The real iron ladies: Women in the 1984/85 British miners' strike

by Janey Stone • Published 25 July 2020

Janey Stone arrived in the UK in March 1985 just before the end of the strike. She experienced first hand the galvanising effect the strike had on the whole of society and was particularly enthused by the transformations experienced by the women in the struggle. Janey draws upon the outpouring of articles, pamphlets and books produced by participants and supporters, many of which are completely out of print. This contemporary material shows the excitement and passion of the time, but Janey’s analysis and conclusion still have central relevance for us today.

The article was first published in Hecate Vol XI No 2, 1985. Janey gave a multi-media presentation based on the article at Marxism in 2014. The strike generated an flood of creativity including music, poetry and art. You can access some of these if you scroll down.

The Archbishop of Bologna said to me, via an interpreter, ‘Your Prime Minister’s a woman. And she’s an Iron Lady.’ I said, ‘Tell him that she might be an Iron Lady, but she didn’t bank on thousands of Iron Ladies coming up.’ (Miner’s wife)[1]

The British miners’ strike of 1984/5 was the longest mass strike in European history. After ten years of economic crisis and rightward political movement, at last a major trade union stood up to Margaret Thatcher. There are political lessons to be learnt from this struggle-about the nature of trade union officials and Labourism, about the methods necessary to win such a class struggle. But there are also other lessons, equally political but not always recognised.

National rally of Miners’ Wives and Women’s Support Groups, Barnsley May 1984.

Pessimists constantly declare to socialists: “You can’t change human nature.” But people-men and women-changed during this strike. In their new-found collective strength, they found a new confidence in themselves. They became open to new ideas and discarded old prejudices. They changed in the way they behaved towards each other; they found new friends and new hopes.

We saw little of the struggle in Australia apart from shock/horror stories about picket line violence. But the experience is highly relevant to anyone working for the liberation of women. Women appear to be absent from much labour history, and their participation in struggles often has to be rediscovered.[2] But in the miners’ strike, the active and leading role of the women in the mining communities was obvious. Without their support, the strike could not have been maintained for so long. It is with the changes in their consciousness that this article is centrally concerned. But their experience can’t be separated from the more general lessons of the strike, and this article also aims to show the interactions between the two.

Mining communities, isolated as they are, tend to be traditional in attitudes. Women in Britain’s coalfields were beginning to break out, but change was very slow. The strike altered all that, almost overnight:

To get up in front of complete strangers of varying age groups, varying occupations … and you think ‘My god. This time last year I was doing the washing up’.[3]

Blood, Sweat and Tears – The Great Strike

On I March 1984, the National Coal Board (NCB) threw down a gauntlet to the National Union of mineworkers (NUM).[4] They closed Cortonwood, a Yorkshire mine which. still. had several years of coal in it.

Thatcher had politically served the ruling class well. But economically she had failed-real wages rose while the economy was declining. Her offensive against the working-class movement was aimed not at the destruction of the trade unions but, rather, at their Americanisation-the creation of a weaker, more bureaucratic, less political trade union movement, closely policed by the courts. This could only be achieved by taking on, and decisively defeating, a powerful group of workers. The miners were the obvious candidates.

The Tories had carefully planned the battle. Coal stocks were built up and the police force reorganised and trained in strikebreaking. Already the NCB had closed 23 pits in the previous year and destroyed 21,000 jobs. With Cortonwood, the Yorkshire miners knew it was fight now or never and they reacted swiftly. Flying pickets brought the rest of Yorkshire to a standstill. Kent and the traditionally militant areas of South Wales and Scotland followed. But in Nottinghamshire (Notts), and other areas, a large percentage of miners remained at work. From the beginning the strike was deprived of solidarity and unity.

This need not have happened. Flying pickets from Yorkshire were initially very successful at picketing out the Notts miners, particularly when they were allowed to talk to them to put their case. But they were up against two obstacles. A massive police operation set out to prevent tile pickets from gaining access to the working miners. And the police and government’s efforts were aided markedly by the Notts area union officials and right-wing national leaders, who denounced pickets, discouraged miners from joining the strike, and joined in the call for a ballot on the strike. In this, they played straight into the Tories’ hands.

The sudden liking for ballots on the part of the press and politicians was sheer hypocrisy. Thatcher had not balloted workers at GCHQ communications centre a few months previously when she banned trade unions there. Nor had miners voted on whether pits should be closed down. The bulk of striking miners believed you shouldn’t ballot away other people’s jobs. They knew the ballot issue was mainly being used to divide them.[5]

Police sealed off the county to keep out picketers, and their tactics were an exercise in mass intimidation. 8000 police swamped Notts. They massed on picket lines and patrolled villages. They beat up individuals. In Blidworth they laid siege to the village, smashed their way into the village hall, where the soup kitchen was, and terrorised the women and children Inside. In short, it was open season on strikers in the Notts coalfields.[6]

Between them, the police and the union officials succeeded in keeping most of Notts working. The centre of the strike now shifted. Mass picketing of economic targets was now necessary to win-in other words, the methods of the successful 1972 strike.

What became known as the Battle of Orgreave was the turning point. The government wanted to prove that picketing could not succeed. For the miners, it was a chance to turn the tide of the strike. Over several days in May and June, the police were “out to maim not to arrest.”[7] The photographs and descriptions of the battles show police in full riot gear with horses and dogs, beating up men in shorts, t-shirts and thongs.

The picket failed, mainly because of failure to organise support. The mass picket at Saltley during the 1972 miners’ strike succeeded when 20,000 Birmingham engineering workers joined the miners’ picket. Yorkshire NUM did not attempt to build the Orgreave picket by appeals to rank and file in Sheffield engineering factories. They relied Instead on manoeuvres at the top, treating ordinary miners like a stage army.

The remainder of the strike can be summarised in two words-solidarity and bureaucracy. The strike had created enormous sympathy and support from rank and file workers and others throughout the country. The railway workers of Coalville sealed off their area. Printworkers at the Sun twice refused to print blatant and hysterical lies about the miners. By three months into the strike, there were support committees in dozens of cities and towns and, by the summer, twinning (direct linking with a pit) was catching on like wildfire. The Guardian estimated that as much as £60m was collected, disproving the claim that the miners had no support among other workers.

But most of the support was spontaneous and local and, contrasting with it, there was Trade Union Congress (TUC) inaction and the failure to spread the struggle to other industries. In steel and on the docks there were opportunities to link local issues with the miners and open another front against Thatcher, But officials’ reliance on deals and the weakness of workplace organisation led to more setbacks. Despite the TUC’s verbal support of the miners in May, they did nothing to prevent coal and oil entering the power stations. This guaranteed the miners’ defeat.

Labour Party activists did much of the work of the miners’ support groups and stirring motions were passed through the Party Conference. But Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader, spent most of his time attacking violence on the picket lines and worrying about his electoral image.

By the winter of 1985, scabbing was Increasing, and the miners were feeling a growing sense of directionlessness. They had shown great endurance and spirit against constant police violence, mass arrests, lying, media campaigns and lack of money, while their officials had given no leadership at crucial points. But if outright victory was no longer possible, at least a negotiated settlement would have protected victimised miners and local union organisation. Instead, left wing union leaders led the movement for a return to work without a settlement. The strike ended on 5 March 1985.

The miners were defeated. But things were not the same as before and, while pit closures hadn’t been prevented, something else was gained. As one miner’s wife said:

This strike had extraordinary effects. Out of something that is terrible, something very good has grown.[8]

The Women Organise

This was very much a strike in which press, employers and government could be expected to appeal to the wives to “see reason” and get the men back to work. But that tactic failed, largely due to the unprecedented widespread formation of women’s support groups throughout the mining communities-a mass movement, largely spontaneous, that took everyone by surprise.

