Universal Sisterhood Questioned: White Feminists and Race in the Women’s Liberation Movement

To what extent was the WLM a racially exclusive movement which failed to engage with issues of race?

Main question:
‘The desire for equality, the struggle for social justice and the vision of universal sisterhood was the consuming unidirectional project of white (socialist) feminism throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.’ To what extent is this true?

Thesis: White feminists active in the WLM in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s have often been accused of being blind to the needs of ethnic minority women and thus ‘racist.’ While there is significant truth to these claims, such critiques have often been rather simplistic. This dissertation will explore why white feminists did not engage with race, the many examples where they did, however limited and clumsy this engagement. This essay will argue that rather than being simply racist, the white feminists in the WLM did engage with race, albeit through a myopic and limited lens, which ironically reinscribed white power.

As it has been well-established in the historiography of the WLM, women’s liberation in Britain originated in various places. The publication of Juliet Mitchell’s essay, ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’ in 1966, which came after years of dissatisfaction on the part of women involved in the New Left which is considered to be the seminal text in the women’s liberation movement in Britain. The year 1968 was the fiftieth anniversary of the suffrage for women which not only sparked a renewed discourse on the position of women in newspapers, but also saw the industrial militancy of working class women, such as the strike for equal pay by women machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham.

I- Politics and race in the early WLM: an education
The Women’s Liberation Movement came into existence during a very unique historical moment of the 1960s and in order to understand the politics of race within the Women’s Liberation Movement (how whiteness was structured within the movement and how immigrant and racial ‘others’ were understood) it is necessary to contextualise it within this utopian post-war moment. It is within this framework that the inherent paradox within the movement is revealed, a movement which was born out of liberation struggles, anti-imperialism and Marxist socialism but which existed and acted within the matrix of colonialism. From the beginning of the movement, the influence of global, international movements can be traced. The 1950s and 1960s, a period of significant influx of migrants from the Commonwealth, saw the emergence of a distinctive Black British politics.
Early participants of the WLM were introduced to radical political activism through anti-imperialist movements. It was through movements such as as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Black Liberation movement that many white feminists found analogies between the oppression of women and others. Sheila Rowbotham, one of the organisers of the inaugural Women’s Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, suggests that the idea that one should organise on the basis of one’s own oppression came from the Black movement. Furthermore, Juliet Mitchell accredits the Black Movement as ‘the single greatest inspiration to the growth of Women’s Liberation.’ It is within this Marxist, anti-imperialist framework that the understanding of the organising around oppression occurred for early WLM feminists. However, it was in this very space, one that was heavily male-dominated, that women began to realise the need to organise separately. This can be seen when Mitchell herself discusses her decision to study women’s oppression in Michelene Wandor’s Once a Feminist where she recalls, ‘“I was in this very male-dominated new left group that was dividing up the Third World into areas of specialism, saying, ‘I’ll do Algeria, I’ll do Tanzania, I’ll do Persia.’ It was the beginning of a period of Marxist work which supplemented class analysis. I said, ‘Well, there’s women who also don’t fit into class analysis. I’ll do women.”’ It is interesting to note that many Black women also decided to organise autonomously after experiencing a similar marginality within the Black Liberation movement, and also within the WLM and as a result, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) was established in 1978. However, this exclusion of Black women from both Black Power Movement and WLM was not something that white feminists came to be aware of until the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This is largely due to the fact that this political activism, a largely male-dominated space, was one one of the only ways in which the white, middle-class women of the Women’s Liberation Movement encountered people from migrant communities and ethnic minorities. It was in this context that some white feminists developed personal and activist relationships with Black politics. Janet Hadley, Selma James and Catherine Hall, all interviewed by Michelene Wandor in Once a Feminist, spoke about their own experiences with Black politics and relationships with Black men. Janet Hadley talks about her experience of having a Caribbean boyfriend, attempting to start up the Black Panthers in the UK and hearing the Black Marxist historian and activist C.L.R James talk. Similarly Hall and James also talk about their relationships with Black men and how their socialism and involvement in Black political activism often pre-dated their feminism. However, in these interviews conducted in 1990, these women draw analogies between Black oppression and women’s oppression that could be viewed as myopic, patronising and even untrue. In her interview, Janet Hadley recalls ‘when I first came across the notion of women’s oppression, I felt I already had a whole box of concepts that I could relate it to. I could say, “oh yes, it’s just like with Black people, women feel inferior, they’re taught to feel inferior by society.”’ In this statement, one that other white feminists also made, there are various problematic assumptions that are at the very root of the problems with how white feminists in the Women’s Liberation Movement thought and spoke about racial oppression. Firstly, in drawing a comparison between racist and sexist oppression, suggesting that these women understood and empathised with the plight of the Black community. This implicitly suggests that these white women were absolved from racism. This is particularly important in the context of this essay as it explains how and why white feminists in the WLM understood these oppression as separate but the same, and failed to conceive of women who faced both.
This essay argues that lack of understanding is due to the fact that where white feminists did have encounters with Black and ethnic minorities, it was almost exclusively with men, which contributed to their understanding of racist and sexist oppression. This can be seen in the work Mica Nava, one of the first women involved in the movement married to a Black Mexican, in her 2007 text Visceral Cosmopolitanism. She argues in this work that women were the drivers of cosmopolitanism and racial integration in the capital, because of their relationships with migrant men. Nathalie Thomlinson makes a sound criticism of Nava’s argument, where she highlights the essentialist generalisations made by Nava, that women were more receptive of migrants due to their inherent empathy, but she also notes that Nava’s argument is useful in understanding the relationships and complexities between white women and racial ‘others.’ Thomlinson discusses how this lack of encounter with migrant women might explain why the white woman’s understanding of black and migrant women at the time was still largely influenced by the matrix of colonialism. White feminists still thought of Black and migrant women through an orientalist lens, as objects of study rather than comrades-in-arms, which Chandra Mohanty theorises this in her article Under Western Eyes as the ‘Third World Woman.’ This would fuel Black feminist criticisms in the 1980s, claiming that it was a was to lump all non-whites into a single category and thereby managed to avoid dealing either with the racial issues that occurred at home or their own racism. Whilst these criticisms do ring true when you look at the conceptualization of the Third World Woman and how it could be described as a reproduction of the trope of the ‘passive’, ‘helpless’ Indian woman that needs to be rescued, which was prevalent at the height of Imperialism, it would be myopic to consider solely in terms of racism. It is crucial to remember that the phenomenon of mass-migration from the Commonwealth was post-war, and that with most white feminists having grown up in the 1940s and 1950s would not have had Black immigrant peers. This can be seen in the introduction of Liz Heron’s Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties:

‘We were also the first post-imperial generation, and if the references to an awareness of this are only incidental- with the definite exception of Gail Lewis’s account of a childhood in Kilburn’s West Indian community- they are still there, as casual testimony to a colonial era that was ending. It was of course to haunt our own future, so deep and enduring that its marks on the psyche of British culture, so connected to its class and economic structure and to the many gradations of superiority and inferiority inscribed in British social behavior’

Thomlinson considers how this stereotype of the ‘International Woman’ or ‘Third World Woman’ did reflect the discursive restraints of feminist theory to deal with issues of ‘race’, making the point that whilst Red Rag, the socialist-feminist periodical which did not publish a single piece on ethnic minority women, did sometimes do pieces on ‘International Women.’ However, she fails to explicitly address how this idea of the international Woman informed the idea of ‘Universal Sisterhood’ or ‘womanhood’, which did not just reflect the inability of feminist theory to translate theory into action, but acted as a lens which functioned to exclude most Black women. It is this rhetoric of inclusion that failed to translate in the reality of the WLM that continued throughout the 1970s, even in the anti-racist, anti—imperialist feminism of the late 70s, which took on these issues but rather than addressing how they affected Black women, ended up preoccupied with its implications for white women. It was this continuity which provoked criticisms of ‘racial blindness’ and indifference, summed up when prominent Black feminist Hazel Carby wrote ‘What exactly do you mean when you say WE?’

