Women on the picket lines: some lessons from Women Against Pit Closures

Over the last 4 weeks, as academics and professional staff at over 60 universities across the UK have gone on strike in defence of a decent pension, teach-outs on a multitude of subjects have been held, on the streets, in parks, student unions, and other off-campus venues. Renewal ​is posting some of these on our blog, to showcase what academics have been teaching outside the university. In this talk, ​Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite looks at class, gender and intersectionality in the women’s support movement that grew up during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. This talk was first given at a teach-out organised by UCL UCU on 8 March 2018.


On international women’s day, I’m honoured to be talking at this teach-out about women on the picket lines. The research I’m going to talk about is work I’ve been doing with Natalie Thomlinson at the University of Reading, looking at the development of the women’s support movement in the miners’ strike of 1984-5. What I want to talk about today is, first, what women from coalfield communities did during the strike, and, second, some of the problems they had to face during this work.

The miners’ strike was, of course, one of the most important events in recent British history. Starting on 6 March 1984 with a walkout at Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire, it lasted until 3 March 1985. The dispute centred on planned pit closures; it was a battle between the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Aruthur Scargill, and the National Coal Board, led by Ian McGregor – but of course it was widely seen as, in fact, a battle with Margaret Thatcher’s government. Defeat for the miners at the end of the year-long dispute led to the closure within a period of just years of most of Britain’s mines.

This much is well-known. Less well-known, though, is the women’s support movement that sprang up to aid the striking miners in their struggle. The women’s movement played a huge part in allowing the strike to continue for as long as it did. It was linked into a much bigger ecosystem of support groups within and outside the coalfields. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners is now perhaps the most famous part of that ecosystem, thanks to the film Pride. But there were also groups formed by a wide range of other organisations, such as trade unions, students, and Constituency Labour Parties.

The key form of support most of these groups undertook was raising money. And groups outside coalfields often ‘adopted’ a women’s support group in a particular area. These local support groups  are the main focus of our research. Sometimes mixed in gender, but they were often women-only groups, in part because the men, being on strike, were organised into pickets and other activities by the NUM itself.1 They began to form from just a few days into the strike, as women realised the significance of the dispute. These women’s groups were probably the most important part of the support movement, and the women were widely credited as key to the duration of the strike.

So what did they do? The most important part of the women’s movement’s work comprised the organising and distributing of support to striking miners and families – communal feeding, food parcels, vouchers or money for food or energy bills, and children’s presents, holidays and entertainments.

They also publicised the cause, producing posters and badges to raise awareness of the strike. They actively solicited donations from individuals and from organisations – from support groups in non-mining areas, trade unions, local shops, and a whole variety of others. They wrote newsletters, pamphlets and books during and after the strike to raise awareness and funds. They travelled to collect money and give talks at fundraisers, including in some cases abroad. Nottinghamshire women often had to lobby or even stage sit-ins in order to gain the use of local village halls or miners’ welfare halls (here, of course, the strike was not as solid as in other coalfields).2 Many went to the major women’s rally in Barnsley in May 1984, and on the large women’s march in London in August. Some organised their own marches and/or demonstrations: in June 1984, for example, 60 Kent wives staged a sit-in in at the DHSS office in Dover to claim their rights.3 And some women, in what was a pretty new and important development, went on the picket lines alongside the striking miners.

'We'll meet again', poster made by Spotborough and Brodworth Mining Families Support Group

A poster from Spotborough and Brodworth Mining Families Support Group, courtesy of Maureen Coates 

The formation of a national group stemmed from the Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) group. This group, most of whom had connections with Northern College, formed a few days after the strike. Barnsley WAPC then organised the women’s rally in Barnsley Town Hall in May 1985 – which 10,000 women attended. This led to national Women Against Pit Closures slowly developing from a loose ad-hoc network of women’s’ support groups to a national organisation. (We should note though that there were some women’s support groups in mining areas that remained unaffiliated to Women Against Pit Closures.)

One of the networks that mobilised in support of the strike was the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), particularly socialist-feminists. And it’s here that I come to my second key theme: what problems did women experience in organising during the strike.