Welsh miner’s wives try to prevent a bus containing a strike-breaker leave Photo: Wales Online.

The initial media attempt to use women to oppose the strike backfired.[9] The miners’ wives were very angry when they saw “what the press and the media were saying about the Nottingham wives taking their husbands into work. We saw absolute red!”[10] This motive also inspired women at Yorkshire Main colliery near Doncaster:

It started because I couldn’t stand TV making out that the wives weren’t behind their men. I was so angry and frustrated for a week …. [We] decided to go and picket Thorseby in Nottinghamshire that night…We called ourselves an action group because everyone says they support the miners, but we want to be active.

As we walked up to Thorseby the pickets were moaning ‘Oh god not the women again.’ They’d had the local wives nagging them, but when they found out we were from Yorkshire this fantastic cheer went up. It was brilliant.[11]

They followed this up by hand writing leaflets and distributing them through doors. Fifteen women came to a meeting, and they set up a strikers’ kitchen.

All over the coalfields, the same thing was happening. Some women wanted to make a public stand. Others wanted simply to do something about the financial and other burdens that the strike imposed on the families. In some cases, the groups were initiated by experienced feminists, trade unionists, Labour Party or Communist Party members, or wives of NUM officials such as Betty Heathfield. In many other cases, the women had no previous experience at all. Lorraine Johnson, secretary of the Bold (Lancashire) group, had experience of public speaking consisting of having called the numbers at the Old Folks Bingo!

We had to find out for ourselves how to do it. … There was no book in the library to tell us what to do![12]

In some cases, the women did have some experience to draw upon. In 1972 in Betteshanger (Kent) women had taken on picketing when the men had to leave to picket power stations. One woman recalled how a driver was astonished when they arrived at Betteshanger to be confronted by a picket entirely of women.[13] This sort of experience no doubt contributed to the speed with which Betteshanger women organised themselves into a support group two weeks after the strike began.

One significant aspect of the spontaneous movement was the strong desire for autonomy; the women wanted to run things themselves. Everywhere were heard comments like: “This is our group, we started it up and we are going to say how to run it.”[14] The women did not of course want to dissociate themselves from the union and the struggle, but they did want organisational control over their activities. This urge for control was not because they felt their interests in any way opposed to those of the male strikers – over and over again, the wives emphasised that the only reason they began to organise was in order to “help the NUM in its fight to save our industry.”[15] Rather, the desire for independence was a result of the flowering of self-activity and taking control of their own lives that the struggle produced. It was also partly a consequence of the nature of the strike. The trade union officials discouraged rank and file activity, and the women (as did the men) learnt that “to do anything during the strike meant relying on yourself and not on the bureaucracy.”[16]

The women’s groups were active around three main areas: welfare, in particular strike kitchens; campaign work, particularly fundraising and public rallies; and picketing.

Food and Welfare

Easington kitchen August 1984.

Without the women’s support groups supplying food and welfare on a regular basis, there is no doubt that the strike could not have gone on as long as it did. Early in the strike, the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), claimed that families were receiving £ 15 strike pay and therefore deducted this from the benefit they paid strikers. The NUM was not in fact paying strike pay, and so there was a great deal of financial hardship, especially after the first couple of months, when savings had been used up.[17] Many strike kitchens turned on 500 dinners daily, as well as distributing numerous food parcels. Although preparing food didn’t take women away from their traditional role, many of them learned new skills through having to organise such large-scale operations. As one woman supporter comments:

During my visits to their kitchen, many would say that they didn’t have any particular skills or knowledge whilst sitting in the midst of a busy organisation they themselves had created and were running.[18]

The strike kitchens were politicising in a number of ways. They provided an opportunity for women who would otherwise be stuck passively at home to participate in building the strike:

I should say honestly, that men would be back at work if it weren’t for our women’s group. I would have dragged mine back to work. On your own you’re under too much pressure, because you’ve got all the housework to do and no money, and him sitting around all day.[19]

The kitchens became the centre of the community for men, as well as women and children. There they discussed problems and the way forward, and derived a sense of solidarity:

The kitchens are very important in keeping the community together. They not only provide the main meal of the day, but everyone also comes together and shares their problems and hopes. It is a social function and stops people feeling isolated.[20]

As one striker said: “Coming here you learn more about the strike than you do at most union meetings.”[21]

Campaign Work

Strike kitchens and welfare work couldn’t be run without money, so naturally the raising of funds became a major activity of the women’s groups. This meant standing in shopping centres with collection tins, going door to door, running raffles, speaking at workplaces and supporters’ functions all over Britain-activities which the vast majority of the women had never even dreamt of before. The experience transformed them and gave them new confidence in themselves. They revelled in their newly discovered abilities and strength.

One example will have to do. It concerns Annette Holroyd, the wife of a miner at Blidworth Colliery near Mansfield (Notts). Annette’s mother describes the change in her daughter:

Before an this, Annette was a nice inoffensive girl who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. She was a hard-working housewife, demure, shy even. … She was a regular churchgoer …. Now she has altered almost beyond recognition. She is a stranger to me now. Sometimes I feel I do not know the person before me.

Annette replied: “Don’t be daft, Mam. It’s just that I’ve discovered I’m not the stupid female I always thought I was, that’s all.”[22]

Women who had never been anywhere without their husbands, suddenly found themselves packed off to London, speaking to large audiences, organising rallies and raising money. Though often afraid, they rose to the challenge:

The first meeting I ever did was in a college in Oxford. I’d never spoken before in my life-I was shaking like a leaf. I still get the shakes but I do it. Thatcher has had the shock of her life during this strike. She never thought the women could react like this. Before the strike I knew nothing about unions. I didn’t want to know.[23]

Many considered the women better at speaking than the men-they argued the case against pit closures better, had facts and figures at their fingertips, and also make a more effective appeal for money to help deal with the hardships the families were enduring. And the transformation the women went through, was widely recognised. One Kent miner sums it up:

I’m really proud of my wife, she’s been great. She supported me at the start of the strike, just like I knew she would. I didn’t expect her to get as involved as she has though. She knows more about the industry-facts and figures-than I do. She’s really become more confident. in herself since she became involved, Once when I came back from picketing, she was at the door, cases packed, and said, ‘You’ll have to fend for yourself for a few days, I’m off to London,’ and that was that. I’m really proud of her, she’s a good ‘un.[24]

A large amount of the money which poured in to finance the strike came from street collections. The act of collecting was politicised by the police as part of their efforts to intimidate the strikers, and obstruct their support work. Funds and food boxes were confiscated under manipulated interpretations of vagrancy laws. The Mansfield Labour-controlled local council banned collecting, allowing only “registered charities” to collect in the street.[25]

None of this deterred the collectors. Often the response from the public was rewarding. But not always, as a miner’s wife found:

Don’t think collecting is easy, it is not. You get abused, called horrible names. I’ve been threatened with being beaten up, shot, you name it, I’ve been called it.[26]

Door-to-door collectors were chased with lawnmowers, or had dogs set on them.[27]

As well as fund-raising and speaking, women’s groups organised rallies and demonstrations. In May, 10,000 people marched through the streets of Barnsley, most of them women. In August, a mass demonstration in London of Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) showed that the women were wholeheartedly with their men, in spite of the media obsession with violence.

Thousands of women chanted “I’d rather be a picket than a scab”, and “We want 30,000 coppers on the dole.”[28] Women organised local rallies and occupied DHSS offices over the way welfare was denied to families of strikers, and successfully pressured gas and electricity boards.

Picketing: “The Wives Are Out!”

