Women in the Miners’ Strike: Usable and Unusable Pasts

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

Next March will be the fortieth anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike. A new crop of books is coming out, revisiting the strike itself, and the position the figure of the miner has occupied in British politics and culture since 1945. Natalie Thomlinson and I have spent much of the past ten years interviewing women from coalfields all over England, Scotland, and Wales, and visiting archives in order to reconstruct women’s experiences in the strike

The women’s story was – despite the publication of large numbers of celebratory books, mainly by local community publishers, and the efforts of filmmakers like Ken Loach – little more than a footnote in the decade or so after the strike. For most of the 1990s, the strike wasn’t a moment many people wanted to revisit. The Thatcher government and the National Coal Board led miners in the modern, highly productive Nottinghamshire coalfield to believe that their pits were safe – a key reason why most remained at work during the dispute. In the eight years after the loss of the strike, most of Britain’s deep coal mines closed, including those in Nottinghamshire. A year of struggle and sacrifice had ended in defeat for the strikers, who had been branded ‘the enemy within’. Many working miners in Nottinghamshire ended up feeling betrayed. Everyone had a bad taste in their mouth.

From the early 2000s, the women’s story has become more prominent. In documentaries and newspaper coverage of the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the strike, women’s voices have been amplified. Films like Pride (2014) have shown a wider audience what the women’s groups set up to support the strike achieved. 

Those achievements were huge. Women’s groups weren’t generally focused on maintaining a record of their activities for posterity – theirs was an improvised crusade to provision miners and their families in the face of punitive welfare deductions implemented by the Thatcher government to try to break the strike. Nonetheless, archives and interviews indicate the extent of the movement. There were women’s support groups in every coalfield, even Nottinghamshire (in fact, there were more than thirty groups in Nottinghamshire). The umbrella support group covering the Swansea, Neath and Dulais Valleys, in South Wales, was distributing over 900 food parcels a week by July, and, in the final week of December, gave out over 1,000. In Hatfield, South Yorkshire, the support group was serving 500 dinners a day at the miners’ welfare and handing out over 700 food parcels a week by November. The umbrella group for Nottinghamshire raised £4,552.09 and spent £1,375.60 in one week in the same month. Two commentators called what the women had created an ‘alternative welfare system’. At the end of the strike, Arthur Scargill himself paid special thanks to the women. 

Probably the dominant register in which the women’s movement is now discussed is the heroic mode. There is heroism here, that is very clear – astonishing efforts, huge sacrifices, bold protests – women were arrested and imprisoned for their pro-strike activism; they turned out day after day to staff the kitchens, shake buckets, and travel around the country giving speeches to raise money. It’s often argued that despite the defeat of the strike, something worthwhile came out of it, in the politicization of a whole cohort of women from the coalfields. This way of remembering the strike serves a powerful psychological purpose: it allows us to salvage something positive from the ruins of defeat. It’s a ‘useable past’ that can inspire activists in the present.

If we tell the story in this way without reflecting on the defeat, however, we ultimately don’t serve left-wing politics particularly well. The strike was lost, the closure of pits accelerated, and the moral economy that had governed pit closures since 1948 – an assumption that workers would be consulted, and that government would try to direct new industries into areas where pits were closing – was rejected in its entirety by the Thatcher government.

There has never been any suggestion that women played a significant role in determining the start of the strike. In most cases, men (they were almost all men – only a tiny fraction of NUM members were women, as women had been prohibited from working underground by the 1842 Mines and Colliery Act) came home and told their wives they were on strike. It’s worth pointing out that the deep-rooted tradition of trade unionism meant that once the strike was underway in most coalfields, most men didn’t feel they had much of a ‘choice’ about it: the cultural impetus in favour of solidarity and against scabbing dictated their actions. When it comes to the crumbling of the strike, however, women have sometimes been implicated. Commentary at the time and since has asked what part women might have played in pressuring husbands to return to work. There were stories of women who nagged their partners, or threatened to leave if they didn’t return to work. These stories – invariably second-hand – should be treated with some caution: it could be easier for supporters of the strike to blame women for strikebreaking than to give up their investments in the heroic culture of masculine solidarity among mineworkers. The evidence suggests than in most cases, wives supported their husbands’ decisions, or married couples discussed their options together. 

