Ruskin conference article

The 1970 Ruskin Conference: What Can We Learn from the Flaws of Our Feminist Predecessors?

When I asked my grandmother what she remembers of the Women’s Liberation Movement, secretly hoping for unlikely tales of feminist heroism, she said that they used to annoy her, because they always looked so ‘scruffy’.

Having left school at fifteen to become a model, with the support of her parents, she does not feel that her opportunities were limited by her gender. She describes becoming a mother at twenty as the moment she realised the reason for her existence. Going on to have three more children, and being content as a housewife from the age of nineteen, the demands of the WLM did not capture her imagination; she did not feel that she needed to be liberated from anything. I’m not suggesting that this individualism is a moral failing on the part of my grandmother. Rather, it can actually be reflected back onto the movement itself, as we consider who it was really created for, and whether the attendees of the Ruskin conference succeeded in precipitating a movement for the transcendental category of ‘woman’.

The idea for the conference emerged from the 1968 Ruskin History Workshop. The suggestion by Sheila Rowbotham (activist and future academic) that a conference dedicated to women’s history should be held was met with laughter from male attendees, but plans were put into motion nonetheless. However, when confronted with the absence of existing work on women’s history, a conference dedicated to women’s liberation was suggested instead. It eventually took place between 27 February and 1 March 1970. Ruskin College’s role as the initial epicentre of the movement reflects the socialist origins of the wider WLM. The college was founded to provide education for working class people, and by 1970 the socialist ethos of the college was still firm. This can perhaps be seen in the potentially radical nature of the four initial demands of the WLM, established at this first national conference: equal work for equal pay, equal education and equal opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries.

The 1970 Ruskin Conference, held in the Oxford Union.
The conference expanded into the Oxford Union due to an unexpectedly high turnout (A Woman’s Place, Sue Crockford and Liberation Films, 1970)

In essence, the 1970 Ruskin Conference can be seen as an unusually large consciousness-raising (CR) group. These groups would become increasingly popular over the next decade, due to the influence of the American WLM, with its foundation in works such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan argues that women must come together and express their dissatisfaction with the traditional domestic femininity of the housewife, in order to reduce the perniciousness of the ‘feminine mystique’ which celebrates it. CR groups are therefore an enactment of ‘the personal is political’, a slogan borrowed from the American civil rights movement. Whilst socialist women were ostensibly hostile to CR groups in Britain, preferring structural analysis over the personal anecdote, historians such as Florence Binard have emphasised that distinction between the two types of women’s groups is not so easily made. Indeed, Sue Crockford’s film A Woman’s Place (1971) documented an argument which broke out at the Ruskin conference about the place of the personal in their discussions:

that’s the only way we can keep ourselves from getting airy-fairy and ethereal and talking about -isms and -ites and -ates […] I know capitalism exists but if I only talk about capital-ism and not us who are being exploited, we’ll never get anywhere.

Attendee Mary Kennedy characterised the 1970 conference as ‘ahistorical’ in the sense that ‘participants mixed in personal and political matters of concern to them, often regardless of the subject being presented’. Beyond the socialist concerns about CR, I will argue that this ‘ahistorical’ approach had negative consequences for the WLM. Ruskin conference attendee Janet Dee revealingly describes her experience of the realisation that other women have the same doubts and fears as you: ‘The feeling was like you have when you’re in love. The world re-made in the image of whatever you were in love with.’ Dee expresses that the revelations of CR and discussions of the personal are based on commonality. The movement and its outlook are ‘re-made’ in the image of this commonality, meaning that anyone who could not spur these revelations of commonality was excluded from the movement—suggesting its problematic nature.

