1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame

Organising as women

Organising as women

Why we did it

It was involvement in women’s issues that brought some of us into politics in the first place. As women in East London Big Flame we wanted to introduce the ideas of autonomy into an already existing very active women’s movement: we were struggling to distinguish ourselves from other approaches, to define our position as socialist feminist activists and to understand autonomy as relating to women. We also wanted to make sure that women’s issues were central to the political work of Big Flame.

Because women work both outside and inside the home, we saw them as providing a link between workplace and community struggles; in this way they played a key role in the unification of the class and the generalisation of the struggle. We saw that women’s work at home and in the community was essential for the reproduction of the labour force, and was thus essential to the family and national economy.

We also saw the importance of informal ‘disorganised’ forms of women’s resistance, such as rent arrears, squatting, shoplifting, fights for playspace for children, and against the danger and pollution posed by heavy traffic near their homes.

women's march poster
What we did

We have told the story elsewhere on this web site about some of the initiatives we made with local women in the workplace and the community (see Lincoln Estate Food Co-op, Working in a women's factory). We also organised various forms of collective/mutual childcare, including a playgroup in Mile End, East London, and a crèche further north (see the article Bringing up kids together in Hackney).

Within the leaderless Red Therapy group we met separately as a women’s group, and we also started a self-help therapy group with two women from the Lincoln Estate and another local woman (see What some women did). 

Within Big Flame, we were part of separate women’s meetings and the Women’s Commission of Big Flame nationally (see ELBF Document for Women’s Commission, Women’s Commission Meeting, January 11th and For the women’s educational).  

We contributed to national women’s conferences, see Report from Oxford Women and Socialism Conference March 23-4 1974 and, also from 1974, the report from Politics of Sexuality/Sexuality of Politics Conference March 30th held in Holloway, north London.  

We also met nationally with other women’s groups involved in producing the libertarian Newsletter (see Report from the women’s meeting of the Newsletter groups from Newsletter No.5 April 74).

We produced documents exploring how socialism and Italian ideas about autonomy related to women (see Autonomous struggles of women, Women and Socialism, Whatever’s happened to the Women’s Liberation Movement? (from Newsletter No. 5 April 74) and Women and the politics of autonomy). We were involved locally in discussing the ‘Four Demands’ of the women’s movement; there was a very active movement in east London of which we were part. We had a particular view of women’s struggles, seeing  them as linked to the class struggle (see Women’s lives – a basis for struggle).

Also locally there was masses going on (see There are a lot of women in Tower Hamlets…). We became involved with others in ongoing campaigns around women’s health and abortion. And we took part in squatting a big empty house on the East India Dock Road to be a Tower Hamlets Women’s Aid and Women’s Centre (see flyer for Jumble Sale and other activities at Tower Hamlets Women’s Centre).

There were also particular events that stand out in the memory. One was International Women’s Day 1975 when, with others, we organised a march from Aldgate to Victoria Park (see IWD March Poster and large leaflet Why are women marching?). It culminated in tea in a tenants’ hall and free showing of a film Coup pour Coup about solidarity during a women’s strike in a French textile factory.

Another intervention was a bit of street theatre that we did with other women in Tower Hamlets Women’s Action Group. It was inspired or rather provoked by a notorious case where a local man accused of rape was let off because a Law Lord ruled that ‘Sometimes a woman says “No” when she means “Yes”’. At a civic occasion outside Poplar Town Hall, we wheeled a (consenting) man up and down in a supermarket trolley with huge balloons in the shape of testicles and penis and a placard saying ‘Sometimes a man says “No” when he means “Yes”’. (See leaflet Wilson’s government abuses women which we gave out at the event.) We caused a stir and at some point the balloons were burst with a pin.

Looking back…

Then, we critiqued the welfare state; now we are glad of any bits of it that have survived the ravages of successive Tory governments.

Many feminist ideas such as equal pay, equality of opportunity and equality in relationships are now accepted as mainstream in society, even though they are still often not adhered to in practice. Feminism and the second wave women’s movement that flowered in the 1970s made a tangible difference to the everyday life of many women all over Britain, changing their experiences of going out to work, bringing up children, facing issues like male violence and rape, and claiming social security.  

Forty years on, we are still loyal to socialist feminist ideas. These include the key understanding that politics permeates every part of our lives as women – our relationships, violence against women, consumption, housing, childcare, as well as paid work.

Despite a generation of young women growing up with the illusion that in a ‘post-feminist’ society the battle for equality had been won, and that feminism is somehow out-dated, it is remarkable when you go back to the archives to see how many of the same battles continue, and how the same dilemmas for socialist feminists continue. While certain language and groups have gone out of fashion, the new wave of feminists are organising about many of the same issues.