Civil rights and the Women's Liberation Movement

Civil rights and feminism

Although the Women’s Liberation Movement campaigned against racism, it was a white-dominated movement. Find out about the black feminists who set up accompanying groups and about the relationship between race and feminism in the 1970s.

Stella Dadzie talks about setting up the organisation for women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD)

The American civil rights movement had a profound effect on radical politics throughout Britain, Europe and the USA. From 1955 to 1968 it aimed to outlaw racial discrimination against black Americans in the southern states. Young American radicals, members of the new left including many women, travelled south to help in the cause. In Britain in the 1950s racial conflict, spurred by housing shortages and competition for jobs between the white working class and commonwealth citizens, led to riots in Notting Hill, Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham. Leading American black civil rights and black power activists came to Britain to speak at various demonstrations and public events during the ‘60s. They spoke at the student occupations that took place in universities around 1968, on television and radio programmes, and at the vast anti-war demonstrations across the country.

Early anti-racist campaigning

Claudia Jones, organiser and writer, was just one of the women at the forefront of early anti-racist campaigning in Britain. Jones’ life illustrates the internationalism of the feminist and civil rights movements. Originally from Trinidad, she lived and worked in New York from the 1920s. Her most famous writing was her piece ‘An end to the neglect of the problems of the Negro woman!’ in 1949. In 1950 she was ordered to be deported for ‘un-American activities’. Trinidad and Tobago refused her entry on the grounds that she ‘may prove troublesome’ and in 1955 she was eventually offered residency in the UK. She continued to fight for racial equality, organising many members of the British African-American community into action.

Notting Hill – from riots to carnival

In 1958 race riots broke out in Notting Hill, with hundreds of young white people attacking the houses of West Indian residents, followed by more race riots in Nottingham the same year. In order to ‘wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths’, Jones suggested and organised a carnival for the black British community. This was first held in St Pancras town hall in January 1959; by 1965, with the input of other organisers, it had become the Notting Hill Carnival, now one of the largest and most exhilarating street festivals in the world.

Mukami McCrum discusses being a woman in different cultures

Anti-colonial struggles

After the First and Second World Wars much of Europe was left in ruins. Global power shifted to the USA and the Soviet Union. These changes in global power balance were marked by decades of anti-colonial movements across the world. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s these movements sought national liberation, and protested against the control, power and exploitation imposed by colonial powers.

Black history

Black feminists have pointed out that the WLM was a white-dominated movement that claimed to represent all women, but in fact often excluded black and Asian women. From the early 1970s onwards many British black feminists were involved in the setting up of supplementary schools that taught black history. Today the National Association of Black Supplementary Schools has over 60 registered schools across the UK that offer a range of workshops and activities in addition to the national curriculum.

Pragna Patel talks about the Southall Black Sisters

Race relations in the 1970s

The 1970s saw the rise of the National Front – a white-only, neo-fascist organisation whose demands included the repatriation of all non-white immigrants and significant limits on immigration in the UK. In the mid-1970s the National Front had 20,000 members and their street protests, often opposed by anti-fascist groups, were a regular sight in British cities. This period was also marked by many incidents of police brutality, including the murder of Clement Blair Peach in 1979. Peach was attending an anti-Nazi League demonstration in Southall, London, when he was knocked unconscious, dying a day later of his injuries. Witnesses said they had seen members of the Metropolitan Police strike Peach, but nobody was charged for the assault. Peach’s funeral was attended by 10,000 people in support of his anti-racist activism.

Siobhan Molloy talks about anti-racism training

The Brixton riots

During the 1980s – a decade of unemployment and housing shortage among the working classes – racial tensions increased in the UK, with uprisings taking place in London, Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham. In London a national recession, exacerbated by poor housing and high unemployment among the African-Caribbean community in Lambeth, combined with unfair stop-and-search laws used by the police, sparked the 1981 uprisings. These lasted for two days and saw hundreds of people injured. Following these uprisings the government ordered an enquiry; the resulting ‘Scarman Report’ recommended changes in police training and law enforcement, which for many protestors was a vindication. However, in 1985 riots were sparked again by the police shooting of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, originally from Jamaica, while they were searching for her son Michael. Protesting members of the public and police clashed on the streets for two days. As late as 1999 the Macpherson Inquiry Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 claimed that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’.

Jewish women and the WLM

Jewish women also argued for recognition of their cultural identities and difference within feminism. Many Jewish feminists also joined the debate within the movement about Zionism and Israeli policy in the 1980s. The women’s movement had become more concerned with the Middle East partly as a result of the UN decade of women conferences of 1975, 1980 and 1985. In June 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the issue of Zionism and the Jewish state was often vehemently discussed in the British feminist press, in publications such as Spare Rib, Outwrite and Trouble and Strife.

  • 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.