I- Formation of a ‘sisterhood’ in the (White) Women’s Liberation Movement
The notion of ‘sisterhood’ in the Women’s Liberation movement was one that held prime importance and also essential for analysis of the movement. The WLM are often accused failing to live up to this rhetoric of universal sisterhood in its practices. But why was this the case? By exploring the backgrounds of the white women in the WLM and the distinctive emotional culture of the WLM based on sisterhood, to argue that whilst it was not always achieved, such a culture was ill-equipped to engage in autocritique. To understand the formation of this sisterhood, it is useful to start by looking at the backgrounds of the women who attended the Ruskin Conference in 1970. Described by The Times as mostly ‘young women, many of them students with long flowing hair, trousers and maxi-coats’, although ‘here and there were middle-aged mothers and housewives from council estates’, the conference predominantly attracted white, middle-class women. This is reflected in the backgrounds of the interviewees in Wandor’s Once a Feminist, which claims to be the ‘stories of a generation’ but focuses on the stories of those present at the conference. Whilst there were definitely Black women and working class women present at the conference, such as Black activist Gerlin Bean who talked of her presence in an interview with Shrew magazine, these women were not written into the narrative of the Ruskin conference. Furthermore, race was not one of the topics of discussion at the conference, which continues throughout the 1970s, reflecting the restraints of this sisterhood which prioritized the concerns and demands of white feminists, thus making it difficult for historians attempting to study the genesis of the WLM from the perspectives of those who came to exist on the periphery of the movement. The movement was undoubtedly far more than just the Women’s Liberation Conferences, but it is important to note the crucial role they played in the organization of the white women’s liberation movement.
Alberto Melucci, social movements theorist, explains the importance of the ‘collective identity’ formed at these conferences and the movement as a whole. Melucci argues that the new forms of collective action and solidarity that emerged in the period of the 1960s to the 1980s in areas previously untouched by social conflicts, was based on widespread ‘submerged’ networks. The identification of a collective oppression, which initially surfaced in the form of the Four Demands at Ruskin, was dependent on these submerged networks, which were also established at the conference. In the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement, this helps us understand why the women in the early stages of the WLM were from similar backgrounds. For example, Juliet Mitchell recalls in her interview for Once a Feminist that ‘We all went back you see, to some sort of connection, university, or some sort of study group, or personal friendship.’ This reflection is repeated with most of her interviewees, all of which came to be involved in feminism through the narrow world of the New Left. In her article The Colour of Feminism, Nathalie Thomlinson argues that, although this changed with the intense media coverage given to feminism in early 1970s, Wandor’s book is fairly representative of the backgrounds of the women who dominated the movement. It is also worth noting the fact that the inaugural conference at Ruskin originated from historian Sheila Rowbotham’s suggestion for a women’s history workshop indicates that news of the conference would have been primarily restricted to these circles, highlighting the academic, rather than grassroots provenance of the movement. In the introduction to her book Once a Feminist, Michelene Wandor describes her experience of coming to consciousness, with the Ruskin Conference ‘as both the focus and the symbol of this process.’ This experience of ‘coming to consciousness’ is one that came to occupy a crucial position in the emotional culture of the WLM that ensued in the following years, one that perpetuated the class and race exclusivity of the early stages of the movement.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Women’s Liberation Movement existed a national movement through a network of small groups across the country. Ironically, this small group structure, which intended to provide a refuge of unconditional support and love for women in a patriarchal society, ended up perpetuating the exclusivity that dominated the Ruskin conference. Janet Ree recalls in Once a Feminist that ‘[…] the quality of relationships that those meetings produced is indescribably powerful, and far more important than my relationship with a man at the time, without question.’ Similarly, Catherine Hall, who was very active in the WLM in Birmingham, including helping to organise the (last and very acrimonious) 1978 national conference reflects back in Sue Bruley’s article on the Clapham group ‘we felt that was as important as those sorts of political activities’, referring to to conferences. Looking at consciousness-raising groups is particularly useful when analysing the lived experience of the WLM. Bruley, who had been part of a CR groups herself, described approaching the newfound sisterhood with ‘evangelising zeal.’ Whilst these groups were a very important part of what Nathalie Thomlinson calls the ‘emotional culture’ of the WLM, which fostered the necessary trust and support for the intimacy required for consciousness-raising, it was a culture which was exclusive along class and race lines. For example, in the Clapham group, the women were almost exclusively white, with the exception of one Black woman who joined towards the end of the period and even then, the group did not take on board the crucial importance of diversity and difference in the women’s movement. One member felt that ‘black women needed to form their own groups . . . just as we had to find a voice away from left-wing men they had to find their own agenda.’ What’s more, there was an increased need to for groups to be ‘closed’ to protect the existing bond between its members, making it largely inaccessible for women in the periphery of the movement. It is noteworthy, that consciousness-raising came to be used by many white feminists as a way of dealing with their own anti-racism and anti-Semitism in the 1980s. Although it is important to acknowledge Bruley’s article only recounts the experiences of the Clapham group, and the fact not all feminists wanted to join a CR group, it is a useful example of how the women’s liberation movement was structurally exclusive despite its rhetoric of universal sisterhood.
While there has been work done by feminist historians such as Jeska Rees and Eve Setch on the fractures of the WLM along class and sexuality lines, race has been largely neglected as a category of analysis, with Thomlinson’s book Race, Ethnicity and the Women’s Movement in England being the first to undertake this task. By exploring the central demands and preoccupations of the WLM during the 1970s, the gap between its claim to be based on ‘universal sisterhood’ and its reality as a white, middle-class movement becomes evident. As Lovenduski and Randall have argued, the movement which claimed to speak for all women made virtually no real attempt to reflect their demands and concerns. Issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, body politics, and the family were all framed in such a way that marginalized and alienated Black women, whether they were already involved in movement or not. It is useful to focus on white feminist discourse on the family and sexuality, as they are issues which are particularly revelatory of the ethnocentrism of the WLM and become the subject of Black Feminist critique in the 1980s. The family and related issues-such as childcare and housewifery- were one of the central preoccupations of the early WLM. The May 1971 issue of the Shrew, edited by the Belsize Lane Women’s Liberation Group, is a prime example. In the editorial, they explained their decision to focus on the family for this issue, claiming ‘the institution of family is responsible for many (all?) of our hang ups.’ Whilst this was certainly rang true for some women across Britain, it was not the case for all women. Hazel Carby argues that whilst the institution of the family can be a source of oppression, it held a very different meaning for Black women. It was a site of cultural and political resistance to oppression. Furthermore, Black and Asian families were less likely to conform to the classic nuclear family. Black families were more likely to be headed by a single mother than white families, and Asian women were likely to be part of an extended family structure. This became one of the key criticisms of white feminism why Black feminists in the 1980s, what Amos and Parmar called the ‘pathologizing’ of the black family by white socialist intellectuals. This discursive focus on the nuclear family is one of the central ways in which white feminists unconsciously defined feminism and its preoccupations as white. Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh’s text The Anti-Social Family, is a prime example the sociological analysis of the family that dominated white academia.- one that was based on the white western model of the family. What is particularly interesting about Barrett and McIntosh’s book is the controversy that ensued. It was deemed to be racist by many Black feminists, and although they partially took on these criticisms in their article Ethnocentrism and Feminist Theory, they still claimed that their analysis is not necessarily racist or inadequate as an analysis of the position of women from different ethnic groups. In claiming to only be guilty of ethnocentrism, Barrett and McIntosh were accused once again of racism by some such as Heidi Safia Mirza and Caroline Ramazonoglu, who both penned responses to this article in the Spring 1986 issue of the Feminist Review. The controversy that this discourse on the nuclear family caused is incredibly revealing of the differing understandings of what ‘racism’ means and the emotional responses that such accusations evoked. This type of response is not exceptional; from sociologists to ‘ordinary’ women in CR groups, the accusation of racism hit a nerve for women in the WLM, a culture was ill-equipped to engage in autocritique.
Similarly, in the personal-is-political culture of the WLM, the issue of sex and sexuality occupied an important position for white feminists. However, it was also a topic that split the movement. In her interview for the Sisterhood and After project, Beatrix Campbell reflects on the consequences of sexual pleasure:

