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International Women's Day
The miners' strike changed women's lives
This year is the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners' strike. An important feature of the strike was the involvement of tens of thousands of women in a huge support network, fundraising and picketing.
To mark International Women's Day 2014 Sarah Wrack spoke to Mary Jackson, who was involved in the strike in Yorkshire.
Why was the miners' strike such an important event for the working class?
It was a very clearly drawn class division. There was a glorious fightback by the working class. But the fact that it failed meant a massive difference to our lives, to our communities, and even to this day to our quality of life.
What's your impression of what interest there is in the miners' strike today?
I'm involved in a Facebook page which started nine weeks ago now I think. It's got over 18,500 supporters.
It gets hundreds on quiet days, thousands on other days, of comments and photos. It feels like the working class have been waiting to have their say on the miners' strike.
It's a significant anniversary but also the anniversary where the government papers are being released.
We've had a few - proving Maggie was a liar, MacGregor was a liar, NCB were liars, showing the miners could have won.
But we haven't had anywhere near what it's possible will come out in the middle of the year because there's the decision on Orgreave where the army and the police from all over Britain came to batter miners into submission.
We started the page to make sure that the anniversary got the respect it needed and was as widespread as possible.
We decided initially it would be non-political, until the supporters of the page made it so. It might have got to four weeks in before people were trying to organise the next revolution, or the next fightback! The anger's still there. I can't tell you how exciting it is.
Why did women get involved in the strike?
Because it was our livelihoods, it was our lives. It wasn't just our livelihoods, it was our kids' future, it was our future.
Personally I got involved when they sent the horses and the troops onto my street, in my town, terrified my mam to death so she daren't go out the house.
Initially the men were on the picket line. The amount of money people were expected to live on was about £11.50 if you were a couple with one child.
Money's moved on quite a lot since then but it wasn't enough to live on. There was absolutely no option but to get together to feed the kids and support the miners - women in their traditional role of feeding people.
And raising money - writing to everyone we could think of, trade unions, buckets on the street outside supermarkets collecting food and money.
But then as more and more miners got arrested, the bail conditions were that they didn't go on picket lines or demos.
So they swapped places and the men moved into the kitchen, or a lot of them, and the women moved onto the picket lines.
What effect do you think the strike had on the women who got involved?
It totally changed women's lives. They moved out of the house, out of the kitchen. It wasn't that none of them worked, but when women worked in those days it was very much 'nip out to work quick while the kids are in school, get back in time to get tea ready for everybody'. Whether women worked or not the traditional role was still there.
But women who had never spoken to anybody but their own neighbours were actually invited to trade union meetings - I was going to say all around Britain, but it was much, much further than that - to Europe, the Soviet Union, South Africa and the US.
And then there were organised holidays for families with kids to the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And working class people, miners, did not go abroad for holiday. It totally changed our lives.
Men changed tremendously towards women. Initially I think there was a bit of 'what are they doing here?'.
But at least two of the Yorkshire Doncaster pits have commissioned new banners for the anniversary - both to celebrate the role of women in the strike.
I was pleased at the first pit meeting I went to and then overwhelmed by the second. I just thought, I don't have to argue for women's role here, men were doing it for me.
It was a horrendous time and a defeat but it politicised a whole swathe of people, particularly women. And they've never lost it. We've bred it into our kids.
The BBC did a film ten years ago. They paid local people £50 a day - not bad for standing around in a crowd.
And there were kids of 14 years old saying "'I want to play my dad". But they could not get people to play policemen.
They had to bus in professional agency workers from other areas. In the battle scene they had to keep stopping filming and saying "these aren't police, these are actors, stop battering them."
The Times called the involvement of the miners' wives "a turning point in the strike" at the time - why do you think that was?
It gave the men heart. They were worried about feeding their kids. Initially people did deals with the mortgage companies, agreed to a payment holiday - first one I'd ever heard of - until the men were back at work.
They cashed in their life insurances. Everything was sort of carrying on economically.
But then all that was running out, it was getting near Christmas, and men were worried. We were very much traditionalists.
Men's role was to go out and earn it, women's role was to stretch it as far as it needed to go. So the men felt they weren't fulfilling their role.
The support networks and the women getting involved made it impossible for the media and the government to organise an anti-strike, back-to-work movement.
And if the women hadn't stepped in, managed the finances from practically nothing, and then stepped onto the political and industrial plane, I think the strike would have ended much earlier than it did.
And it would still have ended in a defeat, but it wouldn't have ended in the proud defeat that it was. I can't explain to somebody who wasn't there the pride of the marches back to work.
What are the main lessons for today?
Unity among the working class. There was trade union support - all the men round this area certainly put money in the bucket on their way out of work, agreed to give 50p or £1 a week out of their wages. They were proud of the support they were doing.
