Women’s Voice: in retrospect



In my last two posts, I’ve criticised the gender politics of Tony Cliff and of the comrades who came after him. Now I want to look a little deeper and focus on the more positive side of the story, because one irony of history is that within the SWP and in the SWP’s immediate predecessor the International Socialists (IS),  there had been a tradition of thinking about women’s politics which was much broader, and in which there was no obstacle to writing or campaigning even about “divisive” issues such as sexual violence. And nor is just the matter of praising a single individual such as Sheila Rowbotham; there were in fact a group of comrades who thought passionately, and deeply, about women’s oppression.

Women’s Voice was IS’ and then the SWP women’s newspaper and then magazine. It started in summer 1972 and continued until summer 1982, when the SWP’s annual conference voted to closed it down. There are accounts of the group and the magazine’s history in Tony Cliff’s A World to Win, where Women’s Voice is characterised as “a bridge out of the party”, and in Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, which records that “Cliff did not show any great enthusiam” for Women’s Voice from the outset, and quotes Cliff terming the paper’s launch “a disaster”.

My own reading is that irrespective of the reservations Cliff may have had the project gathered momentum, especially under the Labour government, and between 1974 and 1978 the magazine flourished. There were 600 people at Women’s Voice rally in Manchester in 1975, and 1000 people attended a rally in Sheffield three years later.

In 1978 a decision was taken to establish women-only Women’s Voice groups, which were also open to women outside the SWP. Sherrl Yanowitz was an active member of the SWP and Women’s Voice during this period, “I have never been ashamed of it. Every morning during the Grunwicks Strike at Dollis Hill, I went with my Kilburn Women’s Voice group to the picket line. We fought the police along side Arthur Scargill and the miners who came all the way from Yorkshire in solidarity.”

The move to establish Women’s Voice groups, at an arm’s length from the rest of the SWP, was controversial, and its groups were closed down in 1980 with the magazine being closed down two years later. Birchall quotes extensively from Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German, who were successively the SWP’s women organisers during this time and who are said to have argued with Cliff for the magazine to continue, but neither woman, it must be said, had written much for Women’s Voice, which had a different core of writers, very few of whom were still in the SWP within a couple of years of the magazine’s closure.

The magazine was lively and iconoclastic. It had a strategy for turning readers into writers by describing, very practically, how to write for the magazine, how to write industrial bulletins, how to duplicate the bulletins using the available technology of the time, how to set up Women’s Voice groups, and even how to set up women’s refuges. International coverage was sustained (especially over Ireland, South Africa and Palestine) without becoming the sole focus of the coverage.

Much of the content is similar to articles which you might have found in Socialist Review in the last 20 years (eg columns titled “Why I became a socialist”), and the two magazines even shared the same font, save that the biographies of inspiring women socialists from history which accompanied them (Louise Michel, Flora Tristran) is a little wider than anything Socialist Review has ever published.

The more interesting thing is what Women’s Voice did differently from other left-wing monthly magazines. It tried to make itself open to women competing on the same terrain as the women’s magazines with their focus on sex, diets, marriage, etc. It deliberately approached many of the same issues. There were half a dozen different articles about the utility of different kinds of contraception, the advisability or not of having children in your thirties.

There were articles about the slimming industry (years before Susie Orbach’s famous book Fat is a Feminist Issue), about the safety of children’s playgroups, a two-page spread on books for children, and an interview with Ramilla Patel the woman who disrupted Martin Webster’s march through Hyde by holding up behind him the entire way an anti-fascist placard (only the latter of these could as easily have appeared in the SWP’s main monthly magazine, Socialist Review). There were articles about what was wrong with Miss World and on the gender politics of Mary-worship in Catholicism.

The magazine ran a number of reviews of various of Kollontai’s books, critical reviews of books by Beatrix Campbell, and an interview with Marge Piercy. A lifestyle-type piece looked at the lives of female fire control operators during the firefighters’ strike. The magazine defended the left from the argument that people should look up to Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman. There were pieces on lesbian mums, the gendering of children’s clothes at Mothercare, the rip-off prices of children’s toys at Christmas.

