The evolution of revolution: reflecting on the women’s liberation movement

Liberation, the lady said. Rubbish we thought. Then we thought some more. Then we talked some more. Then we came together. That was it. Spare Rib is the result.” So begins the first edition of Spare Rib published in 1972, the magazine designed “to take on the culture of the whole western world,” as one of its creators, Marsha Rowe, was quoted in 2015.

Like the eponymous Eve born of Adam’s ‘rib’ – often used to describe women’s subordination to men – Spare Rib was born out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s to early 1980s. Across the world, women increasingly sought freedom to choose: to choose what to do with their life and at what time.

This was proposed through sexual and economic liberation, in the form of legalisation regarding contraception, abortion and divorce, and equal pay and opportunities for women, such as childcare.

In the USA, the Women’s Strike for Equality occurred on 26th August 1970. Women refused both paid and domestic labour and protested for gender equality on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave civil rights to white women by 1920 (yet, it is important to note that women of colour were not enfranchised meaning it was not universal).

In Britain, sewing machinists famously went on strike in the Dagenham Ford factory in 1968 to petition for equal pay, which was granted by Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment, with the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Furthermore, national WLM conferences swept across 1970s Britain, and marches such as Reclaim the Night took place in Belgium and Italy, with the first march in the UK occurring in Edinburgh in 1977.

Women staged interventions at televised events, notably the Miss World beauty contest of 1970, in which protesters threw flour bombs and scattered leaflets promoting the movement’s manifesto. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was also formed in 1982, to both protest nuclear weapons being placed at the RAF base and fight for gender equality.

Throughout this period, women objected to different issues such as: reproductive rights; violence against women; injustice towards night cleaners; the treatment of women of colour through the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; and supported other movements, e.g. Women Against Pit Closures. By demonstrating in this way, women used their own agency to demand changes in widespread social problems.

It is easy to assume that reforms achieved concluded the struggle for socio-economic equality and rendered the movement redundant. Yet, contraception, abortion and divorce were only made available to women in certain situations; liberation was issued on a circumstantial basis. Moreover, while England, Wales and Scotland legalised abortion under the Abortion Act 1967, it was voted to extend abortion and same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland only as of 9th July this year.

Nearly fifty years on, the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have similarly called for a shift in attitudes. These movements are challenging the sexual misconduct carried out by powerful men that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. It marks a progression in just one of the areas where women experience significant discrimination on the grounds of sex; progress of course, but by no means a conclusion.

Many women who participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement have noticed a resurgence of the popular protest, particularly in women opposing misconduct by controversial, male figures in positions of political power.
This is also not solely at grassroots level; Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, has recently called for an all-female cabinet to block a no-deal Brexit, a “crisis”that she believes needs “a new dynamic.”

Despite the criticism it has accumulated (Lucas has faced claims of sexism and apologised for inviting 10 white, female MPs), it indicates growing sentiments in support of women’s liberation. Albeit under different guises, the essence of the Women’s Liberation Movement lives on.

Image Credit: Molly Adams via Flickr

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