Introducing Red Rag
Rosalind Delmar, who helped create this archive of Red Rag in partnership with Natalie Tomlinson of The University of Reading, and who contributed to its production from 1972-76, here reflects on her experiences of that time. Introducing and giving an overview of the magazine she highlights some of the key issues and ideas which shaped it. She also introduces us to some of the remarkable people found in this remarkable magazine, providing context vital for understanding what they were doing and thinking.
Red Rag Poster (credit: Val Charlton)
During preparations for this digitised version of Red Rag – a Marxist-Feminist journal which first appeared almost half a century ago – two questions kept coming to mind: who would benefit from having such an accessible version, and what resonance, if any, does the thinking and narrative it carries have with the current political and cultural crisis? This new resource should be useful to all students of the 1970s women’s liberation movement, of the diverse feminisms which emerged from and around it, of the history of the British left more generally, and of the social changes which preceded and informed the Thatcher years. It should also remind those who were involved in the movement of some of the debates, discussions and conflicts, enthusiasms and pleasures which animated friendships, groupings and conferences and changed many private lives. It was within this impassioned discourse that concepts which are now taken for granted were formed and terms like sexism and patriarchy acquired their meaning.
Red Rag’s continuing relevance became clearer as a result of the 2020 pandemic ‘lockdown’, which revealed for all to see our national reliance on the least regarded, often invisible, sections of the population – the low-wage, ‘unskilled’, multicultural workforce – who provide the foundations of social cohesion and resilience in the face of a life-threatening and frightening disease. In some sectors, like cleaning, caring, and nursing, the overwhelming majority of workers are women. It was to these working women that Red Rag drew attention, foregrounding the experiences of nurses, night-cleaners, assembly-line workers and others in articles and interviews. The lockdown has also drawn the curtain back on the modern family to reveal a startling and relatively unchanged picture of the domestic division of labour, with mothers still taking more responsibility for childcare and domestic labour than fathers, and women, especially mothers, more likely to lose their jobs. Red Rag and the women’s movement as a whole laid bare the consequences of marital and domestic inequality and the grotesque injustices it allowed, including marital rape (legal until the 1990s) amongst other forms of domestic abuse. There has been an alarming growth in domestic abuse during lockdown – home is not yet a safe space for all women – as well as a diminution in the provision of women’s refuges (pioneered by women’s liberation in the 70s) due to reduced funding over the previous ten years. Given that in the coming years there is no guarantee that sustainable funding will be restored to childcare or to wider social care and that at the same time unemployment is rising and will rise further, there is a genuine risk that women’s capacity to work outside the home is being eroded and that a rowback on women’s employment rights will ensue. To cap it all we saw in daily UK government briefings on the progress of the virus that the public faces of politics and science are once more overwhelmingly male and white, just as they were in the 1970s.
My purpose in providing this introduction is to give a guided tour of some of the material that can be found in Red Rag and to indicate the context which fashioned their relevance, rather than to give the pros and cons of any debate. My experience during my membership of the collective has undoubtedly affected the narrative I’ve constructed but I’ve also been able to call on other members and use both the existing archives and private papers. There are many treasures to be found here: Denise Riley writing in RR9 about single mothers, their housing needs and the women’s movement is one example; Elizabeth Wilson’s essay on Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (RR10) another.[i] There are many more. To celebrate International Women’s Year in 1975 there was a stimulating cluster of reports from abroad in Red Rag 9. There are also surprising absences – for example there was no extensive treatment of how the Irish ‘troubles’ were affecting women, in the UK and in Northern Ireland.
Red Rag was launched in 1972, two years after the successful Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford announced the arrival of the British women’s liberation movement. The ground for the conference had been prepared in the 60s by a very lively pre-movement as women in all parts of the country became aware of and increasingly angered by their unequal status and limited horizons. They talked about it, took action, and organised meetings; groups were formed in Hull, London, Manchester, Bradford and Bristol. By bringing women together at the right time Ruskin 1970 proved a turning point. A tidal swell followed as multiple new small women’s groups were formed: some were local consciousness-raising groups where women used their personal experience to pinpoint the behaviours and attitudes that bolstered women’s subordination; some were project based, aimed at creating resources for women and their dependents (playgroups for example); some were study groups; many were a combination. The disruption of the broadcast of the Miss World spectacle in November 1970 and the first women’s liberation march in London on International Women’s Day in March 1971 further captured the public imagination, sparking nation-wide argument and debates in all the national media.
Crucially, women’s groups were small, encouraging spontaneity, diversity and transparency. There was no leadership structure or other internal hierarchy. Members came together as part of a participatory democracy – decisions were made by those who turned up. The London Women’s Liberation Workshop, from which about half the members of the Red Rag collective named in RR4 were drawn, was one such loose network. Its organising principles were a variant of the self-organising and self-educating politics of 1968: week-to-week decisions were made by volunteers and policy questions were argued out in general assemblies. No political position was given formal priority – all were welcome. At the same time, women who had been politically active in the peace movement, student movement or left groups fleshed out in their women’s groups a practical criticism of the difficulties of working in groups run by men. They challenged traditional ‘male’ forms of political work, not just because they were ‘male’ but because they didn’t work for women’s groups. For example, women’s groups met in their member’s homes rather than in the pubs where male left groups met. Many pubs were hostile environments for women. Moreover to hire a room cost money and to meet in each other’s homes saved the additional cost of babysitters. Men were excluded from meetings because of their tendency to dominate discussion and to favour analysis over experience. In fact the ‘male left’ (to use a 70s phrase) tended to condemn women’s focus on experience rather than agreed theoretical positions as ‘subjective’ rather than ‘objective’ and mocked it as a search for psychological comfort rather than a way of exploring external reality. However, the women who met together generally agreed that felt experience provided a pathway through which they connected with external reality. They could agree that women were economically and socially oppressed, deliberately undereducated, and objects of sexual and cultural exploitation; their aim was to understand how this happened and how a sense of inferiority was cultivated within each woman. This, they thought, would allow new insights into the sexist structures which held the process in place. The realisation that the personal was political meant that the most intimate experiences could be harnessed to illuminate sexual politics.
