Race, place, nation and the Women’s Liberation Movement

Members of the Women’s Liberation Movement campaigned for a number of causes in addition to women’s equality. From racism to nuclear weapons, explore the wide range of issue feminists campaigned against.

Feminists were often involved in other campaigns, including those against racism, militarism and nuclear weapons. Some also vigorously campaigned for civil rights, national liberation and recognition, and conflict resolution in divided societies. Given the range of issues that feminists campaigned for, some have questioned whether there was ever ‘one’ women’s liberation movement or rather several streams of activism which interacted at particular moments. Certainly, black activists have often seen themselves as working within a ‘black women’s movement’ that was largely distinct from that of the white ‘women’s liberation movement’, practically and ideologically.

Rebecca Johnson talks about the anti-militarist feminism which she subscribed to

Women against racism

Women have been active in the fight against racism from the 1950s onwards. From the start of the 20th century the British ethnic population slowly expanded – there were an estimated 20,000 black people living in the port areas of Liverpool, London and Cardiff by the 1940s. After the Second World War more than a quarter of a million West Indians and South Asians came to Britain, induced by the promise of work in the new public services, though it was very often in low-paid, unskilled jobs. The increased presence of black and Asian populations provoked some white communities, resulting in riots throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. In response, anti-racist organisations, such as the 1964 Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the 1967 Universal Coloured People’s Alliance, were established.

Through groups such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), set up in 1978 at the University of Warwick, and Southall Black Sisters (SBS), set up in London in 1979, the struggle for racial equality was combined with the struggle for gender equality. Black and Asian feminists established and maintained their own distinct identities, as well as belonging to the wider Women’s Liberation Movement.

Stella Dadzie talks about her reasons for setting up the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD)

Women against nuclear weapons

Women were active in the beginnings of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1958, as well as in its resurgence in the early 1980s. They contributed to the wider peace movement that was revived in the UK after the Second World War and accelerated in the late 1950s with the first Aldermaston marches campaigning against nuclear weapons. During the late 1960s several large anti-Vietnam War demonstrations took place, organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Women active in this movement started to form women’s liberation groups. In 1981 a group of Welsh women resolved to march to and set up a peace camp at an RAF base on Greenham Common in Berkshire. Women from all over Britain who were able to leave their families, children and daily lives, joined them as they marched. These women were protesting against the decision to site 96 nuclear missiles at Greenham Common. They stayed for many years protesting against the missiles.

Rosalind Delmar talks about how she became politically active

Civil rights in Northern Ireland

Feminists in Northern Ireland were part of the growing civil rights movement in the country. Conflict between Ireland and England or Britain goes back at least to the 16th century, but its modern phase began with the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919, after the Irish Republic declared independence from Britain. Following a ceasefire in 1921 the Irish Free State was formed, but six counties in the north of the country remained under British rule as Northern Ireland.

Tensions between the north and the south have been endemic throughout the century. But in the 1960s the civil rights movement sprang up among local groups – principally Catholic – who demanded equal rights to employment in Northern Ireland’s industries, and equal representation in local and national government. Between 1969 and 1998 Northern Ireland was the site of violent protests and rioting. The British state and military intervened, labelling the nationalist and civil rights movement as terrorism.

For many Northern Irish feminists the struggle for women’s liberation was inextricably bound up with the fight for a national identity. Clara Connolly, a member of Feminist Review, the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group, and of Women Against Fundamentalism, considered the relative silence of British feminists about the place of the Irish population in Britain, and the importance of the Irish and Ireland to British politics in general. She said, ‘no doubt this reluctance relates primarily to the unresolved issues of the colonial and post-colonial relation’

Karen McMinn talks about living through the troubles in Belfast

Representation in Wales and Scotland

The Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK has huge regional and national diversity, yet this is a point that is often overlooked when examining the movement. The WLM has always been diverse and international in outlook, but the representation of feminist activism has tended to focus on a few well-known women based in England (usually in London). Yet it is women in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have started some of the most famous and change-provoking movements. The Greenham Common Peace Camp, for example, was initiated by a group of women from Wales. Feminist activists in Scotland and Wales have been responsible for negotiating electoral strategies that now see women making up over one third of the Scottish and Welsh National Assemblies, one of the highest proportions worldwide. By comparison, women make up only just over a fifth of the members of the House of Commons.

Banner credit: Photograph of panorama of women protesters at the Greenham Common airbase © Raissa Page

  • 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.