We have been inspired by the digitisation of Red Rag to delve into the histories of who we once were, the Red Rag collective, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Women’s Liberation Movement. We were part of the collective that produced Red Rag, from beginning to end, and here we add our thoughts as a companion to Rosalind Delmar’s introduction.
We have also re-visited the larger political context of the 1970s, a time that has been described by some commentators as the ‘dark ages’, dense with conflict, and by others as the ‘red decade’ of creative resistance. For us it was a thrilling time of political self-discovery and action.
Delving has yielded many surprises. It is no exaggeration to say that we are the women we are thanks to our participation in the women’s movement and the party. Red Rag’s founders were communist feminists, or rather communists who had thrown themselves into the Women’s Liberation Movement, which became a defining experience in all our lives.
The Communist Party was a paradox: its social base was primarily working class, it was the largest of Britain’s Marxist organisations, and by the 1960s it was simultaneously slipping into decline and enriched by dissent and renewal; it had been shocked by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, re-invigorated by critique of the Soviet model and by re-engagement in Marxist theory, involved in mass resistance to the Vietnam war, trade union militancy and the radicalisation of class and sexual mores in popular culture.
In the 1960s, the so-called sexual revolution had exposed the sexism of sex; class struggle and the unprecedented number of strikes had revealed both the potency and the limits of wages militancy, not least for women. Trade unions were a permanent and public presence in national economic negotiations between the state, business and workers; they were patriarchal and culturally conservative, and they were mighty – half of the working population belonged to a union; it was the largest mass membership movement in the country, and the focus of the party’s strategic ambition.
The Young Communist League, by contrast, was rooted in radical popular cultures - the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements, apprentice’s strikes, and the pleasures of contemporary music and style, from mods and rockers to folkies and hippies, expressed in its ‘Trend is Communism’. At a time when the CPGB numbers dipped in the 1960s, the Young Communists’ membership trebled to around 6000. The party’s women’s organisations, though subaltern, gave young women access to each other and to networks of working class women who by the end of the decade became animated by Women’s Liberation.
There were three events that propelled women on to the national political stage: In 1968 calamity struck the Hull fishing fleet. Three Hull trawlers sank in wild seas off Iceland in January and February. Women, led by outraged fish factory worker Lily Bilocca, mobilised to confront the rickety, understaffed and unsafe fishing fleet. Their intervention was not welcomed, but women all over the country witnessed ‘headscarf revolutionaries’ confronting the Prime Minister and forcing the trawler-owners, the union and government to support the reform of safety at sea laws. Bilocca was never forgiven: she was blacklisted and never again allowed to work in the fishing industry.
In 1968, women’s average weekly pay was only 24 per cent of men’s. Half of women worked ‘part-time’, which meant double time - a paid shift in the labour market and an unpaid shift in the home. That summer women sewing machinists brought the mighty Ford car factory in East London to a standstill: they wanted recognition after being graded as unskilled. Newly-appointed Employment Secretary Barbara Castle had to meet them and to introduce the 1969 Equal Pay Act (Britain was already under pressure from Europe to introduce legislation), despite some resistance to state interference in ‘free collective bargaining.’
In the clothing trade, at the end of the decade the garment workers union and factory owners negotiated a deal giving skilled men more than skilled women and in 1970 women in Leeds garment factories walked out. The employers were stunned, and their union leadership was hostile (though the majority of the union members were women). But both were forced to concede.
These conflicts reached the front pages of the national press. They revealed the power of the labour movement, as well as its tendency, too often, to not move, and its misogyny. These events gave rise to the formation of the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights in 1969. Organised women were getting organised. Across the Atlantic, a new wave of feminist activism shook progressive politics and popular culture. This then was context when the Women’s Liberation Movement lit up our lives in Britain. We want here to give a sense of the communist feminists. Before Red Rag was launched in 1972 there was already a rebellious feminist spirit at large in the Communist Party, and it was this feminist uprising that inspired the foundation of Red Rag.
The way we were
Val Charlton joined the communist party around 1967 and made lifelong friends. She tells how she met some of the best people she had ever met: kind, radical, working people, politically well-informed, with an international consciousness, outraged by the extremes of wealth and inequality across the world and who were working to change it in every way they could.
She was in her mid-twenties before she recognised her own class history - how her own family had been, and much still was, embedded in the northern industrial working class. She had grown up with their values but had been insulated from their experience. One grandpa had been a precision pattern maker for steel castings in Sunderland’s shipyards. He later started his own workshop, and her father was apprenticed to his father. The Charltons were strong Labour supporters.
