Women’s Liberation, and after

‘The changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no-one to say what we should or should not do, no family ties, we were free and alone in a great, brilliant city, scores of women scarcely out of their teens met together in a revolutionary movement, outlaws or breakers of laws, independent of everything and anybody, fearless and self-confident.’ – Annie Kenney, Memoirs of a Militant, 1924

The WLM badge - clenched fist inside women's symbol on white background.

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Here is a piece I wrote in 2010 for the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, about the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band and its context. As with other pieces from women included in that archive, the information is not only about the music-making of the time, but provides a view into the activism, ideas and structures of the movement in the 1970s. Annie Kenney’s statement, quoted above, reminded me of the atmosphere of much of the early 1970s.


The London Women’s Liberation Rock Band 1972 – 1974

https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk/l

The band members were Alaine (whose surname I am sorry to have forgotten,) guitar; Angele Veltmeijer, vocals and flute; Eleanor Thorneycroft, bass guitar; Frankie Green, drums; Hazel Twort, vocals and keyboard.

Five women in rehearsal in a university hall. Drummer, vocalist, guitarist, bassist, keyboards, all looking serious. Amplifiers in background.

These, of course, are my personal recollections, and four decades on my memory’s far from perfect – alternative perspectives welcome! I remember that at a National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester, March 1972, some women who had met through the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Workshop in London talked about getting together to make music and form a band. I’d played drums in a couple of bands in the mid-60s and was keen to combine music with politics. In January ’72 most of the women had split from GLF, formed separate lesbian organisations and become more involved in the WLM, which was flourishing; it was an exciting time.

We placed a notice in the London WL workshop weekly newsletter and lots of women responded who wanted to play, discuss and develop feminist music; they got together at Hazel’s council flat in Peckham and from that grew the London Women’s Rock Band. At the first practice our instruments were acoustic and I was drumming on saucepans with chopsticks. Later, helped by donations from other women, we acquired some instruments and a primitive PA system, and played at the next national WLM conference at Acton Town Hall in October, ’72, handing out songsheets and inviting women to join in.

Orange badge with clenched fist inside women's symbol and words 'Women's Liberation.'

The band practised in squats, pub rooms, council flats and community centres around Hackney, Kings Cross and Islington where most of us lived in squatting communities. We used to go to concerts and pub gigs and see great women singers like Carol Grimes, Marsha Hunt, Maggie Bell with Stone the Crows or Elkie Brooks, with Vinegar Joe. Our musical influences were eclectic, included the Velvet Underground, Bowie, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd, and I remember us listening to the album ‘The Mountain Moving Day is Coming’ by The Chicago and New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Bands, who had similar politics to ours.

http://www.cwluherstory.com/listen-to-the-mountain-moving-day-album.html

It was inspiring to hear such bands which, as Naomi Weisstein of the Chicago WLM Rock Band said, were about ‘conveying celebration and resistance … performances deliberately set up a politics of strong, defiant women, absolute democracy, and an intense desire for audience participation. Through the intensity of the medium, through our bad-ass revolutionary poetry, we shouted the news: we can have a new world, a just and generous world, a world without female suffering or degradation.’

Music-making was entwined with the rest of our lives which involved communal houses, frequent political meetings, campaigns, demonstrations and marches, running women’s centres, consciousness-raising, spray-painting excursions, producing leaflets, dealing with various court cases arising from being arrested while squatting or demonstrating, being evicted and moving frequently. The band didn’t make any money and apart from that initial donation it was self-funded, most of us in low paid jobs or on the dole.

