The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was a force to be reckoned with. Emerging in the tumultuous times of the late 1960s, which included the emergence of protests about civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the rise of the New Left, the WLM brought together women who wanted to challenge sexism in society. In the late 1960s local women’s liberation groups were formed in many countries in Western Europe and America. In Britain, feminists organised their activism around a list of seven demands (see below) and groups could be found in many towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom, from Brighton in the south to the Shetland Islands in the north.[i] Activists were involved in a number of different campaigns at the same time. They protested, produced pamphlets, books and literature, created music groups and wrote feminist songs, challenged the dominance of the family by establishing communes, encouraged women to apply for jobs in male-dominated professions through groups such as Women and Manual Trades, experimented with personal appearance, and so much more. These were heady times for women involved in feminist politics, and the movement was a way of life.
The women’s liberation group in Nottingham was similar to others found throughout the UK. It emerged in the late 1960s and was one of the first formed in Britain. They created campaigns which focused on the themes of the seven demands and were particularly active in the National Abortion Campaign. This Campaign was set up to defend the 1967 Abortion Act (which had granted women the right to access abortions up until 28 weeks of pregnancy) against a number of challenges in Parliament, which sought to lower the upper time limit in which women could seek an abortion. The group in Nottingham also organised Reclaim the Night marches to highlight the sexual abuse and harassment women experienced on the city’s streets. Reclaim the Night was a feminist protest method created by the WLM in the 1970s and marches were held in many cities in Britain. Groups of women would march along a city-centre route, often a route where a high number of sexual assaults had occurred, shouting ‘whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no’. The aim of these marches was to challenge violence against women as well as demanding that women should feel safe to walk alone.
Like many groups in the UK, Nottingham feminists organised a number of initiatives which aimed to root women’s liberation within the wider community. They founded a women’s centre in 1971, which unlike many centres throughout the British Isles, is still open today. The centre can now be found on Chaucer Street but it used to be located on Shakespeare Street for a time. The women who set up this centre saw this as a way to introduce women outside the movement to the ideas of women’s liberation, as well as being a place where practical actions could be created. It was also about learning new skills. For example, for the women who set up the centre they were able to find out how to do DIY. Women’s liberation activists in Nottingham also organised a Women’s Festival in 1979 which included a season of films, theatre and literary events. When promoting this event they asked: ‘Is Nottingham the centre of feminist revolution in Britain? Well, not quite, but we’re doing our best!’.[ii]
Yet, there wasn’t a centre to this ‘feminist revolution’ in Britain. This was a de-centralised movement based in the local context, and women within towns and cities throughout the British Isles were all ‘doing their best’ to achieve the aims of Women’s Liberation. These women dedicated themselves to women’s liberation and through their hard work and commitment they left a lasting legacy through organisations like Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, and so much more. Nottingham feminists contributed to these developments, not only changing the lives of the women involved in the movement, but also in challenging the way wider society understood many of the issues connected to gender politics.
Sarah Browne September 2013
[i] The seven demands were: equal pay, equal education and opportunity, twenty-four hour nurseries, free contraception and abortion on demand, financial and legal independence, an end to all discrimination against lesbians, and freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence – an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.
[ii] Nottingham Voice: Nottingham’s Alternative Newspaper, no. 80, November 1978 (Archive/H/Huggins/10/989 Box 3, Sparrow’s Nest, http://www.thesparrowsnest.org.uk/index.php/library).
- Coote and B. Campbell, Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (London, 1982).
Z. Fairbairns, H. Graham, A. Neilson, E. Robertson and A. Kaloski, Saying What We Want: Women’s Demands in the Feminist Seventies and Now (New York, 2002).
S. Rowbotham, The Past is Before Us: Feminism in Social Action since the 1960s (London, 1989).