The Fight for the Liberation of Women

The Portsmouth Polytechnic Women’s Liberation stand in the Tricorn – Photo courtesy of The News, Portsmouth

The Women’s Liberation Movement, referred to as ‘second wave feminism’ (first wave being the suffrage movement) burst onto the scene in Britain in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s and 1980s.  It came out of a growing sense of dissatisfaction from women about their lives and an increasing sense of empowerment and desire to bring about gender change. The movement was non-hierarchical and structured around a network of small local groups. The heart of the movement was consciousness raising which was based on a small group process. These groups enabled women to discuss their lives in a non-threatening and supportive atmosphere. Working on the basis that ‘the personal is political’ the group collectively tried to work out how they could bring about change. 

First ever meeting of the Women’s Liberation Group at Portsmouth Polytechnic
Photo courtesy of The News, Portsmouth

The WLM was also about action in the community. BENITA OAKLEY lived in Southsea and was a member of a local women’s liberation group in the 1970s. She engaged in consciousness raising for several years which she described as having a profound impact on her and other members of the group. She was also a very committed activist. She said that the group would set up a women’s liberation stall at public events and did whatever they could to spread the word of women’s liberation. Following on from this the group decided to hold a ‘housework event’ on Southsea Common to raise awareness about women’s unpaid domestic labour and to publicise their group. 

ESTELLE P also questioned perceived norms for women in the 1970s. Married young, she saw the emerging local women’s groups as a place to talk about and clarify her position in society as a woman

“One of the things I particularly remember is that we drafted a bill of women’s rights… – but we were a collective and we worked on it together.

So, we said things like, ‘I have the right to be heard, I have the right to say no, I have the right to express my views, I have the right to determine my own actions.’

And it was as simple as that. Because what you might not know is that women were really under the rule of their husbands at that time.

I can remember when I was going off to something, I think it was work…

and I remember meeting one of my neighbours in the street and she said to me, ‘What, are you going off to work?’ she said. ‘Who’s going to do the ironing, and who’s going to do the washing up?’

And I said, ‘Well, I will.’

And she said, ‘What does your husband think of that, you going out?’

You know, there was really a lot of social pressure to stay in the home and do what women were traditionally supposed to do.

… And we tried to raise the issue of the need for equality. We learned to question perceived wisdom, and we asked questions about who wrote history. But mostly we supported each other and encouraged education and increased awareness.”

VERENA LOVATT-WRIGHT (in pink, front right)
taught the adult education course Mainly for Women from 1992 at the New Road Education Centre in Fratton, Portsmouth. It was aimed at mothers who had only a basic education and wanted to return to education. It offered a life-changing journey which eventually led to a professional career. These working-class women may or may not have identified with the women’s movement, but it is clear from Verena’s testimony that the course involved consciousness raising and, in many respects, acted as a women’s liberation group:

“New Road, Adult Education Centre, that was the base for the course. It was every Monday and we had a crèche, run by a man, a young man, interestingly, who was really lovely with the children, Graham

… They came because the course was free, because they were on benefits. The course was available to them because of the childcare, on the premises. So therefore I am suggesting that’s mainly working-class.”