During the battle for Nottinghamshire, a car carrying Yorkshire miners’ wives to a picket was stopped at a police blockade. The policeman looked inside. “Right ladies, on you go,” he said. “We’re looking for pickets but we can see you’re not pickets!”[29] The women were proud of their ingenuity in reaching the pickets. To get through the roadblocks at 3 a.m. they successfully gave all sort of absurd excuses – they were strippers, or they’d been to a party and lost their friends![30]

Thousands of women put their bodies on the line, literally” with “South Wales Women Against Pit Closures picket steel works at Port Talbot. Photo: Wales Online

Being on a picket line meant a direct experience of the struggle the miners were engaged in. It meant seeing first-hand the forces of the state-the police lined up against the strikers. They experienced taunts and insults from scabs escorted into work by the police. And they understood where the violence so played up by the media, came from. Bobby, from the Bentley (South Yorkshire) Women’s Action Group, described her first experience at a mass picket at Harworth colliery:

I was petrified. I’d never seen so many police, you just don’t in a little village like this. It were a weird feeling. Then, you only have to see one scab and police talking into their machines and down the line goes the whisper, ‘They’re coming’, and you just erupt. There was no stopping me, I broke through and got over the other side of the road because it was near scabs… First time on a picket line and I turned two blokes back.”[31]

While miners’ wives had picketed before, it was never on the scale reached at this strike. Consequently, many were picketing for the first time:

Now the women in our valley would go on any picket line anywhere they were needed. Not at the beginning of the strike – we wouldn’t. Now it’s all changed.[32]

Women went to the mass pickets such as Orgreave, as well as their local pickets. They held women-only pickets in many localities. As the strike wore on and the pressure intensified, they showed increasing determination and courage:

The pigs are policing us with the riot squad also horse and dog patrols, but there’s one thing we can say, we’ll be on the picket lines even if they put tanks there,[33]

And particularly out of the picketing came a new politicisation:

I think what’s hardened a lot of women’s attitudes and made them a damn sight more politically aware … is what they’ve actually experienced with the menfolk getting injured on the picket line.[34]

Other women confirm this. One, when asked whether all the police intimidation had weakened them, replied that, without the police, her involvement would have been limited to feeding the kids and fund-raising. The police hadn’t weakened them, she said, rather it had strengthened them.[35] The picketing in particular gave the women the right to say: “We no longer stand behind our men, we stand with them.”[36]

Changes in Consciousness

Perhaps most commented on by strikers and supporters was the changes in the women’s confidence:

When I look at myself now, I just can’t believe I’m the same person. I’ve grown so big with the knowledge I’ve got from it. I’ve never been so motivated to get on with things before. Now there’s nothing I can’t do, I don’t think. Absolutely nothing![37]

The most obvious practical change was to do with housework and childcare. With women active in kitchens and pickets, and away for days on end, men just had to take over some of the domestic responsibilities and the childcare. While men were often reluctant, had to be wheedled into it, or even bribed with sex, there are also frequent stories of men spontaneously doing housework while women were picketing, or busy with the support group. And during the course of the year-long dispute, men who were initially resentful came to understand. Many also helped in the strike kitchens or were even members of women’s committees:

Before if they’d been asked to do those things, they’d have said, ‘who she bloody talking to?’ Now they do it – don’t get me wrong, you can’t change ’em in 22 weeks, but they do it.[38]

At the end of the strike, many women certainly intended to maintain the new arrangements. As one said, their new understanding of the status of worn in the home just couldn’t be unlearnt.[39] And another: “Kids, pots and housework. That’s all it were. I think if I had to go back to that I’d jump in t’ cut [canal].”[40]

But it was not just housework – men’s and women’s relationships changed personally and socially. Many wives said they felt closer to their husbands as a result of the strike.[41] The sexes mixed more, socially – playing cricket, in the pub, and so on. On the other hand, it was not all plain sailing. Indeed, the financial burdens, constant political activity, police intimidation and pressure from the media placed severe strains on relationships.[42] The women’s groups helped many to deal with these stresses-with each other’s support the) were able to avoid taking everything out in arguments with their husbands. Other women left their husbands because they could stand the strain no longer. But some left for different reasons. One Derbyshire woman tried to persuade. her husband not to return to work. But he did. On coming home after the first shift he found her gone, her wedding ring on the kitchen table.[43] Another wife expressed similar views:

If he went back to work I’d leave him. I’d take the two kids and clear out. I wouldn’t live with a scab.[44]

Even the children’s lives were changed. They had to go without, of course but many learned political lessons. At school there were tensions – strikers’ kids mixing separately from the kids of those working.[45] Children took to playing “Police and Pickets”, instead of Cowboys and Indians; or a game called “The Scabs.”[46] New nursery rhymes also appeared:

Girls and boys come out to play
The scabs have gone to work today
Sing and dance and do a jig
The NUM will have the pigs.[47]

One fourteen year-old Kent miner’s daughter described the changes in her life:

I think it’s brought us closer together, there’s been less arguments between the whole family and everyone’s really trying to help. We all understand the difficulties with money …. In the village everyone’s gotten so much closer now. It’s nice, like no-one argues with their mum and dad any more.[48]

Some children took the frequent absence of their parents in their stride:

The kids used to say ‘Who’s going away today? Mummy or Daddy?’[49]

Others were somewhat resentful:

They’d say ‘When are we going to have our Mum back? The same Mum we had before the strike?’ I’ve changed that much. But I don’t think they’re ever going to get their old Mum back now.[50]

The problems associated with the children peaked as Christmas neared, and miners’ families were upset at the prospect of the children missing out. But the support groups rose to the challenge, and enormous Christmas parties were held, children were given presents, and the already close ties were cemented even further:

It was marvellous. Fantastic. Incredible. Unbelievable when you think about it. They’ll never have a Christmas like that again. And that’s a good thing really A because my kids will always remember the strike. If only for the Christmas.[51]

Disillusionment and New Values

The strike opened up a whole new world of political awareness for women whose lives had previously been so circumscribed. On the one hand, they were now disillusioned with the traditional institutions of society-the media, the courts and, above all, the police. On the other hand, they found themselves newly comprehending the struggles of others, in Ireland and South Africa, of blacks in Britain; of oppressed groups such as gays; of political issues such as nuclear disarmament; and of the need to link up with other industrial struggles.

Annette Holroyd sums up what an eyeopener the strike was to her:

It’s losing faith in things you once took for granted.

The police will no longer be the friendly bobby to me. I will always remember the evening when 600 of them surrounded my house – we counted them – to arrest one of the leaders of the Yorkshire flying pickets who was staying here.

The courts are not what I had assumed. Until now I had never been in one of course. When I did, I heard a magistrate tell a man he was not allowed to speak in his own defence – it had to be done by his solicitor. I did not believe I would hear an accused man silenced in a British court.

I have lost faith in the newspapers l once read. The Sun and the Daily Mirror are banned from this house now. They are banned from most homes in this village. They have told lies, half-truths, and peddled propaganda.

Even the church has let me down.[52]

Countless women repeat the same loss of faith. But of course, the greatest shock to their minds was the role of the police and the question of violence. Given the extreme behaviour of the police, this is not surprising. As a Welsh miner commented succinctly: “When those coppers started kicking me in the face at Orgreave, well, my attitude changed completely.”[53]

Many women naively thought the police would treat them differently, and some thought that perhaps their husbands were exaggerating:

Now we were all very naive, you know, the first morning we went. We thought our men had come back and told us about the police harassment and violence and “‘Well, we’re women, they’ll not dare do that to us.’ Did we get a bloody surprise! We faced the same police harassment as the men, verbal abuse, and the same police violence that our men did. We were no different because we were women.[54]

The violence occurred not just on picket lines but at rallies and in the occupied villages such as Easington (Durham). Police chased small children on their way to school. Old people were too petrified to go out of their yards. Police threatened pregnant women, women in wheelchairs.[55] Many ended up with injuries and were hospitalised. Over and over again, the same things were said:

I never thought I’d see scenes like this in Britain. I never thought I’d see what I’ve seen on the streets of Easington. We’re occupied. We’ve been occupied by the police. We’ve had violence in the village. We’ll never forget this-never. Not after this.[56]

The abuse from the police literally added insult to injury:

Call yourself a woman – I wouldn’t even piss on you.[57]

The woman was arrested for using foul and abusive language.

