by Anni Donaldson

Sisters! Sisters!

November 11, 2014 | by Anni Donaldson

DEMANDS for independence are turning up in the most unlikely places, none more surprising than Sarah Browne’s new history of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Scotland. Browne concentrates on the heyday of ‘women’s lib’ in the 1970s. Using oral history interviews with women involved at the grassroots, and archive material from the Scottish Women’s Liberation Movement, she succeeds in freeing the story of the Scottish movement from what she claims are worn-out narratives, southern biases and the movement’s enduring ‘identity crisis’. 

The persistent demonising by the media and others of ‘women’s libbers’ as bra-burning, humourless man-haters has long co-existed with the UK movement’s hagiography of its doyennes, and its desire to keep their narrative and legacy in protective custody. Meanwhile the story of the Scottish WLM has slumbered, untold, in people’s memories and dusty box files. The tale is well told in this thoroughly researched and illuminating work of historical scholarship which lives up to its author’s claim of ‘complicating our understanding of feminist politics in post-1945 Britain’.

Browne’s thesis robustly tackles enduring she-devil myths and popular prejudices, and wrests historical accounts of the movement’s history from its still active and high-profile metropolitan custodians. She maintains it is high time it was claimed as a serious job of work by a new generation of historians, of which she is one. With this book, she thus provides an alternative version of the story to those provided by the inner sanctum, including Sheila Rowbotham and Beatrix Campbell. Such women are still too close to events and their accounts, Browne argues, over implify the movement’s history and generalise about the UK when they really mean England. 

Received wisdom charts the movement’s rise as a ‘second wave’ of feminism emerging shiny and new from the febrile international political atmosphere of the late 1960s. Its decline at the end of the 1970s is attributed to an unsisterly falling out over the relative merits of radical versus socialist feminism, and the question of sexualities and motherhood inter alia. Browne shows that too much is missing from this grand narrative, and even dares to challenge the cherished concept of ‘waves’ of feminism. She argues convincingly that the elders’ accounts of an emergent ‘second wave’ of feminism suggest that women were twiddling their political thumbs after winning the vote following the ‘first wave’. Moreover, she provides convincing evidence of metropolitan bias in feminist narratives that ignore the grassroots movements in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which continued beyond the demise of the heady days of universal sisterhood. 

Sufficient time has now elapsed to permit more rigorous re-assessments of the movement’s contribution to the position of women, one of the most important areas of social change in modern history. More complex accounts are emerging about grassroots feminism in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. This account of the Scottish WLM gets things off to a good start by setting women’s activism firmly in the wider historical context of post-war political activism and recent historical reappraisals of the 1970s – a dark and often maligned decade. The tinsel on Mark Bolan’s outfits was not the only bright thing during the three-day week and the overt sexism of the decade when the nation’s lights went out. 

The emergent UK women’s movement was part of a wider trend in political activism when New Left thinking emerged from the old British Left’s critical soul earching and challenge to the ideological grip of totalitarian Communism. During the 1970s the influence of the personal and cultural aspects of the North American and European political and civil rights movements created ‘moments of possibility as well as periods of entropy’ for activists across the UK. While there is no suggestion that the nation was caught up in a carnival of political activism, a growing number of young women newly arrived at Scottish universities were catching the zeitgeist. Enthused by theorists such as Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone, they fixed their gaze on the particular oppressions women faced, recognised that the personal was indeed political, and aimed beyond equality to liberation. 

Brown’s interviews with activists reflecting on their early lives provide fascinating accounts of the movement’s beginnings and these women’s motivations for becoming involved. Their stories show that many of them had learned politics in childhood at their mothers’ and fathers’ knees, while others were disenchanted by the contradictions inherent in society’s expectations of young women like themselves. In an outbreak of consciousness-raising groups, women discussed life, love, sex and power. What was the point, they asked, of studying for a university degree only to give it all up, marry and start a family? Many came to Scotland from North America, sharing new ideas, experiences and books. Passion, anger and epiphanies abound in these accounts of a generation who discovered theirs was an exciting time to be young, free and female.