But if the trade union leaders had brought the other unions out in support, if the TUC had got off its knees and organised a one-day strike, then the battle would have been different - Thatcher would have been on her bike long before she was, and the working class wouldn't have had suffered the defeat and the consequences.
No going back
Glynis and Christine were members of the miners' wives support group who ran a kitchen near Barnsley. In an interview with the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist) in 1984, they said:
"Apart from collecting money we have held a pie and tea supper where two music groups gave their services for free.
"We've written to unions, raffled a lamp at the Liverpool conference, travelled to Birmingham and taken a collection at British Rail and Rover.
"A miner's mother aged 93 has sent a donation of £20 and we've also received two donations of $50 each from a man and his wife who had kept a pub in the village then moved to Australia 60 years ago - he's now 83.
"A local journalist has also just brought in £100 that he raised on a sponsored walk to provide food for the kitchen.
"We've also been involved in picketing, we enjoy it - it's done like a military strategy. We've no fear of the police in spite of their treatment.
"A man who had been paid a day's work for the NUM took us all for a drink and a bag of chips after the picket.
"The miners told us we had made a difference to their picket line. For the first time some of the miners crossing the picket line had actually stopped to talk to them because of the surprise at seeing women there.
"We were involved in the women's rally in Barnsley. We've never done anything like this before. You don't have time to study how you feel about it, you just have to do it.
"We never used to take any notice of politics and government, but we have to now. We've stopped buying newspapers.
"The Star won't be delivered after they said something like 'Britain doesn't owe the miners a living'. They're so bad we don't even believe the ordinary every day stories any more.
"We can't go back to the old routine after the strike."
Proud to have been part of it
Written for the Socialist in 2004 for the 20th anniversary of the strike, Sue Alberry from Clowne, a North Derbyshire village which had half a dozen local pits, explains how the local Women's Action Group supported the strike.
Our group of miners' wives and other local women gave out 300-400 food parcels every week until the end of the strike.
The Parish Council let us use an empty shop and we visited local picket lines early in the morning with a soup run.
When we needed to feed pickets, there was no electricity or hot water in our strike centre, but we were given camping stoves, gas lamps, tables and we were soon cooking 200-500 breakfasts a day. We started a two shift-system - one week picketing, one week in the centre.
A local shopkeeper gave us buckets of hot water from his shop, another gave us bread rolls. The butcher wouldn't give us anything and his shop was boycotted for years afterwards.
The centre helped keep up morale. A young miner who'd come back from Orgreave, wearing just one trainer and shaking with fear, said: "They'll bloody kill us.
"It's insane. Why are they doing it?" I told him: "You've got to understand you're at war now."
We were followed by police and had our phones tapped. Once, two plainclothes police came into the centre eating fish and chips, pretending to be pickets.
But no pickets could afford fish and they were wearing brand new Hunter Wellington boots! I politely confronted them, got £3 for their cups of tea then told them to get out.
In the school summer holiday we supplied hot meals for the kids. We found clothes, prams and cots for babies born during the strike.
At Christmas we organised a party at a local pub with a striking miner as Santa - all the kids got a small present.
The hardest part was when they went back to work. We marched back with them, heads held high because we did what was right. I felt proud to have been part of this strike.
Women getting involved in the miners' strike were also spurred on by other attacks the Tories were making and the response to them:
- Between 1980 and 1982 female employment fell by 800,000
- Cuts to health, school meals, home help, etc, means that women workers in the public sector had their hours cut and wages lowered
- Of the 8 million women at work in 1984, 5 million were low paid
- Over half of Britain's working women were denied the right to maternity benefits, paid maternity leave and shorter working hours
- Under Thatcher publicly funded childcare fell to the lowest level in western Europe
- In 1981 there had been a successful seven month occupation by mainly women workers at the Lee Jeans textile factory in Greenock, Scotland to save jobs
- There was an ongoing women's peace camp occupying Greenham Common in protest at nuclear weapons
Unemployment among women is now at its highest rate in 25 years. Almost three times as many women as men have become long-term unemployed since the Con-Dems came to power in 2010.
Women are being forced to give up work because of cuts to working tax credits and the rocketing price of childcare. There has been a 31% cut to funding for sexual and domestic violence services.
Read more about the miners' strike as well as women and the fightback today with these titles from Socialist Books
www.leftbooks.co.uk, 020 8988 8789:
- A Civil War Without Guns: the lessons of the 1984-85 miners' strike by Ken Smith, £8 (postage included)
- It Doesn't Have To Be Like This: women and the struggle for socialism by Christine Thomas, £7 (postage included)
- Women: Fighting Austerity, Fighting For Equality a collection of articles from the Socialist, £2 (postage included)
In The Socialist 5 March 2014:
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
International Women's Day
Socialist Party workplace news
Readers' comments and reviews
Socialist Party reports and campaigns