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Miners’ strike 30 years on: ‘We’re the women of the working class’

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Originally published in Workers Power 284 in March 2004, edited by Rebecca Anderson

WITH NOT just their own futures at stake, but also the future of the entire working class, the women of the pit villages came out to fight for their livelihoods and communities during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. They set up support groups and organised communal kitchens, meetings, pickets and protests. Like the miners, they were getting a crash course in the nature of the state and the realities of the capitalist system. Women who had never taken an interest in such things before travelled across Britain and overseas, speaking on platforms to raise support for the strike.

When Thatcher threatened pit closures, strikes began across the country until the National Union of Miners (NUM) called a national strike. The women of the mining villages were what allowed the strike to go on for a whole year despite all the nasty tricks that the Thatcher government threw at them.

From soup kitchens to activism

They were refused benefits in an attempt to starve them. The miners picketed the pits daily so it was up to the women to raise the money and solidarity needed to keep the strike going.

The miners’ wives began by organising networks to ensure that the welfare of the strikers – food supplies, communal kitchens and so on – was maintained. But within a very short time the wives began to organise more than just collective cooking. Women from Kent and Doncaster organised their own demonstration in Leicestershire to show support for the striking minority there and boost the campaign to spread the strike. Kay Sutcliffe from Aylesham Miners’ Wives Support Group wrote:

“We called a meeting… after hearing about the miners going back to work in Nottingham. We were expecting maybe 10 or 15 women, but we got 50. There were mixed feelings about what we should do, but we decided to go and hold a women’s demonstration up there. We went to the local NUM and they said that, as the Kent mines came under the Leicestershire region of the Coal Board, we should demonstrate there. It was one of the first women’s demonstrations in the dispute.”

From the beginning these women were clear that they wanted to be involved in the strike in their own right and not just be regarded as providing welfare support in the background. Wives of the Hatfield Main miners explained:

“We’re trying to get the women together from the community and involved in the strike. It’s so they don’t have to ask their husbands what’s going on. It’s so they know what’s going on for themselves… It’s the first time working class women have been organised like this since the fight for the vote.”

Women Against Pit Closures

The actions of the Kent and Doncaster women inspired thousands of others across the country. Networks began to take shape. More women’s demos followed, women’s support groups were formed in every mining village and a working class women’s movement was forged.

Five thousand women attended a rally in Barnsley. This was followed by a conference in June and a large protest march in London on 11 August 1984; 23,000 working class women attended that event, joined by other women trade unionists.

The name Women Against Pit Closures was adopted at a national delegate conference in Chesterfield in December 1984 and the group sought Associate Membership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Violence

For the first time women also joined men on the picket lines and took part in flying pickets. In what often became a violent and confrontational situation women were in the front line, and like the men on the pickets were injured as a result. In such traditional communities men were initially resistant to the involvement of women, but soon came to realise their importance and how vital their support was.

Women Against Pit Closures became a political movement in its own right. Sutcliffe wrote:

“A group of the local NUM, including my husband, went to picket the Wivenhoe docks in Colchester to stop coal imports coming in. They were all arrested and put in jail. We had a women’s meeting that night, and on the spur of the moment we decided to get in a Dormobile and go down there. There were only about 12 of us, and we weren’t even dressed for a demonstration! Some of the women had come to the meeting dressed for a social gathering, not in warm clothes, but we decided that was what we were going to do.

It was the first time we had ever been in a confrontational situation with the police. We couldn’t believe how many police there were, and only a handful of us. They threatened to arrest us for walking on the road. We felt very intimidated by them. We were conscious that some of them weren’t police – they didn’t have police numbers. We knew the state used the military to police the strike.”

‘Storm in a B cup’

The achievement of the women in building a fighting movement so quickly from scratch was even more remarkable when you consider that despite the generally progressive politics of the NUM its record on women’s issues was poor. Attitudes among many miners, including key leaders like Arthur Scargill, were backward at the start of the strike.

The Yorkshire Miner, was one of the best and most militant union journals around at the time. It played a vital role in organising and campaigning for the strike from the outset. This same paper had, for years, also run its own “Page Three Stunner”. Every month a miner’s wife or girlfriend would be pictured in a bikini or scanty underwear, accompanied by suggestive captions.

Following a campaign by socialists, inside and outside the NUM, to get this sexist rubbish out of the paper, Scargill went on television to defend the Page Three slot. He claimed it was a way of getting miners to read the rest of the paper and dismissed the campaign against it as “a storm in a B cup”.

At a mass demonstration of miners’ wives a few months into the strike, the very same Scargill announced to rapturous applause that he had been wrong, that the women of the mining communities were not eye candy for his members but working class fighters in their own right, and that the Page Three slot in the Yorkshire Miner would be abolished. Thousands of their husbands joined in the applause, their view of women changed forever by the action of the women themselves.

The whole movement answered, in one fell swoop, all of the complicated theoretical arguments that had gone on among socialists and feminists about self-organisation and whether or not men were the enemy. The women organised themselves, as allies of the striking men. Their organisation gave them the means to participate in a common struggle – a class struggle against their class enemies, whether female (Thatcher) or male (MacGregor). The working class women’s movement organised women as a detachment of the class struggle not as a means of separating from that struggle.

Legacy

The legacy of the miners’ wives movement is a precious one. It proves that real working class unity can only be created when the outdated and reactionary prejudices that persist amongst all too many male workers are transcended. It proves that it is working class women who can achieve that unity through their own militant self-organisation.

And it proves that the goal of self-organisation need not be the prosecution of a separate women’s struggle against men, as many feminists at the time had argued, but a common class struggle against sexism, against women’s oppression and against capitalism itself.

As a miner’s wife, Eileen from South Wales, said, “That year was hard, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world… It’s shown me the courage we have as people, and I hold my head up high as a working class woman who supported working class men.”

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