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We are woman, we are strong …

Hilary Wainwright on the vital role women played in the miners' struggle

March 19, 2009
14 min read

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

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The shared experience of the extreme circumstances of the miners’ strike and of working together in support of the strike produced a profuse and rich literature from women in the mining communities, or women working closely with them. There has been much academic and journalistic writing too, trying to document and understand this inspiring example of the strength of working class women organising in support of both their men and their communities. But with the defeat of the strike and, in many cases the fragmentation and steady disintegration of their communities, a common experience gave way to many individual paths, some converging, many shaped by common values, but not easy to trace or to document.

The women active in the strike made many efforts to continue to work together and even to try and find a common focus for the new kind of politics which many tentatively thought they were creating in action. In many localities they continued to meet. In Easington they did so for five or six years ‘to discuss politics and for a natter over a drink’ as Heather Wood describes below. Women Against Pit Closures tried to gain what, at the time, they hoped might be some institutional stability by affiliating to the NUM but, while their role during the strike was respected by the men, a permanent partnership once the strike was over was dismissed by a narrow majority of NUM delegates as a step too far. Bonds of friendship and support continued to this day, leading to get-togethers of various sorts at anniversaries and the like. But the complexity and variety of the different histories has clearly daunted all but a small band of intrepid and highly committed researchers. Here I will simply illustrate this complexity with two personal stories and direct readers to the small amount of research which does exist.

The stories are from the same region (County Durham) and from women with very similar values but they confirm the results of thorough research that there was no simple before and after the strike. These differences, and wider, could be multiplied hundreds of times across the coalfields.

Juliana Heron: ‘community’ councillor

Before the strike Juliana Heron was, in her own words, ‘a full-time housewife.’ Now, 25 years later, she’s Labour mayor of Hetton (having been mayor of Sunderland in 2003-2004). Her husband Bob was a fitter at the local Eppleton pit. Soon after the strike began there was a meeting of women affected by the strike, ‘wives, mothers, even grandmothers. It was our future; we had to fight.’ From then on she threw herself into the fight for the future of her community.

She thrived in the collective environment of a well-organised network: organising the food for the men and families, being the delegate of the Hetton women’s support group to the Durham area, speaking at rallies to win support, representing the Durham women at a miners’ holiday ‘camp’ in East Germany, and more. As she became more aware she extended her reach beyond mining connections, joining up with Greenham Common Women and the Molesworth Peace Camp. ‘It was a political awakening,’ she remembers. ‘Up to then I had voted because women had struggled for the vote. And I’d voted Labour because Labour was instilled in me; I couldn’t imagine voting for any other party. But that was the sum of my politics.’ It was a personal awakening too: ‘My confidence grew. I felt I could make a difference.

She’s matter of fact about the defeat of the strike – though in Eppleton the end was difficult and sad, with many of the men crossing the picket line. ‘We were defeated, there’s no doubt about it. But we had to carry on. When the pit had gone we had to fight for something else for the town. We had to keep involved.’ During the strike, Juliana found that people came to her with their problems and after the strike she turned this capacity for problem-solving into a regular kind of commitment to the community by volunteering for Age Concern and Victim Support. ‘Before the strike, I would never have considered volunteering,’ she said, ‘but after that year of being with people, it was natural.’

From there, the drive to fight for her community led her to become a parish councillor and then a town councillor and then, after her daughter had grown up, to be a city councillor in Sunderland and, eventually, mayor. She lost her seat in the last election but definitely wants to get back. Though formally she’s a Labour councillor and loyal to her local party, she defines herself as a ‘community’ councillor.

She thinks her sense of the Labour Party is specific to the experience of the pit villages in county Durham. The party there is strikingly women dominated. It’s as if women have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the NUM ‘which used to run the party in this area’. There are two kind of women: ‘the ones, quite elderly now, who were always doing the backroom work making tea and delivering leaflets but who now have come to the fore; then those of us active in the strike who were willing to do the background work but wanted to have real decision-making power.’ Juliana feels the men recognised the role they’d played during the strike and didn’t mind them taking that power. But maybe the men didn’t have much choice.