Her other grandpa was a metal worker in the shipyard forge. Her mother was the eldest of his four children. He and his family all supported the Conservative Party.
After the war, in 1946, when Val was five, the family moved near the small market town of Boroughbridge in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After leaving school she went to art college in Harrogate, a most exciting experience, and then to London in 1965 for a post-graduate teaching qualification at the Institute of Education.
She lived in Notting Hill Gate, near to Portobello Market, which on Saturdays in the mid-sixties was electrifying. In 1966 she met Julian Doyle, a biology graduate on her course. When he told her that he was in the YCL she thought he meant the Young Christian League - it was actually the Young Communist League. She didn’t even know there was a Communist Party in Britain. His parents were communists: His mother and her sister had grown up in Dickensian conditions in a Spanish orphanage, and his father, a Dubliner, had grown up in an Irish orphanage. Bob Doyle had fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and fascism.
Julian was demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Embassy when she joined him for their first date. He was a speaker for the Young Communists and introduced her to left wing politics - and the most stimulating, liberating and challenging ideas.
It was at that time that she heard Nell Myers, later one of the Red Rag founders, speaking on the platform in Trafalgar Square to an enormous demonstration against the Vietnam war. Nell, in her early 20’s, was an American communist and anti-war activist. The Communist Party had been banned in the USA since the late 1940s, and Nell, impressed by the openness of London, joined in the ‘myriad activism’ of young communism – and its great social life too - gathering every Sunday evening in the Dolphin pub at Kings Cross for music and singing with ‘The Bootles’, a YCL retro skiffle group loosely modelled on The Beatles.
In late 1969 there were two Women’s Liberation groups in London, the Tufnell Park Group in N7 and the Peckham Rye group in SE15. Each held weekly meetings in someone’s home, which limited numbers but facilitated the intimate sharing of experience. That November, when Val and Julian’s son was a year old, Val joined the Tufnell Park group; several women were active in Left politics, some were members of the Stop-It Committee - Americans, against the war in Vietnam, who had moved to London with their husbands or partners to avoid them being drafted to fight in the US army. Six weeks later she and some other women founded Camden Women’s Action Group, to campaign for local nurseries.
The WLM had grown from two groups to dozens when, on 28 February 1970, the first major Women’s Liberation Conference took place at Ruskin College, Oxford. 560 women turned up - 300 had been expected. Men were present and in an historic first, men ran the creche. The conference agreed on four basic demands, Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand and 24 hour nurseries, (intended to support night workers). These were the minimum, practical conditions thought to be a prerequisite for women’s lives to be supported.
In 1970 nine communist women were meeting at Bea Campbell’s flat in the East End to talk about feminism: theatre director Buzz Goodbody, theatre director Lily Susan Todd, journalist Nell Myers, journalist Caroli Mullen, mathematician Annette Muir, linguist Irene Fick, teacher Maria Loftus and artist Val Charlton. They had an intense discussion about the meaning of the new term ‘sexism’. recently imported from America - hard to believe now, when its meaning is understood across the globe.
In November 1970 a group of intrepid women disrupted the annual Miss World competition inside the Albert Hall, compered by the smutty, sexist US comedian Bob Hope. One hundred women had easily evaded the high security and found their seats in the hall. A film, ‘Misbehaving’ telling the story of the event, was released in March 2020 just before the Covid 19 lockdown, swiftly followed by a wonderful book, Misbehaving, edited by five of the many organisers of the protest, Sue Finch, Jenny Fortune, Jane Grant, Jo Robinson, and Sarah Wilson. In their book Sue Finch writes:
“Bob Hope, the ‘Master of Ceremonies’, was on stage on his own making sexist jokes when Sarah gave her football rattle signal to start and I tipped bags of flour and leaflets over the balustrade. They floated down like snow. After that, it was chaos. A surprising number of other women let off joke stink and smoke bombs and blew whistles, the whole hall seemed to be filled with falling flour and smoke and leaflets. Bob Hope dived for the floor.”
Five women were arrested that night, later to be tried at Bow street Magistrates Court in February 1971. Morning Star reporter Florence Keyworth covered the trial. Four of the five women, conducted their own defence though one had her case thrown out on the first day. Jo Robinson writes in Misbehaving:
“We questioned the authority of the court at every opportunity. We decided to call the magistrate ‘Daddy O’. We refused to conform to his expectations. We shouted a lot, we would not sit still. We talked together and we laughed out loud. We were quite outlandish and tried to hold up the proceedings whenever we could.”
