International Women's Day: The Women’s Liberation Movement in South Wales

Women's Liberation march.jpg

By Dr Rachel Lock-Lewis, member of the History Research Group and Co-director of the Centre forGender Studies at the University of South Wales

IWD poster.JPGEven without the accompanying hand-drawn image, the strapline ‘I am a woman giving birth to myself’ was an arresting statement on the front page of the newsletter of Swansea Women’s Liberation Group in 1974.

Often misunderstood and sometimes maligned, the movement that was brought to life in South Wales in the early 1970s changed individuals’ lives, altered public attitudes, reshaped the priorities and policies of local authorities and government, and launched a generation of women into public life.

Groups such as Cardiff Women’s Action Group, Wales Women’s Rights Committee and Swansea Women’s Liberation Group took up the cudgels over myriad issues and the results of their efforts can be discerned today.

One of the most pressing tasks the movement was obliged to undertake in its early years was defending the 1967 Abortion Act against proposals to amend it. These intrepid women faced hostility from much of the press and some sections of society but organised meetings, went on protest marches, handed out leaflets and lobbied MPs anyway. Perhaps surprisingly, securing a legal termination was particularly difficult in Cardiff compared to many other cities in Britain so they fought to secure women’s rights to access this service.   

Through tireless effort, Women’s Aid groups and refuges were set up across Wales and by 1978 had combined to form Welsh Women’s Aid. A highlight of this achievement is the International Women’s Aid Conference held in Cardiff in October 1988 which drew delegates from 36 countries, sent a request to the UN to declare an international year on violence against women and was described as a ‘large and unprecedented violence-to-women forum’. They also organised Reclaim the Night Marches, chanting the slogan ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!’ and challenged pornographic images in the public domain by asking newsagents to stop displaying ‘girly’ magazines and getting the manager of a kitchenware shop to remove the mannequin dressed in a ‘French maid’ outfit from the window.   

The high rate of women’s unemployment by the early 1980s was the hidden story of Wales’ economic distress. The movement drew attention to the double whammy of unemployment and cutbacks in spending on social services, arguing that they were forcing many women ‘back to the kitchen sink’ (a point illustrated on one march by carrying a kitchen sink through Cardiff). They also took on issues of unequal pay, low pay, and unequal opportunities in education, training, employment and promotion, taking every chance to remind offending parties of their legal obligations. They took action over issues they saw as threats to the very essence of Wales, whether from nuclear weapons and waste, threats to the Welsh language, or the closure of coalmines.

As well as pressurising health authorities to maintain and improve services to women, they took matters into their own hands by collating and disseminating information on topics such as contraception, abortion, natural childbirth, cystitis and hormone replacement therapy. Further embracing the principle of self-help, they started up groups for women who were newly divorced or separated, breastfeeding or menopausal and ran training courses on stress management, assertiveness, self-defence, plumbing, carpentry, plastering, painting and decorating. They staffed phonelines such as Lesbian Line, an incest phoneline for survivors of abuse and a rape crisis helpline. When their tenacious petitioning of councils to put money into women’s centres bore fruit, they then staffed the centres to provide services such as counselling for rape victims, advice on social security benefits and housing, and information about women’s groups.     

Recognising the dearth of women in political and executive positions in Wales, they wrote and delivered courses to equip women to enter public life, take on more active roles within organisations, and take on leadership roles. Identifying the paucity of research on the history of women in Wales, they held exhibitions and day schools to address this and to draw inspiration from the past.   

The movement that was born in the early 1970s and was very much ‘alive and kicking’ in the last three decades of the twentieth century, came of age in 1999. The devolved Welsh Government has maintained notably high numbers of female Senedd Members and cabinet ministers, especially when compared with the Westminster Government. In 2018 the Welsh Government made a bold commitment to become a ‘feminist government’ with the (then) First Minister, Carwyn Jones, pledging to put ‘gender equality at the heart of everything it does’. This is only part of the legacy of these intrepid, resourceful and tenacious women, whose story deserves to be told.