100,000 Women in Trafalgar Square: Remembering The Forgotten Women’s March of 1979

On January 21 this year, thousands of people rallied in central London in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, along with millions of others around the world. These protesters were, of course, responding to the specific brands of misogyny and racism that are seen to characterize Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. And yet the sight of 100,000 women and men surging down Park Lane to Trafalgar Square, carrying banners and shouting slogans that demanded “A woman’s right to choose” and “Keep it legal! Keep it safe!” also carried secret echoes of a day almost forty years ago.1 In October 1979, the very same streets were covered with a strikingly similar number of protesters brandishing familiar slogans. This march was described at the time as one of the largest and most successful events in the history of the British Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), but now it’s in danger of being entirely forgotten. Historically salvaging this unappreciated victory, notable for its scale, its inclusivity, and even its internal conflicts, offers valuable lessons for our own moment, when many of us are busy trying to imagine the movements of the future.

The Corrie Bill: “Arrogant smarmy men playing debating societies with … our lives”2

On October 28, 1979, thousands of supporters of the National Abortion Campaign (NAC), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the WLM marched together in London against the Corrie Bill, the latest in a series of attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act.3 The Bill was named for its author, John Corrie, a Catholic Scottish Conservative MP, and was described at the time as “the most serious threat there has ever been” to legal abortion in the UK.4

The bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in July 1979 with 144 votes, enabled by the strong Conservative majority that accompanied Margaret Thatcher’s electoral victory in May of that year. Its most popular proposal sought to reduce the upper legal limit for almost all abortions from 28 to 20 weeks. The Bill proposed restricting abortion exclusively to those pregnancies judged to place the woman’s life in “grave” danger, and would criminalize any charitable organizations that performed abortions and provided pregnancy advice. Due to gaps in the National Health Service, charities have long played an important role in free abortion provision in the UK, and this proposal would leave many women with a choice between the expensive private sector and the backstreet.

Measuring a Movement’s Success

Over a series of months, the NAC and other organisations from the WLM staged a series of protests against Corrie’s proposal, the centrepiece being the march in October. Thousands of women and men, including trade unionists, radical feminists, Black feminists and socialist feminists, marched together against the bill, which was backed by a “formidable” pro-life lobby, and which many at the time thought was bound for law.5 In fact, the bill was ultimately defeated on March 26, 1980, when John Corrie himself withdrew it, realizing it was bound for failure.

Excerpt from a cartoon depicting both the excitement and the conflict that characterized the October march. (Byatt/Spare Rib 89 | ©Lucy C Byatt, Provided by the Author)

It’s difficult to gauge the impact the feminist resistance had on the bill’s ultimate failure; after all, some access to abortion remained an “overwhelmingly” popular principle among the wider public.6 But contemporary descriptions of the October march are full of superlatives: “one of the most determined and energetic [events] in the history of the women’s movement.”7 Indeed, how could the “biggest-ever pro-choice march” not have some role in defeating the law?8

In this moment of fear and division, it is easy to see the anti-Corrie campaign as a resounding, and enviably straightforward, success. So, what lessons are there to be learned? First, it is important to note that the activities of 1979 and 1980 did not spring from nowhere. “Free contraception and abortion on demand” was one of the original four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, adopted in 1970 with the intention of expanding existing access. Moreover, this was not the last bill of its kind: throughout the 1980s and beyond, pro-life and pro-choice movements continued to crusade against the 1967 Act.

Still, one thing that marked the anti-Corrie campaign apart from other pro-choice and WLM efforts was its success in drawing in the trade union movement. For some this naturally came from a socialist feminist perspective that saw abortion as “BOTH a women’s AND a class issue” and the Corrie Bill as a part of a Thatcherite “attack on the working class,” which also sought to keep women at home, to take up the slack left by cuts to the welfare state.9 The TUC’s involvement in the October march enabled the pro-choice movement to both represent and reach working-class women outside the movement.

Marching with Men: “At last! … and about time too”10

The TUC’s support also brought with it the involvement of the thousands of union men it represented; indeed, the march had far greater male involvement than most other events in history of the British WLM. While this might be seen as another element of its success, for some it was a source of bitter controversy. The march organizers had planned for the almost entirely male TUC General Council to lead the march. This motivated a group of radical feminists to spontaneously push to the front of the procession, causing further divisions among the TUC and the NAC organizers. According to some accounts this row dominated the media coverage of the march; as one woman retorted, “the anti-abortionists must have rubbed their hands in glee” at the dramatic scenes of infighting.11

Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement by Robin Morgan (editor), 1970 (Morgan/Flickr Commons)

In their account of the second wave, Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Bea Campbell witheringly recall how male trade unionists would mention the October march for years to come as proof of their feminist credentials. In fact, they argue, the march was perhaps the only example of the British union movement’s commitment to women’s issues, and that this was unsurprising, considering that abortion access “entailed no threat…to men’s material circumstances,” unlike struggles for equal pay and hours.12

Race, the New Right and the Freedom to Choose

The white-washing of this year’s Women’s Marches, including the failure of some white feminists to develop a properly intersectional understanding of the politics of reproductive health, has been a source of ongoing debate. It was ever thus. There were certainly Black feminists involved in the anti-Corrie campaign, including some at its highest levels.13 But this sense of inclusion was patently not universal. Due to the violent history and present of birth control provision in Britain, some Black feminists had a very different perspective on reproductive health than those expressed in the slogans of the anti-Corrie march.