The new movement struck a chord with many women who were still active within established political groups and parties. Having fruitlessly tried for years to start discussions of women’s rights within their organisations, they could see the gap in their everyday politics, but found no agreed space for a reappraisal of women’s needs. Women’s ‘issues’ were deemed irrevocably secondary, woman’s role supportive and subaltern. Florence Keyworth, a journalist with the Daily Worker since 1946, recorded her feelings in the first issue of Red Rag: ‘I have been in the [Labour] movement for over 30 years and I suppose I had lost hope that sex equality would become a burning force in my lifetime. I feel a sense of gratitude to the young women who have achieved this renaissance’.
Some left groups saw weakness and naivety in the women’s movement’s elementary coordinating structures and targeted it for takeover by ‘front’ organisations. At the national women’s liberation conference in Skegness in 1971 angry confrontations led to the expulsion from the auditorium of a Maoist group one of whose male leaders was attempting to control the microphone. As a result it was decided that in future men were to be excluded from all women’s liberation conferences. The experience left some with a lasting mistrust of the women who continued to belong to political groupings led and dominated by men. These various political currents and undercurrents swirled round and through Red Rag. Its collectives were shaped by them. The women involved thought of themselves as part of the Left as well as of the women’s movement but gave a different weight to each. The dynamic this created and the conflicts it charted meshed with the difficulties and the culture wars which sprang up within the wider movement. Dependent as it was on the wider movement for its survival, this was both one of the reasons for Red Rag’s success and contributed to its eventual demise.
The magazine was started by women members of the Communist Party (CP), in the main journalists working on party publications – Mikki Doyle, Florence Keyworth and Bea (Beatrix) Campbell from the daily Morning Star, and Gladys Brooks from the fortnightly Comment. Some of them had already protested about sexist images in the Morning Star – a group which included Florence had besieged its editor, George Mathews, in his office, refusing to leave until he agreed that no more pictures featuring near-naked models draped over Ladas or Skodas would be published. Mikki Doyle, who became editor of the Morning Star women’s page in 1968, saw it as part of her job to get rid of ‘the usual shopping, fashion and cosmetics crap’[ii]. The Red Rag founding meeting took place in her office. Irene Fick, a young Communist who was also a member of the Belsize Park women’s liberation group, was present and remembers that ‘Gladys Brooks came up with the name and Mikki (can’t remember how she spelt her name) said, ‘oh, it’s a monthly then’. I also remember Gladys’ expression. Very funny. Caroli Mullen was there as well; I don’t remember anyone else.’ Caroli was, like Mikki, an American Communist working in London. She remained proud throughout her life of the part she played in setting up one of the first magazines produced and written entirely by women.[iii]
Their aim was to create a journal independent of the CP through which they could link up with other women in the women’s liberation movement who were not in the CP. Together they would then explore and encourage new ways of thinking and organising as women. They had had enough of the uncritical support offered by the party leadership to the trades unions and other organised groups who claimed to represent the ‘working class’ but ignored women’s needs. The ‘Declaration of Intent’ published in the first number of Red Rag pointed out that ‘The trade union movement is virtually silent about the discrimination which excludes women from many jobs’ and neglected even basic organising around women’s rights at work. This was something Red Rag’s founders were determined to confront and change.
At around the same time another group of younger CP women were meeting regularly at Bea Campbell’s flat in Stepney. They included Bea, Val Charlton, Irene Fick, Nell Myers, Mary Davis, Buzz Goodbody, Maria Loftus and Annette Muir. Val worked in graphic design and was a member of the Camden Women’s Action Group. Irene was about to go to University and Mary was a recent graduate. Maria was a teacher and Annette a lecturer. Nell worked part time as a journalist and Buzz was on her way to becoming an acclaimed theatre director. Val and Nell were both mothers of small children. The team which produced the first issue was drawn from both groups, providing a good example of creative inter-generational feminist cooperation.
In order to establish their independence from the Party they kept silent about producing the first issue, only alerting the Executive once it was available. The party leadership responded by demanding a meeting at which they insisted that Red Rag must be shut down. But the Red Rag group refused. In preparation for the meeting with members of the Communist Party’s National Executive, Gladys Brooks wrote a document describing the aspects of the women’s movement which had encouraged the group to make their intervention.[iv] She pointed to ‘the ferment of discussion’, ‘the proliferation of written material’, ‘the increasing interest in Marxism’ and the importance of consciousness raising. Of the journal itself she wrote:
"Red Rag" is a joint project of Communists and other Marxists and Socialists not members of our Party, but broadly speaking sharing our views, and members of women's liberation. The production of the magazine conforms with the outlook and methods of work characteristic of the women's liberation groups i.e. it is produced collectively, without a formal editorial board, non-exclusive and with participation in production open to all who are interested, Marxists and members of the women's liberation movement.
Her description of the open ways of working which the Red Rag collective was adopting demonstrated how incompatible it was with centralised party discipline. By then the second issue was in production with contributors drawn from the wider women’s movement. As Gladys put it, [Red Rag] ‘has gained the respect and support of a number of the most active non-Party Marxists within women's liberation to the extent that it has been possible to plan the second number to be made up principally of contributions from non-Party women’.
It was probably Gladys who worked out the original template for the journal and established its relationship with Farleigh Press, its printers. She was the hands-on editor of the communist fortnightly Comment: her daughter recalls her pasting it up at home before taking it to the printers. After the new collective made up of younger Communist and non-Communist women came into being, she stayed on as a contact for correspondence until Sue O’Sullivan volunteered to take on the role.