The developing links with the growing WLM in England soon showed signs of strain, however. Testimonies and archives reveal a distinct southern bias in the leadership and concerns of the movement which left the Scottish WLM struggling to connect. Attendance at London-based national conferences proved increasingly difficult because of distance and cost. Also, not surprisingly, the lack of awareness by metropolitan groups of the particular concerns of women in the Gorbals, the Howe of the Mearns or the Northern Isles led to calls for devolution and more Scottish conferences. 

Towards the end of the 1970s the ‘national’ movement was no longer a cohesive force. Scottish activists, realising there was still work to be done, threw their energies into local campaigning. In many ways the movement’s founding principles of collective, non-hierarchical governance and power haring carried the seeds of its own demise as a national movement. By abandoning its dreams of a unified global movement, the switch to local activism seems, in retrospect, to have been entirely in keeping with the movement’s grassroots origins. This may be why its legacy has been relatively invisible until now. Nevertheless, the women who told their stories to Browne show that the fight went on to improve Scottish women’s lives even when the odds seemed stacked against them. 

This history is especially revealing about the resistance activists faced from Scotland’s conservative, macho culture, which was ‘cold and hostile to women’s lives and values’. Browne found that ‘Scottish MPs, on the whole, were more reactionary and anti-feminist than their English and Welsh counterparts in terms of their voting records.’ Scotland lagged some years behind England in devising a legislative programme to tackle women’s inequality. Indeed, being left to the mercy of a Scottish male establishment was one reason why some women argued against Scottish devolution during the referendum campaign of 1979.

 A case study on the abortion campaign is especially revealing. The combined forces and well-financed anti-abortion campaign of the Scottish Catholic Church, Scottish male MPs, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and the Scottish media bitterly opposed the Scottish Abortion Campaign led by feminists seeking to defend the 1967 Abortion Act and to highlight the ‘patchy nature of NHS abortion facilities across Scotland’. Scottish feminists created a broad-based national campaign by forming pragmatic alliances with some unlikely bedfellows, including the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds, Scottish Trades Union Congress, Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion and the International Marxist Group. Due to anomalies in Scots common law, doctors had some freedom to perform terminations without risking prosecution. The practice was widespread in Aberdeen, which became known as the ‘abortion capital of Scotland’. Shetland feminists highlighted the plight of young local women who, in the absence of local provision, risked stigma by travelling to Aberdeen. Despite the UK Labour Party’s overwhelming defence of the 1967 Abortion Act, the Party in Scotland was in a muddle. Donald Dewar, during his campaign for the 1978 Garscadden by-election, neatly side tepped abortion. He and the Scottish party refused to follow the UK party line. They were fearful of alienating Scotland’s Catholic Labour voters and of incurring the wrath of influential Scottish Cardinals who were busy urging the labour movement to side with the Church’s anti-abortion stance.

Browne also deals in depth with Scotland’s anti-violence against women (VAW) campaign, a key demand of the WLM, which went on to become a success story of both Scottish feminism and Scottish devolution. Since VAW (including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault) first began to provide Scottish feminists with a practical focus for their politics in the 1970s, these campaigns have successfully changed national policy and law, and improved service provision for victims and survivors. The Scottish model is now internationally recognised for its progressive approach. Scotland’s baby-boomer feminists have been instrumental in firmly embedding new approaches to VAW prevention in local and national government, the public and voluntary sectors, higher education and the media. 

Even so, the sense of groundhog day in Browne’s coverage of past feminist campaigns is somewhat depressing. Forty years on, Scottish feminists still have their work cut out. This first substantial study of the Scottish WLM wears its original doctoral gown lightly, succeeds in giving the topic the treatment it deserves and reveals new avenues for future scholarship. However, at £65 it is far beyond the pockets of the general public, including many women interested in reading this valuable contribution to their own history.


The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland

Sarah Browne

Manchester University Press, £65, ISBN: 978-0-7190-8729-5, PP240 

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