Matt Myers – Lessons from the Past: Women’s struggles in Oxford

To contextualize the great resurgence of interest in feminism – in what might be loosely called the 21st century women’s ‘movement’ – it is important to acknowledge its historical inheritance. For this, an understanding of the great variety, creativity, and radicalism of women’s historical experience of struggle is needed. Sheila Rowbotham, in both the first Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conference in Oxford, and in her seminal essay, ‘The Women’s Movement and the Making of Socialism’, lamented the dearth of women’s history, as well as the white-washing of women’s experience from Left-wing politics.1 What will strike the reader about many of the historical examples in this article is that class is almost always of crucial importance. This applies to class as a real, lived, material relationship to capital – seen in the case of women’s experience in leading strikes. Yet it also applies to instances where women have engaged with women’s oppression outside traditional labour relationships. Cases in point are the first WLM conference in Ruskin College in April 1970, and the protests and counter-protests involving Carol Miller’s ‘Cowley Wives’ (the local University and City feminist group) and striking car-workers (male and female) in a well-publicised strike in April 1974. Both instances involved fighting around issues directly related to their experience as women, while directly relating, as a matter of course, to relationships of class and gender. Questions of class and gender were immanent to the lived experience of the various struggles in which women were involved – even if class might have acted as a reference point (as for some ‘radical-feminists’ in the WLM), eventually to be rejected. Discussion of the relationship between class and gender seems to be largely lacking in many debates surrounding the new wave of feminism, especially at universities like Oxford. Questions about this relationship (class and gender, or socialist politics and gender) are no longer as self-evident as they seemed in the 1970s. How working-class women have experienced the double burden of being part of a structurally disadvantaged gender on the one hand, and being a member of an exploited class on the other, seems to be consistently underestimated by most of the set-piece debates and campaigns. Women’s subjugated social position cannot – as has been argued elsewhere by a number of feminists – be seen outside the totality of social relations. This can be best understood in the context of historical experience. Women have played a crucial part in the collective history of Oxford, and their bravery and creativity should be remembered. To revive some of those memories and to attempt a cross-fertilisation of historical experience – if only to better orient contemporary women’s struggles, each with their own unique nature – will greatly help those who are currently interested and active in the feminist revival.

Oxford is in many ways a unique city. As well as being a key centre of industry, with a developed working-class, Oxford has also acted as an academic centre – out of which, at certain historical junctures, political radicalism flourished and spilled over into the city proper. This explains the variety of women’s struggles in Oxford.

One of Oxford’s first strikes was led by women. A strike over pay and union recognition against the iron-fisted, patriarchal management at the Pressed Steel plant was instigated by the largely female workforce in the factory’s ‘press shop’. These women struck over continued ‘shorting’ of wages. They declared their work as ‘slave conditions’ for ‘pin-money’, since their wages were consistently lower than men’s for an identical job. Four women were eventually elected onto the strike committee. Pictures of the women strikers’ placards, printed in the Oxford Mail in 1934, read: “The girls are game, are you?”, “Strike Call – we’ve done our bit – now how about you!”, “Are you with the boss or are you with us?” and “Are you satisfied?” Solidarity was not automatically forthcoming from male workers.2 This was especially apparent in the 1930s. Given mass unemployment, many men took exception to women’s employment as a form of competition. However, previously unsympathetic male workers in the plant began to understand, as the strike rapidly progressed after the election of a mixed ‘strike-committee’, that the divisions in wages between women and men in the factory only benefited the employers by holding down the wages of all. Students from the university, involved in the Labour Party and Communist Party, produced leaflets supporting the strikers and attended the strikers’ demonstrations. The strike ultimately succeeded. The women who instigated the strike were the key actors in bringing trade-unionism to Oxford. Women found ingenious ways, often without union organization, to secure their basic interests within the workplace. Connie Jarman, for example, organised the women canteen workers throughout the car-plants in Oxford (including the major works at Cowley, East Oxford). During a dispute at the canteen in Cowley in 1969, she and her colleagues cooked 5000 dinners, then refused to serve them until the catering contractors Gardner Merchant met their demands. The workers refused to work until they had eaten, and were almost on the cusp of rioting. Eventually the management had no alternative but to cede to their demands over pay. Women were often the most militant members of the car-factories. Tom Richardson, a shop-steward in the Assembly Plant, noted that in his ‘trim-shop’, “the women were always ready to fight, they were always marching up to the office demanding this or that. They were much less prepared to compromise than the men”.3