Beside them, you could read practical advice on how to limit the pain of pre-menstrual tension, pieces on sexual harassment, the stigma of illegitimacy, and even a series of articles on the politics of women’s sport (chiefly, rowing; there was not much on running I’m sad to report).

Abortion was a regular topic; which is not surprising because this had been the largest women’s campaign of the 1970s and the one best supported by the union movement. And there were of course several pieces on rape and domestic violence, and on women’s organising to support the victims of both of these.

The starting point of Women’s Voice coverage was always to accept that rape was pervasive and genuinely a crime, and to support anyone fighting back against it.

You can see some of the differences between Women’s Voice and the more recent politics of the SWP if you take a very straightforward example – the way in which the magazine reviewed Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, the first big book in which 1970s feminism confronted the reality of rape. This was in the context of a two-page retrospective devoted to important books of the 1970s women’s movement.

In recent years, the conventional SWP approach has been to preface any analysis of Brownmiller with significant “health warnings” suggesting that its arguments are best avoided. So in Sheila Mcgregor’s 1989 piece on rape, there are a series of criticial mentions of Brownmiller who is attacked for having a “belief in the eternal existence of male violence“, for seeing all man as rapists, etc.

Compare the short review of the same book which Anna Sullivan wrote for Women’s Voice: “Susan Brownmiller’s book is an extremely objective and intense document on rape. The book is not just a set of case histories of rape but a close examination of every historical, social and racial situation in which rape has occurred: the way in which rape is used in times of war to oppress the defeated nation or group, the way prison system gives rise to rape and the way in which rape is used to impose racial oppression.”

“These reasons aside why do seemingly ordinary individuals rape? The question cannot be answered simply but Brownmiller does go a long way to explaining. However, she spoils the book by coming to some very strange conclusions. The strangest of all is that a revolutionary step forward in the liberation of women would be to have 50 per cent women in the police force!”

“In spite of this it is a compelling book to read and should leave us with the conclusion that however liberated women become in capitalist society the threat of violence will always be there and used unless we achieve socialism. Without books like these the question of rape would have stayed locked in the cupboard and women everywhere would have continued to accept violence as their lot.”

It is not a long review, but it is revealing. Sullivan criticised Brownmiller, but she placed her criticisms within what was essentially a positive review. She saw through the surface “edge” of Brownmiller’s book and grasped what was right with it.

The first SWP publication that Hazel Croft came across was Women’s Voice in the very early 80s, “I really loved it because it was a more dynamic/socialist version of feminist magazines like Spare Rib etc which I also read. There seemed to me at the time a wonderful sense of activism, and engagement with a whole range of issues that interested me as a young ‘socialist/anarchist/feminist’ at the time (I called myself all three) – maybe it was off-beam on some issues, but so what? It seems to me now that it really didn’t matter that much if it managed to reach and excite someone like me and connect me to a movement I later got so involved in.”

I know that some readers of this piece will think that Women’s Voice was “eclectic” to apply the politics of Marxism systematically to women’s lives. In truth it was nothing of the sort. Women are half of the world (indeed in Britain. America and Europe slightly more than half). If you want your socialism to be silent about women’s specific oppression (and in particular about male sexual violence) then you have to give up these parts of the struggle for women’s liberation to others. Your women’s politics are made vaguer and more general. And you should not be surprised if people angered by by rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence choose to express their anger by adopting politics other than yours.

Or, if you tried to have a Marxism which stated that it was, out of principle, uninterested in childcare, housework, the segregation of women into certain kinds of employment, key Marxist concepts such as the distinction between production and social reproduction would be lost and your Marxism diminished. Above all, you would lose the idea, central to what Marx himself thought his socialism was about, that socialism is the liberation of the whole of humanity from oppression and exploitation, and even the working class is merely the agent of change. It is all oppressed humanity who is supposed to benefit from workers’ revolution.

