The Women's Movement in the 70s

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003
33 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



1. Introduction

2. 1970-1974 Years of mass working-class struggle
2. 1 Rising
2. 2 Organising in Britain
2. 3 Men in the Women's Movement
2. 4 Women’s Voice
2. 4. 1 Women’s Movement in the press
2. 4. 2 Women’s Press
2. 4. 2. 1 The Women in Media group
2. 4. 2. 2 Women’s journals
2. 4. 2. 3 Female writers and Feminist Presses
2. 4. 2. 4 Research and Resources Centres
2. 5 Campaigning
2. 5. 1 Disruption of the Miss World Beauty Contest
2. 5. 2 Economic campaigns
2. 5. 2. 1 Night Cleaners’ Campaign
2. 5. 2. 2 Campaign for Financial and Legal Independence
2. 5. 2. 3 Wages for Housework Campaign
2. 5. 2. 4 Campaigns for free 24-hour child care
2. 5. 3 The Abortion Campaign
2. 5. 4 Sexual Liberation Campaign

3. 1975 Turning-Point
3.1 Implementation of two major acts
3.2 International Women’s Year
3.3 Moving further from mainstream politics

4. 1976-80 Away from the labour movement
4. 1 Out of place in the Women’s Movement
4. 2 Changes in the demands

5. New Directions

6. Conflicts
6.1. Three main trends within the Women’s Liberation Movement
6. 2 Lesbians vs. Heterosexual Women
6. 3 Radical separatists vs. Non- separatists

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Politically, economically and socially, the 1970s were a time of great upheaval. This was the decade of industrial action, of bitter conflict in Northern Ireland, of the oil crisis and of a sea-change in relations with Europe, starting with Britain's membership of the European Economic Community in 1973. A range of political and social protest movements emerged out of the turbulence of the 1970s.

This analysis aims to examine the rising of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s in Britain; it will discuss and debate the different steps taken by women towards greater freedom and the continual fight for their rights. It will not only focus on the achievements made in this time, but will also point out the change the Liberation Movement underwent and the conflicts which arose as a consequence of it.

Looking at the term ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’, ‘Women’s Liberation’ or as it had also been referred to informally in those times as ‘Women’s Lib’, different definitions can be found. The Oxford Dictionary states it as follows, it is ‘the movement that aimed to achieve equal social and economic rights for women’. Further dictionaries, such as the Dictionary, call it ‘a movement directed towards the removal of attitudes and practices that preserve inequalities based upon the assumption that men are superior to women’ or ‘the movement aimed at equal rights for women’, as listed in the Dictionary. The Women’s Liberation Movement did not have its start in the 1970s but already came into being from the 1920s onwards. In that time, however, their aims were different. Women worked effectively for measures concerning public health, wages and hours, the legal rights of women, and more efficient government in order to achieve these goals, they aimed at those newly enfranchised female voters for their support. In the 1970s, feminism started to take shape as a movement and therefore became a decade in which crucial achievement were obtained, leading to a formation of the movement, despite its lack of an organised structure throughout Britain. Nevertheless, women have made huge gains as a result of feminism in the 1970s.

2. 1970-1974 Years of mass working-class struggle

2. 1 Rising

In the early 70s the energy and enthusiasm were enormous, people went out on the streets and fought for their rights.

‘Looking back, the early 1970s were years of incredible optimism in Women's Liberation; we believed we could change the world, and had not yet understood or analysed the extent of the forces ranged against us’.

Lynne Harne[1]

There was an impressive array of women’s strikes. In 1970, London night cleaners fought for union recognition. Tens of thousands of teachers, three-quarters of them women, were also on strike over pay for the first time in half a century. The same year, women at Goodman’s, part of Thorn Electrical Industries, successfully striked for equal pay. In 1973, hundreds of thousands of hospital workers (the majority women) went on their first ever national strike. There were many other women’s strikes in this period of mass upsurge. But there was nothing that could be called the women’s movement.

2. 2 Organising in Britain

The movement in these early years grew in ‘submerged networks’ as Alberto Melucci calls it, that exist outside formal political organisations and institutions and only rarely come to prominence in the public sphere[2], with hardly any effective communication outside London. Women just heard about the idea by word of mouth and organised themselves in small groups. Those small, non-hierarchical groups had only about a dozen members. The participants in the women’s liberation movement were mainly heterosexual, white women in their mid-20s to 30s’.[3]

These small local groups could meet in drop-in centres, so-called women’s centres for self-education, the collective provision of nurseries, refuges against domestic violence, rape crisis centres, health centres etc. Women met in order to co-ordinate campaigns and workshops, or special projects.[4] Most of their concerns were about consciousness-raising, life-style changes and single issues. The first one of these was the Women’s Liberation Workshop, which began in London in 1969.[5] It stated:

‘The men lead and dominate, the women follow and submit. We close our meetings to men to break through this pattern, to establish our own leaderless groups and to meet each other over our common experience as women…For this reason, groups small enough for all to take part in discussion and decisions are the basic units of our movement…to further our part in the struggle for social change and transformation of society.’