The lessons that the women learnt were not just about the ‘neutrality’ of the state and the real role of the police. They were also about the real nature of violence. Despite being scared, their experiences did not turn them into pacifists. They saw that the violence was initiated by the police at the instigation of the government with political aims in view.

They also found unexpected responses in themselves:

I’m beginning to see how the violence happens. … We regard ourselves as law-abiding people but we were really furious. I can see why our boys get so angry on the picket line and sometimes lose their self-control.[58]

Glynnis Evans, from Maerdy in Wales saw a small woman being beaten by police:

I’ve got no courage but when you saw what they were doing to her you had to do something. I tried to pull away a policeman and said, ‘get your hands off her’ he shouted at me, ‘get off you, back to your kitchen sink.’ I told him, ‘Yes, I will, and I’ll bring it back with me next time and wrap it round your neck![59]

To replace lost beliefs in the traditional institutions, the women found a whole new understanding of the world, summed up for some as: “It made me see a truer picture of what capitalism really is.”[60] In the past, they might have seen what happened in Ireland, in South Africa, or even in other parts of Britain, as unconnected with themselves. But the strike made them see the connections between different experiences of exploitation and oppression, and the struggles against them.

In June, a Black delegation visited Kent miners. A Black speaker at the joint rally pointed out common interests and stressed the need for solidarity, giving as an example the need to boycott scab coal from South Africa. A Black woman speaker said that, in the past, mining and other working-class communities had not always given support to Blacks in their fight against police harassment. In reply, a miner acknowledged the criticism and said:

I can assure you all now that the miners will stand behind the Black community against police harassment.[61]

This sort of interaction has continued after the strike – Blacks were still collecting money for victimised miners at the Notting Hill Carnival six months later.

Numerous other national groups provided support and raised funds, including Asians, Cypriots and Turks.[62] Ireland, with its long history of imperialist subjugation, is a crucial issue in Britain, Numerous comments reveal a sense of class solidarity which is a real breakthrough in the British working class. For instance, this is how the wife of a Welsh miner addressed a meeting on Ireland:

If I had been told nine months ago, before the strike, that I would be here in Oxford speaking on Ireland, I would have told you you were insane. If I had been asked nine months ago whether we lived in a democracy, I would have said yes, on the whole. But I will tell you of many things that have happened during the strike that have left me older and wiser and have shown me how much the working class in this country has in common with the working class in Ireland, how much I as a miner’s wife, have in common with a woman in Belfast fighting for her children.[63]

Thatcher had called the miners and their supporters the enemy within. The miners took this up, and stickers appeared everywhere. It epitomised the new level of consciousness, that the struggle was not just a narrow and limited sectional one, but one which tended to generalise, which tended to show who were class allies and who were the enemy:

We knew that one day we had to stand up and fight and we took it in both hands, and my god, we’ye learned a lot over the last few months. We have discovered that the enemy we face has got many, many heads. It is not just the Coal Board and the DHSS, but the newspapers and the media and the government. And if we are to be the ‘enemy within’, then I’m damned proud to be ‘the enemy within’.[64]

Interactions with the wide network of support groups, and the travelling and speaking necessary to raise funds, meant all sorts of new experiences beyond the immediate struggle on the picket lines. The most important was the link with other workers through workplace and trade union branch support groups, and solidarity action. And miners and families returned the support from other workers-they stood on picket lines in support of strikes at Barking Hospital, Camden Council and many others.

Support groups not based on workplaces were also very important. Visits and contacts meant new friendships, exposure to different ways of living and new ideas. Responses ranged from accepting new food, to planning to stand for parliament. New interests and activities included joining the Labour Party, CND, or (in a minority of cases) revolutionary organisations, or planning actions around hospital closures or local Issues. The new experience of travel certainly broadened people’s minds. A lot of money and support came from other countries, mainly in Europe.[65] One group, when in Holland, received support not only from trade unionists, but also a group of prostitutes.[66]

Another important spinoff from the struggle was a new link between homosexual groups and miners. Gay men and lesbians were very active in support of the strike and many mining communities came in contact with open homosexuals for the first time in their lives:

Before the strike, if I’d known I was going to talk to some lesbians I’d have died. But they’re like us. They are normal people …. That’s something I’ve learned.[67]

The mining people saw the support gays gave them and, in the course of the struggle, their minds were open to new ideas, as we can see with Sue and Bobby, sisters from Bentley (Yorkshire):

Sue: Like when the police called you [Bobby] a fucking lesbian on the picket lines you were saying, ‘I was scared, did he think I was?’…

Bobby: When we talked about it with these feminists they said, ‘Why be scared, there’s nout to be ashamed of’ and they put their point to us and it were logical, so I said to young Anne, ‘your place or mine!’[68]

A gay and lesbian group twinned with a South Wales pit village. When the group visited the village, the organiser admitted he was

a bit apprehensive about how they would be received. But at the welfare social club on the Saturday night, they got a fantastic reception. Of course there were one or two doubting Thomases, but they were quickly dealt with. A miners wife at one table tore a strip off a miner who complained about the visit. She told him in no uncertain terms, that people’s sex lives were their own business. The table supported her.[69]

The response went beyond simple acceptance of homosexuals to political support for them. The Notts Women’s Support Group wrote to the London Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners Group:

We also extend to you our total solidarity and support in your struggle against all forms of oppression and prejudice on the grounds of sexuality. Our struggles are part and parcel of the same fight.[70]

Three months after the strike, a substantial contingent of miners participated in the London demonstration in Gay Pride Week.

Sexism and the Limitations of the Action Groups

It would be foolish to pretend that the struggle consisted only of strengths and blinding transformations of consciousness. There was sexism among the miners. Within the women’s groups themselves, there were problems and, despite a high level of activism, too many women remained passively at home. While many women were politicised, the activity of others tended to reproduce their traditional roles-cooking, caring for children, playing a backup role in pickets.

But it would be wrong to see the difficulties simply as a consequence of sexism. The reality is more complex, and many of the problems of organisation are related to the general problems of the strike rather than specific to the women’s committee.