It was not just women employed in car-factories that were involved in labour-activism, but women employed across the city. A strike over union-recognition by the predominantly female staff at the Blackwell’s bookshop in 1976 was successful, largely due to a wider campaign that involved the local labour-movement and student body. The women strikers were offered a ‘Strike HQ’ in Balliol College, and were supported financially by friendly pickets of Cowley car-workers. Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) called on students to stop using the bookshop. Oxford car-workers – experienced in the art of picketing and making concrete demands on employers and union officials – gave them a crash course in work-place action. In the end the pressure on Blackwell’s was maintained, and the predominantly female workforce won full-recognition, as well as a new branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). In 1977, a group of previously un-unionised chambermaids at the Randolph Hotel and the Linton Lodge Hotel at the heart of Oxford struck over wages and conditions. The chambermaids were expected to work 60 hour weeks for £30 (women working at the car-factory were earning 10 times that amount), while having to clean 16 bedrooms per shift. Women workers at the Gardner Merchant canteen, which served the Cowley car-works, were prepared to walk out in support of the Randolph workers. Car workers, alongside local trade unionists, and the Oxford Student Liaison Committee helped in organising pickets of 300 people outside the Randolph on St. Giles’. The picket stopped goods coming in and out of the hotel, transport drivers of the TGWU refused to cross the picket line, while Post Office workers refused to deliver the mail. In theory, the whole of Oxford could have been shut down due to the action of the chambermaids. Unfortunately, the Randolph – as the continuing bastion of privilege and feudal work practices in Oxford – defeated the strike. The cleaning staff at the hotel are politically unorganised to this day.

The struggles of working-class women in Oxford were not, however, simply confined to the workplace: they involved defending vital community services. One key example was the struggle in 1977 over the future of the South Oxford Nursery, which was threatened with closure by the Conservative council. The 24-hour occupation of the state-run nursery gained popular support across the city. Many women involved in the Oxford feminist groups were active in leafleting at the car factory in Cowley, and many had developed political relationships with car-workers in other campaigns. Born in Oxford in 1970, the WLM movement – the starting point of second-wave feminism in Britain – was consistently aware that the experience of class mattered for women. The founders of the movement made clear that gender oppression existed alongside different oppressions of other social groups – all of which emanated from the same system of social relations. This historical inheritance was one of the main reasons that, during the campaign against John Corrie’s 1979 anti-abortion bill, the TGWU 5/293 branch was one of the few major industrial branches in the country to actively fight on the issue. The trade-union branch for Cowley made a statement affirming: “The right to choose whether or not to have a child means in practice, for working class women, the right to free nurseries and adequate maternity benefits, as well as free birth-control. Well-off women will always be able to find safe abortion facilities – legal or illegal…We must fight any attempts to make free legal abortion on the NHS less available than it is now”.

One event in April 1974 involved not only striking car-workers, but also a demonstration against the strike, by a group of wives of laid-off workers, and a counter-counter-demonstration by local feminists from the University and town. On April 22nd 1974, Carol Miller, the wife of a Cowley plant assembly worker and a part-time cleaner, led 150 women (and their children) – almost all wives of workers – to protest against a strike by drivers in the factory (over the victimization of their shop-steward). Miller lamented the loss of wages that she felt was a direct product of labour-militancy, rather than the endemic low wages among British car-workers by comparison with the rest of the world, or cut-backs by management during the 1974 oil crisis. It was a demonstration of working-class women, not as workers on strike, but as wives of workers. “All we want to do is keep our husbands in work so they bring in a weekly wage”, she told the Sun.4 This was one of the first instances of working-class women turning against labour-unionism in the 1970s: it was seized upon by the establishment press and leading politicians. The Sun ran a story on Tuesday, April 23rd 1974, called ‘Ban Sex for Strikers –Wives plan to bring car militants to their knees’.5 The paper claimed that Mrs. June Wall, aged 40, of the National Housewives Association, had instructed the ‘Cowley Wives’ that: “There is only one way to bear a Bolshie man. Take away all that he holds dear – sex, drink, and food, in that order.” Mrs. Wall added: “I am glad to see women asserting themselves during a time of national difficulty. They have a great power to make sure that men work hard, but they don’t seem to realise it.”6 The article continues: “Not all wives agree with a sex strike. Lawrence Simmons has not worked for five weeks because of disputes. But his wife Janet said the “no sex” call was “rubbish”. She added: “That is one thing you can’t refuse your husband no matter what the situation is.” Mrs. Dorothy Jaycock, a 30-year-old wife of a Cowley worker said “I am all in favour of wives demonstrating. But no wife has the right to make her husband suffer in his own home.”” Then, in response to Mrs. Wall’s comments, another article was published in the Daily Mirror, with Wall’s husband Brian Wall intervening.7 The article claimed that Brian Wall, owner of a major Carpet company, said at their home in Derby: “it would never happen in our house.” He told his wife June: “Your idea would do more harm than good. It would break more marriages than strikes.” The article went on to say that June withdrew her comments shortly after: “I regret expressing a personal opinion. I was only saying what I would do.” The way the media portrayed Carol Miller bears resemblance to much of the objectification and trivialization of women’s participation in politics by the media, which continues to this day. The Oxford Times and the Daily Mail portrayed her as a “petite-blonde of 32” and “the blonde in the middle”.8 The Oxford Times reported that the campaign was quickly personalised around Carol Miller. Many articles noted the strain involved in leading the campaign, while maintaining her job as a cleaner and continuing to raise four children. The Daily Mail noted that it was her “wifely determination” that made her a centre of media attention. After the first march, however, support dwindled daily, from 250 marchers on the first day to less than a fifth by the time work resumed at the factory, a couple of weeks later.