An argument over the place of the personal at the Conference.
An argument over the place of the personal at the conference (A Woman’s Place, 1970)
Sheila Rowbotham at the  Conference.
Sheila Rowbotham at the conference (A Woman’s Place, 1970)

In her reflections on the 2000 Ruskin anniversary conference, Kennedy warns of ‘the dangers of mythologising that first Women’s Liberation Movement conference in February 1970–the ‘we were there making history’ syndrome.’ However, it seems that many women involved in the WLM at that time did not think about it in terms of creation, or making, but discovery. The very idea of consciousness-raising—becoming aware of a preexisting fact—is based on the act of discovery that proliferated in other expressions of second-wave feminism. Elaine Showalter’s seminal (and now oft-criticised) work A Literature of Their Own (1977) was a part of the first wave of feminist literary criticism focussed on ‘rediscovery’. Showalter’s text was published in the UK by Virago, a feminist press established in 1973 to rediscover books written by women at the beginning of the twentieth century which had fallen out of print. In a statement which is ironic given who her husband is, Marlene Hobsbawm believes that at the Ruskin conference ‘I saw myself in a historical context for the first time’. Her precise meaning can be clarified by a remark from Wandor: ‘the most important overall legacy of that weekend was the realisation that, marginal as I very often felt, I was objectively a part of the historical process, and that I could help share and change that history.’ Here, Wandor obscures the idea of discovery beneath that of creation: ‘share and change’, the pre-existing accompanies that which is coming into existence. As Judith Butler says within her critique of ‘women’ as the subject of feminism in Gender Trouble (1990), ‘the identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation.’ Framing the construction of something as a discovery—as most of these women do—legitimates the constructed model, imbuing it with the validity of ‘objectivity’, to use Wandor’s term. What is but one potential iteration (one feminism of many feminisms) comes to be seen as the articulation of predetermined objective fact. If the discovery of this ‘fact’ results in the world being re-made in this image, as Dee says, then we must ask: who is the image of?

Betty Friedan makes a claim to universality when she legitimates the feminine mystique by claiming she sees signs of it ‘in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living-rooms in the Midwest.’ This strategy is an example of what bell hooks terms ‘the conscious mystification of social divisions between women’, resulting in the dissolution of differences in class, ethnicity, and region, as well as the exclusion of those who didn’t make it into Friedan’s survey. Juliet Mitchell excuses the use of the same strategy of universalisation in the British WLM to Wandor: ‘I think we went on calling it women’s liberation in order to preserve the sense that it was an umbrella that could accommodate people of various left-wing radical politics. […] It was an illusion, but you have to have those illusions to build a party’. Despite this common recourse to pragmatism, Butler points out that ‘strategies always have meanings that exceed the purposes for which they are intended.’ Indeed, this rhetorical strategy trickled into praxis, and exclusion always accompanies universalisation.

A poster from the event reading 'women...explode the myth, fight for liberation'.
Poster from the 1970 conference (A Woman’s Place, 1970)

In August 1971, members of the Black Women’s Action Committee, Black Unity and Freedom Party produced ‘The Black Woman’ which, among other things, delineated the black woman’s relationship to the WLM:

The precondition for the black woman generally fighting on a general woman’s platform is a commitment by white women, both in word and deed, to struggle for the freedom of the black woman from racism.

It becomes clear that the white women of the WLM failed in this over the ensuing decade, often by universalising their own experience as that of ‘women’. Ruskin conference attendee Anna Davin didn’t go to any conferences after 1975 because of the presence of ‘angry new demands which seemed to be breaking up the sense of unity—however unrealistic—we’d previously drawn strength from.’ A significant part of this was the new emphasis on sexuality: ‘I’d probably have seen lesbianism as politically risky—we had to keep the image of feminism clean, so to speak!’. Her remarks demonstrate just how much of an illusion the idea of unity was, as minorities within that overarching unity were treated as politically divisive and controversial, counter to a more palatable ‘clean’ feminism which prioritised the concerns of educated, heterosexual, middle class women. This was also the case for ethnicity. Davin reflects that the movement practiced a kind of blindness to difference within it, not ‘noticing’ ethnicity or sexuality, thinking ‘it was enough to be ‘not prejudiced’’. These attitudes are unfortunately ironic, as these were the very reasons why the women who organised the Ruskin conference broke with the socialist movement to form their own. Indeed, in June 1969, Sheila Rowbotham wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Women’s Liberation And The New Politics’, in which she lamented that women’s issues were always at the bottom of the agenda of the Left because they were considered ‘diversionary’. While women’s liberation leaders like Rowbotham had criticised leftist organisations for side-lining the issues of specific groups, the WLM was itself guilty of the same shortcoming. Therefore, perhaps the feminists of the 1970s could have foreseen the end of their movement in its beginning.