On the one hand, some accounts of the exchanges between women from mining communities and women from the WLM, who largely didn’t come from mining communities, present a pretty rosy picture. Here the narrative is that working together meant these two groups met and exchanged ideas for the first time, opening up women from mining communities to new experiences and new feminist ideas.

Maureen Douglass, who was at the forefront of the strike in Doncaster and who had been involved in far left circles for some time, wrote several articles for Spare Rib in which she reported the fresh politicisation of women from South Yorkshire mining communities. The story she told for this audience was pretty positive:

This movement of women against pit closures has released women from their isolated role from the home into organising. This is something they have never done before, bringing them into contact with aspects of politics they’ve not really known about previously.4

On the other hand, there is some evidence that many women from mining areas had mixed feelings about what they saw as ‘feminism’ and about the feminists they met during the strike.  

This is clearly visible in Catherine Paton Black’s autobiography, published by Hamilton in 2012 for a popular readership and written with the help of a ghostwriter. Black’s attitude to ‘women’s lib’ was generally hostile:

Sometimes I got annoyed as it felt like every organisation that wanted attention was jumping on our bandwagon. I have no problem with women’s lib or gay and lesbian rights but I don’t want it preached in my face, thank you. One evening, we ended up staying at some house in London … and as we opened the door, I soon realised we were in the minority. A woman with a short haircut, dungarees and bovver boots opened the door.

I couldn’t stand the women’s libbers’ attitude that women can do whatever men can. Common sense tells me they cannot. Not many women have the physical strength to work down a mine.5

Paton Black found the feminist ideals, but also the lifestyle, of many of those from the WLM whom she came into contact with over the course of the strike alien.

Another source, a collection of oral histories from the mid-1980s, gives more examples of the complex feelings many women had towards ‘feminism’. One woman interviewed after the strike said:

We don’t class ourselves as feminists. We’ve met a lot of feminists and we’ve been insulted by a lot of feminists. Not that they meant to insult us, but we still want to be married women. We still want to love our husbands. Love our kids. But at the same time we know we’ve got to go further afield now. But we want to keep what we’ve always had. We’re married and we’ve got families, and this is what we wanted out of our lives. Obviously, the strike has taught us a lot, but in don’t want to change things so my husband doesn’t think of me as his wife … Obviously, now we want to spread out wings and do what we can for our community … our men. But at the same time we’ve still got to know that we are going to be married women who want to be with our husbands and our families.6

Reading and listening to the testimonies of women from mining areas suggests that one of the difficulties they faced in working with women from the WLM stemmed from class differences – in particular, from the cultural trappings of class, or what Bourdieu called habitus. Sometimes it was less feminist ideology and more vegetarianism that marked out women as different. And ‘feminism’ seemed to many women from coalfield communities as a movement with aims that mainly drew from middle-class women’s interests.

Though the term ‘intersectionality’ hadn’t yet been coined in the mid-1980s, it provides a key to understanding the experiences of women standing side-by-side in support of the miners’ strike. United by gender, they were also divided by class. There was no way to evade this fact; the only way to overcome these divisions was through patient communication and the building of trust between individuals and groups. Solidarity had to be built (then, as now) through the recognition of similarities – of identity, of interest – but also with the full acknowledgement of difference. This couldn’t be swept under the carpet but had to be addressed head-on by individuals and groups as they found ways of working together. 

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL, and co-editor of Renewal. 

1. See David Beale, ‘Shoulder to shoulder: An analysis of a miners’ support group during the 1984-85 strike and the significance of social identity, geography and political leadership’, Capital & Class, 2005, on the (mixed) Chorley and Coppull Miners’ Support Committee.

2. Notts Women Strike Back, p.2, in the Papers of Hilary Wainwright, People’s History Museum, Manchester, WAIN/1 file 12.

3. Betteshanger Occupation strike 1984-5, pp.4-5, in WAIN/1 file 12.

4. Maureen Douglas, Spare Rib, Oct.1984.

5. Catherine Paton Black, At the Coalface: My Life as a Miner’s Wife, 2012.

6. Interviewee no 3, Betty Heathfield oral history project, Heathfield papers, Women’s Library, LSE, 7BEH/1/2.