Gigs included a benefit disco for the Fakenham women strikers in September ’72; a women’s festival at Essex University in 1973; women’s discos at the Crown and Woolpack pub at Angel Islington; WLM Workshop benefits in Covent Garden Community Centre and the first National Lesbian Conference in Canterbury in April, 1974.  In 1973 some of us contributed music to a film of the ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’ (British Film Institute: http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/132334 ‘A political burlesque in seven tableaux, incorporating elements from the musical, horror film and crazy comedy. Examines the question of equal pay, women’s participation in unions, and the status of women’s work under capitalism. Made in cooperation with the Women’s Street Theatre Group who originally wrote and performed the play in 1972.’  ‘… A rather special piece of feminist social history. It was made without direction by the original London Women’s Street Theatre group and the first Women’s Film Group. The experimental approach led to it being a bit weird at times but it’s still a wonderful relic from the past! The play was much more successful & much appreciated & praised by the women’s trade union groups that we toured it with in an attempt to influence the Equal Pay Bill before it became an act of law. We had some really good discussions with the women after the show.’ ~ Cloud Taylor, WSTG)

From the outset there was an emphasis on the band being a practical expression of our politics, on not wanting only to be involved in theoretical debate – and challenging conventional splits between political theory and real life, activism and culture. Many women wanted to take hands-on action in the world, in music, housing, work – taking control of our lives, making change real, living our politics – not living, working, behaving or appearing as women were supposed to. Feminists were doing everything possible to challenge male supremacy, misogyny and heterosexism and to transform oppressive gender roles, family and work structures. Song lyrics reflected this: we wrote some original compositions (‘Body Squat,’ e.g., connected the taking over of houses with control of our physical selves for ourselves, asserting our right to bodily integrity, reproductive and sexual rights, an end to alienation from our bodies and their objectification.) We altered the lyrics of existing songs (‘Streetfighting Woman’ e.g., which got us involved in discussion about women playing ‘cock-rock.’) We wanted to demystify music-making and make it accessible to women, and it seemed one element of the movement of women taking over all practical and cultural aspects of our lives – the builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, car mechanics of the Women and Manual Trades groups and the musicians, sound technicians, actors, film-makers, artists, photographers, writers, magazine editors, publishers and printers, jewelry-makers, DJs, theatre and film groups, street theatre and performance artists, were all part of the same process. At that time, lesbian women musicians faced not only sexism but prejudice, ridicule and discrimination; lesbians in general were defined as mentally ill, stigmatised and liable to be placed in mental institutions. Women transgressing hetero-normative boundaries, living openly as lesbians, prioritising relationships with women and singing about them was risky –  k.d. lang was a long way away.

I was struck by a collective goodwill that often enabled the band and the support that came from women like Spare Rib’s music journalist Marion Fudger (bass guitarist with mid-70s band The Derelicts – which included Barbara Gogan later of The Passions and Sue Gogan  later of Pragvec – and later with The Art Attacks.) Women cheered us on, danced and sang along. I remember an occasion when a rental firm refused us a van when were to going to play at a social, I think it was for the National Lesbian conference in Canterbury. We went back to the WL Workshop in Earlham St, Covent Garden (where our gear was stored and we rehearsed) despondent. And women who were getting into the coach or had cars parked being packed with leaflets etc outside picked up bits of drum kit and amplifiers and took them with them, and so we had a successful event that night. I had the sense we were all part of something, the band was all of ours, not separate but embedded in the movement.

Drummer and vocalist in rehearsal in a university hall, singer playing tambourine.
guitarist in rehearsal looking at her fret board, amplifiers behind her.

As bands such as this one, the Northern Women’s Rock Band and the Stepney Sisters grew, feminism created a way into music for women – with the development of an infrastructure of support, equipment sharing, practical workshops and events – and its own type of cultural/political event. The WLM’s structure was then local, regional and national, based on a network of proliferating consciousness-raising and action groups. It was agreed early on to hold a bi-annual national conference in a variety of locations as an essential forum for debate, co-ordination and policy-making. Additionally, regional WL conferences and specific focus conferences were held (the Feminist Archive North has compiled a comprehensive chronology of these.) Benefit fundraisers and women’s discos became regular features also.