The first four years: production
Red Rag, No. 1, Front Cover
The first issue was 16 pages long and cost 7p (about 40p in today’s money). The cover was a black and white reproduction of Delacroix’s famous painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’, in which Liberty in the guise of Marianne leads the charge over the barricades of the 1830 Revolution. There are very few images inside but the use of history as a resource and reference point was visibly affirmed. Bea Campbell was the only member of the collective that produced this issue to remain for all 15. Val Charlton joined for Issue 2 and also stayed till the end. A relatively stable group worked together from late 1972 to 1976 on issues 2 to 10.[v]
By adopting a collective, small group approach and rejecting hierarchical working practices, the women in Red Rag embarked on a radical experiment in relation to both the nuts and bolts of magazine production and the nuances of political cooperation. The weekends devoted to layout and final preparations for the printer were open to all and aimed to use specialisms as much as possible whilst sharing skills. Alison Fell’s cartoon on page 2 of RR4 gives a flavour of these working groups. There were those like Alison who already had experience within the underground press and other newspapers which took their chances in the ‘60s, and who enjoyed laying out a page, cutting an article, or making a doodle to fill a space; there were also those who decided that sticking down small strips of Letraset would never be their forte. In the first years Val Charlton and Alison Fell (both art school graduates) contributed their very distinctive styles to the mix, as can be seen from Val’s heading for the article ‘Wife Torture’ in RR8 and Alison’s cartoon ‘where do correct ideas come from?’ on p7 of RR3. Val often designed the front covers and, after Alison left the collective to work on Spare Rib, led a shared responsibility for layout and headline design. Her last headline was the ‘Amen’ in Red Rag 15. The last issues, 14 and 15, were produced by a new team who introduced a glossy cover and a more spacious format but they failed to sell. By that time the women’s conferences where most copies were sold were no longer being organised and so Red Rag no longer had access to that significant sales point. To give a rough idea of how many copies were printed, records show that a print run of 4,000 was ordered for No 14, published in 1978; about 3,000 women had attended the women’s conference in 1977.
As well as the artwork generated by collective members there was a body of work to draw on from within the wider women’s movement. The front covers featured a wide range: the backdrop to the Women’s Street Theatre’s equal pay show (RR3); a poster from the all-women Red Collective (RR8); a poster from German women’s liberation (RR10); the work of feminist photographers Angela Phillips (RR8) and Michael Ann Mullen (RR13); original artwork from Chilean Cecilia Vicuna (RR7), who was stranded in London after the Pinochet coup and whose work from that time has since been bought by Tate International and can sometimes be seen at Tate Modern[vi]. Cartoons came from Christine Roche and others. The magazine’s designers also used the work of established professionals like Bill Brandt and Jules Feiffer. In all it gives a strong flavour of the visual culture of women’s liberation.
Like other small political journals at the time Red Rag lived from hand to mouth and relied on the energy and commitment of its contributors. Individual issues could only be sent to the printers when the cost of the last one had been recouped. A sufficiency of articles which had collective agreement to publish was another requirement. Many articles emerged from a process of argument and discussion within the collective, where divergent views were encouraged; the aim was a thorough discussion of each contribution. At its best Red Rag provided a snapshot of the different kinds of thinking and organising which were happening at the time. Its editorials reveal a remarkable commitment to transparency. Sometimes, however, contentious contributions were held back, watered down or never published and this could rankle.
Copies were sold at women’s liberation conferences, national, regional, and specialist (for example, national campaign meetings). The Feminist Archive North lists at least twenty national and local conferences in 1975 alone[vii]. Subscriptions were encouraged and copies were also on sale at women’s centres, feminist bookshops like Sisterwrite and alternative bookshops like Compendium in London and Grass Roots Books in Manchester. In the diverse political culture of the 1970s small bookshops flourished across the UK. Later, the Publications Distribution Cooperative was used, but that doesn’t seem to have improved sales figures. The first issue, sold through Communist party branches and women’s liberation outlets, sold out entirely. Central Books, the CP’s retail and wholesale outlet, refused to stock or distribute Red Rag thereafter.
The first four years: Wages for Housework?
The trigger for the enlargement of the collective to include women’s liberationists came ‘like a bombshell’ (RR2). Towards the end of the National Women’s Movement (WLM) Conference in Manchester in March 1972 Selma James introduced her paper ‘Women, the unions and work, or what is not to be done’ and proposed a new overarching demand for ‘wages for housework’. Instead of the existing four demands of the women’s movement – equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, free 24-hour nurseries – she proposed a new six: 1) the right to work less; 2) guaranteed income for men and women including wages for housework; 3) the right not to have children; 4) equal pay for all; 5) an end to price rises; 6) free community-controlled nurseries and childcare. It was agreed that this would be discussed at the next WLM conference to be held in London later that year.
The women who joined Red Rag were doubly opposed to this proposed new demand. Firstly they defended the four demands which had only recently been agreed at the previous Skegness conference on democratic grounds, and secondly they rejected ‘wages for housework’ as a movement aim because they feared it would tie women even more securely to the domestic sphere. Red Rag 2 therefore carried a number of critiques of this demand by the ‘non-Party women’ mentioned by Gladys, who included Sheila Rowbotham and Sue Cowley (later O’Sullivan). They then became part of the collective. Selma James, writing under the name of Cassandra Southwick (a 17th century Quaker immigrant to New England, forced out of Salem for her religious views) gave the arguments in favour. Red Rag’s commitment to extending women’s work outside the home was underscored by RR2’s front cover – a lithograph of women filling sandbags during the Second World War. Other representations of women at work, contemporary and historical, appeared within. Bristol-based Monica Sjoo linked the idea of ‘wages for housework’ to the Claimants Union campaign for a Guaranteed Basic Income. The Claimants Union was a community-based movement of those in receipt of social security to defend and extend their rights. Unsupported mothers were amongst its most militant members. They campaigned against the ‘cohabitation clause’, designed to remove benefits from single mothers if they could be shown to be cohabiting with a man, and later they defended the payment of the family allowance for children to mothers rather than fathers. Red Rag supported both of these campaigns.
Although in issue 4 Suzie Fleming presented a fuller argument for wages for housework, issue 5’s editorial located women’s oppression ‘in their imprisonment in the home as wives and mothers’ ‘the political practice which challenges this role’ was called for: ‘Women must come out of the home and enter collective struggle around all the issues which affect their everyday lives.’ Red Rag therefore foregrounded contributions on specific community projects, such as childcare, that relieved pressures on mothers.
