By Gabriela Loureiro
March 12 2021
In the past 50 years, feminist activism in the UK has significantly changed as a response to the on-going challenges relating to capitalism, neoliberalism, austerity and precarisation. Nevertheless, the obstacles faced by feminists today do not belong to the past and are not circumscribed within one particular context. Instead, they are ever-present in political mobilisations in a myriad of ways inside different feminist groups.
To mark the 50th Anniversary of Ealing’s Women’s Liberation, and in celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we interviewed one of the key members of the group – Professor Ann Oakley, best-selling writer, academic and author of the path-breaking texts Sex, Gender and Society (1972) and The Sociology of Housework (1974). The conversation (excerpted below) revolves around the history of the group, its consciousness-raising (CR) activities and the challenges of feminist community building. The full interview is available via the University of West London.
Consciousness-raising and Women's Liberation
The systematised creation and management of CR groups, where participants would share personal stories as a political practice, was an important part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in different parts of the world, and was seen as a core strategy via which to bring more participants into activism. It was also an organisational process that collectively crafted a sense of injustice by transforming emotions such as anger, alienation and frustration into collective action.
The literature about consciousness-raising is often based on the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States due to the large-scale reproduction and visibility attained by feminist groups there during the 1970s and 1980s. While there are several publications about CR in the UK, along with some important archival resources – in London, for example, we have collections at the British Library, The Feminist Library, the Women’s Library at the LSE, the Bishopsgate Institute, and elsewhere – there is still much to be done in the effort to recover and share UK feminist histories.
According to Oakley’s archive, there were two Ealing groups in the early 1970s. The one she participated in met weekly in members’ homes. Besides CR, the Ealing’s Women Liberation group also organised conferences, shared newsletters, did pregnancy-testing and offered general self-help health care for the local community. At our request, Oakley revisited the newsletters that activists produced, and shared images of the publications. Most of her archive, currently in her attic, will be stored at the British Library in the future, as she understands the importance of making the material publicly available.
This interview is thus intended as a contribution to efforts to address the problem of scarcity of historical documents and archives through one woman’s memories and analysis, and to create more public records of Women’s Liberation activities in Ealing. We hope that, through a better understanding of the histories of feminist activism, we can learn from these and build toward a more emancipatory feminist future.
Gabriela Loureiro: As a starting point, considering that this is a celebration of the 50 year anniversary of Ealing’s Women’s Liberation and the scarcity of resources about the group, could you offer us a description of what the Ealing’s Women’s Liberation group was, and the activities carried out by participants in the 1970s? How did it work in practice?
Ann Oakley: The initiative for the Ealing group was taken by two American women living in London, Elyse Dodgson and Debby Gregory. Elyse died in 2018 after a very successful career at the Royal Court theatre. She and I remained friends to the end. Debby lives in Canada, and I am also in touch with her. The beginnings of my involvement in the group are told in my Taking it Like a Woman (1984). I was interviewing women about housework (for my book The Sociology of Housework) and sometime in early 1971 one of my interviewees mentioned a women’s liberation group that was starting soon. Consciousness-raising was the core. The (usually weekly) evening sessions were very draining and extremely important. It was very much about the sharing of experience and understanding that many personal problems are actually political.
GL: Sharing feelings and personal stories was a core part of consciousness-raising activities and often Women’s Liberation activists argued for the importance of a private approach where participants would meet in closed, small groups to share and transform emotions such as anger into a collectively defined sense of injustice. From your perspective, what role does emotion work play in feminist activism?
AO: CR didn’t primarily involve sharing emotions such as sadness and anger but talking about one’s experiences as a woman. For example, those of us who had children in the Ealing group were experiencing what is now recognised as the usual stress and exhaustion that accompanies motherhood, and some of us had been told by our GPs that we were depressed. But once we were able to share with other women what it felt like to be a mother, which involves the extremes of every possible emotion, including great joy and happiness, we came to see how unhelpful the ‘depression’ label was. We didn’t call it ’emotion work’, nor do I think this is the right description. It was intensely political work, in the sense of connecting the personal and the public. Our personal problems were rearranged as insignia of patriarchy.
GL: How do you define “emotion work” and in what ways does it differ from the work carried out by the CR group?
AO: This isn’t a term that was used then, and I think there’s a danger of reconstructing history in terms of now-current concepts. As we understood CR then, it was about recognising that the condition of women is shaped by a set of structures external to individual women’s situation and control. It was about appreciating that women are oppressed, and how this oppression operates and manifests itself in our lives. I am a sociologist, so it’s possible that my perspective overemphasizes this angle, but if you read the literature of the time it is very much about CR as a political process, a process of fighting through/resisting/reinterpreting traditional understandings of who women are.
GL: We can see CR activities through other lenses as well – that is, not only as a way to transform emotions into collective action, but in terms of efforts within feminist groups themselves to manage experiences of frustration amongst participants. Frequently, CR groups would have guidelines about how to avoid internal conflict that could endanger the community-building aspect of the practice. There was an expectation that members would be sensitive towards each other’s feelings, and that each member would feel responsible for fostering a nurturing and fair environment. Did you witness conflict inside Ealing’s Women’s Liberation? What sort of tensions arose? And how was anger managed in the group?
