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Seven pillars of liberation - WLM conference 1978


Anna Coote looks back on last weekend’s National Women’s Liberation Conference and finds both unity and bitter divisions (published in the Guardian, April 1978) 

Seven pillars of liberation

A new demand for freedom from violence was adopted by the tenth National Women’s Liberation Conference in Bir­mingham last weekend. The full text reads: “We demand freedom from intimidation by threat or use of violence or sexual coercion, regardless of marital status, and an end to all laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.”

This joins the four original demands which were drawn up in 1970 (equal pay now; equal education and job opportunities; free 24-hour nurseries; free contraception and abortion on demand), and the fifth and sixth demands added in 1975 (financial and legal indepen­dence; an end to all dis­crimination against lesbians and a woman’s right to define her own sexuality).

The seventh demand brings together two major cam­paigns of the Women’s Liberation Movement - against rape and domestic violence. The decision to adopt it was taken at a turbu­lent plenary session at the end of the conference, when 3,000 women packed the main hall of LadywoodSchool.

All agreed on the spirit of the new demand, but there was a long and heated discussion about how it should be phrased. Far from being a nit-picking exercise, this turned into a key debate on the nature and purpose of the movement’s manifesto. The political climate had changed a great deal since 1970: the notion of women’s liberation had been widely publicised; many legal con­cessions had been won; and the ideologies of the move­ment had become more sharply defined.

Consequently, many women felt it was time to reword the demands and spell out the feminist principles behind them. Some felt the very concept of demands was misguided, since asking for anything implied acceptance of one’s own dependent status. Others thought it best to stick to simple wording which expressed the lowest common denominators of feminism, to broaden rather than purify the movement. In the end a compromise was reached on the new demand by excluding the preamble “Men’s vio­lence against women is an expression of male supre­macy and political control of women.” And it was agreed that groups should re ­examine all seven demands over the next year and bring proposals for changing them to the 1979 conference. 

The main divergence of opinion was between the socialist feminists (who attri­bute women’s oppression to social and economic factors) and the revolutionary and radical feminists (who trace it to inherent differences bet­ween the sexes). There have always been fierce arguments between the two groups and they have often had an invi­gorating effect on each other. For example, radical feminists have encouraged socialist feminists not to rely on existing socialist theory ~but to provide their own cri­tique. The socialists have helped launch practical cam­paigns into which the radi­cals could channel their ener­gies.’ This year, however, the divisions seemed deeper and more bitter than ever.

A group of revolutionary feminists had drawn up a statement which declared in ‘no uncertain terms that men were ‘the enemy’. They rallied against the ‘middle-class liberalism’ of women’s rights, campaigns and opposed such male deterrents to free debate as agendas, resolutions, amend­ments and votes. 

They also sang songs about scissors, wore badges bearing the legend ‘Every woman can be a lesbian’ and lived up to the crudest caricatures of women’s lib drawn by male chauvinists in Fleet Street in the early seventies. They were a conspicuous minority and a very small one. Newcomers to the movement who might have been alarmed by their crusading lesbianism could see at every vote that they were vastly outnumbered by socialists and other non aligned feminists who agreed that in some of life’s struggles women and men were bound to be on the same side of the barricades. 

It is no secret that for years the Women’s Libera­tion Movement has been buf­feted between these two cur­rents and is becoming increa­singly polarised. One of the topics for Saturday’s work­shops, ‘How do we oppress each other?’ was designed to soothe the antagonism. As we arrived in the morning each of us was assigned at random to a small workshop in one of the school rooms and all groups discussed the same subjects. 

It was a good idea, instead of staying with our friends, we met and talked with strangers of different ages, backgrounds and views. My group came from as far afield’ as Dundee, Man­chester, Stafford, Cambridge and Bristol. One woman had brought her mother with her. Another had just arrived from Australia. Perhaps we didn’t find out exactly how we oppressed each other (if at all), or delve very deeply Into the other items on the agenda (rethinking cam­paigns; internal organization of the movement), but we got to know each other and reminded ourselves of the enormous diversity of women’s liberation. 

Few women had turned up specifically to pass resolu­tions or participate in struc­tured debate. They were there because they wanted to spend two days with 3,000 others, to swell the numbers, to greet old friends in the corridors and to receive a booster dose of sisterly sup­port. 

In a sense, therefore, the official business mattered less than what went on around the edges of the agenda. A street - theatre group performed a play to illustrate the theme of the. “YBA Wife?” campaign, there was music from rock bands- and the singer Frankie Armstrong, and a boisterous disco on Saturday night. The conference créche accommodated more than 100 chil­dren and was run by 20 male volunteers from local trade unions. (A fifth column of the enemy or a show of support from comrades?) The book stalls offered the widest range of feminist literature to be found anywhere in the UK. Trestle tables groaned under piles of Roneo-ed papers from theorists of all persuasions. 

On Sunday morning there were specialist workshops on a great sweep of topics (women in printing; against racism and fascism; guilt and jealousy; national abortion campaign, country women; Jewish women.) 

I headed for the one on women’s liberation and the labour movement, but nobody else turned up, so I read the first form history essays displayed on the schoolroom wall. 

‘Hello, my name is Godwina’, wrote Debbie, imagining herself an Ancient Briton. ‘My pa’s job is hunting animals like deers. Ma’s job is cleaning the house’. 

We left our ideas all over Debbie’s school, heaped in the corridors, hanging from the walls - our statements and cigarette butts, our agendas and apple cores, our beer cans and ‘YBA Wife?’ badges. But the cleaners came in on Sunday evening. Debbie will probably never know.



Contributed by: Anna Coote