The Labour Party and the local authority it controls isn’t the only source of power in Hetton. In the decades since the strike, the local residents associations have grown in importance. Last year (2008) they won a victory with the local authority: to share power in deciding how government regeneration money will be spent. It’s over one million pounds. ‘Not enough, mind,’ complains Juliana.

It’s not only in the public world that Juliana feels that the mining communities are striking back. At the end of our conversation she returns to her family. Her eldest two children are now 40 and late 30s. She reflects on the fact that, in terms of age, they are ‘Thatcher’s children ‘But,’ she says proudly, they’ve not turned out that way. They are not “I’m all right Jack” people. They believe in society.’ The strike was their formative experience. She tells of their unselfishness: ‘Here were a 12 and 14 year-old refusing Christmas presents so that their 3 year-old sister could enjoy a traditional visit from Father Christmas.’

‘Terrible things happened like policemen (not the local bobbies) mocking them, waving money at them. There was another side too: having their meals at the miners’ welfare, experiencing the solidarity and support.’ She described how they’d grown up as politically aware and active adults: ‘I think the children from the mining areas have got a completely different perspective.’

Heather Wood: only just recovering

That thought of another generation striking back would cheer up Heather Wood, who was the driving force behind Save Easington Area Mines (SEAM) and the women’s support group associated with it, and is a widely respected organiser and thinker in the area. ‘If she came to my door, ‘ she told me, talking of Mrs. Thatcher, ‘I’d be strong. I’d speak my mind. She’d never know how broken I was. Afterwards though, I’d be exhausted.’ Heather was talking about what Thatcher’s defeat of the miners’ strike had done to her, to her health and to her spirit.

She’d been politically active long before the strike, not so much in the Labour Party as in the community. With foresight, she and her husband and others had set up SEAM a year before the strike. Soon after the strike began, many of the women in Easington District got together: ‘200 of us met in the council chamber.’ It was not the first time women had come together to take action in Easington. Heather was aware of something of a tradition. She even remembers as a child in the 60s how, ‘the women poured on to the streets with their prams to occupy the streets and stop the traffic to get baths in the colliery houses.’ And they won.

The struggle in 1984-85 was of a different order. Heather felt this harshly – though she has no regrets: ‘I gave everything I’d got, and when we lost I felt if we couldn’t win then, when could we?’ She was exhausted in every way. Totally drained. ‘I felt I’d become owned by the public … ‘ She describes visiting her doctor: ‘He said that if I was in my coffin in the corner and someone asked me to help them I would say “Yes” and he was probably right.’

It was not just her health that was broken, it was her spirit too. Behind this was a perception that it wasn’t just that Thatcher had defeated the miners’ strike, it was also that her values, her credo that ‘there is no such thing as society’ had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By her defeat of the one social group who had stood up to her she’d succeeded in creating ‘a society in which individualism, everyone for themselves, became normal.’ For Heather it was the defeat of everything she believed in and held dear.

For someone whose spirit was broken however, and whose health has been declining Heather Wood’s life has been remarkable. ‘I made myself keep going.’ For eight years she was the youngest one of the few women councillors on Durham County Council, with responsibilities for education and social services. She was ‘ very outspoken which did not go down well at all.’ Then in 1993 she got a full-time job as a probation service officer. ‘I thought that was the best way I could do something to right the wrongs that had been done to people.’ She worked with young offenders, trying to show them that there was another way. ‘I was challenging, showing how their behaviour hurt others, but showing them they were not alone; maintaining the punitive side but helping them unravel their predicaments.’

Fifteen years on and after ten years of New Labour, she’s had her fill of Thatcherite values mark 2, seeping deep into the way public service were run. ‘The probation service was losing its ‘caring, social side. It became purely punitive.’ The rightward evolution of the Labour Party deepened her depression: ‘I was very disillusioned with Labour.’

