it comes to the nature and aim of cultural protest of the kind that fuelled the Miss World action, it concludes:

It is hard to support the view of women as an oppressed majority moving towards a revolutionary deliverance. Many are content simply to be different from men, with few feelings of subordination or inferiority. And a powerful antidote to Women’s Liberation lies in the plain fact of differentiation of biological function, with all the deep differences in behaviour and life-experience which this entails. Perhaps the real criticism of the Miss World competition should also be applied to the Women’s Liberation Movement: that they both exalt an essentially functionless feminism.

Notwithstanding these kinds of attitudes, which were probably representative of the population as a whole in the 1970s, later the same year thousands of people took to the streets in national, local and regional rallies on International Women’s Day – held globally every year on 8 March since the early 1900s – to raise awareness of sexual inequality. Events such as these, which still continue to happen all over the world, raised the movement’s profile; they both celebrate women’s achievements and protest at inequality.

Jo Robinson recalls the protest against the Miss World competition in 1970

Law and politics

The Women’s Liberation Movement operated at a strong grass-roots level and was autonomous from any one party or organisation, but it also worked hard to change laws concerning women, their status and their relationships with men. Feminists campaigning for the WLM’s seven demands lobbied Parliament, and worked with and became a new generation of feminist lawyers, MPs and, eventually, lords. The movement often found support for its aims in the Labour Party and the trade unions, both of which were crucial to successes such as defending the 1967 Abortion Act; establishing the Trade Union Council’s Working Women’s Charter; winning cases of sex discrimination and eventually gaining the principle of equal value as well as equal pay; and increasing the number of women in Parliament. Sometimes this meant compromise; sometimes they worked in powerful allegiance. Consider the difference between the WLM and TUC slogans for abortion rights: ‘A woman’s right to choose’ was the WLM demand; ‘Make it legal, make it safe’ was all over the TUC posters. The two slogans were both effective but made very different appeals.

You can find our more about the struggle for women’s employment rights in Equality and Work.

Lesley Abdela talks about how few women were in parliament in the 1960s, '70s and '80s

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.