In the early years of the women’s movement many Marx study groups were created, in part in response to the exclusion felt by women from Marxist debates. Men on the left seemed to treat Marxist theory as a male preserve at the same time as they claimed that this theory held the key to understanding the capitalist system which was said to lie behind sexual inequality. Over half of the members of the Red Rag collective named in RR4 belonged or had belonged to a Marx study group. Some were reading Marx’s Capital, asking a series of questions of the texts. Was Marx’s value theory of labour still useful? Could it be applied to the domestic sphere? Was anything to be gained by applying terms like ‘labour power’ to domestic arrangements or by trying to redefine women’s labour in the home as a variant of waged labour? All these were pertinent to the issue of wages for housework. The ‘domestic labour debate’ as it was known was an international one, with participants from North America (Margaret Benston, writing in Monthly Review) and Italy (Maria Rosa della Costa of Potere Operaio). In Red Rag 14 Diana Adlam returned to the debate with her review of Christine Delphy’s The Main Enemy, an attempt to refashion radical feminist and socialist feminist insights into a theory of the ‘patriarchal mode of production’.
No 4’s editorial was a mission statement, declaring the need to give Marxism an identity outside the traditional male left. This had to include questioning the narrative deriving from Engels that saw women’s oppression as an effect of private property and the class system, and women’s liberation possible only as a consequence of the successful defeat of capitalism, thus bypassing any need to look at sexism as systemic or patriarchy as a social structure. Cuban militants Isabel Arguia and John Dumoulin challenged these assumptions in the first Red Rag pamphlet, Towards a Science of Women’s Liberation.[viii] On the basis of the Cuban experience they contended that without a change in the belief that women should bear the responsibility for domestic labour, socialism would never be realised in any country. They laid bare the mindset which took women’s double shift of outside work followed by in-house labour taken for granted and flagged up that women’s skill at performing housework was being treated as if it was a secondary sexual characteristic. Their arguments demonstrated that to achieve women’s liberation a revolution must be feminist as well as socialist. But as Jean Gardiner pointed out in her review of the pamphlet for Red Rag 6, whilst they questioned the social-sexual division of labour, they stopped short at considering the impact of sexuality itself on social and political roles.
Explorations of female sexuality were at the heart of women’s liberation both in its public face and in small group meetings. A sticker campaign – ‘this exploits women’ – targeting ads using women’s bodies to sell merchandise was one of its first manifestations and women’s right to control their own reproductive capacity through contraception and abortion was one of the first demands. Within small women’s groups the seminal ‘Notes from the first year’ (1968) published by the New York Redstockings, passed from hand to hand. An essay published in that collection, Anne Koedt’s Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, challenged the view that women’s sexual pleasure depended on penetrative sex and called on women to ‘redefine our sexuality’ by exploring women’s erotic needs separately from men’s; privately many women began to acknowledge how disappointing and unhappy their sexual lives were and to articulate the ways in which women’s search for sexual freedom was very different from the sexual permissiveness propounded in the sixties.
There was no clear-cut way to map all this onto a critique of the sexual division of labour and the Red Rag collective had no shared way of addressing or thinking about either sexuality or the political economy of women. A language and a strategy for both had to be forged from an exchange of experience, feeling, ideas and readings within the collective and through the articles they produced and discussed in order to lay down the theoretical terrain on which they operated. The two preoccupations which emerged during the first years of Red Rag – the social-sexual division of labour and female sexuality – continued throughout the life of the magazine even if the membership of the collective changed. It took time to assemble a coherent understanding of the world of reproduction as a whole in its economic, social, cultural and emotional aspects.
The Sexual Division of Labour
Red Rag, No. 3, Front Cover
Some excellent and provocative articles connected to the theme of the social-sexual division of labour were published. Jean Gardiner examined women’s unemployment and scotched the myth that its main function was to provide a reserve pool of labour power to replace men in times of crisis. Barbara Taylor analysed the complexities of women and class, showing that there were always sectors exclusive to women. Bea Campbell, Val Charlton, Sheila McKechnie and Adah Kay explored the possibilities of a ‘Feminist Alternative Economic Strategy’ ‘based on the life cycle of mothers’.[ix] Their work was written up in numbers 14 and 15. In Work to Rule (RR14) Bea Campbell and Val Charlton asked the question “What kinds of demands, would express the concrete and complex reality of most women, which includes waged work and domestic life and children?”. Such a starting point, they argued, would enable feminists to base their tactics ‘on the conditions necessary for the survival of a one-parent family’ (‘Work to Rule’, Bea Campbell and Val Charlton RR14). Two years later, in RR15, Bea Campbell delivered a critique of Labour’s Alternative Economic Strategy. In ‘United we Fall’, writing as ‘we’, she targeted free collective bargaining in particular because it privileges ‘the fight around the individual wages of the best-organised (men)’ and ‘turns a blind eye to the fact that in 1980 the trade union movement has no strategy at all on women's pay’.
Most issues of the journal brought reports of current industrial action by women. Interviews with active and retired women trades unionists provided useful historical perspectives. A feminist standpoint propelled a shift from writing ‘about’ women to writing alongside other women, with first hand reports of the campaigns and experiences of women working outside the home. Sally Alexander reported on the night cleaners’ campaign to set up a TU branch for cleaners within the TGWU from the perspective of a women’s liberationist who supported them on the picket line; Amanda Sebestyen and others discussed their work in the Lesney’s toy factory; and Miriam Glucksman, using the nom-de-plume ‘Ruth Cavendish’, analysed life on the assembly line of a motor component company, stressing in particular its female and multinational work force. A crucial question for all was the relevance of WLM demands to these particular workers. ‘Ruth Cavendish’ (RR14) stressed that ‘real priority needs to be given to practical measures – shortening the working week, providing childcare for the under fives, shops staying open later. Campaigns about “determining your own sexuality” are meaningless in relation to the experience and possibilities of the women I worked with.’
Women's sexuality and the birth of identity politics
Red Rag, No. 7, Front Cover
As with the sexual division of labour, there was a two-fold focus in writing around sexuality in Red Rag: on the one hand the proposal of theoretical frameworks, and on the other hand accounts of the lived experience of sexual-emotional relationships. One theoretical starting point was to ask how much and in what way the existing social world was grounded in the acceptance of male privilege at this most intimate level and whether this explained women’s deference to men. If subordination only worked because it was embedded at a deep level, how did women internalise their oppression? A popular explanation was ‘conditioning’ – that from infancy women were shaped by external forces actively created by capitalism to convince them that, as Carol Bloom wrote in RR1, women ‘are not creators, but procreators, not producers, but reproducers. For a woman to look elsewhere – to a job, or a political movement – for fulfilment is to show she is not really a woman. . .’ The downside of this argument was that it treated women as passive receptors and failed to explain women’s resistance.