AO: Yes, of course, there were masses of this. I remember being on the phone for hours the day after our meetings, going over everything that happened. It’s hard to maintain a sense of solidarity in the face of evident divisions between people. Some of us, for example, had more money than others. I, as an academic, was always in a slightly difficult position. But when I went to Glasgow to give my very first academic seminar (I was paralysed by nervousness) the entire group was waiting for me at the airport when I came back. On another occasion, we set up a meeting with the local men’s group (some of these started up in the mistaken conviction that men’s oppression is the same as women’s). The meeting was held in my house and it was a total (and very divisive) disaster. On the whole, though, we managed these tensions by talking through our various perspectives and emotions. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an ability that has stood me in good stead since!
GL: Could you expand on what you mean by “talking through our various perspectives and emotions”? Could you share some examples of strategies that worked, some stories that might enlighten us about how to deal with conflict in feminist struggles?
AO: It was a long time ago, but I recall things like taking it in turns to speak, and not having any kind of formal leader, as extremely important. I think also some of conflicts got ironed out in the process of doing the practical work (like organising conferences and doing pregnancy testing).
GL: In my research, I am particularly attentive to the importance of archival work. I focus on historical materials relating to feminist organising in both Brazil and the UK, in the belief that we can learn from diverse feminist histories and understand the challenges we have in common in light of limitations faced in the past. In your opinion, what are the lessons we can learn today from Ealing’s Women’s Liberation?
AO: Thinking about it now, I find it quite remarkable that a diverse group of women such as we were in the Ealing group accomplished so much, personally and politically, together. Without rulebooks or guidelines or contracts, just out of a passionately felt need – which wasn’t just about discovering our own individual identities but about working towards the structural liberation of women. I do not believe that ‘digital’ CR can achieve anything like that. In fact, I think we are being duped by the digital culture if we think that typing things into a screen is any substitute for proper human connection.
GL: How do you think the conditions around unpaid housework, wage work, and their interaction have changed over the course of the last 50 years?
AO: Your question is simply too enormous to answer properly! It’s a matter of looking at the evidence, which fortunately we have a lot more of than we did in the 1970s. Women still do the bulk of the world’s housework and caring work, and they are still undervalued and underpaid labourers. We still have patriarchy! Conditions for women will only change at the margins until the central structures of masculine domination are dismantled.
GL: What do you consider to be the most positive developments in feminist politics in recent years, and where do you feel the most hope for the future?
AO: I have to admit to feeling quite bleak about this at the moment. So much energy seems to be devoted to quite superficial aspects of the feminist struggle – such as how many women get to be MDs of companies or celebrity stars. Maybe when the story of gender and the current pandemic gets written there’ll be more public awareness of how little things have changed (in the home, as regards domestic labour, in terms of gender and the balance of power, the gender wage gap, gender and poverty etc). The future has to lie in the hands of younger generations. I am impressed by how my own grandchildren (aged from 10 to 25) define themselves in relation to gender and feminism. That gives me hope!
Ann Oakley is a writer and a sociologist. She has written both novels and many non-fiction books. Most of her life has been spent working in university research and she is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the UCL Social Research Institute. She is best known for her work on sex and gender, housework, childbirth and social science methodology. Her last publication, Women, Peace and Welfare: a suppressed history of social reform 1880-1920 (Bristol Policy Press, 2019), brings together the histories of social reform, social science, welfare and pacifism through women’s stories. Her next book, to be published this summer also by Bristol Policy Press, is titled Forgotten Wives: how women get written out of history and continues her project of interweaving archives, biographies, autobiographies and historical accounts with critical, sociological analysis of marriage, housework and the welfare state. She holds an honorary appointment as a Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford. In 2011 the British Sociological Association gave her one of their first Lifetime achievement Awards for her extraordinary contribution to the history of the development of sociology in Britain.
Gabriela Loureiro is a journalist and doctoral researcher at UWL primarily interested in the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, migration and decoloniality. She works as a research associate at Queen Mary University of London in the School of Geography’s project Connecting During Covid (CDC), looking at migrant’s remittances as practices of care during the pandemic. Her PhD thesis, entitled “Embodied emotions and collective struggle: hashtag feminism as digital consciousness-raising in Brazil”, examines the emotional work of online disclosure in digital feminist campaigns by focusing on two hashtags that went viral in Brazil in 2015, named “the year of Women’s Spring”. Her academic publications revolve around contemporary forms of feminist activism in Brazil, the legacy of Marielle Franco and the connections between embodiment, therapy and art in digital spaces. She holds an MA (with distinction) in Gender Studies from the University of Leeds and has taught and supervised students in the Media department at the University of West London. Prior to academia, Gabi worked as a journalist at the BBC and various outlets in Brazil (Globo, The Huffington Post and Abril Group).