I understood very well why women would go to one meeting, or two or three meetings of a Women’s Liberation Movement group, and never go again. Our group in Stratford had a couple of women like that, who made it very clear that they just couldn’t stand it, and it was going to destroy their marriages, and of course it was.

Whilst the discussion of sex and sexuality attracted many women, as seen in the interviews with Beatrix Campbell and Jo Robinson, it also had the potential to deter and alienate women. This was particularly the case for working-class women, Black and white, many of whom who more concerned with survival as opposed to sexual politics, who often considered the discussion of sex to be a ‘luxury.’ Whilst the argument these women would not have had time to indulge is undoubtedly valid, it the ways in which the focus of sex and the body and how it maintained the WLM as a white, middle-class affair, that is useful to explore. The discourse around sex and sexuality which was seen in the periodicals of the WLM was explicit, even shocking, compared to other women’s magazine’s at the time. For example, in its early years Spare Rib published various articles on sex and the body, such as an article entitled ‘The Liberated Orgasm’, featuring various suggestive black and white photographs of women. This was one of many, such as ‘The moon within’ and Unlearning not to have orgasms’, both of which contained explicit drawings of female genitalia. Whilst these articles would have undoubtedly had an empowering impact on many women, the recommendation that such activities should be pursued on a ‘spare’ evening with no-one around, would have been unrealistic for working-class women- both Black and white- with busy lives and overcrowded housing situations. Furthermore, the images in the articles were almost exclusively of white, able-bodied women, alienating Black women further from the WLM discourse on sex and sexuality. Whilst this discussion was not limited to Spare Rib and such periodicals, this sense of openness and sexual exploration unfolded further in local WLM groups and consciousness-raising groups, whose exclusivity would have expounded the exclusion of Black women. This is not to say that sex was not a problematic issue in Black communities, with the issues of sexuality and lesbianism coming to the fore in the 1980s. However, sexual and body politics were never, then, given the same privileged position in the Black women’s movement as in the white WLM. Moreover, the Reclaim the Night marches, first organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group in November 1977, calling for women to march in cities across the UK, demanding increased police presence on the street. With Black communities being the subject of police brutality, such a campaign overlooked the pain and frustration this would have caused for many Black women, further alienating them from getting involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, once again revealing the extent of white feminist ignorance to the specificity of Black women’s lives. Whether or not the marginalisation of Black women, by the overwhelming whiteness of its organisational mores and theoretical biases can be counted as racism, is a difficult question and one that will be explored further in the section on Black and White Women Together in the 1980s. What is clear is that, a focus on these matters, however inadvertedly, helped to maintain the whiteness of the WLM.