A healthy organisation could have integrated its socialism and its feminism; indeed, for ten of the best  years of the SWP’s existence the party had no difficulty at all in  being simultaneously both Marxist and anti-sexist. It kept a range of voices within, and the party was more interesting, and more effective as a result.

The last issue of Women’s Voice had on its back cover a full-page advert for the SWP’s monthly magazine Socialist Review, the not-so-subtle message being that in future the politics of Women’s Voice would continue to appear save in a new home.

Some members were fearful that women’s oppression would cease to be a priority for the SWP on Women’s Voice’s closure, but genuine efforts appear to have been made – for a couple of years anyway – to compensate by raising the profile within the ordinary routine of SWP activity, by writing about women’s issues in Socialist Worker and by having a range of meeting in branches or at the SWP’s annual summer conference Marxism which revolved around women’s oppression.  Charlie Hore was a member of the SWP in Leeds. He and most of his district had supported the continuation of Women’s Voice magazine: “In hindsight, I would [accept] that its abolition helped to integrate such work better into the SWP. I came away from [the SWP] conference [in 1982 which voted for the magazine to be closed down] thinking I would watch like a hawk for signs of the SWP getting soft on the issues, and I came round as I didn’t see it.”

In Cliff’s memoirs, he accepts his distance from Women’s Voice, but blames that gap on unnamed others; “Sadly, although I was in the leadership of the SWP, I was never allowed to be involved in the activity of Women’s Voice. I never spoke at a Women’s Voice meeting, I never wrote a line for the magazine. I did speak to women, and often, but did so in the context of their being engineers, hospital workers, teachers, students, and so on.” (Without being unkind to him, this may help to explain why Cliff’s book on women conceives of women in exactly those terms, i.e. as workers, teachers, students – far more clearly than as women).

In those memoirs, it is Lindsey German who is given the task of defending Women’s Voice‘s closure, saying that the magazine had accommodated “to autonomous [i.e. separate women’s] organisation … This was reflected in a whole number of campaigns taken up by Women’s Voice, for example, Reclaim the Night or against toxic tampons. In practice the move was away from class wide demands or demands which united women and men.” The reference to campaigns against toxic tampons seems unfair and even dismissive (although the magazine talked openly and sensibly about contraception, I have not seen that “campaign” in the 40 issues or so of the magazine that I have read). It is the reference to Reclaim the Night though which is telling. Those who have read my critique of Cliff’s book will spot that German is repeating of an argument which he had made in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, namely that campaigning against sexual violence should in principle be avoided, because it is always likely to divide women from men. I don’t need to repat the points I have made previously about the futility of that approach.

In Ian Birchall’s Tony Cliff: a Marxist for His Time, there is a much more sophisticated history of Women’s Voice (at pp 464-66) than there is in Cliff’s own memoirs. Birchall emphasises the slow speed at which Cliff moved in taking the decision to close the magazine, and the assent, by the end, of a number of women comrades. Now, of course it is better if bad decisions are handled sympathetically; all of us have seen the damage which is done when a line is taken brutally through an organisationally causing hundreds to leave.

But to my mind, even Birchall’s account underestimates the damage done by the magazine’s closure:

First, there was a group of people who had been sympathetic to the SWP who were permanently separated from it. They felt the loss keenly. Unlike other groups who were pushed out at much the same time (eg the people who went into Red Action), they never found an alternative political home. Very few, as far as I can see, became active in the briefly re-energised feminist movement that had followed the publication of Rowbotham and Segal’s book Beyond the Fragments. Most contributors to Women’s Voice who I have met saw themselves as more “socialist” and less “feminist” than the supporters of Beyond the Fragments, and they were equally isolated from the Women’s Liberation movement which was then at a different point from the old socialist-feminist consensus of the early 1970s. (Women’s Voice, I should add, had published a number of articles critical of aspects of late 70s and early 80s feminism, and was viewed relatively suspiciously by many feminists; another reason why it is a canard to portray the magazine as radical feminism’s home inside the SWP). The skills of the people who had contributed to Women’s Voice, their ideas and their enthusiasm for socialism were lost to the organised left without any compensating benefit to anybody.