One of our interviewees, whose husband worked in the modern super-pit complex at Selby, described how he took the decision to return to work several months before the strike ended. He had joined the dispute, not wanting to cross picket lines, but wasn’t an active picket; now, with evidence of a return to work in almost every part of the country, he felt that it was ‘time for people to start making decisions for themselves’.

As Jack Saunders’ study of workers in Britain’s car factories after 1945 shows, trade union power didn’t simply appear as if by magic in the age of full employment, overdetermined by the laws of supply and demand. Though the structural conditions were an important backdrop, cultures of solidarity had to be assembled continually to turn the auto industry into a bastion of union strength. In 1939, no major carmaker recognised a trade union for its factory line workers. By the 1960s, there was only one that didn’t operate a closed shop and engage in extensive bargaining. The culture of solidarity assembled in the industry by a grassroots movement of shop stewards was powerful – but it was also fragile: it required constant reinforcement, and the assumptions on which it was based could be dangerously damaged by setbacks and defeats.

The same was true for the women’s strike support movement in 1984-5: quite a few of the most engaged activists in the movement were determined to keep it going after the end of the dispute. But, with most households facing huge debts that had to be paid back at the end of the strike, it was hardly surprising that most women’s groups almost immediately ceased to function. In the long run, it proved impossible to keep the national Women Against Pit Closures network going in the vibrant form it took during the strike: for one thing, it was hard to decide on a collective vision for how the group might continue to fight for the future of the coalfields, and/or pursue broader left-wing goals.

One of the issues was that many women in the movement always disavowed an explicitly ‘political’ identity. Denise Fitzpatrick, Christine Nelson, May Cadwallader, and Edith Armitage, four women from the Cortonwood action group, recalled later that:

In our group, though we knew what was going on, what the government was trying to do, and so on, we weren’t really that political. There were women in some of the other groups that were much more so. We were more for the support, not for the politics, in fact many of the ‘politicians’ were not miners’ wives—they worked hard, but for different reasons; they were very intense, we liked to have a laugh.

‘Ordinariness’ has come to be – as Claire Langhamer has written – opposed in popular consciousness to ‘political-ness’. The women’s support movement during the strike engaged large numbers of working-class women in a struggle that was inherently political; it didn’t, however, comprehensively challenge the binary between the ordinary and the political. That binary placed limitations on Women Against Pit Closures in the long run. It is a tangle that left-wing politics today must grapple with.

Finally, examining the rhetoric used by the wives of working miners in Nottinghamshire, and by the (tiny, but very vocal) Miners Wives Back to Work Campaign that started in summer 1984 suggests how important the concept of ‘democracy’ was in the strike, and how successfully it was weaponised against the strikers. Justifications of strike-breaking tended to focus not on delegitimising trade unionism as a whole – even when the speaker did, in fact, detest trade unions in all their forms – but rather on the argument that ‘democracy’ wasn’t being respected: that without a national ballot, the Nottinghamshire miners couldn’t be called out; that mass pickets of outsiders from other coalfields were bullying rather than legitimate attempts to persuade; and that the whole strike represented an attempt by Arthur Scargill to subvert an elected government. 

As Robert Saunders has shown, over the course of the long nineteenth century, ‘democracy’ became ‘the civic religion of British politics’. As a big idea, however, ‘democracy’ can be turned to many ends. The concept remains a battleground today, and this is terrain on which the left must fight. Attenuated versions of ‘democracy’ that equate it with simply having the opportunity to vote every few years don’t serve progressive politics well. But building support for deeper, more meaningful and ongoing processes of democracy is difficult. A richer democratic culture could involve strengthening collective organisations that are run on democratic lines, like trade unions; building up civil society organisations that allow for deliberation, and the representation of group interests; strengthening the real powers of and popular engagement with local government; constitutional reform; experiments with direct democracy, like the citizens’ assemblies that some councils have used to tackle challenges like climate change. Building such a culture will require the left to grapple with the problem of pervasive hostility to ‘politics’ and the difficult, lengthy work that is required to assemble cultures of solidarity and activism that can underpin strong progressive movements. We need useable pasts, but we also need to examine the unusable bits.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is associate professor of twentieth-century British history at UCL and a contributing editor at Renewal.

Women and the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5, by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson, is available now from Oxford University Press. Order here, using code AAFLYG6 for 30% off.