Was the Women’s Liberation Movement racist?

When it comes to social movements, for many, the Women’s Liberation Movement was the frontrunner in 1970s Britain, with Ronald Fraser suggesting it was the ‘single most enduring movement to arise from the 1970s’, and David Bouchier simply hailing the 1970s as the ‘decade of women.’ But this blog post will consider the work of Natalie Thomlinson, and endeavour to understand the assumption of many historians that the Women’s Liberation Movement was an exclusive movement for a particular demographic, and as a result was a racist one.

There is a general historical consensus that the Women’s Liberation Movement, which rose to success in the 1970s, was overtly middle class, dominated – for example at conferences like the 1970 Ruskin conference – by the likes of Sheila Rowbotham, who has gone on to contribute to a large proportion of the generally middle-class historiography. Beatrix Campbell’s understanding of a new generation ‘inventing a new woman – educated, independent and with an income’ again contributes to this idea of who the movement was aimed at. The key demographic were educated (the academic grassroots are clear in that the initial conference took place at a university after Rowbotham had called for a ‘history workshop’ so that women could be better educated on women’s history), and with an income – this suggested that women had not had the right to work, immediately excluding those working-class women (particular from ethnic minority backgrounds) who had been working for years simply to put food on the table for their families. Furthermore, it is especially telling that the conclusion of the initial Ruskin conference was the creation of the Movement’s core demands – these epitomised the middle class stance of the movement (based on traditional ideas of a nuclear family) and would have alienated a silent majority of the radical/working-class/ethnic minority women whose desires did not correlate with those of the pioneers of the Movement.

According to Natalie Thomlinson in The Colour of Feminism: White Feminists and Race in the Women’s Liberation Movement, the prevailing view detailed above has led to the generalised assumption that the Women’s Liberation Movement was racist, as women from ethnic minority backgrounds were ignored and their desires were not considered. Thomlinson intends to further understand the concept of a racist WLM, and defends the white women in the movement suggesting that it was ‘ignorance and apathy towards the needs of Black women’ which led to a complete ‘failure to engage with the racism of the state’. Although she insists her article was not intended as an apology or defence of racist undertones, it would seem that this sense of apology underpins her conclusion, as she suggests that there has been such limited historiography on the topic, that historians have been led towards a skewed judgement. However, the examples considered below, which are considered by Thomlinson, support the view that the Movement was indeed a racist one.

Primarily she argues that many white feminists had been inspired by the Black movement, as many had been involved in anti-racist groups such as Women against Racism and Fascism, and saw links between the ways both groups had faced oppression. She suggests that white women’s involvement in these groups ‘ironically re-inscribed white power’ as the argument from women such as Janet Hadley, that women could relate with ethnic minorities as both groups had been ‘taught to feel inferior by society’, was undermined by the alleged superiority of the white woman over black women, as Hadley herself would be part of the white society which had ‘taught’ black women to feel inferior. Thus, this supports the view that, whether or not it was intentional, this appeared to be a racist movement.

Furthermore, central aspects of communication within the movement were exclusive and seemed to neglect ethnic minority women. Journals such as Red Rag were fundamental in communicating the movement’s ideas, and in its eight-year run the magazine did not print a single piece about the position of ethnic minority women. Moreover, consciousness-raising groups favoured by many women involved intimate discussion and often became by invitation only, increasing the need for would-be participants to know one-another, thus marginalising those from a different social base. Jo Stanley, in her memoir, recalls that this meant the movement was not ‘particularly accessible or approachable.’

Against the backdrop of heightened racial tensions, with the rise of Powellism and the National Front, it would seem that the Women’s Liberation Movement, despite its revolutionary intent, seemed to conform to the racist values of many middle-class Britons. Thomlinson concludes her article with the historiographical conclusion that white feminists’ relations to race ‘should be considered in a more nuanced fashion than has previously been the case’. While it is true that historians should not generalise, her view that white women should be pardoned as they were gradually becoming aware of their exclusive and racist tendencies and were undergoing their own moral dilemmas, seems to defend the actions of many in the movement, a defence undermined by a plethora of historical evidence – primarily from oral histories of ethnic minority women who felt excluded by the movement. The strongest conclusion from Thomlinson is that we should not see the decline of the organised WLM at the 1978 conference as the end of the movement, as black feminism went on to flourish in the following decades, and feminist activism in the 1980s was ‘vibrant: rather than dying.’ Thus, one can see that in the 1970s, the WLM can be condemned as a racist movement; but it inspired a wave of feminism throughout Britain which became increasingly inclusive as the years went on.

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