Acomplete overview of British feminism would require a book rather than an essay. Within the context of a brief history of the movement we therefore aim in this article at an assessment of the developments within one section of the movement, socialist feminism, since the second half of the 1970s.footnote1 It will become clear that we are critical of much that now attracts the admittedly vague label of ‘socialist feminism’. We wish to shift the ground of the debate, and hope to reinfuse socialist feminism with some of the political sharpness it had in its early days, but which has now, we feel, been lost. Ours is undoubtedly a minority view within the broad spectrum of the left intelligentsia and of feminism, but since the women’s liberation movement in contemporary Britain is and always has been a loosely connected movement of groupings of women activists with a variety of political priorities and theoretical positions, any assessment of the movement by individual feminists must necessarily be partial. We hope that readers will share our view that this partiality does not invalidate our critique. Our criticisms are not intended as a destructive exercise, but arise precisely because we share with many socialist feminists a sense of the urgency of the problems facing women today. The present time is one of intensified class struggle nationally, and of great danger internationally. In this threatening political climate it becomes more, not less important to locate women’s continuing subordination as central. Only strategies that start from this assumption can achieve real or lasting change for the vast majority, women and men, black and white, either in the developing world or in the ‘imperial heartland’.

The British feminist movement in its renewed form in the early 1970s was originally known as ‘women’s liberation’. In the word ‘liberation’ were encapsulated both the notions of ‘sexual liberation’ in circulation in the 1960s and also the inspiration that western radicals, and particularly the youth and student movements, drew from the national liberation struggles of developing countries, above all that of Vietnam. Because, however, of the particular history and role of the British labour movement and the existence of a non-Marxist Labour Party as the parliamentary arm of the working class, the relationship of feminism to the organisations of the working class took a specific form in this country. British feminists did not have to relate to, or react against, large Communist parties as was the case in France and Italy. On the other hand they were closer to the labour movement than appears to have been the case in the United States, where a mainstream women’s organisation (the National Organisation of Women) had been founded in the mid-sixties at the same time that women were becoming politically involved in single-issue radical movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam.

The women’s movement in Britain did not develop until the end of the 1960s (the first national women’s liberation conference was held at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1970).footnote2 From its earliest moments, therefore, it felt the influence both of the European revolutionary student movement and of a feminist theory coming from the United States that was more strongly based on a critique of male radicalism.

Women’s liberation in Britain was far more closely identified with socialism than had been the feminist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Juliet Mitchell, for example, exemplified a general attitude in her dismissal of the ‘old suffragists’ in Woman’s Estate.footnote3 Many feminists in the early years of the movement hoped that feminism would drag the labour movement and the working class further in the direction of socialism as well as feminism, and that a feminism that was wholeheartedly socialist could be forged. Although therefore those hostile to the movement—whether in the media, the labour movement or the political parties—liked to label women’s liberation as ‘middle class’, the feminists themselves wholeheartedly rejected reformism and ‘bourgeois feminism’.

In its early years the British women’s movement sought to create a relationship with, and exert a feminist influence on, the trades unions. Examples of such campaigns were njacwer (National Joint Action for Women’s Equal Rights), which organised a demonstration in favour of equal pay following an important strike of women machinists at Fords, Dagenham; the Night Cleaners’ campaign in the early 1970s; and later the Working Women’s Charter, set up in 1975 as a campaigning focus for women trade unionists. Feminists also supported a number of women’s actions, for example the occupation, and later co-operative, at a leather garment factory in Fakenham, Norfolk, in 1972 and the strike at Trico’s windscreen wiper factory in West London in 1976. One of the later and most visible examples of this kind of approach was the work of the National Abortion Campaign, which culminated in a tuc-backed march for abortion rights in 1979.

The relationship of feminists to the left was nonetheless always ambivalent. In the early 1970s the Labour Party hardly seemed an option for the new generation of revolutionaries who were more likely to be attracted either to what was often called Libertarianism—a form of Marxism influenced by anarchism, rejecting formal party political structures and hence suspicious of Leninism, but extremely ‘vanguardist’ ideologically—or else to one of the Trotskyist groups that briefly flourished. A third option was the Communist Party of Great Britain. To begin with this was viewed with the general distaste felt towards traditional left parties, but it did succeed in recruiting from both the women’s movement and the intelligentsia in the mid-1970s, partly because it became more open to discussion of feminist ideas than other left groups. These were the years of the great success of the Communist University of London, which provided an important forum for the development of ideas often imported from Italian ‘Eurocommunism’ at a time when the ‘Broad Left’ dominated the National Union of Students.

Partly as a result of its leftism, and by contrast with the movement in the United States, British feminism has had no ‘mainstream’ voice. There was little interest in the early years in the advancement of women in existing political structures, or in business, whereas in the United States a more developed concept of civil and of individual rights may have helped women at many different levels of society, including blue-collar workers and women from ethnic minorities, to make inroads into male bastions of privilege at work and in mainstream politics. On the other hand, this very success has led to a backlash such as has not been experienced in this country where there is in any case no equivalent fundamentalist religious movement to fan its flames.