Bea Campbell was the first to try to think through an active relationship between women’s sexual experience and their political oppression in ‘Sexuality and Submission’ (RR5); her claim that women ‘colluded in their own oppression’ sparked fierce debate. It was rebuffed by Alison Fell, who asked ‘Is to follow a pattern of living and thinking which fits with all you’ve been told ‘Collusion’?’ (‘Notes on Ideology’ RR6) and asserted the importance of lived experience in the formation of consciousness. Later on Maria Loftus (RR7) discussed girls’ education using the idea of sex role stereotyping. Rosalind Delmar (RR8) introduced a different perspective through a positive review of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism and recommended some of the benefits of using Freud’s theories, including the extension of ‘social reality’ to include symbols, fantasies and dreams as well as his emphasis on the instability of categories like femininity and masculinity. Whilst his thoughts on femininity met with general disapproval within socialist-feminist circles, in cultural work – literary theory, film, artistic practice and so on - the stress on unconscious processes proved fertile ground. The work of Mary Jacobus, Laura Mulvey and Mary Kelly, all members of small women’s groups, became particularly influential and remains so.
In Red Rag 13, Ellen Malos and Frankie Rickford introduce the idea that ‘ideology is something that constructs us, rather than being a set of lies than can be shrugged off’ within an article supporting a proposed seventh demand for women’s freedom from the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion ‘regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women’. This demand was agreed at the 1978 Conference. Over time experiential discussions within Red Rag became more confident – see, for example, ‘Four Sisters’ in Red Rag 11. Perhaps surprisingly the first discussion of love came late in Red Rag’s life, in No 13, with an article from Daphne Davies – ‘Falling in Love Again’. Daphne, who was also a member of the Scarlet Women collective, told me that she specifically joined Red Rag in order to write an article about love.
The ‘Ruth Cavendish’ reference to ‘determining your own sexuality’ was invoking the demand agreed at the Women’s National Conference in Edinburgh in 1974. The original four demands of the women’s movement had been agreed in 1971 at the Skegness Conference and two further demands were agreed at Edinburgh. The 5th demand was ‘Legal and Financial Independence for all women’ (see the article in RedRag 7 by its indefatigable proponent, Mary McIntosh). The 6th was a twinned demand: ‘The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians’. The meaning of lesbianism was an enduring feature of sexual discussions in Red Rag and in the women’s movement more widely – gay liberation had grown within much the same time frame as women’s liberation. Although at the start of the women’s movement many lesbians felt excluded and untrusted (an experience described eloquently by Lynda Griffin in RR4) over time the movement became more welcoming. By the time of the Bristol Women’s Liberation Conference in 1973 lesbianism was plainly visible and hotly debated on the conference floor, especially after some women decided to strip down for the social. Elizabeth Wilson, who was active in the Gay Liberation Front, contributed several articles on her own experience of becoming a lesbian and Red Rag as a whole supported the demand for an end to discrimination against lesbians. But members of the collective who found themselves falling in love with women didn’t necessarily think of themselves as lesbians or as gay.
The right to define your own sexuality was understood differently by different women both within Red Rag and the women’s movement more generally. Although it was agreed at a national conference, there were always those who demurred. Some thought the demand meaningless, on the grounds that sexuality is always relational and anyway determined by unconscious needs and impulses and not the result of rational choices. For others the claim to bisexuality was particularly enraging. And the emergence of political lesbianism, whose adherents framed sexual relations with other women as a political choice rather than the pull of desire, was also fundamentally controversial. This view was associated with the Revolutionary Feminist grouping, which emerged from the London Conference in 1977; their politics was discussed by Frankie Rickford in the thought-provoking ‘War and Peace, Rape and Women’s Politics’ in Red Rag14.
These were the years which generated identity politics. It is noteworthy that whereas the first sexual demand, in 1971, was for women to control their own bodies, the next, in 1974, was for the right to control your self-image via the right to assert your own sexual identity. At the 1978 Conference in Birmingham, which, as it turned out, was to be the last National Conference, the first part, ‘the right to a self-defined sexuality’ was extracted and placed above all other demands in order to give it the status of the underlying claim of all the demands.
Practice and Theory
Red Rag, No. 11, Front Cover
The editorial in Issue 4 celebrated the political diversity of the collective:
‘. . . we are now a group with very wide and varied experience, both within and outside the women’s movement: consciousness-raising groups, women’s centres as well as CP, libertarian left, IS (International Socialists), Gay Liberation, Cleaners’ Action Group, community politics. But our first commitment is to the Women’s Liberation Movement.’
What was being stressed was that the collective was a group of activists with a commitment to theory rather than theorists with a stake in activism. Their diversity created the space for some wide-ranging discussions and articles – for example, Red Rag 8 featured a centre-spread (‘Joining the Workshop’) and an article (‘Sisterhood under Stress’) about tensions in the London Women’s Liberation Workshop which aimed to inform members of the collective who were not in a Workshop group as much as the wider audience. Similarly Sheila Rowbotham’s diagrammatic exposition of grassroots organising in Red Rag 3 shared her experience of and hopes for community politics in conjunction with workers' control. With a finger on the pulse of the movement Red Rag became in Michèle Roberts’ words ‘the socialist-feminist journal that no libertarian worth her salt could do without or could do without arguing about’.[x]
On a practical level, engagement with the movement gave Red Rag production dates to aim for. New topics of concern usually emerged at the end of each national conference, often in the shape of proposals for new demands, and this helped structure the content of the next issue. It also helped fix the publication date, as the next conference would be the place where the magazine would be sold, distributed, and discussed. Later on, potential future members of the collective could make themselves known at readers’ meetings. As Red Rag was London-based, members of the collective were often engaged in organising London activities – for example the 2nd Women’s Liberation and Socialism Conference held at the Conway Hall, London, in 1973. Some Red Rag members gave papers there which were published in Red Rag and discussed at workshops afterwards.[xi] For a while the collective organised popular monthly all-women socials in the upstairs room of the Metropolitan Tavern which stood at the corner of Farringdon and Clerkenwell Road (demolished 1989) and was popular with printers and journalists, including the staff of the Morning Star.