Val and Julian had joined the large crowd of feminists supporting the demonstration outside the Albert Hall and she was among the many who turned up at the court to support the women being tried. The trial lasted about a week and the day before it ended the magistrate, infuriated by their audacity, ordered them “DOWN FOR THE NIGHT” to Holloway Prison.
The next day they were all released with fines of £10 or £20 and £5 costs, which were paid for by the Women’s Liberation Workshop.
The Miss World demonstrations had been broadcast world-wide and transformed Women’s Liberation into a mass movement.
That same year, Val and another woman organised a large meeting in Holborn Town Hall for women in the media, arts, and law etc to connect them with others in the same field. Many new groups were founded that night and endured, particularly Women in Media.
A sit-in was organised by Women’s Liberationists including Val, at El Vino’s wine bar in Fleet Street, a celebrated haunt of male journalists. This establishment refused to serve women at the bar; they had to be accompanied by a man to buy their drinks. In rebellion the feminists repeatedly went to the bar to ask to be served and were repeatedly refused. Julian’s father, Bob Doyle, a print worker, arrived eager to support them but, getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, told them, “Don’t worry if they won’t serve you I’ll buy you all a drink.” He was perplexed when they declined his generous offer!
In early 1971 Women’s Liberationists decided it was time to celebrate the next International Women’s Day, officially the 8th of March, with a Women’s Liberation March in London on 6th of March 1971, the first since the Suffragettes had marched in the early part of the century for Votes for Women.
The first task was to form a National Women’s Coordinating Committee. Chandan (previously Sally Fraser) had taken a wonderful photo of the actress Sheila Allen which Val used to design the poster and leaflet to advertise the March. Communication was by phone, word of mouth or by post, but on 20th January there was a national postage strike, which severely limited communications.
Camden Women’s Action Group decided to build a giant shoe - Sheila Rowbotham wrote a poem for the accompanying banner about the old woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children she didn’t know what to do. Val worked in an artist’s collective in a Kilburn studio making political posters and placards, designing badges, drawing cartoons and magazine covers. All of the group had day jobs but helped Val at weekends to build the shoe in the studio yard. Val remembers in Misbehaving:
“The 6th of March was a foul day, it was snowing heavily and we could barely see out of the windows as we were all crammed into the cab of the lorry which carried the giant shoe with its banner up the Bayswater road towards Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. We had absolutely no idea how many people had even heard about the demonstration let alone turned up. But as we turned into the park we saw thousands and thousands of women and some men with every kind of banner, placard and costume; street theatre members were singing and dancing all waiting to start the march with more women flooding in every minute. Unbelievably, ten thousand, mainly women, had turned up. I get the shivers to this day whenever I remember that moment.”
The newly formed Women’s Street Theatre (WST) with Alison Fell, Buzz Goodbody, Lily Susan Todd, Michelle Roberts, Dinah Brook, and Barbara Hickmott, performed memorably on that march. Alison Fell writes in her contribution to Misbehaving:
“We had a float and on it we were all shaving our legs and underarms, putting corsets on, face masks on - the whole thing. …..We did a walking tableau to the song ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’ on the march. We thought the words of the song were so blatant that no-one could fail to see that it was ironic.”
They danced amid falling snow, all the way down Regent Street to Trafalgar Square, one of them pushing a pram which carried a wind-up gramophone scratchily playing that jaunty song of the 1920s… Keep young and beautiful / it’s your duty to be beautiful…
Lily Susan Todd and Buzz Goodbody were in the Communist Party and Lily recalls:
“It seemed to us then that our communist contemporaries were marking out a path for the party out of its Stalinist past towards Gramsci-inspired ‘islands of socialism’. Our feminism, our socialism, our communism, our art of theatre making, were joyously entwined.”
In the summer of the same year, Lily tells how WST created a cartoon to say NO to the Festival of Light. Funded by Moral Rearmament, and headed by ultra-Christian bigwigs like Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, its aim was to incite the young to resist the ‘moral pollution’ of the age.