To deal with sexism first. It cannot be a surprise to anyone that in the tradition-bound isolated mining communities men (and women) had traditional views of male and female roles. This sexism expressed itself sometimes in reluctance to share housework. But many men changed, as has been discussed already. It also expressed itself in half-joking fears about feminists the women might meet while on speaking tours, and warnings not to pick up any of their “strange ideas.”[71] Perhaps most galling was when women courageously appeared on picket lines only to be greeted with comments such as “Get your tits up for the lads.” But many of the women’s group members took the minority of men who did this to task:

Yes, they’d shout things on picket lines and we’d go up and say, ‘we’re not here for stuff like that,’ It makes ’em think.[72]

These issues have to be tackled head on. We are making every effort to take an equal part in winning this strike and we must demand not only for ourselves but that all women be treated as equals.[73]

The fact is, that while all agreed that change couldn’t happen overnight, and while some men couldn’t or wouldn’t change, an impulse for change did come out of the struggle:

Miners are, brought up in a very chauvinistic way, but since the strike many attitudes have changed … I’ve heard lads say, ‘cor, that Margaret, she’s a bloody good worker isn’t she?’ and they would never refer to her in any other way. Now before the strike, they would be saying ‘she’s not a bad looker, is she? I wonder who is knocking about with her? But it’s different now, it’s not sexist language that gets used now when they refer to a woman.[74]

More serious than passing comments, or pinups in the union paper were the difficulties sometimes put in the way of women trying desperately to become active. There were for example a number of problems in South Wales.[75] Men in one village jealously guarded their kitchen from a newly formed women’s group, tried to stop women meeting and put pressure on individual women to stop them from joining the group. A large women’s rally met with opposition because they did not go through “proper channels.” Various obstacles were put in the way of women getting to pickets and rallies. Officials did their best to prevent them from going to Port Talbot pickets because it would be “too dangerous” for women, and “they would just get in the way.” Another official responded to the suggestion that more should be done to mobilise women by saying that they were just a nuisance.

Some of this is simple sexism, and it is evidence of the women breaking out of their traditional passivity that they didn’t just, buckle under; they didn’t ask the men for permission to be involved, they just did it. But there is also evidence here of a characteristic of this strike – a desire by officials to keep everything under control and to discourage independent rank and file activity. The obstacles the women came up against were also experienced by miners when it came to picketing and making direct contact with other workers and potential supporters. The officials kept tight control over picketing. Later in the strike, they didn’t organise the mass pickets so necessary for victory, but relied on token pickets of six in compliance with court orders. The national leadership was not very keen on twinning either, until well into the strike. It meant funds going directly to pits, bypassing central control.

There are other examples which have been interpreted as sexist but which are really illustrative of the general problems of this strike. Take for instance two cases: the Yorkshire men who rebuffed women wishing to join picket lines with “It’s our job, it’s our fight, it’s our picket”,[76] and the NUM meeting which turned out a ten year-old boy because they wouldn’t discuss in front of non-members.[77] Both these instances exemplify not maleness but narrow-minded sectionalism, an approach for which a Welsh’ miner criticised his union officials:

The NUM didn’t get solidarity because the executive kept saying it was a miners’ strike and we didn’t need other workers on the picket line ….We got offers from [various workers] to come onto the picket line. But the union said it was to be miners only. They didn’t even like miners’ wives on the picket line at first.[78]

Much of the obstructionism the women encountered can therefore be considered not sex specific, but a consequence of official bureaucracy and narrow sectionalist industrial politics.

Passivity and Bureaucratism

Again, it was not all sweetness and light within the women’s groups. They were extremely varied-some had no democratic structure, while others were so democratic that “they were almost inoperable.”[79] They made mistakes. But this is only to be expected in a spontaneous movement composed largely of totally inexperienced people.

But there was a more fundamental problem. In spite of the mass mobilisation of women into activity, large numbers remained passive. There were some straightforward explanations – young children, jobs, or living in isolated villages. But nonetheless many, although supporting the strike, didn’t become active themselves. This passivity often meant that a comparatively small number of women came to dominate the action groups. The Mill Hill. Women’s Support Group (Kent) is an example. Due to the lack of active participation, a small number found themselves running the activities of the group. Not only did they do the day-to-day work of the strike kitchens, they also went on speaking tours and organised rallies. The consequent domination by a small active group intimidated others, who stayed away.

The group is dominated by a group of very strong women, they are too outspoken. I feel very intimidated by them. I once tried to get involved but when I made suggestions they were largely ignored. They felt I had no right to criticise the way they were running things. I was only trying to help so that the group could run more effectively.

They organise everything, when you try to give a hand they boss you around. There are a lot of us who think the group could run a lot better than it does but we don’t want to cause any trouble.

The passive group of women maintained contact with each other through an informal network. They supported the strike, but failed to break out of their traditional roles. They would perhaps have liked to be more involved but didn’t know how:

That group should be more democratic, I would like t9 be able to go up there and say what I really think and feel about the way things are being run, but I can’t, they are too overpowering for me … I just don’t know what we are supposed to do to make the group work better.[80]

The Mill Hill group was not exceptional. The problem of passivity was experienced by men and women in all areas. The 1972 strike had been won by rank and file organising of mass pickets which generated the support of other workers, particularly Birmingham engineering workers. In 1984/85, rank and file preparedness to organise independently was lacking, As a result of the passivity of many, and the dominance of the women’s groups by a small number, the women’s groups remained very much under the influence of the bureaucracy-despite their determination to remain independent of the NUM. This was evident at the wives’ march in London in August 1984. The march was led by Ann Scargill and Betty Heathfield, wives of the union’s secretary and president. Female trade union officials ordered the tops of Socialist Worker placards to be removed, and every effort was made to depoliticise the event.[81]

The influence of the union bureaucracy became particularly clear when, during the (northern) summer of 1984, the emphasis in the official strategy of the strike turned more toward winning public support rather than the adoption of militant tactics necessary to win. If you are aiming at public sympathy, women and children can be very useful.

But here we see a massive contradiction. On the one hand, women feel they are taking a positive step forward into collective activity with other women. On the other hand, they remain tied to traditional work food and child care in the village, and symbols of suffering families in public. Thus, the organisation of miners’ wives never really broke with the traditional ideas about the role of women.

The women’s organisation mirrored the passivity and weaknesses of the strike as a whole. This led to continued domination by the union bureaucrats and a tendency in practice to reinforce the traditional female role. On the other hand, the women’s organisation showed the potential for working class women to break out of that role.

Feminism and Blinkered Politics

Activists in the women’s movement in Britain have generally ignored or minimised the struggles of working class women over the last few years, concentrating instead on separatist and pacifist activities such as Greenham Common. But the miners’ strike suddenly changed that. Many feminists abandoned or modified their separatism in practice. [82]

For many feminists, the miners’ strike has meant reassessing our attitudes to working with men and has shown the real links between feminism and the struggles of working-class women.[83]

While retaining their opposition to traditional male and female roles, they felt for example, that it would look “arrogant to impose our ‘ideologically sound’ selection of toys on children regardless of choice.”[84]

However, separatism still retained a strong ideological hold. This can be seen for instance in the separate support groups for women which were set up in many areas. There are practical objections to such separate groups -double the meetings, for example.[85] But the feminist approach leads to a blinkered politics, which impeded a genuine understanding of the nature of the strike and, in particular, led to a fundamental contradiction between the feminists and the mining women they were supporting.

The feminists make the women the centre of their strategy. They separate them out, distinguish their activity in a fundamental way from the “tough men doing the ‘real’ political stuff”[86], and lay emphasis on the way the mining women have organised politically as women. This is in sharp contrast to the mining women themselves. While they were very conscious of being women (which consciousness after all is a product of the separate roles), they were impelled into the struggle precisely because of a desperately felt need for unity with their men. The pit closures would mean the end of whole communities, and the whole community-women, men and children- responded to the threat.

Marching in Maerdy, Wales August 1984. Photo: Wales Online

In the miners’ strike, tens of thousands of women were fighting and organising for the first time precisely because they were wives. It was the struggle itself which forced them to confront their female role and, in many cases, to break out of it. Thus, while they often came into conflict with men over sexist behaviour, there was no tendency towards feminist separatism. Shoulder to shoulder unity was their aim:

It has also given us the strength to stand side by side with our men, fighting with them and, in some case~ fighting against them for the right to stand on picket lines with them.[87]

The feminists’ determination to see everything from the women’s point of view assumed that there was a distinct women’s point of view in this struggle, that men and women had different objectives, and that the women’s objectives were (or should be) those conventionally accepted within the women’s movement. As a result, they often failed to see the actual point of view of the women of the mining communities. For example, in meetings on the strike, feminists repeatedly asked why the miners’ wives weren’t demanding the right to go down the pits. But most wives don’t want to work in the mines any more than the feminists themselves want to.[88]

There were disagreements over songs and slogans which the mining women didn’t see as sexist; and occasionally there was more serious conflict:

I had a row with this woman in London – she said it’s our fault that our men are male chauvinists. But that’s not true. Our men are male chauvinists because it’s been bred into them.[89]

And at the end, although they had a new found sense of their own independence and worth and plans for the future, the women had no intention of leaving their families for separatist type reasons.

