Women’s liberation: a national movement
Sheila Rowbotham talks about the origin of the WLM demands
In 1970 the first national Women’s Liberation Movement conference was held at Ruskin College in Oxford. It was organised by a group of women. Two of the group were Ruskin students. They were Arielle Aberson and Sally Alexander, as well as others from Canada, the USA, France and different parts of the UK. Sheila Rowbotham had initiated the call for the conference and Juliet Mitchell, Catherine Hall and Anna Davin, among others, gave papers and attended.
The first National WLM conference in 1970 was initially intended to be a women’s history conference, but when almost 600 activists from around the UK expressed a desire to attend, it was adapted to address women’s issues more broadly. The WLM held national conferences between 1970 and 1978, and many local, national and regional conferences also took place. These focused on subjects such as feminist history, sexuality, socialist feminism and patriarchy. National conferences were eagerly anticipated, carefully prepared events, with crèches, socials, exhibitions and a closely negotiated agenda. For the women who attended, speaking at the conferences was often nerve-wracking but exciting, and meeting other feminists from all over the world was an exhilarating experience.
Sue Crockford recalls the first conference on Women's Liberation
Between 1970 and 1978 there were eight national Women’s Liberation Movement conferences. At the first conference in Oxford in 1970 four demands were discussed. These were passed in Skegness in 1971. The demands were:
- Equal pay
- Equal educational and job opportunities
- Free contraception and abortion on demand
- Free 24-hour nurseries
- Legal and financial independence for all women (Edinburgh, 1974)
- The right to a self-defined sexuality. An end to discrimination against lesbians (Edinburgh, 1974)
- Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women (Birmingham, 1978)
Three further demands were added:
At the Birmingham conference, amid some controversy, ‘the right to a self-defined sexuality’ was split off and added as a preface to all seven demands.
Ellen Malos talks about organisng the Bristol WLM conference
Why make the demands?
Few feminists, particularly some radical feminists, thought the first four demands adequate. However, those who supported them, like Zoë Fairbairns, argued that they gave shape and coherence to the movement’s aims. (Fairbairns more recently explained this in Saying What We Want: Women's Demands in the Seventies and Now. York: Raw Nerve Books Limited, 2002). For the same reason, the Women’s National Coordinating Committee (WNCC) was created in 1970 as a coordinating body for the WLM and the groups that were affiliated with it. The WLM was motivating thousands of women over the UK and building alliances with women’s movements all over the world. Small groups from the ultra left and new left were keen to co-opt or influence the WLM. Internal arguments broke out and, as a result, the WNCC was dissolved at the Skegness conference in 1971.
Rosalind Delmar talks about the sixth demand of the WLM
Are today’s demands the same?
The most vocal of today’s feminist groups – sometimes called ‘third wave’ and, in the 2000s, ‘fourth wave’ feminists – tend to focus on violence against women, pornography, sex workers, media representation of women, poverty, education and equality. Women from the ‘second wave’ of feminism (though the ‘wave’ metaphor has been viewed as politically simplifying) have commented that today’s activism has a much greater focus on individual rights as opposed to a shared responsibility.
Gail Chester talks about radical and anti-capitalist feminism
Banner credit: 'As long as women are not free' poster © See Red workshop
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