“We weren’t about to let these authoritarian upholders of orthodox state and family values go unchallenged, so we took a walking cartoon into the enormous crowd in Trafalgar Square. I was ‘The Church’ in improvised bishop robes and Michele Roberts was ‘Capital’, in top hat and tails. We held either end of a heavy, clanking chain, inside which a harassed mum with a pram full of babies was trapped. A placard, carried aloft before us as a caption to the cartoon, read; ‘FUCK THE F*M*LY.’ The implication that family, not fuck, was the swear-word. This incensed beholders to such a degree that we were swiftly bundled into a police van, taken to Canon Street Police Station, and charged with ‘Insulting Behaviour Liable to lead to a Breach of the Peace.” 
A year later, the Miss World Contest at The Albert Hall was again the target of feminist anger and Women’s Street Theatre was on duty. Lily Susan Todd writes:
“I was one of a group preparing to stage another protest, with another kind of line-up. We’d got into costume, packed into Buzz Goodbody’s minivan somewhere in North London, whizzed down to Kensington, and sneaked our way onto the open area in front of the Hall, taking care not to draw attention. Gay Liberation Front Street Theatre was in place, its performers raucously loud, and gorgeously attired in high camp style, with theatrical sequins and feathers. We wore identical mackintoshes, down to our ankles, buttoned up to the chin, collars up to hide our faces. We were each ‘wired up’, not with ammo, but with carefully positioned small light bulbs. One was placed at each nipple, and one at the crotch; the switches were tucked into right hand mac pockets. At the first signal, we lined up in silence, shoulder to shoulder, opened our mackintoshes wide, fingers on switches. At the next, we switched on and counted 5, then switched off for 5, then on, off, for a good few minutes. A line of triangles, nipples and cunts, flashed white, on and off in disciplined rhythm, illuminating the night.”
During 1971 the WLM grew exponentially. Women’s Liberation was an incendiary aspiration, an electrical charge, stimulating a growing consciousness through a network of small groups - women needed to talk about their feelings and predicaments and be heard by others. They were changing of their own volition; an ‘inside out’ journey of discovery as they tried to make sense of who they had ‘thought’ they were, and who they might become. ‘The Personal is Political’, a concept thought to originate with American psychologist Carl Rogers, had been adopted as a feminist consciousness-raising mantra in the 1960s. It spoke directly to the many women whose lives were rapidly changing.
In 1967 the communist daily newspaper, the Morning Star, formerly the Daily Worker, appointed a new Women’s Page editor, an American exile Mikki Doyle. Nell Myers was now a freelance journalist and quickly connected with Mikki who was, like her, American, and unlike her, a chain-smoker, often raucous and never shy. With the dawn of Women’s Liberation Mikki with Nell’s assistance set about transforming the Women’s Page.
Beatrix Campbell was also a Morning Star journalist. She was involved in Red Rag from the beginning to the final Red Rag issue15. She came from a working class family in a small railway town in Cumbria. Her parents were communists, fervently pro-Soviet - family rows when she was a teenager were typically fought on the terrain of Russia. In 1966 she arrived in London and worked as a clerk, lived in a commune in the East End, and there she met Bobby Campbell, formerly a shipyard worker, a fiddle player in a cult folk group, and now the boxing correspondent at the Morning Star. It was he who persuaded her to seek a job at the paper. When she joined as a sub-editor in1966 there was only one woman reporter, Florence Keyworth. One was enough, reckoned the news editor.
Cultural revolution was challenging the paper’s priorities: a group of journalists, including the Campbells, submitted a document to the editor proposing that the paper become less the public relations voice of trade unions and more the many voices of popular cultures and movements against exploitation and oppression, within and beyond class.
Dissent and political innovation flourished in what has been called an Indian summer of British communism - the party was confronting the bleak prognosis of Soviet socialism and British labourism.
Nell and Bea set up a Women’s Liberation Group in Stratford East; other communist progressive women were setting up or joining Women’s Liberation Groups across the country – from Northern Ireland to the north of Scotland and the South of England. In Liverpool Marge Bentovim helped set up Merseyside Women’s Liberation Group. Her parents were communists – her mother had been involved in the Communist International and her father in the Irish Republican Army. The Merseyside women were already involved in progressive politics. At first they included men, ‘but after about six months we chucked them out – they were good men, our husbands and partners, but they took too much air.’