Spare Rib[6]

By 1973 there were five of these workshops, in London as well as in Bristol, Lancaster, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

In February 1970, the first national gathering of the British Women’s Movement was the National Women’s Liberation Conference held at Ruskin College in Oxford. The conference attracted 600 delegates, and it was the first time Women’s Liberation groups from across Britain had met in a single place to discuss their demands and the challenges they faced.[7] By that time it was not known how many groups existed altogether in Britain. Due to the lack of formal membership, it has been very difficult to estimate how many women have been involved in the movement at any time. Women’s Liberation was not a political party with a programme which could be discussed, so it was hard for women who came from different perspectives to understand what kind of many-faceted movement they had so quickly created.

The movement, therefore, operated autonomously entirely outside the system. Decisions within the groups were made rather on consensus than discussion, so that the movement was separated by choice from mainstream politics. The conference adopted a structure of small women’s groups based on localities, loosely co-ordinated through national meetings to which each group could send two delegates. The conference set up a co-ordinating committee (the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee) that was supposed to communicate information between the groups and to organise further national conferences. By the following year, the Women's National Co-ordinating Committee had worked out four basic demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement with the aim of uniting as many women as possible in the new struggle for equality. They were:

1. Equal pay for equal work.
2. Equal opportunities and education.
3. Free contraception and abortion on demand.
4. Free 24-hour child care.[8]

These demands were not a centrally imposed policy. But they became the essential starting-point for feminist campaigns all over the country. It can be said that the first two demands were more orthodox, liberal fair-share policies, because they did not provoke much opposition. The last two were the more radical demands and therefore were the main source for conflict and controversy. The first public demonstration in support of the four demands was held in London in March 1971.

It can be said that feminism came and grew in a totally amorphous way, having no financial resources as it was not an institution itself, and without an established political pattern to follow.

2. 3 Men in the Women's Movement

In the beginning, men participated in the Women’s Movement, too. But soon it became obvious that women accompanied by their husbands behaved differently in the discussions and spoke less freely. Men also tended to take over the discussions.

At the second national conference at Skegness in 1971 two women became involved in a wrangle over the microphones, and the husband of one of them rushed to her aid.[9] Furious about a man intervening in a physical confrontation, more and more women rushed forward. The result was, that men were excluded from all but the pre-conference disco. But at the next conference in Manchester, there was another ‘punch-up’ in the disco with a man involved and hence men were excluded completely.

To end the discussion whether or not men should be allowed to any part of the next women’s liberation workshop, a poll took place on 17 November 1973. The delegates voted for exclusion 117 to 30 with 20 abstentions. This final decision was taken because it was felt that men would try to dominate there too.[10] It was assumed that the women’s movement was about getting men to give up power over women. [11] As Rowbotham puts it, the British Women’s Liberation Movement ‘aimed […] to transform social relationships as a whole at work and at home’. [12]

2. 4 Women’s Voice

2. 4. 1 Women’s Movement in the press

Women’s Liberation first became news in the early months of 1970 due to their public demonstrations and campaigns. It was a novelty. The press interest was sparked off by the Oxford conference. Thus the movement did reach a wide audience, but due to the way women’s issues were covered in the media, this publicity was a mixed blessing. The coverage was entirely negative, stressing the bizarre, extreme and emotional aspects of the meeting and totally ignoring the matters that were discussed.


[1] Sebestyen '68 '78 '88: From Women's Liberation to Feminism 1988.

[2] Melucci Nomads of the Present 1989 and 1996.

[3] Rickford quoted in Phillips Divided Loyalties: Dilemmas of Sex and Class 1987.

[4] Roseneil Disarming Patriarchy: Feminism and Political Action at Greenham 1995.

[5] Women's Liberation Workshop An Introduction to the Women's Liberation Movement 1971.

[6] Spare Rib, April 1978.

[7] Women’s Library Papers related to Women and Socialism Conferences 1973.

[8] Bouchier The Feminist Challenge 1983.

[9] Coote & Campbell Sweet Freedom. The Struggle for Women’s Liberation 1987.

[10] Rowbotham Dreams and Dilemmas 1983.

[11] Rowbotham The Past is Before Us: Feminism in Action since the 1960s 1989.

[12] Rowbotham Mapping the Women's Movement: Feminist Politics and Social Transformation in the North 1996.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


The Women's Movement in the 70s
University of Heidelberg  (Institute for Translation, Heidelberg)
Bad Girls, New Men': Gender in Britain Since 1960
1,7 (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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624 KB
Women, Movement, Girls, Gender, Britain, Since
Quote paper
Maria Nitsche (Author), 2003, The Women's Movement in the 70s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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