The decline of the ‘Cowley Wives’ movement in Oxford was not simply due to internal loss of momentum or organizational weaknesses, as the Oxford Mail alleged. Instead, there was a large campaign led by striking car-workers, the local university and city Women’s Liberation group, and, most notably, women workers in the canteens and in the ‘body-plant’s’ ‘trim-shop’. The local University feminist group actively leafleted the factory and counter-demonstrated during Carol Miller’s much publicised public meeting at the Town Hall. They justified their position by claiming that by dividing working-class wives and partners against striking men in the plant (as the ‘Cowley Wives’ were doing), the demonstrators would only help factory management to reduce wages, worsen working-conditions, and weaken trade-union organization for strikers and non-strikers. Influenced by socialist-feminism, the various leaflets of the Women’s Liberation group in Oxford gave a different analysis of the crisis at the plant, at odds with the crude media line of ‘union militants holding the factory to ransom’. The argument was that the wives of strikers, due to their structural separation from the workplace, gave rise to the seeming conflict of interest. Miller and the ‘Cowley Wives’, they argued, only appreciated trade-union efforts through the wage-packet (and its reduction, at least in the early 1970s), largely because they were not involved in direct production on the factory floor (with the collective solidarities it could bring). The ‘Cowley Wives’ also did not have the same experience of alienation that men on the factory-line did. An alliance between management, the right-wing Press and wives at home could therefore be constructed. This mirrors the real tendency of women, at least before the 1990s, to vote for the Conservatives over Labour. As the whole saga shows, there are inherent divisions within the working-class, both within the workplace, and outside. These divisions are perennially centred on the different experiences of gender within the class.

The histories described above are only a small part of the plethora of experiences of working-class women in Oxford. They do, however, point to a collective experience largely forgotten by feminists, especially at the university: the experience of gender and class, and specifically, women’s experience of struggle in the workplace. The events described might be seen to be purely of parochial interest. Nonetheless, Sheila Rowbotham – one of the founding members of the Women’s Liberation Movement – is clear that women’s history is not simply an ‘afterthought’ or a ‘distraction’, as many male historians in the 1960s seemed to believe. Rather, women’s history is fundamental to any struggle for liberation: it gave Rowbotham – as well as second-wave feminism – a self-transcendental identity and a self-critical historical orientation. It is, furthermore, a source of inspiration for future struggles. History shows that women have never simply been passive acceptors of their situation, but have consistently fought back against injustice, whether inside or outside the workplace.

Matthew Myers is currently studying History at Wadham College, Oxford, and is a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial board.

1S.Rowbotham, L.Segal & H.Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the the Making of Socialism Merlin Press (1979)

2Oxford Mail, 8th July 1934

3Television History Workshop: ‘Making cars : a history of car making in Cowley – by the people who make the cars’. Greg Lanning (eds.), London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985

4 The Sun (Monday April 22 1974, pg 1)

5 The Sun Tuesday April 23rd 1974 pg 3

6 The idea of a lovemaking strike first came from the Greek playwright Aristophanes. In his play ‘Lysistrata’ the Greek women decide to stop sleeping with their husbands in order to achieve an end to the war – and it worked.

7 Daily Mirror April 24th 1974 – pg 6

8 Friday April 26th 1974

One comment

  1. Pingback: Participation, resistance and betrayal among car workers | revolutionary socialism in the 21st century

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