They quarried Marxist texts for quotes affirming the importance of women to class struggle, and ‘we spent a lot of time trying to persuade left organisations that Women’s Liberation was socialist as well as feminist.’ Marge Bentovim insisted that:
“Never at any time were we taking any line from the party – quite the contrary, we were of the women’s movement. We were part of something emerging, not as a caucus, absolutely not. The party seemed to accept the Women’s Liberation Movement, but didn’t really understand it…..It was the best thing I was ever involved in.“
In Greater Manchester, Judith Hunt recalled that women in the Communist Party were part of a web of local WLM groups. They and other Marxist groups and trade unions, were involved in a dozen or more Women’s Liberation networks in the city: a Women’s Centre, including groups specialising in health, self-defence, education, equal rights, a lesbian collective, and Women’s Aid. Their priority, she added, was organising.
This, then, was the context in which the WLM activists within the party succeeded in putting a resolution to the national congress in 1971 offering an alternative to a more traditional motion on women’s equality; it affirmed the autonomy of the Women’s Liberation Movement, challenged male chauvinism and stressed the importance of sexual oppression, patriarchy. It urged all members ‘to consider their position with relation to housework’ and envisaged the transformation of the party itself. Their resolution was defeated. But it had been noticed and its proponents were undeterred; they were emboldened.
Unlike members of other Marxist organisations, communist women had no expectation of leading the WLM or of promoting the ‘party line’. Within the CPGB they were regarded as ‘the unmanageables.’ This was not a simple generational schism: disappointment with the 1971 congress followed by the appointment of WLM-sceptic Jean Styles as women’s organiser, finally found expression in the launch of Red Rag.
Three senior women, Gladys Brooks, Florence Keyworth and Mikki Doyle all journalists, had been following the rapid growth of the movement and Gladys intuited the need for a platform to explore what the movement’s mantra, ‘the personal is political’, could mean. She had the idea for a Marxist feminist journal called ‘Red Rag’ produced by women’s liberationists. She shared her idea with Florence and Mikki, and a younger generation of party members: Nell, Beatrix, Irene Fick, Caroli Mullen, Annette Muir and Mary Davis, and together they published the first issue.
The party leadership was bullish in its response to Red Rag, an irony that may have been lost on them. The Red Rag collective was called to a meeting of the party executive and told to cease. The collective refused. The male members of the party executive were no match for these women. The executive banned sales of Red Rag at any of its outlets, but wisely, thereafter, never attempted to interfere.
By issue 2 of Red Rag, four women, not CP members but active in the WLM and Left politics, had joined the collective. All of them understood the terms of our independence from the Communist Party leadership. One explained that she never felt tension precisely because of this.
Red Rag published 144 articles by over 100 contributors. The production of 15 magazines, and 2 supplements over the 9-year period of Red Rag’s active life scarcely indicated the volume of wide-reaching, open debate that charged the changing membership of the collective; 49 women passed through the collective during those dynamic years, 10 of whom were members of the Communist Party. Some women were on the collective briefly, most stayed for between 3 and 9 issues. All members contributed articles or editorials. After Red Rag 2, there was never a majority of communist women on the collective or among its contributors.
Red Rag’s mission was most clearly articulated a year after it was launched in the editorial of issue 4. By then more than 20 women were in the collective, from diverse progressive organisations and women’s groups, only half a dozen were CPGB members. In setting out what was meant by ‘a Marxist feminist collective’ it said:
’Our first commitment is to the Women’s Liberation Movement’…We are feminist first and foremost because of the political movement which emerges as women’s response to their own oppression. The material base for this oppression is men’s real power and privilege, that is their economic, social, cultural and psychological dominance.’
Red Rag believed that Marxism should be given an identity outside the traditional, predominantly male left…
‘We as feminists want to break their monopoly: they have vulgarised it and dogmatised it.‘
The relationship between class and sex was an enduring feature from first to last. In Issue 3, for example, Audrey Wise, active in the shop workers’ union, later a Labour MP and member of the Institute for Workers Control, wrote that:
‘…male domination permeates everything, every social grouping, every organisation.’ The trade unionist is defined as the Trade Unionist with a wife and family… 2,250,000 women are trade unionists and it is pretty self-evident that they have no wives.’
Jean Gardiner, an economist and historian Barbara Taylor investigated the salience of Marxist theory to the crisis and changing configurations of class, sex, domestic labour, and culture.
The problem of the ‘master identity’ and economism
Marxist theory was being refreshed across the left and by the mid-70s the national context was radically different from the beginning of the decade: In the Communist Party, this renewal of interest in theory was symbolised by the surprising success of the Communist University of London, a hub of intellectual engagement, open to all, that contemplated the role of theory, the limits of class as the ‘master identity’, the relationship between distinct regimes of power and exploitation, not least race and sex, and the meaning of hegemony.