FOWAAD!, newsletter of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent.
A 1980 newsletter produced by the Organisation of Women of Asian & African Descent (Source: Libcom.org)

Even thirty years later, at the Ruskin anniversary conference in 2000, the attendees were struggling with the same fallbacks. Mary Kennedy felt that one of its workshops, entitled ‘Reassessing Racism in the WLM’, ‘smacked of tokenism’ due to ‘the absence of any British black women, although there were two women from the Cameroons and Ghana who were unaware of the bitter criticism of white women’s elitism and racism made by black women against WLM.’ Therefore it is unsurprising that black women felt the need to develop their own movement by the late 1970s. In 1979, the newly formed Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent held a conference in Brixton, London, which gathered nearly 300 women. An account published in the feminist magazine Spare Rib in October 1979 reflected on the conference, emphasising its importance for ‘an autonomous Black Women’s Movement in Britain.’ The account displays the prominent feeling that this specific group should ‘lead a struggle against the specific type of oppression that we face.’ Therefore, although Rowbotham was not wrong in her interview with Wandor when she characterised the main players in the WLM as ‘middle-class women who have valid reasons to complain’, we must be critical of how the grievances of this specific group became the focus of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), Iris Marion Young argues that ‘The ideal of a universal humanity without social group differences allows privileged groups to ignore their own group specificity.’ Thus, when the early WLM attempted to rally around the category of ‘woman’, in the hopes that it could transcend class, race, and sexuality differences, in actuality they obscured the group specificity of those who were most active in the movement and its formation, alienating those who became Other.

No one would wish for the clock to be turned back on the advances in women’s rights that took place while the WLM was active. However, I am not sure that the nostalgia displayed by those such as journalist Kira Cochrane—who looked back on the Ruskin conference in 2010, pleased that ‘four decades later, the movement seems revitalised, born anew, that sense of optimism suddenly recaptured’—is where our thoughts should lie today. The WLM was unravelling by the late 1970s, with the last national conference in Birmingham in 1978 having to be broken up because of the aggressive irreconcilability of the debates. As Barbara Caine says, by the 1980s the idea of a unified feminism was seen as ‘prescriptive and exclusionary’, instead, there was an increasing preference for the use of ‘plural ‘feminisms’ rather than of any singular ‘feminism’.’ If the mood of the WLM is being recaptured, then we are fated to go wrong. Coalition across difference should be our goal, not an optimism founded on an alienating, illusive unity.


Bibliography:

Binard, Florence, ‘The British Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s: Redefining the Personal and the Political’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXII- Hors série, 2017

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 1990, rev. ed. 1999

Caine, Barbara, English Feminism, 1780-1980, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997

Cochrane, Kira, ‘Forty years of women’s liberation’, Guardian Online, 26 February 2010

Crockford, Sue, A Woman’s Place, 1971, http://www.the-lcva.co.uk/videos/594bba5c1c423d243c1b14a7

Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, London: Penguin, 2010

hooks, bell, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, Boston: South End Press: 1984

Kennedy, Mary, ‘One Woman’s Reflections on the Ruskin Conference, ‘Celebrating the Women’s Liberation Movement Thirty Years On’, Ruskin College, Oxford, 18 March 2000’ Women’s History Review, Volume 10, Number 2, 2001

Rowe, Marsha, ed., ‘Black Women Together: Organization of Women of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Descent’, SR.87, October 1979, in Spare Rib Reader, 1982

Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: from Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing, London: Virago, 1978, rev. ed 1999

Wander, Michelene, ed., The Body Politic: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, 1969-1972, London: Stage 1, 1972

Wandor, Michelene, Once a Feminist: Stories of a Generation, London: Virago, 1990

Young, Iris Marion, Justice and the Politics of Difference, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990

On This Day at Ruskin: National Women’s Liberation Conference featured image
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall working in the crèche during the 1970 conference (Ruskin College)

Title image inspiration taken from here.