These could be seen as often incorporating what Barbara Ehrenreich has described in ‘Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy’ (Metropolitan Books, 2006) as ‘collective effervescence,’ a term borrowed from sociologist Emile Durkheim to denote communal revelry, a celebratory ritual festivity which creates social bonds, with ‘group dancing – in lines or circles – the great leveller and binder of communities,’ transcending differences. Women were spontaneously breaking out of normative structures of playing and dancing – carnivalesque in the sense of reversing the established order. Ehrenreich describes how societies as disparate as those of Calvinist Europe and Wahabi Islam often subject dancing to stringent control: the importance of ‘ecstatic ritual’ to revolutionary movements is well known; dancing often producing ‘intense feelings of solidarity … the basis of effective political action from below.’ In women’s celebrations inspired by the WLM, the audience were not passive consumers of a spectacle but creative participants. ‘Hierarchy … establishes boundaries … festivity breaks them down … we step out of assigned roles and statuses and into a brief utopia of egalitarianism, creativity … collective joy.’

Ehrenreich views the growth of rock music in the west as reviving a repressed ancient tradition of festivity, owing much to the music’s roots in African-American culture. The rock rebellion was against conformity and racial segregation, the ‘rallying point of an alternative culture… estranged from dominant structures.’ But this counterculture involved its own hierarchies, and women’s place within it was delineated by sexism, with rare exceptions to the roles of fans, supporters, groupies, consumers. As Mavis Bayton, member of Oxford’s first women’s band, The Mistakes, writes in ‘Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music’ (Oxford University Press, 1998), not only did women musicians face enormous barriers, ideological and material, but rock music actively did ‘“gender work” in constructing hegemonic masculinity.’

Traditionally, carnival’s central themes are of mockery and inversion of existing gendered, racial and class power structures, and, as theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes, it is ‘created and generated by people for themselves.’ Small wonder that many men were threatened and resorted to physical violence at mixed events where all-women groups were on stage and the women they were playing for enjoyed ‘choral dancing’ with one another.

I found I couldn’t write about this band without the context which created it, of a movement wanting to rip away the veil obscuring the connections between patriarchy, sexism, capitalism and racism, to understand how these forces operate in women’s lives, how the political shapes the personal, in order to change them. (For an exposition of these politics I always find moving please see the pamphlet ‘Why Miss World?’ by the protesters who disrupted that spectacle in 1970, reprinted in the anthology  ‘The Body Politic: Women’s Liberation in Britain 1969 – 1972,’ ed. Michelene Wandor, published by Stage 1, ISBN 0850350131) I felt a part then of a movement in which the struggle was not to be equal within an unequal society, but toward throwing out the whole system that was based on and perpetuated oppressive power structures. Women playing music and instruments usually played by men embodied the politics of carnival – turning the world upside down, mocking and reclaiming power. Liberation meant radical transformation of the social, sexual, political, economic system – a feminist revolution.

Feminist music-making incorporated politics not only in the lyrics and style of what we played but in moving toward a different way of living, collective working, radical production values, creating political culture. This was, as anyone who has been involved in political organising and/or communal living knows, harder than it can seem at first, and our dreams of changing the world might now appear utopian, over-idealistic. It was certainly exhausting, that intense period at the beginning of the 1970s. I remember it as full of great fun as well as stormy relationships, arguments and fallings-out. We were angry about all injustice and exploitation. It was a watershed time of extraordinary energy, an upsurge of political activism that encompassed and changed many women and vast swathes of life, and I feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to be involved in that.   ~ Frankie Green, 2010

I wa also part of a subsequent band, Jam Today, which can be read about at  https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk/j/

A poster sets out demands made by the WLM.
7 Demands poster: See Red
Frankie with statue of Sylvia PAnhurst state, in the Trades Union Congress London HG. It's a small bronze image of her standing proudly.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s statue
TUC HQ, London

‘Time past is not time gone, but time accumulated’ – Janet Frame

Various letters:

Guardian November 2007

July 2000
Guardian 25/5/2007
2006
Guardian 8 March 2011
Guardian 24/7/2013
2/6/18
Guardian 2/6/18