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In 1970, driven by chaos and energy, we felt like pioneers in female protest | Sheila Rowbotham

On Friday 28 February 1970, around 500 women, many clutching sleeping bags and babies, arrived at Ruskin, the trade union college in Walton Street, Oxford, for the first national gathering of the Women’s Liberation Movement. I was part of a small ad hoc group that had helped organise the conference, though the heaviest weight had been borne by Sally Alexander and Arielle Aberson who were studying at Ruskin.

The mood was excited and chaotic and the introductory session that evening released an extraordinary surge of expressive energy. We didn’t know what would happen. Over the next two days, we had to overflow into the austere Oxford Union building to deliver formal debates. Until fairly recently, it had been a veritable male sanctuary. Indeed, when I became a student at St Hilda’s College in 1961, women weren’t even allowed to be members!

The main focus of the women’s liberation conference was our present circumstances; talks on work, housework, caring for children and women in prison were interspersed with informal clusters of women holding discussions with intense excitement. I had never been to a conference like this.

Only a year before, I had been writing about the silence around women’s consciousness, actions and history. Since then, however, I had been on a steep learning curve and, at the conference in 1970, I spoke on “the myth of inactivity”. Researching my first book, Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), I was amazed to discover that during the French revolution of 1848 women had created their own clubs and journals such as La Voix des Femmes and La Politique des femmes. In their pages, I found dressmakers, milliners and seamstresses calling for equal rates of pay, better training, nurseries, cooperative restaurants, social forms of childcare and autonomous assemblies so women could develop the confidence to organise.

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Looking back, it is curious how in 1970 I combined an iconoclastic assumption that we were absolute pioneers with a contradictory awareness that we were part of a much longer history of women’s protest and resistance. Over the next few years, I came to understand much more about the differing forms of women’s struggles for social, political and personal emancipation in the past.

Women’s Liberation Movement protest against the Miss World contest in 1970

Women’s Liberation Movement protest against the Miss World contest in 1970. Photograph: W Breeze/Getty Images

However, it took a while for me to shed stereotypes. Initially, I assumed that the suffrage movement had been narrowly confined to the vote. Meeting two very different women in their 80s showed me how wrong this view was.

Dame Margery Corbett Ashby came to speak to a small group of women’s liberationists in Highbury, London, when the movement was just beginning to emerge. Margery Corbett Ashby was a Liberal who had been a constitutionalist suffragist. Deciding she needed to be introduced to socialist feminism, I diligently sent her some of our publications and her firm riposte was that she did not need telling it was important for women to join unions.

I think, though, that she may have been trying to steel me for a life of future agitation as she said that women’s freedom was particularly hard to achieve and would take a long time because it involved changing feelings. At the time, of course, I was convinced that change was imminent. Now her words have assumed a deeper layer of meaning. In the early 1970s, I went to visit Florence Exten-Hann in her front room in Stanmore, London, where I was teaching a Workers’ Educational Association class. She had read rumours in the newspapers that women’s liberationists were preoccupied with zealously burning their bras. Having been a trade unionist in the shop workers’ union as well as a militant suffragette, she had assumed we were not interested in working-class women. We regarded one another in mutual incomprehension.

We managed to overcome this generational blip and Florence went on to describe fly posting at night in Southampton for “Votes for Women”. Students threw stones and eggs at their outdoor meetings and opponents sprayed pepper at indoor ones. In 1910, the Exten-Hann family moved to Bristol, where she took part in the socialist movement. She became involved in the No-Conscription Fellowship during the First World War in London and subsequently in a local group of the League of Nations.

Individual women’s testimonies made me realise how activists can encompass a range of causes in their lives. During the 1920s, the socialist feminist Dora Russell had been part of the campaign for birth control and had spoken at international sex reform conferences. She went on to be an early advocate of progressive child-centred approaches to education. Born in 1894, Dora was also initially wary of women’s liberation but despite holding differing views we ended up becoming friendly and I once spoke with her and Fenner Brockway at a wonderful meeting for Gay Liberation.

Fifty years ago, I could not have envisaged that when I, too, was approaching my late 70s I would be going to a meeting to commemorate that first Ruskin women’s liberation conference, as part of the International Women’s festival. This has been organised thanks to Exeter College, in Walton Street, the former site of Ruskin. The conference aims to bring older and younger women together and handing on memories is the purpose – in the hope that remembering can strengthen creativity for present times.

The Oxford International Women’s festival runs from 29 February to 14 March


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