But the solidarity built up during the strike is still there, especially amongst the women. ‘In Easington we continued meeting for 5 or 6 years after the strike to talk politics and natter over a drink. We got together again over the 20th anniversary. We know we are there for each other, even if we don’t meet. We are like sisters. We could get together if we’re needed.’

She detects a new spirit in herself and in others. Now it’s only her health that holds her back. If it wasn’t for that she would be out there campaigning. She’s proud that community pressure has won an experiment to impose regulations and obligations on unregistered landlords. ‘I’d be organising demonstrations, going over the top’ to get rid of a derelict school, an eyesore of a listed building which occupies the centre of Easington. ‘It means we have a dead centre; it stops us moving on.’ Certainly Heather is moving on. And knowing her, she’ll find a way of not letting her ill-health get in the way. Maybe her path will converge in some way with Juliana’s; they are both fighting for the needs of their communities and showing that there is such a thing as society and remaking it, as the rotten edifices of Thatcherism collapse.

Interweaving the personal and the political

Both these women, in very different ways, either began and maintained (Juliana) or continued in a profoundly altered way (Heather) a relationship to both party and community politics. But research also shows that some women moved from public and political concerns to pick up the threads of their disrupted private and family lives – going ‘back to normal’ they described it. Other research, borne out in a complex ways by these two stories, points to ways in which the strong community networks developed or built on to give support to the strike were, by the turn of the century more likely to be the basis of welfare support than political action. These personal stories point to how strong political (with a small ‘p’) values underlay both voluntary and paid welfare work – Juliana’s engagement in Age Concern and Victim Support and Heather’s decision to become a probation service officer.

The work of Jean Spence and Carol Stevenson is particularly interesting because it is part of a long term personal and political engagement with Women Against Pit Closures.i The main conclusion which they draw from the discussion at this conference and from other research over a long period concerns what they describe as ‘the interweaving of personal and political concerns’. This, they argue, frequently predates the strike, ‘was effectively mobilised in its support and continues afterwards. The strike affirmed and gave concrete expression to these women’s beliefs, but it did not create them. These categories within a continuing pattern of activism illustrate firstly the significance of commitment to an ideal or set of principles – whether to ‘community’ or to a political philosophy, in provoking the activism of some women during the strike. Those motivated in this manner have been most likely to remain active in the long term’. Secondly, they imply that for most of these women, the strike did not rupture their life and set them on an entirely different path: ‘For the majority the strike enhanced their political awareness and presented them with opportunities which had previously seemed out of reach, but it did so in a context which was usually prefigured by pre-strike interests, identities and desires’.

Behind this is a criticism of dualities of personal/political, public/private, home/work. For Jean Spence and Carol Stevenson these dichotomies, often used in discussions of the experience of women’s roles during and after the strike, obscure the emotional and personal dimensions of the ways of organising that these women created and which kept them going and maintained strong bonds, if not political organization, after the strike.

Certainly the interweaving of the personal and political is one common thread of the stories of Juliana Heron and Heather Wood. It is maybe one reason why it’s so common to find women being involved in voluntary work in the years since the strike. In these interviews they talked about it in quite collective and transformative ways, and imbued it with social and broadly political values.

A challenge for the future of the left

One of the challenges which the experience of the women in the mining, or now ex-mining communities, both during and after the strike present to the left is how to develop a way of organising built on this close interaction between finding solutions to the problems of daily social life on the one hand, and wider political change on the other. In a sense this fusion was the radical core of the early trade union movement. It got lost in the division between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement in the formation and institutional framework of the Labour Party in 1906. The women’s movement around the strike brought it together again under very extreme circumstances. The detailed history of the scattered legacy of that experience, building on the research so far, would contain many insights for a realistic strategy for a lasting fusion of these two essential dimensions of social change. Extract from SHAFTED: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath, edited by Granville Williams

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

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