These differences didn’t cause serious problems during the white heat of the struggle. But in assessing the strike, we have to look at the political lessons. A politics which is based on an assumption of a separate women’s point of view has certain consequences. On the one hand, it inhibits an understanding of the real lessons of this struggle, lessons essentially the same for women as for men: the role of the trade union officials, the need for independent rank and file action, the need to counter passivity, the necessity for mass picketing and solidarity to win. On the other hand, the logic of centring on women is to see men as the enemy. And such a politics is incapable of providing a theoretical basis for the liberation of women.

One example of the first consequence is the tendency to see sexism in incidents involving men, when what is really involved are (as discussed above) questions of bureaucratism or sectionalism. The question of violence, however, provides us with an example which illustrates both consequences well.

Some feminists made strong efforts to relate Greenham Common to the strike.[90] Activists from the peace camp joined miners’ picket lines, and many wives expressed admiration for their struggle. But Beatrix Campbell, a well-known feminist and member of the British Communist Party, took this much further, and attempted to draw ideological conclusions. Campbell was already known for having caricatured miners as the most sexist section of male society one month before the strike, in her Wigan Pier Revisited. In her articles on the strike, Campbell appeared particularly upset about “chaotic macho violence.”[91] She advocated instead, as a way of achieving tactical aims and avoiding injury, non-violent direct action as used by Greenham Common women.

There are two paints here. Firstly, there is the question of whether pacifist methods do work. When women from the peace camp (experienced and trained as Campbell advocates) did go on a picket line, they found their sit-down pacifist tactics were not superior:

The [Greenham Common and other] women led the blockade in an attempt to prevent lorries from leaving. They sat in the road and were then joined by several miners who were brutally ·treated by the police.[92]

But more important is the question of Campbell’s condemnation of the “macho violence” on both sides. To condemn the picketers in this way is to follow the unsavoury lead of Neil Kinnock, with his craven capitulation to media lies and hysteria.

Women picket Yorkshire Main colliery February 1985. Photo: Wales Online

Campbell was able to find some miners’ wives who criticised the violence on the picket lines, but this proves nothing. The overwhelming majority of the comments indicate that women came to understand the cause to be the police, and did not consider it to be “male violence.” All accounts by the picketers (male and female) at Port Talbot, Orgreave or any other picket line make it quite clear that the police were prepared and armed, that they initiated attacks, that their aim was to beat and terrify the picketers. The picketers themselves had essentially political aims. In Notts, the main aim was to talk to the working miners to try to persuade them to join the strike. At Orgreave, the aim was to prevent shipment of coke, and later in the strike it was stopping scabs entering the mines. But because of the police strategies, self-defence was frequently necessary. When pickets engaged in mass confrontations with police over scabs, such as at Easington, this was a necessary part of the struggle and had nothing to do with maleness. Furthermore, the violence that occurred in the mining villages (such as the notorious occasion at Grimethorpe when police attacked men, women and children picking coal on the colliery tip) was wholly the responsibility of the police. To condemn all men together as hopelessly violent is clearly to argue that men are collectively the enemy. It follows from this that we should unite all women, including Margaret Thatcher (who of course, for her own reasons, has condemned violence as “totally unacceptable in our society”). And a failure to distinguish the police violence and its political purpose from the miners’ violence and its role in the struggle, shows a total inability to understand the class forces at work in the strike.


At the end of the strike, the miners were forced to return to work without a settlement. They were defeated, having achieved neither the aim of the strike – the prevention of pit closures – nor the protection of victimised workers. But it was a pyrrhic victory for Thatcher: she had spent over £3 billion without achieving her aim – the destruction of the NUM. The men and women of the pit villages, and their thousands of supporters around Britain, felt that although the specific aims of the strike had not been attained, it had nonetheless been a major achievement and, as so many said, things would never be the same again.

But in assessing the strike and its significance for women, it is important not to glamorise the women’s participation or ignore the weaknesses. The conclusions I will draw are different from those drawn by many others.

Some people have tried to argue that an entirely new women’s movement emerged during the conflict, which will now go on to bigger and better things. The facts do not support this argument. It is true that WAPC has continued since the return to work. Many groups are active around union issues (such as victimised miners and the breakaway Notts branch), or local community issues, and over 700 women attended a national conference in August.

But there are problems. The level of participation has dropped sharply and, in the villages, women are just not coming to meetings. At the conference, there was a serious conflict over voting rights which was largely between rank and file activists and union officialdom (represented by officials’ wives).[93]

It does not belittle the heroic struggle waged by the women of the British mining communities to admit that this is not the first time such a thing has happened. Women in British coalfields have a tradition of supporting industrial action.[94] In American mining areas at the turn of the century, Mother Janes and her “wild women” were famous, and the Australian Miners Women’s Auxiliary played a leading’ role in the 30s.[95]

It is true that the extent and scope of women’s role in this struggle was unprecedented. But it has to be understood not as something entirely new but, rather, as something building on previous struggles in mining communities, and other recent activities of British women workers such as at Grunwicks, Lee Jeans and many others.

So a fundamentally new movement was not created. And it would be utopian to expect WAPC to continue in the way it was before, as a mass movement. With the strike now over, the focus which mobilised people into activity is no longer there.

Another common argument about the strike says that the men saw it in traditional industrial terms, supposedly now demonstrated to have been inadequate, and to this are counterposed “new methods” developed by the women which show the way forward.[96]

I do not have space to discuss here the issue of the traditional methods. But I would argue that, even given all their creativity and transformations of consciousness, it is wrong to draw different conclusi

ons from the activity of the women and that of the men. On the contrary, their activities tended to converge in the course of the struggle. We have seen that men started to take over housework and childcare, while women went on speaking tours and joined in picket lines, and a new respect was born for each other’s work.

The common fight for the common goal led to changes in both sexes and a tendency for gender divisions to break down. This should not be overstated. The paint is that it shows how it is possible for the sexual division of labour to be overcome-it is a pointer for the future.

Demonstration outside Margaret Thatcher film 2011. Photo: Socialist Worker.

In a similar way, many of the problems and weaknesses were not sex specific, but the result of the general weaknesses of the strike-passivity, and reliance on the union bureaucracy. This, again, shows the way in which women did not have differing needs and interests in the dispute, but had the same lessons to learn.

The importance of this strike then, is not just for the immediate issues that come out of it, but for the way in which it shows that people can change in the course of struggle, and the possibility for that struggle to be united. It is on this possibility that I base my belief in the possibility of socialism and women’s liberation.








Songs from the struggle

Poetry of resistance

The poems in the recording were read by Santo Cazzati.

Orgreave – Monday 18th. June 1984 (Barbara Brookes)
We will remember Orgreave and the Summer of ’84,
The daily convoys of lorries and
The close packed rows of helmets,
Tight and shielded,
Pushed hard against the massing ranks of pickets —
Bare chested in the early morning sun.
We support you evermore!, they chanted,
Fervent, euphoric.