I- White Anti-Racist, Anti-Fascist and Anti-Imperialist Feminism
Despite the gap between the rhetoric of universal sisterhood and the overwhelming whiteness of the Women’s Liberation Movement’s organisational mores and theoretical biases, over the course of the 1970s an increasing number of white feminists became involved in anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigns. This section will focus on the two main groups or networks that organised against racism, fascism and imperialism in the latter half of the 1970s: Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF) and Women Against Imperialism (WAI). As Nathalie Thomlinson argued, these groups have been largely ignored by both chroniclers of feminist and anti-fascist campaigns. For this reason, it is important to consider these groups as a part of the WLM, the wider Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism movements and the extent to which they influenced the politics of race in the WLM. Whilst the existence of these groups undoubtedly complicate the notion that white feminists were completely insensitive to issues of race, this engagement with the politics of antiracism and anti-imperialism ironically revealed the whiteness of WLM.
The 1970s was a period of heightened racial tensions, with the rising popularity of the National Front provoking widespread interest across the left in anti-racism and antifascism towards the end of the decade. This was particularly motivated by the fact that the NF were appealing to the white working-class voters considered traditionally to be the core supporters of socialism. In Vron Ware in introduction to Beyond the Pale, she argues that white feminists did not just react to Black feminist critique, but were often engaged in a complex range of anti-racist action. Furthermore, there was an almost assumption among white feminists that as feminism was a progressive, even revolutionary force, it contained within it an ‘automatic anti-racist position’- often expressed through solidarity with liberation struggles even in its early days. This is demonstrated by an article from the Socialist Woman, quoted by Thomlinson, which claims that WARF was ‘founded in response to our experience as women on the 23 April anti National Front demonstration [in Lewisham].’ Furthermore, in a letter written by Janet Hadley, a former member of WARF, accompanying a collection of WARF documents in the Feminist Archive South, she recalls the creation of WARF being in response to the activity of the Anti-Nazi League, which she calls ‘crude in the extreme in their approach to racism, and in particular to Black and Asian women.’ However, while Thomlinson argues that rather than arising directly as a response to racism within the WLM itself, WARF was established by feminist women on the left in response to the sexism found there, Hadley’s letter claims that ‘WARF found itself facing in two directions- first in a critical stance towards the ANL [Anti-Nazi League], but also feeling its task was to struggle against racism within the women’s movement.’ Vron Ware notes that WARF did not last as a national alliance, seeming to have burnt brightly before fading away. In 1978 the network held a national conference, a regional conference in Birmingham, and one local group published a pamphlet, Taking Racism Personally.
Women Against Imperialism- similar to WARF, a group of white feminists who organised around issues of imperialism and racism since the late 1970s, evolving out of a series of day-long ‘educationals’ on racism and imperialism run in London in autumn 1978, as much product of the wide left as of feminism- Marxist analysis of imperialism. Similarly, Big Flame, a socialist-feminist newspaper, published a pamphlet in 1978 entitled ‘Sexuality and Fascism’, which was made up of write-ups of speeches given at the Big Flame Day School on Sexuality and Fascism in December 1978.while it does explicitly mention the ‘important development over the last year or so has been the growth of black women’s organisations fighting against such things as the use of ‘virginity tests’ and Depo Provera and other threats to black women’ arguing that ‘these organisations which can challenge the state’s racism and cut the ground from under the feet of the fascists, need to be offered whatever support they ask for.’ However, the focus of the pamphlet is primarily fascism, with pages dedicated to ‘Women in Nazi Germany’ and ‘Men and Fascism.’ Furthermore, in the section ‘Women and the NF’ contains a list of the different ways in which the NF affects women. However, the ‘women’ that this section prioritises is white women and how fascism affects these women, with points such as ‘The NF would limit the use and availability of contraceptives for white women’, ‘The NF are totally opposed to the women’s movement’ with one section at the end on ‘The NF’s attitude to non-white women.’ This suggests that they unconsciously viewed ‘women’ as ‘white women.’ This can be seen further in the issue of Red Rag entitled ‘Women and the National Front.’