In their influential study of Black women in Britain, The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe write that Black feminists had to consistently remind other women in the WLM that “we have always been given abortions more readily than white women and are indeed often encouraged to have terminations we didn’t ask for.” For some women of color the “right to choose” might also mean the “right to choose to have our children,” as expressed in campaigns in the 1970s and 80s against Depo Provera and other unsafe contraception methods that were disproportionately marketed to and tested on women of color in Britain and in Commonwealth countries like Jamaica.14

Just as Black feminists have challenged the mainstream WLM’s straightforward deployment of the “freedom to choose,” we might also question whether its rhetoric risked co-option by the burgeoning New Right. The Corrie Bill came at the foundational moment of Thatcherism, and it was construed by many feminists as part of a broader assault on sexual freedom and the welfare state. However, it is interesting to note that as the 1980s wore on, pro-choice and pro-neoliberal views found a home together in parts of the Tory party. David Alton, the John Corrie of the late 80s, reportedly described the unabashedly neoliberal Conservative MP Teresa Gorman as “one of the main wreckers of his 1988 Abortion Bill.”15 Margaretta Jolly has suggested that the ultimate survival (thus far) of the 1967 Act might indeed be indebted to the “New Right ideologies of liberalisation and choice” that were anathema to many British feminists, but whose desire to “push women into the workplace” eventually trumped Conservative family values.16

“Corrie and his Bill are surely more fitting enemies than other women in the movement.”17

The campaign against the Corrie Bill was not only significant in its size and breadth, but also in its crystallization of so many of the triumphs and troubles of the WLM. Despite this, it almost entirely absent from popular memories of the movement. I would argue that this forgetting of the hard-fought campaigns to protect abortion access is partly narrative — abortion was legalized before the WLM and it is less satisfying to remember a law left unchanged than a law won — and partly comparative: the close relationship to the American movement has bred a sense of complacency on abortion among some British feminists, outside of Northern Ireland of course. This second point is troubling, not least considering the recent radicalization of the British anti-abortion movement (which reportedly forced the closure of a clinic in London in 2015).

Beyond the British pro-choice movement, though, the anti-Corrie campaign tells us a lot about what makes a social movement tick, and what holds it back. Ultimately, its victories lay in inclusivity, in capturing a moment where both radical feminists and trade union patriarchs were willing to noisily put aside their differences (or not) and march together. Still, we should learn as much, if not more, from its exclusions and co-options as from its moments of unity and radicalism. Although historians have given up on the straightforward momentum of progress, I do like to think that as we circle back we still learn the lessons of the past, and can struggle together towards a more inclusive, more successful, and truly intersectional movement.

Notes

  1. Sue Bruley, Women in Britain since 1900 (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1999), 152-53. Return to text.
  2. “Corrie Crushed,” Spare Rib 92 (March 1980): 30. Return to text.
  3. Strangely, there is some controversy about the October 28, 1979 date. According to contemporary accounts, the march took place on October 28, see, for example: “October 28: 60,000 assembled on the TUC March Against the Anti-Abortion Corrie Bill…,” Spare Rib 89 (Dec 1979): 20. However, several later accounts and histories of the event state that it occurred on October 31. See, for example, Anna Coote and Bea Campbell, Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 157; and Elizabeth Meehan, “British Feminism from the 1960s to the 1980s,” in British Feminism in the Twentieth-Century, ed. Harold L. Smith (Aldershot: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1990), 201. Return to text.
  4. “Focus: Abortion,” Marxism Today, (November 1979): 2. Return to text.
  5. The opposition to the 1967 Abortion Act was led by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). Coote and Campbell, Sweet Freedom, 38. Return to text.
  6. According to a Woman’s Own survey called “Big Poll Surprise” (published on February 18 1979, and based on the answers of 1000 men and women interviewed by Gallup): “The overwhelming attitude was that abortion should remain a matter of personal decision,” including 81% of women interviewed. Quoted in “Corrie Crushed”, 31. Return to text.
  7. Ibid., 30. Return to text.
  8. Coote and Campbell, Sweet Freedom, 157. Return to text.
  9. Claire Weingarten (for the Southwark Abortion Campaign), “Tories and the Holy Family” (letter to the editor), Spare Rib 90 (Jan 1980): 22. Return to text.
  10. Susan Hemmings, “The Spare Rib Banner was at the Beginning of the March,” Spare Rib (Dec 1979): 20. Return to text.
  11. Iona Gordon, “Whose Fight? Whose Sisters?” (letter to the editor), Spare Rib 89 (Dec 1979): 24. Return to text.
  12. Coote and Campbell, Sweet Freedom, 158-59, 165. Return to text.
  13. Jan McKenley, for example, was a national coordinator for the NAC and a founding member of the Hackney Black Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. Margaretta Jolly, “The Feelings Behind the Slogans: Abortion Campaigning and Feminist Mood-Work circa 1979,” New Formations, 82, vol. 1 (2014): 100-113. Return to text.
  14. Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (London: Virago, 1985), 105.105-106. Return to text.
  15. Meehan, “British Feminism from the 1960s to the 1980s,” 202-203. Return to text.
  16. Jolly, “The Feelings Behind the Slogans,” 111. Return to text.
  17. “…And from the National Abortion Campaign Steering Committee,” Spare Rib 89 (Dec 1979): 22. Return to text.

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