Second, the early 80s was an important period in the slow degeneration of the old IS into the more top-down, controlled party that the SWP has slowly become – it saw the displacement of local cadres, the replacement of a culture of local activism with one of central direction, the loss of democracy, and the institutionalisation of a supposedly super-talented leadership who were always the best placed people to initiate new SWP policies whether on abortion, industry or the dialectics of nature. The closure of Women’s Voice coincided with the parallel purges of the SWP’s black activists around the magazine Flame, and the removal of the squaddists. There had been similar possibilities of decay within IS; what restrained them was the existence of a local cadre within the organisation who had been through different stages of the group’s politics and were irreverent towards the leadership and restrained it. Women’s Voice‘s closure was a part of that loss, a step towards the more command-ist party that the SWP is now. It scattered a small but distinct group of people who could have been limited the lurches of our recent leaderships.

Third, despite the intention that Women’s Voice contributors would be given a space in Socialist Review, which would then continue to run the same sort of articles as the ones which had been staples of Women’s Voice this did not happen in reality. Socialist Review did not show any lasting interest in women’s politics, which had as much priority in the magazine after 1982 as it had before. Its contents did not noticeably broaden after Women’s Voice was closed down, and that meant that the articles about contraception, dieting, etc, did not appear in the publications either of the SWP or of its any counterparts and rivals elsewhere on the Marxist left. An activist way of thinking about women’s oppression was lost, and if that thinking or campaigning continued afterwards, it was in the women’s movement , not within the socialist left. A move that was supposedly about integrating women’s oppression within the politics of the SWP, turned out over time to have the effect of raising the barrier between two parts of the left which should properly be allied.

I’ll be posting a number of articles from Women’s Voice over subsequent days and weeks, some to illustrate its broader politics of sex, love and sexual violence, others because they are well-written or inspiring.

A team of 17 friends have typed these pieces, which will then be offered, with the magazines, to the Marxist Internet Archive (my thanks and love to each of them).

I hope you enjoy the pieces as they are published;  they go beyond anything in any comparable left-wing publication today.

4 responses »

  1. Women’s Voice did not close as a result of any change in the analysis of women’s oppression in general or our perspectives on feminism. It closed because our (female) comrades found that they were increasingly talking to themselves and they were not interested in continuing to waste their time in that way.
    I was a member of Tower Hamlets teachers’ branch at the time and I recall women comrades voting with their feet. We found ourselves, because of the proximity of the print shop, carrying the Rank and File Teacher at the same time.
    Both of these organisations had ceased to be conduits for militants to move into broader and wider revolutionary activity and effectively closed themselves down.
    Would we have preferred the tactic to have continued to offer an effective means of engagement; that no downturn should have presented itself?
    You bet!

  2. I was in Womens Voice groups in Tottenham and later North Derbyshire a group that only had two Comrades in it and kept going after the magazine folded. I think that ther is room for some analysis of how the groups functioned as well as the role and content of the magazine.I was initially against the ending of WV but in actual fact found that my activities in the party around womens issues were probably sharper afterwards and more connected and rooted in the outside world. Having said that both the groups I was in were activist groups and not just talking shops or support / conciousness raising groups. They worked around setting up after school clubs a child care provision not available then for working women,abortion rights and other campaigns.I think the comment from John is accurate we got fed up talking to ourselves!

    • Dear madam Littlefield,

      I’m a a Phd student in The University of Paris (France) working on ethnic diversity in the British feminist magazines (1970s-1980s). one of the magazines I’m working on is Women’s Voice.
      I would be grateful if you would give me your opinion concerning some elements in relation to Women’s Voice coverage of Black women’s issues. Your feedback will be of great help and crucial for my research.

      Yours sincerely,
      Lobna Chebbah.

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