The 1970s was a decade of raw class conflict, and a time when the efficacy of economism - wages militancy as the ‘leading edge’ of socialist strategy - the Leninist theory of the vanguard party and democratic centralism, and the perception of revolution as an event rather than a process, were all under scrutiny across the Left. Beatrix Campbell was also involved in networks of Communist activists and economists who, sometimes in covert groups, developed a critique of a narrow economic focus - typically on the male wage. These were sulphurous debates. Between 1965 and 1975 inflation rose from almost 5 per cent to a staggering and de-stabilising 29 per cent. Not all the critics were sympathetic to feminism, but the critique lent itself to feminist politics. These groupings also resisted democratic centralism as an authoritarian template designed to suppress factional dissent.
The Communist Party embarked on renewal of the British Road to Socialism, followed by a review of Inner Party Democracy, and in particular Leninist democratic centralism. This developed at the end of the decade into:
- watershed analysis in the CP’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today in 1978, by the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm: Forward March of Labour Halted?
- novel analyses of Thatcherism in Marxism Today: Stuart Hall - 1978 Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order and The Great Moving Right Show 1979.
The Labour Party had embarked on a different journey in the mid-70s. Both Labour and Conservative governments had failed to restrain the unions, particularly the increasingly insurgent rank and file.
In the context of soaring inflation, industrial decline, globalisation and an oil crisis in Western countries, the Labour Party and trade union leaders together crafted the Social Contract that was introduced after Labour won the 1974 general election. The aim was both to tame wages militancy and bind the trade unions and Labour government to a shared socio-economic prospectus.
The first phase of the Social Contract proposed expansion of the ‘social wage’ and nationally-agreed flat rate pay rises that, combined with the implementation of the Equal Pay Act, delivered an unprecedented reduction in the hourly gender pay gap. After 1977 that slowed and, in fact, for part-time women (mothers) that acceleration went into reverse and for two decades hovered at around two-thirds of men’s hourly pay. 
Ultimately, the Social Contract was defeated by the synergy of:
- global economic crisis
- the terms of an IMF bail-out, which inaugurated the neo-liberal assault on Britain’s post-war consensus
- low level of UK productivity
- the opposition of the Left
- and the resurgence of patriarchal trade unionism.
‘Free collective bargaining’ was restored in the name of restoring differentials between women and men, skilled and unskilled.
Fraternity was generally asserted at the expense of liberty and equality. Unnoticed in the early 1970s, the process of implementing the Equal Pay Act, was shadowed by a sexist manoeuvre promoted by the Prices and Incomes Board, with union support: the introduction of bonuses for public sector men. (Decades later, men’s bonuses became one of the causes of massive, successful equal pay claims by thousands of women.)
These phenomena informed the feminist critique of traditional, patriarchal wage militancy in the last two issues of Red Rag.
The promise of social solidarity as the esprit of the Social Contract imploded - it came to be known as the Social Con-trick. Thatcherism beckoned.
In the Communist Party, economists were divided, and a generation of young economists developed a critique of both economism and the theory of Leninist vanguardism. By 1976, the Communist Party was reviewing its programme, the British Road to Socialism, and a little later an Inner Party Democracy Commission fiercely debated democratic centralism. The reformers were accused of ‘revisionism’ – a term usually voiced as an accusation – and were defeated. For many of the participants, it killed all hope of a revitalised party.
We confess that we were surprised when we re-visited Red Rag in the context of this digitisation, and were reminded of the conflict over ‘revisionism’, Marxist-Leninism, and the sovereignty of the vanguard party in Red Rag itself: Red Rag 11 published two letters of resignation by Sue O’Sullivan, a long-time activist in London’s Women’s Liberation. They represented the sharpest explicit schism in the magazine’s history. The first argued, ‘I do not believe that the Communist Party of Great Britain has nothing to do with Red Rag.’
As founding contributors to Red Rag, we know for sure that the party had nothing to do with the magazine. If some women worried that somehow a CPGB line was being asserted, we have been reminded that others believed that Red Rag was self-evidently at odds with the party leadership and lived in hope that communism could be wrenched from male domination.
From Red Rag 2, and thereafter, the majority of the members of the Red Rag collective were not members of the CP. Of the 16 women who produced Red Rag 9, only five belonged to the party, only four of the 13 women who comprised the Red Rag 11 collective were CP members.
