Britain’s WLM in the 1970’S: Divide and Conquer?

Ah yes, the 1970’s. A decade that most British people would rather not remember. Financial decline and social chaos gripped the nation with the Sex Pistols’ punk anthems booming in the background. And so this does indeed beg the question, did anything good happen in the 1970’s?

The most simple answer of course is yes, particularly in the case of the Women’s Liberation Movement. On the back of the 1960’s liberalism, British women began to organise up and down the nation to campaign for the change that they deserved and more importantly needed. In 1970 Ruskin College was home to the first WLM Conference, advancing the legitimacy and raising public awareness of the call for change. From this there was no going back.

Out of this first conference was born 4 of the demands that the WLM would use to lobby for change. They intended to demand free 24 hour childcare; equal job opportunities and education; equal pay and right to free contraception and abortions. These demands yielded what can be undoubtedly seen as legislative successes including the Equal Pay Act 1970, Employment Protection Act 1975, Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Domestic Violence Act 1976 and the Housing Act later on in 1978. These gains were substantial and in many ways revolutionised the lives of ordinary women nationwide.

Women’s March 1975 – Courtesy of the British Library

However, one of the most interesting aspects of the WLM in Britain is the conscious decision not to become a united or cohesive national movement. The decision not to try and centralise the movement was deliberate and the key to success. Instead the WLM employed a much more regional organisation and through this they were divided but they too conquered. This gave women campaigners the opportunity to pursue the specific issues that were most important to them and brought much needed diversity to the movement. It allowed the WLM to be more inclusive and flexible in the way it went about achieving solutions to the broader, common issues. This is characterised in extent to which the movement extended to working as well as middle class women and also the establishment of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) by 1978.  

The importance of this regional organisation is epitomised in the Bradford’s WLM, which had a strong working class dimension. These women were part of small communities and as Lockyer emphasises in her 2013 article, this is what afforded them success as it forced a pragmatic approach to co-existence and seeking a common cause. This of course, is something that would have been a great deal more difficult to achieve if the movement had tried to take a nationally unified approach with certain key figures as the spearheads of the movement. The Bradford WLM was significantly more anti-intellectual than the WLM in Bristol for example, where it was largely middle class women leading the campaign but it was precisely these differences that contributed to success. In the end, the regional differences in approach to driving for change allowed the WLM in Britain to address the needs of a far greater number of women. Britain’s WLM was able to adapt to its audiences and resulted in advancements for women nationwide.

Courtesy of the British Library

Although, there must still be an appreciation of the fact that The WLM in Britain was complex. It would be a fallacy to say that issues of class, race and inclusivity were never present but what should be emphasised is that in the decade characterised as the golden age of ‘sexploitation’, the British WLM made a real difference to women’s lives. It validated feelings that had been for so long supressed and regional organisation really facilitated this by giving a voice to so many different groups of women.

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