However, in its own way the women’s movement was an unreliable lodestar for the collective as it was itself fissured by conflicts. This had contradictory effects. Differences within Red Rag made it possible to get a sense of the trends within the movement, but striving after consensus within the editorial team meant that contentious pieces could be watered down or simply go unpublished. This process is described most strikingly in the editorial introducing Red Rag 10, which describes how discussions about an article on the National Abortion Campaign (NAC) ran aground on the tricky question of whether or not to publish criticisms of the political practices of named left groups and concludes ‘Finally we decided not to publish the article’. Whilst this demonstrated an unparalleled commitment to transparency, I suspect that it also left many readers perplexed. And it shows how prickly relations between women in left groups and those outside could be. There were also moments of mutual incomprehension, both within the Red Rag collective and within the movement as a whole.
Women who were socialists shared a hope that a theory like Marxism if held in common would bind groups together and afford protection against the fragmentation many feared, but in retrospect it can be seen that this fragmentation was itself an effect of the crumbling away of monolithic Marxism. The arguments within the NAC to which RR10 drew attention demonstrated that whilst Marxist theory might be valued, Marxist politics was a driver of conflict. An initial push to create a free-standing socialist-feminist tendency fell apart in a split in 1975 between those women who were members of groups on the left and those who were not. During the years 1973-76 political and personal differences within Red Rag were generating unease: an attempt to talk through these differences during a weekend out of London in the Forest of Dean proved so fraught that afterwards controversial topics tended to be avoided.
Eventually the tensions led to resignations; the reasons for resignations (or for dropping out) were various. There were those who deprecated the lack of structure and the inability to keep to an agreed agenda in meetings. Impatience with what was seen to be lack of structure was widespread throughout the movement. A key reference point here is Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness, first published in 1972.[xii] In it she argued that whilst structurelessness was a crucial condition for consciousness-raising it was unsuitable for other purposes. The article in RR14 by some of the organisers of the 1977 National Conference showed how the question of structure had come up repeatedly since 1971 and made a point which resonated with Jo Freeman’s article: ‘the chaos and collapse of the Birmingham plenary reflect the impossibility of transferring our small-group practices to once-a-year meetings of 3,000 women without some guarantees of what is fundamental to those practices – a space for dissension’. Another source of discontent was the insistence on editorial consensus mentioned earlier; others simply hated the argumentative atmosphere. Some non-aligned women felt that the communist women had a shared identity which was hampering the project of creating the common politics to which they aspired. This point of view was expressed by Sue O’Sullivan in letters to the collective before her resignation; the letters were published in Red Rag 11 after she left. A response from three of the women who were members of the Party as well as being members of the Red Rag collective – Bea Campbell, Val Charlton and Adah Kay – rebutting her claims, was published in RR12. They agreed with her however that ‘the collective never really managed to talk through whole areas of political differences’.
Throughout its eight years and 15 issues, Red Rag saw many members join and leave the collective, for a variety of reasons.. Most moved on as a result of changes in their circumstances or priorities, a few for political reasons.[xiii] The sorts of changes in circumstances included students graduating and finding jobs or moving away; marriages or long-term relationships breaking up, sometimes leaving the women involved financially weaker and needing to find paid work to support themselves and their children. One solution to this problem was to set up their home as a collective space with other women, sharing bills and childcare. New projects arose out of the changes wrought by and within women’s liberation and claimed the time previously given to Red Rag. Planning the Patriarchy Conference, which took place in the spring of 1976, is one example; several members of the collective, including Marion Dain and myself, were involved in this work. It was one of the first women’s conferences in Britain to focus on theory rather than campaigns and strategy; it provided a space for reading groups to present their work through a focus on the meaning and relevance patriarchy had for them. This in turn provided a stimulus for further work, discussion and debate.[xiv] And some women were simply exhausted by trying to combine domestic responsibilities with too many commitments to political activism. In most cases it was a combination of various factors.
1976 – 1980: Issues 11-15
Red Rag, No. 13, Front Cover
Whilst a relatively stable group had produced RR4-RR10, by the time Red Rag 11 appeared in Autumn 1976, most of the members of women’s liberation groups named in Red Rag 4 had left - Sally Alexander, Sue Cowley (O’Sullivan), Rosalind Delmar, Margaret Edney, Alison Fell, Sheila Rowbotham and Micheline Wandor - and others had joined.[xv] With a new combination of women taking responsibility for carrying on the work, its editorial describes a process of picking over the experience of the previous years and making the decision to retain a commitment to Marxist-Feminist theory but to go in a different direction. ‘We want Red Rag to become a forum for the arguments, analyses, and complex theoretical studies essential to the building of a mass socialist feminist movement’, they wrote. In the four issues that followed the term ‘Marxist-Feminist’ is rarely used, with ‘Socialist-Feminist’ taking its place.[xvi]
Reading through these last issues what is most striking is a continuing sense of uncertainty. Editorials reflect both on the internal problems of the women's movement, and the role of the journal itself. In Red Rag 12, dated Spring 1977, when the collective was down to four members, we read that ‘Much heart-searching has been spent reviewing the relevance of the magazine itself, which has been questioned by some past members of the collective’ and that there is a feeling of a ‘loss of direction, political tension and a stumbling and groping’. This mood is shared, the writers think, with the wider movement. At the same time there is a sombre assessment of the limits of what both they (Red Rag) and the wider women’s movement offer and for whom they speak:
‘Although the movement’s demands could be said to touch all women, the fact is that we are not all women, we are not everywoman.
The movement is the women who have created it. We are limited by the boundaries of our own history — both the history of the women’s liberation movement itself and of the individuals who comprise it.’
The optimism of the early women’s movement, with its claim to speak for all women, has gone. Roberta Hunter-Henderson recalls being very keen to see Red Rag continue and therefore looking for possible new members. Eventually she proposed Liz Cooper, Biddy Crewe and Kerry Hamilton, all of whom participated in producing the next issue.