Sue O’Sullivan wrote: the CPGB was, for her, the problem with Red Rag; the CPGB’s ‘general revisionism’ and its abandonment of Leninism left her feeling that she could no longer work with the CPGB women. However, she added, ‘I know that most non-communist women on Red Rag do not share my views.’
Invited to elaborate on what she meant by revisionism, a second letter published alongside the first, aired many criticisms of Red Rag and explained that revisionism meant, for her: ‘the abandonment of certain essential Marxist Leninist concepts’ by the CPGB, including revision of the theory of the state, the need to ‘smash the old one and create a new one’, the muting of class struggle in favour of ‘peaceful co-existence’, abandonment of the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat, the role of the vanguard party, and of democratic centralism. Although she recognised communist women’s ‘sincere attempt to oppose the sectarianism of most other left groups in the women’s movement,’ she regarded revisionism as a renunciation of the CP’s Marxist-Leninist responsibility.
It should be said that the Women’s Liberation Movement itself was, of course, an affront to vanguardism and Leninism. In Red Rag 12 Sheila Rowbotham wrote a critique of the ‘dead end’ of ‘revolutionary debates about organisation.’ Feminism represented ‘a fundamental challenge to Leninist ideas of a revolutionary party’ that had rendered it impossible for women to articulate ‘what is specific to our oppression as a sex.’
Meanwhile, feminists were (as Rosalind Delmar notes) addressing the very different difficulties of de-centralised, horizontal organisation and lack of ‘structure’. Typically, following each national conference, cities or regions offered to host the next national WLM conference – and they were getting bigger and more diverse, and more unwieldy.
By the mid-70s, the sheer scale and diversity of feminist theory and practice brought its own challenges to the sustainability of the Women’s Liberation Movement as such, to managing the consequences of consciousness-raising, the agonies of awareness and the pains of subordination. How would feminist politics be released from the artificial polarisation of the subjective and the social? How would the different imperatives of diverse feminism/s be articulated within the WLM’s structure, how would the transformative politics envisaged by feminism transform the women’s movement itself?What did autonomy mean, and how would this autonomous movement operate in the myriad spaces of politics in general? Many Red Rag contributors vividly addressed these dilemmas:
unwieldy conferences, organised with few resources, growing ever-larger, attracting thousands of women;
men: their exclusion from the WLM was not an end in itself, it was ‘a function of their presence in our lives’;
autonomy: simultaneously the condition of feminist politics and the means of making alliances;
black women experienced ‘triple jeopardy’ as workers, as women and as black, and, therefore, needed their own autonomous political space;
consciousness-raising came to be regarded as a necessary and yet insufficient part of transition from subordinate subjectivity to insubordination;
identity: feminism implied a challenge to gender essentialism in identity politics, including the assertion of ‘gay’ as an identity rather than an orientation, as desire;
violence was recognised as productive of men’s personal and institutional power and control over women.
In the second half of the 1970s the impact of these themes is discernible in Red Rag’s tone and priorities. This is captured by the re-assertion of a feminist critique of Leninism, an assessment of the emerging limits of the WLM’s economic demand – equal pay – and its relationship to the state and to trade unions; engagement with patriarchy as the uniquely feminist problematic, the specific category of violence as a means of domination, and not least the transformations of feminism itself.
Red Rag addressed alternative economic strategies, parenting and patriarchal pay bargaining and ventured the need for a new sex equality paradigm that confronted the sexual division of labour, the politics of time, and the public/private polarisation.
Britain’s first rape crisis centre opened in 1976. Before the end of the decade there were more than a dozen across the country. These radical self-help services transformed what was known – and how it came to be known - about sexual violence, its presence in popular culture, its productivity for men and its impact on women.
In 1977 Reclaim the Night Marches were organised in Leeds, Manchester, York and London to demand that women be enabled to walk the streets free of fear. Violence was now recognised as a mode of control, not the loss of it.
Violence had been a fault line in the movement. Red Rag articulated the new consciousness that came to be articulated as the WLM’s 7th Demand. It was formulated by feminists in Bristol – home to feminist networks that were diverse and ‘blissfully undivided’, according to Frankie Rickford – one of the authors of the 7th Demand, and a Red Rag contributor.
In Red Rag 13, Ellen Malos, one of Bristol’s formative activists, and Frankie Rickford, located the 7th Demand as a break with the movement’s WLM’s earlier ‘demands’: They had been largely demands of the state. The 7th Demand addressed not only ‘rights’ and the institutions, but patriarchal popular culture, ‘common sense’ and social relationships.
