The mid-seventies were exciting years. large numbers of women were becoming involved in political activity, many for the first time. The National Abortion Campaign, organising against the first attack on the 1967 Abortion Act, drew tens of thousands of women onto the streets, petitioning, holding street meetings, marching and demonstrating.
The introduction of the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act led many women to expect equal rights, or at least an improvement in their conditions at work. The failure of these laws brought a degree of anger and militancy. The first wave of welfare cuts, and opposition from the public sector union, particularly NUPE, involved thousands more. ‘We’re women, we’re workers and we’re fighting’ was our slogan, and it fitted the mood of the time.
The experience of working in these campaigns showed us that women were interested in SWP politics, particularly on issues that affect women directly. Womens Voice was launched as a way of introducing our political ideas to more women, and drawing more women into political activity with us.
The magazine enjoyed an immediate success. Building on the work that SWP members had been doing, particularly in NAC, sales grew rapidly, and so did Womens Voice meetings. Once the magazine was established, meetings became regular rather than one-off, and the formation of Womens Voice groups to organise activity quickly followed.
Within the SWP, we won the argument that special forms of organisation are necessary to involved working class women, that we need Womens Voice to reach out specifically to women, and that we must deal with problems that affect us as women, as well as issues affecting the working class.
But the growth of a whole number of Womens Voice groups, and the active involvement of women who are not members of the SWP, raised new questions. A debate began, both within the SWP and within Womens Voice. What sort of organisation are we trying to build, how should the groups relate to one another at a national level, and in particular, what should Womens Voice’s relationship be with the SWP?
These were the central questions debated at last month’s SWP women’s meeting, and at the Womens Voice delegate conference. Should Womens Voice cut its links with the SWP, and try and build itself as an independent organisation, with no specific connection with any other political organisation? Those who supported this position argued that we need to build an active socialist feminist organisation in which non-aligned women, and women from different left groups would participate, and that a link with the SWP would inhibit such participation.
They argued that our understanding that there can be no womens’ liberation without socialism was sufficient guarantee that Womens Voice’s politics would be revolutionary, and that a commitment to the entire programme of the SWP would put women off, and would lead to our being dictated to by the male leadership of the SWP.
We argued that although Womens Voice needs its own structure for decision making, it has to be firmly and openly based on the politics of the SWP. Politics isn’t just about the ideas in people’s heads, or statements on the back of a magazine, its also about action and involvement. We need to be linked in with the day to day activities of a party that is trying to unify all sections of the working class, if we are to be as effective and clear-sighted as possible.
It wasn’t accidental that it was the SWP that built Womens Voice, it arose directly out of the SWP’s politics; politics centred on the belief that socialism can only be achieved by the working class itself, that we have to liberate ourselves, no-one else can do it for us. Out political links with the SWP are not something to be ashamed of or glossed over – Womens Voice is committed to fighting for socialism, and the building of a revolutionary party. It is impossible to be committed to this in the abstract: that can only lead to confusion, internal dissension or a watering down of our politics. History is littered with the corpses of organisations that drifted to the right because they weren’t clear about their commitment to revolution, or that died a premature death locked in arguments between different factions.
This argument was accepted by the conference. The following resolution, moved by Bedford Womens Voice, was carried by a large majority:
‘This group proposes that the following statement be adopted as out programme and should be on every Womens Voice card and in every issue of Womens Voice.
Womens Voice is an organisation that fights for Womens Liberation and Socialism. We fight for: equal pay, free abortion and contraception, maternity leave and child care provision, the right to work, against any form of discrimination on grounds of sex, sexual orientation or race.
Womens Liberation is only possible through women organising and fighting for themselves.
Womens Liberation can only be achieved by linking its struggles to those of the working class and overthrowing the capitalist system.
Womens Voice supports the aims of the Socialist Workers Party. It is organisationally independent but based on the politics of the SWP.
It was repeatedly stressed that a commitment to SWP politics in no way meant that non-SWP women would be excluded. We do want women to join us, selling the magazine, building the groups, fighting in the campaigns, arguing the need for womens liberation and socialism. Will you join us in the fight?
Women’s Voice, November 1979 – Issue 35