Arthur, standing his ground,
Pouring strength of will and body into the gathering force,
With them, of them, for them.
The blue ranks parting like the Red Sea,
To let the cavalry through,
Hooves, truncheon and baton,
Against bone and flesh.

Miners have always known the price of coal —
Paid most often underground;
But this time they poured out their blood,
Among the elderflowers and wild roses,
On a dusty road outside the coke works,
In the fight to save jobs and a way of life.

And their anger ripped apart stone walls and concrete posts,
With bare hands —
A people’s defence against trained antagonism.
The rush of pounding hooves, and flailing baton blows.
We will remember the weeks of struggle,
In the summer of the long strike.
It has its place in history.

The Working Class Are Stirring (Cathy Froggatt)
I know that I’m not clever,
Logic’s not my line,
And I’ve never even seen,
The inside of a mine.

I didn’t win a scholarship,
I haven’t a degree,
I weren’t so hot at lessons,
And Daddy couldn’t pay a fee.

So can someone please tell me,
The reason or the sense,
Of closing pits with coal in,
Or is it that I’m dense?

I’ve been told its too expensive,
To dig out all the coal.
That it’s cheaper to lay men off,
And put them on the dole.

But how can it be cheaper,
To destroy both men and jobs,
And then keep paying millions,
To control the angry mobs.

What sort of woman is she,
The leader of this land?
Does she know what she is doing?
Does she really understand?

Does she think that we, the workers,
Who have made this country great,
Will sit around just waiting,
While she decides our fate?

Lately I have noticed,
There are other folk like me,
Who are starting to get angry,
At all the waste they see.

The working class are stirring,
We think we’ve had enough.
She’s gone as far as she can go,
Now we’ll start getting tough.

So I warn you, Mrs. Thatcher
You’d better watch your back,
We’ll take no more oppression,
From you or buddy Mac.

You thought you’d beat the miners,
But you’ve a snowball’s chance in hell,
Because you’re not just fighting miners,
But the rest of us as well.

More poems available here


Arnold, Brenda, 1985, “Wife on a Mission of Mercy”, Right of Reply Special 1985.

Beaton, Lyn, 1985, ‘Women in the British Miners’ Strike: Wives or Warriors?” Scarlet Woman, 20 (Spring).

Bense, Ellie, 1984, Spare Rib (October).

Bishop, Marla, 1984, “Black Delegation to Kent Miners”, Spare Rib, 145 (August).

Bobby and Sue, 1984, (letter) Spare Rib 149 (December).

Callinicos, Alex and Simons, Mike, 1985, The Great Strike (Socialist Worker).

Callinicos, Alex, 1985, “The Politics of Marxism Today”, International Socialism, 2:29 Summer 1985

Campbell, Beatrix, 1984, “The Other Miners’ Strike”, New Statesman (27 July).

Campbell, Beatrix, 1985, “Politics Old and New”, New Statesman (8 March)

Carlin, Norah, 1984, “Wives, Mothers and Fighters,” Socialist Review, 66, (June)

Carlin, Norah, 1985, “Towards a New Unity?” Socialist Worker Review, 72 (January)

Dean, Dixie, “The 1984/85 Miners’ Strike and the Mining Communities of the East Kent Coalfields”, Unpub. B.Sc. (Hons) Thesis, City University, London (date unknown).

Dobney, Megan, 1985, “Walker Says Husbands to Blame For Strike!” Right of Reply Special, 38.

Doig, Jim, 1985, “Our Pride Has Taken Us So Far”, Right of Reply Special, 42.

Douglas, Maureen, 1984, “Mining for Change”, Spare Rib, 144 (July).

Fran and Leili, 1985, “Going Forward: Women Against Pit Closures”, Outwrite, 39 (September).

German, Lindsay, 1985, “Women Workers: Victims of the Class Struggle?” Socialist Worker Review, 73 (February).

Harris, Ann, 1985, “We’ll Stand Up and Speak Up For Ourselves”, in Kendall et al 1985.

Hollingsworth, Mark, 1984, “Using Miners to Bust the Union”, New Statesman (14 December).

Huddle, Roger, Phillips, Angela, Simons, Mike and Sturrock, John, 1985, Blood, Sweat and Tears: Photographs from the Great Miners’ Strike 1984·1985 (London: Artworker Books)

Jackson, Stevie, 1984, “Behind Men? Not Quite!”, Spare Rib, 146 (September)

Kendall, Tina, Rachel Lever and Barbara Norden, 1985, “What Did You Do in the Strike, Mum?” Spare Rib 151 (February).

Lambeth Women’s Miners’ Support Group, 1985, “Striking New Connections”, Spare Rib, 153 (Apri1): 32.

“Learning From the Strike”, 1985, Socialist Worker Review, 74 (March 1985):9.

Loach, Loretta, 1984, “We’ll Be Here Right to the End”, Spare Rib (October).

Miller, K. A. W., 1984, “Don’t get me wrong” (letter), Spare Rib, 149 (December).

“Miners Support”, 1984, Spare Rib, 146 (September).

“Miners’ Wives”, 1984, Socialist Worker Review, 68 (September): 7.

Mother Jones, 1976, The Autobiography of Mother Jones’ (Chicago; Charles H. Kerr)

Pattison, Keith, and Beynon, Huw, Easington August ’84 (Newcastle: A SIDE publication, n.d.)

Right of Reply Special, 1985 produced by workers on the Sun and News of the World, London and Manchester (March)

Robe, E., 1985 “Women Fight For the Future”, Right of Reply Special, p29.

Rogers, Nick, 1985, “Where Being On Strike Takes Guts”, Right of Reply Special, p2.

Rose, John, 1984, “Sister, Brother and Twin”, New Statesman (30 November).

Salt, Chrys and Layzell, Jim, 1985, Here We Go! Women’s Memories of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike (London Political Committee Co-Operative Retail Services).

Seaburne, Tish, 1985, “Weekend in Wales”, in Tina Kendall, Rachel Lever and Barbara Norden, “What Did You Do in the Strike, Mum?” Spare Rib 151 (February).

Solidarity With the Miners, 1985, Labour Research Department, London.

Stone, Janey, 2008, “Brazen Hussies and God’s Police; Fighting Back in the Depression Years”, in Bloodworth, Sandra and Tom O’Lincoln (eds) 2008, Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Red Rag Publications, p43.

Striking Back, 1985, (WCCPL and NUM, South Wales Area).

Sweeney, Anne-Marie, 1985, “The Oxford Women’s Support Group” in Thornett, Alan, ed., 1985, The Miners’ Strike in Oxford (Oxford and District TUC, Oxford).

Vallely, Paul, 1985, “The Strike That Turned Wives into Warriors”, The Times (4 March), p10.

Waterson, Julie, 1985, “Opportunity Knocked”, Socialist Worker (21 August)

Wintour, Patrick, 1985, “Women Pledge to Sustain Fight Against Pit Closures”, The Guardian (19 August)

Withal, Debbie, 1984 “Manchester Women’s Support Conference”, in Kendall et aI, 1984, p31

[1] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985.

[2] As an example see Stone 2008, p6. in which I show that a substantial amount of women’s activity during the depression had previously been ignored, and discuss the reasons for this.

[3] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985

[4] This account simply summarises the events of the strike. For a more detailed account, and for a discussion of the more contentious points – whether there should have been a national ballot, the arguments about mass picketing, the return to work without a settlement – see Callinicos and Simons 1985.

[5] For example: “I ventured to raise the question of a national ballot only to be told in no uncertain terms that you can’t ballot jobs.” Seaburne 1985.

[6] “The Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire … denied police officers had used a crowbar to smash the windscreen of a picket’s car. It was, he said, a truncheon.” Financial Times (March 1984) quoted in Huddle, Phillips, Simons and Sturrock, 1985.

