The rising women’s liberation movement in the radical 1960s

In the first part of new series in Socialist Worker Judith Orr looks at the rise in the struggle for women’s liberation

It is hard to imagine just how different the world was for women before the 1960s.

When my mum got married she had to leave her job in a bank. It was assumed that her husband would keep her and she would look after the home.

This was not unusual – in many jobs, including the entire civil service, married women were not employed. It was difficult for a woman to get a mortgage or even buy something on hire purchase without a man’s guarantee.

These were the days before the pill. Sex before marriage was seen as shameful and if a single woman got pregnant it was devastating. Abortion was illegal and many women risked their lives going to the backstreet, or were forced to give their baby up for adoption.

The radical political movements of the 1960s blew apart this repressive and stifled world.

The gains women made then – legal abortion, easier divorce, freedom to express our sexuality and the principle of equal pay – changed the lives of millions.

The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was born in the US among students radicalised by the mass black civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.

In Britain the WLM developed from the struggles of women workers for equal pay.

The two movements had different characteristics but both were rooted in the effect of the long post war economic boom.

This had pulled increasing numbers of women into the workforce and into further education.

For example between 1960 and 1965 there was a 57 percent increase in women being awarded degrees in the US (the same figure for men rose by 25 percent). Suddenly a whole generation of women had new expectations.

The universities of the US became centres of struggle and debate. By 1967 thousands of women had been on marches and protests. They had fought for black civil rights, opposed the war in Vietnam and challenged the state.

Yet they faced sexism in their own political organisations and felt sidelined and trivialised by the mainly male leadership.

It seems shocking that such brilliant radical movements did not take women’s rights seriously. But when the movements exploded in the 1960s they did so in a vacuum.

The socialist tradition had been decimated by the witch-hunts of McCarthyism. There was no Labour type party or revolutionary left to speak of. The shadow cast by the experience of Stalinism made many feel that socialism had nothing to do with liberation.

Women activists began to organise their own workshops, write papers and talk about their oppression.

The movement in the US was dominated by the idea that women had to organise separately. Meetings often involved women talking about their personal lives­ – a process described as “consciousness raising”.

Groups, dominated by college educated middle class women, spread to cities all over the US.

But although it was never a truly mass movement in terms of numbers and activity it did articulate the dashed hopes and frustration of millions of women.

In Britain the experience of the women’s movement was shaped by the greater influence of the left and class politics here. The presence of a Labour Party, the higher density of trade union membership, and an organised revolutionary left made a difference.

It meant that there was an understanding of the socialist tradition of fighting for women’s rights.

These influences ensured the demands of the British WLM reflected the needs of working class women – free abortion and contraception, equal educational and job opportunities, free 24 hour nurseries and equal pay. Strikes of women workers like the London office cleaners were seen as very much part of the movement.

But there were problems. Ideas about women needing to organise separately divided the movement. In fact bitter experience showed there was nothing inevitably “sisterly” or democratic about women-only organisations.

By the mid 1970s the high point of the WLM on both sides of the Atlantic had passed. Groups fragmented over questions of sexuality, race and issues such as national liberation and imperialism.

Yet the world had changed. For the first time women could control their fertility. Millions of women were gaining a level of economic independence that gave them new choices.

The struggle for women’s liberation and equality had made massive strides but the movement disintegrated.

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