Women – ‘the Backbone of the Strike’
(Written for programme for the play Queen Coal, staged at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, Autumn 2014)
Two years after the ‘orderly return to work’ which signalled the end of the year-long miners’ strike, I formed part of a team of researchers from the former Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) which set out to examine the social impact of the dispute on the residents of mining communities in South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire [footnote]. We paid particular attention in our study to the experience of female adults in these villages, and we very quickly realised that, far from occupying a peripheral role in the conflict, the efforts of such women were arguably more vital than those of their men-folk, both in maintaining the miners’ struggle and in representing the case against pit closures.
‘Women were the backbone of the strike’ was how one striking Yorkshire pit canteen worker put it. ‘Women run a house, don’t they?’ she rhetorically asked. ‘They do the shopping and therefore they’ve got to make ends meet, whether it’s a hundred pounds coming in or ten pounds. I’ve got a big freezer and it was full to the top over Christmas and I felt like saying to Maggie Thatcher, “Come and have a look at this, all due to family and friends,” because I feel she thought she could starve us. Maybe she thought the women would push their husbands back to work, but it didn’t work that way, did it?’
In keeping with her day job, this woman was instrumental in setting up a community soup kitchen for strikers and their families. Other local women engaged in such equally important activities as collecting donations of food and money, holding raffles, going on demonstrations or attending picket lines. Not long into the dispute, they were joined by sympathetic women living outside of the locality, as Women’s Support Groups or Women’s Action Groups evolved in support of the strike. Regardless of the extent of their activism, the wives of striking miners underwent the kind of year-long ‘crash course in reality’ which forced them to question the fairness of key social and political institutions, and to reappraise their own self-worth and social positions as women.
Sometimes the lessons they received were especially harsh or unsavoury. Miners’ wives out walking at night with husbands who had never strayed close to a picket line found themselves taunted as ‘slags’ and ‘whores’ by marauding bands of locally billeted police officers, from ‘outside’ forces like Greater Manchester and (most notoriously of all, the Metropolitan Police), who were hell-bent on humiliating their menfolk or, better still, goading them into receiving a ‘good thumping’.
Such women saw at first-hand how ‘good, honest local men’ were being fined, sent down and subjected to debilitating curfews – often on the flimsiest and most unreliable of evidence – by a judicial system that seemed intent on sapping the collective morale. They were further incensed by media coverage of picket-line confrontation (such as television reporting of the so-called Battle of Orgreave) which habitually underplayed the police part in any violence that occurred. ‘They were definitely biased against us,’ the wife of one Yorkshire miner complained. ‘My husband was at Orgreave on the Monday and he came home and he felt ill. He said he’d seen the police on horseback ride over these five men and all you’d seen on television was men throwing wood and stones.’
Women activists who dared to step outside traditional gender roles by attending picket lines were in for an especially rude awakening. Police officers immediately set about ‘defeminising’ them as the ‘belt and braces brigade’. One heavily-pregnant picket was asked by a smirking police constable: ‘Who’d want to breed off a cow like you?’ Attitudes to the police were correspondingly and irretrievably transformed. As a member of one Derbyshire WSG explained, ‘To people outside of mining communities, many of them down south, these policemen were doing a wonderful thing. And there you are having your brains knocked out but, because you’re a miner on strike or because you’re a miner’s wife and you’re picketing, then you bloody well deserved it.’
It was not only female activists who began to re-evaluate their political standpoints. Dozens of the women we interviewed disclosed how they had developed far more sympathy towards those gay and lesbian communities which had been so wonderfully supportive of the strike. They also acknowledged a much closer affinity with other ‘oppressed’ groups, such a black African miners and British ethnic minorities. Reflecting on her own experience as a soup kitchen attendant, one Yorkshire woman remarked that one regular donor, ‘He was a Pakistani, gave boxes and boxes of food and he said, “The miners are treated like the scum of the earth and we feel for the miners because we’ve had the same treatment.”’
Feminist optimism that the experience of those men who took on more housework during the strike might induce a lasting realignment of gender roles was confounded by our evidence. While a minority of women maintained that the domestic division of labour had shifted in their favour, there was a much wider consensus of opinion that things had reverted to a pre-strike normality – albeit one that now involved a much greater recognition and appreciation of the importance of women’s unpaid labour. Any ‘emancipation’ of women resulting from the miners’ strike was most vividly reflected in those cases of individuals entering local politics, paid work, or further or higher education. Broader, yet more subtle changes were detectable in the growing tendency for women to be more assertive in their views and no longer be prepared to have their questions about work and trade union matters to be dismissed as ‘men’s business’. A small minority of marriages failed to survive the tensions caused by inevitable hardship, by variations in each partners’ commitment, or by disagreements concerning women’s role in the strike. However, most married couples reported that the strike had undoubtedly strengthened their relationship.
Few of the female strike supporters we interviewed regretted having participated in the dispute, and fewer still regarded the outcome as an unqualified ‘defeat’. It was almost universally maintained that the heroic rear-guard action of the miners and their families would prove inspirational to future political activists and that their struggle would surely be immortalised. The prevailing view was encapsulated in the stirring words of one Yorkshire woman who told us, ‘Well, I think a lot of people probably think, “Oh, well, was it worth it? ”, “Why did it happen? ” and “I lost a year’s money and for what? ” But I think the more intelligent kind of person would realise that it wasn’t all wasted; that it was all part of a continuing process; that if you just give in all the time over everything, then you just get more and more oppressed… I mean, it’s like when soldiers go to war and they say, “How can war be great?” But it’s not the war itself and killing people: it’s the comradeship that you’re all together and you’ve left those daily pressures that get you down behind. It’s like being in a free situation.’
[fn.] Our results were published in the form of a jointly-authored book, Split at the Seams? Community, continuity and change after the 1984-5 coal dispute, by David Waddington, Maggie Wykes and Chas Critcher with Sandra Hebron (Open University Press, 1991).
Professor of Communications
Head of the Communication & Computing Research Centre
Sheffield Hallam University
Author: Coal, Goals and Ashes