Campaigns and protests of the Women's Liberation Movement

From legal and illegal action, to quiet subversion and huge spectacle, feminists of the Women’s Liberation Movement employed various methods in order to make their point and demand social and legislative change. Find out more about at some of the WLM's central campaigns.

Jane Hutt talks about learning organisational skills through working for women's aid

From protest marches to strikes, smashing windows of pornography shops, flour-bombing beauty pageants, letter-writing campaigns and ‘die-ins’ in Downing Street, campaigns about issues central to women’s lives have taken many forms. From legal and illegal action, to quiet subversion and huge spectacle, women have employed various methods in order to make their point and demand social and legislative change. This section looks at some of the WLM's central campaigns.

Rebecca Johnson on the 'Embrace the Base' protest at Greenham Common

Campaigns around reproductive rights and abortion rights

The politics of reproduction – fertility, childbirth and child-rearing – lie at the heart of feminist campaigns across the world. Here we will address only one, that of abortion, because it was such a visible and prominent campaign for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the ‘70s. ‘Free contraception and abortion on demand’ was one of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement’s initial four demands, agreed at the first national conference in 1970.

The beginnings of abortion legislation can be found in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which stated that any abortion, even if performed for medical reasons, was a criminal act. In 1929 the Infant Life Preservation Act was passed, allowing abortions to be carried out up to the 28th week of pregnancy, if the mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy. In the 1930s the Abortion Law Reform Society was set up, and a landmark case was won, after which abortion could be carried out if the mental health of the mother was at risk. Wealthy women could often afford to see a psychiatrist who could approve them for a safe abortion on grounds of mental health. Poorer women did not have access to this provision and the number of backstreet, illegal abortions was high, with many women dying as a result of inadequate medical attention.

Abortion was legalised in the UK in 1967 so long as consent had been given by two doctors and the woman was less than 24 weeks pregnant. The act was put forward by David Steel, a Liberal MP, but it was backed by the long-standing Abortion Law Reform Association of 25 national groups. These included traditional women’s groups as well as the National Council for Civil Liberties. As soon as the act was passed there was opposition, led by far-right Christian groups and the Catholic Church. The 1967 Abortion Act did not and still does not apply to Northern Ireland, where Nationalists and Unionists have joined together repeatedly to block abortion rights being extended to women. Ann Rossiter, author of Ireland's Hidden Diaspora: The 'Abortion Trail' and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980–2000 (IASC Publications, 2009), testified to the long campaigns that have followed from this in a Witness Workshop at The Women’s Library in 2009. Transcripts and video of the Witness Workshops are available from The Women’s Library.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s there were various attempts to amend the 1967 Abortion Act. These included restricting the grounds on which a woman could request an abortion or the number of doctors who were licensed to perform one. The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was founded in 1975 in order to defend women’s abortion rights. Political theorist Elizabeth Meehan suggests that in some ways the campaign for abortion rights reflected feminists’ general sense that the legal equality they had won was fragile and immediately under threat. She states that the NAC activated a feminist network in the British Labour movement by drawing attention to the difficulties in securing abortions even within a legal framework.

Currently nearly 200,000 women have legal abortions each year in Britain and there is a general all-party consensus that there is no political appetite to change the law. Nevertheless abortion’s place as a central element of women’s rights remains a highly challenging and challenged idea.

Both pro- and anti-abortion campaigners have used and continue to use protest marches to state their opinions and raise public awareness for their campaigns.

Jan McKenley describes how she was involved with the National Abortion Campaign in London in 1978

Campaigns against violence against women

Campaigns against violence against women form another central theme of WLM activism. Making violence against women socially unacceptable is seen as one of the movement’s great successes, internationally as well as in Britain. Many of the women whose stories you can hear on this site campaigned around this issue. Campaigns took many forms, from public demonstrations and meetings, to the setting up of refuges, to offering free legal advice to women.

Campaigns against violence against women achieved success on a national and international level. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1979. CEDAW defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. In 1993 a UN World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna. At this assembly it was declared that ‘The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights’. This was an important step forward for women’s rights on the international stage. It explicitly identified sexual violence and abuse as a human rights violation, and drew attention to the relationship between these violations and gender.

Women’s Aid, a major national charity working to end domestic violence against women and children, was a flagship campaign of the WLM. The first Women’s Aid federation was set up in 1974. It campaigned hard to raise awareness of domestic abuse and challenged the division between public and private life, and the perception of the family as a safe and positive institution.