[7] Huddle et al 1985. The photographs in this book show graphically the nature of the violence at Orgreave.

[8] Quoted in Striking Back 1985.

[9] There was some concerted women’s anti-strike organising later in the strike. In South Wales, a media-orchestrated campaign failed completely. The women from Maerdy “arrived to counter one of their rallies but missed it because it was assembling in a telephone box”. The most notorious case was Irene McGibbons, leader of the Miners’ Wives Back to Work Movement, and supposedly a simple miner’s wife from Kent. Actually, she had been the leader of the infamous “Cowley Wives”, who organised a successful victimisation campaign against an elected shop steward in British Leyland in 1974. She stood as a conservative candidate in a council election in 1983 and owned her own textile business and guesthouse. During the strike, her husband scabbed in Kent. Two weeks after denying any connection with the Tories, she received a standing ovation at their conference. Sweeney 1984, Hollingsworth 1984.

[10] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985.

[11] Quoted in Callinicos and Simons 1985.

[12] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985

[13] Dean

[14] Quoted in Dean, p62.

[15] Quoted in Dean 1985, p70.

[16] “Learning From the Strike” 1985, Socialist Worker Review, 74 (March) p9

[17] The hardship was faced not only with courage but also humour: “We lived on beans. We looked like a bean. It’s good job they liked beans.” (Quoted in Salt and LayzeU,65). Much has been written about the hardship the families endured. For further details, refer to the articles cited here from Spare Rib, to Striking Back, and to Salt and Layzell 1985.

[18] Quoted in Dean 1985, p65.

[19] Quoted in Campbell 1984, p8.

[20] Robe 1985.

[21] Quoted in Callinicos and Simons 1985, p180.

[22] Vallely 1985. “The Strike That Turned Wives Into Warriors”, Times (4.3.85): 10.

[23] Quoted in Callinicos and Simons 1985, 182.

[24] Quoted in Dean 1985, p71.

[25] Campbell 1984, p8.

[26] Arnold 1985, p3, Sometimes there were surprise donors, such as the copper from South Wales (Sweeney 1985, p76.)

[27] Salt and Layzell 1985, p25.

[28] Sweeney 1985, p67. Salt and Layzell 1985, pp36·39. The demonstrators presented a petition to the Queen which was later responded to by a letter from the Energy Minister, addressed not to WAPC, but to Ann Scargill and Betty Heathfield, wives of NUM officials. It consisted of attacks on their husbands such as: “Your husbands have not paid strike pay.” (Dobney 1985, p38.

[29] Carlin 1984, p5.

[30] Salt and Layzell 1985, p48.

[31] Quoted in Loach 1984, p6.

[32] Quoted in Striking Back 1985, p37

[33] Bobby and Sue 1984, 4.

[34] Harris 1985

[35] From an interview conducted by Penny Green, Cambridge, personal communication.

[36] Quoted in Loach 1984, p26.

[37] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p9.

[38] Quoted in Loach 1984, p7.

[39] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p24.

[40] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p24.

[41] Two of many examples:”But in strike we’ve had loads to talk about. It’s really brought us closer.” “But now he’s more loving towards me. I think he’s proud of what I’ve done during the strike.”(Salt and Layzell 1985, pp21·24.)

[42] The extent of these strains can be gauged by the fact that among a workforce of 1800, at Littleton (Staffordshire), of whom 400 were still on strike in February 1985, 23 marriages are reported to have broken up through the strike. (Doig 1985, p42.)

[43] Vallely 1985, p10.

[44] Quoted in Dean, p61.

[45] Kendall et al 1985, p7.

[46] Striking Back 1985, p38; Salt and Layzell 1985, p41.

[47] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p73.

[48] Bense 1984, p27.

[49] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p52.

[50] Quoted in Salt and LayzeIl 1985, p23.

[51] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p70.

[52] Quoted in Vallely 1985, p10.

[53] Quoted in Striking Back 1985, p182.

[54] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p48.

[55] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, pp43-51.

[56] Quoted in Pattison and Beynon (n.d.)

[57] Quoted in Huddle et al 1985, p56.

[58] Quoted in Striking Back 1985, p37.

[59] Quoted in Sweeney 1985. These quotes make nonsense. of Beatrix Campbell’s comment that violence “is a peculiarly masculine characteristic.” (Campbell 1985, p22).

[60] Quoted in Salt and Layzell, 74.

[61] Bishop 1984, p11.

[62] “The Asian community support has been particularly good. ‘Now you know what it has been like for us all these years’, miners are told.” (Rogers 1985, p2). A Greek Cypriot woman commented: “Our community are very sensitive to issues like these, they have a long history of struggle and they relate to it straight away.” (Quoted in Loach 1984, p8.)

[63] Quoted in Sweeney 1985, p81.

[64] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p74. Thatcher had said: “In the Falklands we had to fight the enemy without. Here the enemy is within and it is much more difficult to fight but just as dangerous to liberty.”

[65] There are numerous positive examples but one negative example is instructive. The Soviet Union offered free holidays to five families of strikers, but withdrew the offer to two of them on discovering that the wives were not legally married.

[66] Seabourne 1985, p6.

[67] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p75.

[68] Quoted in Loach 1984, p26.

[69] Quoted in Rose 1984, p12.

[70] Quoted in Solidarity With the Miners 1985, p29.

[71] For example Maerdy (South Wales) women when visiting Oxford.

[72] Quoted in Loach 1984, p26

[73] Douglas 1984, p11. It must also be pointed out that male NUM members also opposed such sexist remarks, produced leaflets, and raised the issue on the picket line. (“Learning From the Strike”, p9)

[74] Quoted in Dean, p70.

[75] Jackson 1984, p9.

[76] Campbell 1984.

[77] Loach 1984, 8.

[78] Quoted in Callinicos and Simons 1985, 214.

[79] Quoted in Salt and Layzell 1985, p8.

[80] Information and quotes on problems in the Mill Hill group from Dean, pp58-71.

[81] “Miners’ Wives” 1984, p7.

[82] I am using the term here to mean women who believe that the fundamental divide in society is between men and women. However, I am only concerned with feminists broadly speaking on the left. I do not feel it necessary to answer the “supporter” who wrote to Spare Rib, as follows:”But you ignore those women whose husbands decide to go to work (in the pits) – what moral support do such women get from other women? What about feminist policewomen? Feminist Conservatives? They need our support just as much.” (Miller 1984)

[83] Withal 1984, p31.

[84] Sweeney 1985, p83.

[85] Sweeney, 89.

[86] Lambeth Women’s Miners’ Support Group, 32.

[87] Quoted ibid.

[88] Carlin 1985

[89] Quoted in SaIt and Layzell, 21.

[90] Loach 1984, p6.

[91] Campbell 1985. I only have space here to consider one aspect of Campbell’s politics. For a critique of her politics on women, see German 1985. For a more general discussion of the politics of the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party to which Campbell belongs, including their attitude, to the miners’ strike see Callinicos 1985.

[92] “Miners Support” 1984, p9. Compare with Campbell’s contemptuous comment: “It’s as if lying down is something inherently threatening to the virility of class warriors.” (Campbell 1984).

[93] Waterson 1985; Wintour 1985; Fran and Leili 1985, 4.

[94] Carlin 1984 discusses the history of the participation of women in coalfields struggles.

[95] See Stone 2008 for more information on the Australian Miners Women’s Auxiliary. See also Mother Jones 1976.

[96] This unfortunately seems to be the position taken by Lyn Beaton in her otherwise very good article on her experiences in Blidworth during the strike (Beaton 1985, p4).

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