The first two articles in Red Rag 13 focus on the inadequacies of organised socialist-feminist conferences. Biddy Crewe writes that ‘it is bewildering that women should need to re-define themselves into various sub or supra (?) categories within feminism’ in ‘feministsocialists socialistfeminist’. Roberta Hunter Henderson, in ‘Looking Over Our Shoulders’ casts a retrospective eye over the experience of women’s conferences in general and the ‘women and socialism’ conferences (which started as discussions of ‘women and socialist theory’). ‘Looking back’, she observes, ‘there has always been a certain tension at women’s conferences; an opposition, assumed to be between a point of view stemming from the left”, and a voice categorised as ‘radical’ or even ‘spontaneous’ feminism which demanded a new expression of politics, and different ways of organising ourselves as women.
In the same issue Red Rag introduces new and urgent themes – the increased strength of fascist groups, the institutionalisation of racism and its links to the politics of ‘Thatcherism’. That issue also signals the formation of black women’s groups and the emergence of Black Feminism. Margaret Thatcher was already no stranger to the pages of Red Rag. In 1972, the year it launched, she was Minister for Education and introduced a White Paper on Nursery Education which was to underlie Tory thinking for decades. Its aim was to provide some hours of learning for pre-school children rather than childcare and it was not intended to enable mothers of young children to go out to work; in the event no new nurseries were built with government money. Councils were given the power to open nurseries but not the resources to do so. Red Rag 4 had carried Sue Cowley (O’Sullivan’s) response to the White Paper, ‘Thatcher’s Nurseries – Expansion or Containment’. When Mrs Thatcher became Conservative Party leader in 1975, Elizabeth Wilson had questioned whether her womanhood would be of any use to women generally, in RR9's ‘An Opposing Image’.
A pivotal moment of 1977 was ‘The Battle of Lewisham’ which ensued when the National Front attempted to march through Lewisham to New Cross and a coalition of anti-racist and anti-fascist forces rallied to prevent them. There are three contributions relevant to this in RR13. ‘. . . and what did we find?’ is an article from the Brixton Women’s group, the first Black women’s group in Britain, an eloquent denunciation of the policy of ‘active underdevelopment’ which characterised the treatment of Caribbean women whether in the West Indies or in Britain – a telling insight which still carries weight. The writers pointed out that women ‘were a substantial part of the labour force that Britain imported to meet its economic needs and we remain a significant part of that force’[xvii] (which we now know as the ‘Windrush generation’). They had been invited to build a better future for themselves and for Britain, but found appalling living and working conditions and rampant racism in social life, in politics, and in the police force.
‘Developing Organisation’ is taken from a letter from the Manchester Women and Socialism group, thinking through their experience of organising a women’s contingent to an anti-fascist rally in Hyde, Cheshire: how they drew on the experience of the women’s contingent at Lewisham and their subsequent reflections and doubts about whether such protests could ever provide a peaceful arena which mothers and children could attend. ‘Patriarchy – Patriotism’ is taken from a paper produced by the Women and Fascism study group at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Its focus was the sexual politics of British fascism and of fascism in general. They also pointed out how immigration laws aimed at reducing the numbers of black immigrants legitimated racism; as they explained, these laws had been gathered into Conservative politics under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher after her claims in 1978 that British people feared being ‘swamped’ by immigrants from the New Commonwealth and Pakistan. Her speech was widely interpreted as a bid to capture votes from NF supporters. The Birmingham group also contributed a review of literature on ‘Women and the National Front’ to RR15.
By the time Red Rag 15 was produced, in 1980, ‘the Conservative takeover of government’ had taken place and Britain had become ‘a political desert’. Although its editorial strikes a defiant note, the mood overall is despondent and both defiance and despondency are expressed in the editorial’s final paragraph. ‘All the evidence of the five years since the women’s equal rights legislation was implemented, since divisions began to rend the Women’s Liberation Movement asunder and since the crushing defeat of the Left . . . [confirms that] . . . We’ve got no alternative but to safeguard and expand the frontiers and effectiveness of our autonomous political movement.’ But in reality that autonomous movement was no more. Women’s Liberation was and had been changing from a movement with some semblance of a centre to a diverse set of feminisms with no organised movement. In my view this outcome signified the success of women’s liberation in seeding new versions of itself even if it brought continuing divergences and conflicts.
The term ‘women’s liberation’ slipped gradually out of use although its networks and loyalties and some groups lived on. This is one reason why the most productive way to study feminism is by researching networks rather than individual lives. Other significant changes included the professionalization of feminist theory and scholarship, with their extension into adult education and higher education institutions through the growth of Women’s Studies. Several members of the collective taught some of the first Women’s Studies classes. New journals were also started. The first number of Feminist Review, in whose development Elizabeth Wilson played a pivotal role, appeared in 1979. As with Red Rag its editorial team was made of women who would describe themselves as feminist and socialist, but unlike Red Rag there was no aspiration to be a political feminist-socialist journal: ‘Our editorial policy is to give priority to work which seems to us to further the theoretical and political debates central to the women's liberation movement, but this relevance may, we should stress, be indirect rather than explicit.’[xviii] One-time contributors to Red Rag contributed to Feminist Review both through their writing and by participation in the editorial board. Roberta Hunter-Henderson was a founder of the feminist-internationalist newspaper Outwrite (1982-88); Daphne Davies was part of the Newcastle-based group which produced Scarlet Women (1976-81); Sally Alexander was a founder of History Workshop Journal which has played a significant part in the development of Women’s History and is still an editor. In general it can be said that whatever they did in later life, privately or professionally, as teachers, lecturers, scholars, writers, artists, designers, organisers, researchers, publishers and editors, the women who had spent part of their political lives working within Red Rag carried the questions and dilemmas generated by that experience with them.
Red Rag was unique within the women’s movement in its commitment to Marxist and feminist ideas and practices and in the collective desire of its contributors to explore and question both. Looking back at its history I feel full of admiration for Gladys Brooks and Florence Keyworth. They were prescient in their preparedness to imagine a strategy of alliance and mutual respect with non-party women, as they put it, and to persist with it in the face of censure from the Party of which they had been members for many years. It feels highly fitting that Red Rag should take its place as the first all-woman journal in this internet archive. It is an important time for this to happen since the questions which absorbed the intellectual curiosity of the women on the collective are now re-emerging centre stage.