In 1978 the network held a national conference, a regional conference in Birmingham, and one local group published a pamphlet, Taking Racism Personally.Women Against Imperialism- similar to WARF, a group of white feminists who organised around issues of imperialism and racism since the late 1970s, evolving out of a series of day-long ‘educationals’ on racism and imperialism run in London in autumn 1978, as much product of the wide left as of feminism- Marxist analysis of imperialism. These groups emerged out of the new visibility, and new language, of antiracist discourse on the left, that unlike the campaigns at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, focused on domestic rather than imperial concerns. It is doubtful whether the race debate would have happened in feminism at this moment or brought into the mainstream of the women’s movement if it was not for those feminists who had maintained relations with the wider left. However these groups and their anti-racist attempts were not able to completely break away from the overwhelmingly whiteness of the WLM structures. A criticism from Black feminists, these groups failed to recognise how they were racialized as white, and how this whiteness shapes white women’s lives. By the late 1970s, white feminists did have an awareness of white privilege, however abstract, and how this benefitted them. However, as American Sociologist Anna Zajicek has argued, involvement in antiracism groups ‘enables white women to acknowledge the existence of white privilege without implicating themselves in its operation.’
Despite the symbolic importance of the rhetoric of pamphlets such as Taking Racism Personally and Big Flame’s Sexuality and Fascism, the activities of WARF and WAI can be generally described as positioning racism as something that existed within specific locations as opposed to a system that structured society, in which they were a part of and privileged from being white. This can be seen in the antiracism events held by these groups during this period; one of the most important events was the National Socialist Feminist Conference in 1980. This conference had a significant turnout, as reported by Spare Rib, at least 1000 women attended. The conference is described as emerging out of ‘the need to examine why British feminism has not addressed itself, analytically or practically, to issues which are of relevance to working class, Black, Irish and other colonial minority women and the consequent lack of involvement in socialist feminism by these women.’
This statement is incredibly revealing of the rationale behind much of anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminist organising; ‘British feminism’ was implicitly assumed to be white and middle class, despite the flourishing Black feminist groups such as OWAAD. Furthermore, the fact that the organisers had chosen to screen the film The History Book, a socialist interpretation of human history that was felt to perpetuate racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes, was controversial. Moreover, although the attendees were multi-ethnic, the conference itself was organised entirely by Women Against Imperialism, a largely white and middle-class group. Their efforts undoubtedly reflect a desire to understand the issues facing ethnic minority and working-class women, which is a definite progression from the WLM events in the 1970s. However, the fact that WAI organised such an event without involving the very women they want to become more involved in the movement, suggests a certain ignorance to the race politics of the organisation and how the organisational mores of such a movement ironically revealed the whiteness of the WLM. In the 1982 Sheffield Women’s Conference (on Race and Class), the same problems were replicated. In a Spare Rib report it was noted that there were three distinct, fixed positions that white women were coming from. She describes one group as seeing their antiracism ‘taking the form of supporting Black women on pickets etc, doings ‘for’ Black women’ but seeming unwilling to talk about their own racism, another group wanted to talk about their own racism wanting Black women to tell them how not to be racist, and the final group wanted to ‘work out a way of facing their own racism and fighting it, and listening to Black women. The report also notes that ‘the conference was dominated by white middle-class women, despite the presence of working class Black and white women.’ In the second half of the report, written by a Black woman, she noted that: ‘I did not get a feeling… of a real solidarity from white middle class feminists for either Black or working class women.’ Both reports acknowledge that the conference did help the attendees come to some understanding of the racism that Black women faced in a white society and the fact that the conference was held in Sheffield, one of the least racially diverse cities in the United Kingdom, is itself a testament to the important position that race politics had come to occupy in the movement.
Vron Ware argues that WARF did not last as a national alliance, seeming to have burnt brightly before fading away. Whilst this is true, it is worth noting that the national anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist feminist initiatives came to increasingly replaced by the activities of local groups.

It is worth noting that such events contradict the prevailing narrative in the historiography of the WLM, which bases the decline of the movement as the end of the National Women’s Liberation Conferences. They support the argument that there was a thriving women’s movement in the 1980s, particularly with regards to issues of race and collaboration which will be explored further in the next section.

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