In 1980 Women Against Violence Against Women was established in Leeds. This radical feminist campaign grew as a response to the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders when 13 women were killed between 1975 and 1980 in the north of England. Feminist academics Joni Lovenduski and Vicky Randall state in their book Contemporary Feminist Politics: Women And Power In Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) that

Actions included the occupation of the Sun newspaper offices to protest at the use of rape stories for titillation, the formation of local anti-pornography groups, demonstrations outside cinemas showing ‘Dressed to Kill’, smashing the windows of strip clubs and putting glue in the locks of sex shops. In Leeds a woman campaigner drove her car through the front of a sex shop as an act of protest and anger.

The first Rape Crisis centre opened in 1973 and the charity now covers the UK. It is a feminist organisation that wants ‘all women and girls to be free from the fear and experience of sexual violence’. During the 1970s and ‘80s domestic and sexual violence shelters, and advisory services specifically targeted at the most under-represented sections of the community also began to open. These included Southall Black Sisters in London, Shakti Women’s Aid in Edinburgh and Sahara Women’s Refuge in Leeds, all of which were led and used by women from minority ethnic communities.

The work to eliminate violence against women and to support its survivors gave an opportunity for many women to develop professional organisational and managerial skills. It therefore helped liberate women on two fronts. Jane Hutt views her work as National Coordinator for Welsh Women’s Aid as an important part of her own professional development.

The issue of violence against women brought many seemingly disparate groups together. Black, Asian and white women, whose demands in other areas often differed, could unite over this issue. Karen McMinn talks movingly of how Northern Irish women worked across sectarian lines, despite vast political and religious differences.

Karen McMinn talks about her experience of working at Women's Aid Northern Ireland

Black and Asian women’s activism

Black and Asian women’s activism highlighted the intersection of racism and sexism, and can therefore be grouped together as a particularly interesting and often sophisticated strand of activism. In the UK, black mothers, for instance, were at the forefront of protests against the abuse of what was known as the ‘sus’ law. This was a law created in 1824 that enabled police to stop and search anyone they suspected might commit an offence. By the 1970s black men in the UK were being hugely targeted by the police on racist grounds, an example of state harassment of men rather than women. Even in 2010, a European Commission of Human Rights Report found that:

Since 1995, per head of population in England and Wales, recorded stops and searches of Asian people have remained between 1.5 and 2.5 times the rate for white people, and for black people always between 4 and 8 times the rate for white people.

As a result of experiences like these, women from immigrant or minority ethnic communities have led the way in developing ‘intersectional’ political understandings, which can link together many different liberation struggles and understand gender oppression as it affects men as well as women. ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons’ (Sweet Honey in the Rock, the famous African-American women’s group that performed at the 1985 UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi). Campaigners in the 1970s and ‘80s also fought against racist immigration laws, the ‘virginity testing’ of Asian and African women at Heathrow Airport, and the testing of contraceptive drugs on poor women in developing countries. Groups such as Southall Black Sisters were hubs for evolving black feminist ideas. Many non-feminist black women’s groups also led important community campaigns for equal and civil rights, particularly in education. Mia Morris talks of setting up Saturday schools for black children who had been excluded or badly served by mainstream education.

For more on black and Asian women’s struggles see Race, Place and Nation, Equality and WorkFamily and Children and Who We Were, Who We Are.

Mia Morris talks about the campaigns OWAAD was involved with

Equal pay for work of equal value

Women’s Liberation Movement activists also supported workplace struggles, although these were usually led by working-class women in the trade unions. Women led strikes at the Ford plant in Dagenham, the Grunwick film-processing plant in Willesden and against working conditions for cleaners in Fulham and Belfast. Union recognition, equal pay and the gendered division of labour were at the heart of these disputes. The Trade Union Congress provides a useful introduction to this central stream of political action in Winning Equal Pay: The Value Of Women's Work. You can see an interview with Julie Hayward, who brought the first successful legal claim for equal pay for work of equal value in Equality and Work.

Sally Alexander on how she got involved with the Night Cleaners Campaign in the early 1970s

Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC)

This landmark campaigning group emerged in Barnsley in 1984, when a 5,000-strong group of miners’ wives and mothers rallied to protest against the Conservative government’s policy of closing mines and attempt to crush the powerful National Union of Mineworkers. By December the WAPC had gathered thousands of supporters in protests, conferences and symbolic demonstrations, including walking with eyes down past Margaret Thatcher’s residence. Committed women’s liberation activists across the country were supportive, particularly Jean McCrindle, whose voice you can hear in the British Library’s National Life Stories collection. However, as with black and Asian women’s campaigning, the WAPC forcibly balanced the different and sometimes competing interests of men and women in struggle, and there were many debates about the meaning of ‘feminism’ in this context.

For more on equal pay and working-class women’s activism see Equality and Work.

Betty Cook talks about women's liberation activists and Women Against Pit Closures giving solidarity to each other

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  • 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.