Rosalind Delmar October 2020
I would like to thank Alan Finlayson of The Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust and Natalie Thomlinson of Reading University for their help and support in preparing Red Rag for digitisation and online publication.
Val Charlton, Bea Campbell and Sally Alexander facilitated the process of thinking Red Rag through the memories of the highs and lows of women’s liberation politics. Val extended warm hospitality to us all for our planning meetings and researched the files left with her when Red Rag ceased publication. I am grateful to her for sending me an image of her ‘Read Red Rag’ poster. Bea provided useful contact details from the early days and Sally lent me papers and letters from her years on the collective. Other members were also generous with their memories and reflections. In particular I would like to thank Alison Fell, Irene Fick, Kerry Hamilton, Roberta Hunter Henderson, Angela Weir (Mason), Mandy Merck, Nell Myers, Sue O’Sullivan, Linda Redford, Sheila Rowbotham, Barbara Taylor and Elizabeth Wilson.
Many women associated with Red Rag have since died. They include: Gladys Brooks, Mikki Doyle, Florence Keyworth, Caroli Mullen, Maria Loftus, Adah Kay, Sheila Young (Ernst) and Sheila Brown (McKechnie)
My special thanks are due to Sally Brooks for finding her mother’s papers relating to Red Rag and sending them to me. Jean Gardiner supplied helpful memories of the Political Economy of Women group (part of the Conference of Socialist Economists) during 1972 and 1973 and I am grateful to Daphne Davies for her reflections on her year as a member of the Red Rag collective in 1978. Kerry Hamilton brought me discussion notes from her years on the collective. Finally I would like to thank Michele Barrett, Miriam Glucksman and Cecily Nowell-Smith for enlightening discussions. None of them are responsible for what I have written. Any mistakes that can be found here are my own.
When researching Red Rag the Women’s Library at the LSE proved an invaluable resource, the librarians on duty always helpful; I would particularly like to thank Anna Towlson, Archives and Special Collections Manager, for her help in identifying the most useful boxes to delve into. The ‘Sisterhood and After’ oral history collection available online at the British Library contains interviews with several women who were part of Red Rag; the BL online digitised Spare Rib is fascinating to explore for contributions from Red Rag members and for much else. Bishopsgate Institute holds the collections of individual members as well as providing access to some collections from the Feminist Library. The May Day Rooms also holds relevant collections – for example that of the Greenham Common Peace Camp. Feminist Archive North is based in Leeds and Feminist Archive South in Bristol. The Labour History Museum contains material relevant to the North West. For anyone researching the CPGB, Graham Stevenson’s Encyclopedia of Communist Biographies is invaluable.
[i] Some difficulties may be encountered by anyone who is trying to work out the dating and numbering of the issues. Not all Red Rags were dated, although almost all were numbered. I’ve tried to work out dates by consulting minutes etc. which have survived. Nos 1 and 2 were published in 1972, 3 and 4 in 1973, 5, 6 and 7 in 1974 (probably), 8 and 9 in 1975, 10 and 11 in 1976, 12 in 1977, 13 and 14 in 1978 and 15 straddles 1979 and 1980. The last two issues were not numbered, and were labelled UNNUMBERED in the digitised version for indexing purposes. This remains true for No 14. For some reason the first five pages of No 15 are missing from the digitised version.
[ii] Obituary by Ken Gill, Independent, 12 December 1995
[iii] Obituary, Peoples World (United States Communist Party), March 19 2013
[iv] I am grateful to Sally Brooks for sending me a copy of this paper.
[v] Like calculating dates of issues, calculating active members of the collective from the names on the masthead is a complicated task. Sometimes no names are given, as in the first three issues. Sometimes members are given forenames and surnames, sometimes only forenames; some members change their surnames – Sue Cowley becomes Sue O’Sullivan, for example. For the first six issues, anyone interested in joining the collective could be invited to attend meetings to get a flavour of the work; this accounts for a number of ‘one-off’ listings. The editorial in RR6 explains the new policy adopted which closed the collective during production. Not everyone listed is a member of either a women’s liberation group or of the CP (or both). For example, some are members of the Gay Liberation Front, and so on.
[vi] Her work was featured in the Tate Modern Display A Year in Art 1973, Nov 2019 to Mar 2020.
[vii] Feminist Archive North has a useful chronology of the women’s liberation movement 1965-79. https://feministarchivenorth.org.uk/
[viii] The second pamphlet, Women and the Welfare State, by Elizabeth Wilson explored the complicated relationships women have with the Welfare State both as consumers and as employees. An expanded version was published by Tavistock in 1977, viz. E Wilson Women and the Welfare State.
[ix] Bea Campbell, letter to The Guardian re Sheila McKechnie obituary ‘Sheila's brave, undogmatic, personally modest and politically ambitious thinking infused our project, based on the life cycle of mothers. She and I - with Valerie Charlton, Kerry Hamilton and Adah Kay - proposed a politics of time as well as money;’ 6 January 2004.
[x] New Statesman 29 April 2002: ‘Suffragette City: Feminism is not about table dancing or ironic posturing’.
[xi] A list of these workshops can be found at the end of Red Rag 6.
[xiii] Women leaving Red Rag for political reasons was not unprecedented. Part of the editorial in Red Rag 6 (early in 1974) discusses the ‘unresolved’ issue of political identity and goes on, ‘Since it came into existence, the Red Rag collective has gone through a turnover of women active in the group. Some women have left for political reasons, some because of pressure of work outside the group.’
[xiv] Groups included Women and Anthropology, Women and Literature, etc. See Patriarchy papers, 1976.
[xv] When members of the collective left they often suggested others who might take their place,. Two of the new members listed in Red Rag 11 were my nominees
[xvi] There were 2 issues of Red Rag in 1976 (10 and 11), two further in 1977 (12 and 13), one in 1978 (14) and one in 1979-80 (15).
[xvii] See ‘Black Women Organising’, Brixton Black Women’s Group. Feminist Review No 17 November 1984
[xviii] Feminist Review Vol 1, Issue 1, March 1979