This was formulated as:
‘Freedom from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion, regardless of marital status; and an end to laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women’.
The 7th Demand was endorsed by the massive Birmingham Women’s Liberation conference in 1978.
The Birmingham conference also became the occasion of painful rifts over personal circumstances and power, and men and masculinity, that hastened the end of the WLM in its 1970s form. It was the end of an era.
Another Bristol activist Pam Trevithick, one of the organisers of the 7th Demand at the Birmingham conference, reckoned it was readily accepted because by then the experiences gained from Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Centres ‘were so embedded.’
She recalled the conflicts at the Birmingham conference coming as something of a surprise to the Bristol networks which had a strong co-operative culture. She was particularly struck by the challenges and grievances of black women and poor women, ‘a lot of it was about the hardships they were suffering in their lives’. But how women ‘oppress each other’ became a discourse that turned inward, rather than toward the problem of patriarchy.
Even though ‘the women’s movement didn’t recover from the Birmingham conference as a movement, we just went on and on’, said Pam Trevithic. Bristol had women’s groups of all kinds ‘building an infrastructure for a whole load of women’s projects – from health, to art, to building trades, music, homelessness…and new groups flourished: Womankind, for example, a feminist mental health centre, thrives to this day, a service used by hundreds women every year.’ Pam Trevithick was one of the founders:
‘By 1978 there were a dozen consciousness-raising groups alone in Bristol, we were desperately busy; you don’t have that if you are a moribund movement. Feminism is rich in so many ways. The 1980s became a period of feminist projects finding funding. And the projects had staying power, they endured.’
Energy and confidence is palpable in Red Rag 12-15, there is a renewed vigour about feminist politics that valiantly made its way into the institutions, despite the bleak hegemony of Thatcherism in the 1980s. As Rosalind Delmar reminds us, although the WLM national conferences came to an end, women’s liberation activism was undimmed.
There is also in Red Rag a prevailing sense of Women’s Liberation as an unyielding critic of existing-socialisms and at the same time, inherently socialist. That, of course, had been the dialectic that inspired Red Rag.
 It was Rosalind Delmar’s idea to digitise Red Rag and she researched the archives, interviewed many contributors and wrote the introduction. Val Charlton, Sally Alexander, and Bea Campbell supported her in reading articles and gathering old copies and whatever material they could harvest.
 ‘The Miss World action was the first feminist event since the women’s suffrage movement to generate mass publicity in the UK. It was also the first act of civil disobedience on the behalf of the British women’s movement since the suffragettes.’ Coote, A. and Campbell, B. (1981) Sweet Freedom,
 See also, Alison Fell, in Misbehaving, 2020, Merlin Press.
 Beatrix Campbell was a member of the collective from issues 1 to15 and Val Charlton from issues 2 to 15.
 Particularly influential were: Devine, P., 1974, Inflation and Marxist Theory, Marxism Today, March, Gamble, A., 1979, The Free Economy and the Strong State, Socialist Register; Prior, M. and Purdy, D., 1979, Out of the Ghetto, Spokesman Books.
 Harkness, Susan, 1999, The Gender Earning Gap: Evidence from the UK, Institute of Fiscal Studies.
 (The CPGB, never, if fact, departed from democratic centralism).
 See Ellen Malos and Frankie Rickford, Closed Encounters, Red Rag 13.
 This critique was elaborated by Beatrix Campbell and Val Charlton in United We Fall, Red Rag 14 and by Campbell in A Feminist Alternative Economic Strategy, Red Rag 15. Their approach attracted a rebuke – a defence of traditional class struggle - from former Red Rag members, Elizabeth Wilson and Angela Weir, both of whom had joined the CP in the 1970s, and were associated with anti-revisionism and anti-Eurocommunism, and others, in Feminist Review and several other left journals: Weir, A., and McIntosh, M. (1982) Towards a Wages Strategy for Women, Feminist Review, No 10, 1 March; Wilson, E. (1999) Thatcherism and Women: After Seven Years, The Socialist Register
 Anna Coote wrote in The Guardian in April 1978, that this fault line was dramatised in the 1978 WLM conference in Birmingham, where ‘The main divergence of opinion was between the socialist feminists (who attribute women’s oppression to social and economic factors) and the revolutionary and radical feminists (who trace it to inherent differences between the sexes). Available at : http://www.womensgrid.org.uk/archive/2009/06/28/seven-pillars-of-liberation-wlm-conference-1978/
 Frankie Rickford also joined the CPGB.