|From Sheila Rowbotham
(based on memories, conversations and diary entries)
While visiting Essex University the students told me they were planning a 'Revolutionary Festival' on 10th February . Partly because of the Black Dwarf Women's Issue it was decided to have a meeting at the festival on women. This was to be our first public meeting
I got a lift down with Jean McCrindle and Sally Alexander in the car. Although unsure what to expect we were charged with a powerful sense of anticipation. I remember the intensity of our talking and the feeling of mutual discovery. Ideas in the early day of women' liberation seemed to just spring out of a process of recognition. This connection of experiences was all the more remarkable because it was an exchange of perception which had been so private. All those reactions, those vagrant thoughts which you had kept to yourself suddenly came to acquire a new social meaning. However along with the new found affinities came also a realisation of distance.
I sat in the back seat thinking that Sally and Jean had a bond which I could not share - they both were the mothers of young daughters. Even though there were many common perceptions, I was thus conscious of being slightly apart. I was a detached atomistic one, not a mother. There were things I did not know. Contrary to the stereotypes, the early women's movement was respectful towards the women with children; they were our equivalence to the marxist proleteriat. Yet motherhood remained the uncrossed barrier and was inwardly mysterious to me. There were whole realms of my friends' lives which I could not comprehend.It was a freezing winter's day and the isolated campus of Essex University had the air of besieged space station in some bizarre science fiction other world. Roberta Hunter-Henderson remembers trailing around with Jean-Luc Godard who was there to film for British Sounds, lifting the long dresses which we now wore, to prevent them from becoming sodden in the much trampled snow. I have no recollection of this myself. Essex and Cambridge produced a new spirit of anarcho-situationist politics which targeted well-known media figures as sinister agents of the 'spectacle'. John Arden and David Mercer were to receive rough treatment at the festival.
While the students wrote revolutionary slogans on the walls I sought out a friend in the tiny beleagured International Socialist Group, Julian Harber. Julian was the son of one of the pioneer British Trotskyists. He spent his time at university arguing against the aimless sloganising and erratic acts of violence and was thus regarded as a moderate. Reared in schism he bore this with irony and had dug himself into a little poster workshop with a small group of friends. They were busy producing propaganda with which they hope to make contact with Colchester Trades Council.
The women's meeting was in a large lecture hall and it was packed. Amongst the chaotic atmosphere of the 'Revolutionary Festival', Branka Magas from the New Left Review, began to read a theoretical paper, she held her head down speaking in a low voice with a Yugoslav accent. Reason and analysis did not cut much ice that day. You could feel the current of emotion charging around the hall. It was a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof kind of meeting not an academic seminar. Yet the fight for space to speak undisturbed felt like a life and death struggle.
The situationist influence on what later came to be called 'libertarianism' was attuned to many incipient features of the new capitalism which was coming into being. But it also justified an irrationality which I found arrogant and thoughtless. One of the students came in laughing with a woman on his back. Someone threw toilet paper from a balcony and it cascaded down in long white tendrils. The lights were turned on and off.
In the discussion a sedate member of the Communist Party (which was regarded as the equivalence of the right wing) tried to take another tack. When a woman complained about having to type out the leaflets, he stood up to explain that there had to be some division of labour. Not everyone understood what should be put in the leaflets. By this time some of the women in the audience were in an angry mood and we hissed and booed - this time in alliance with the libertarians who did not believe in any form of direction or leadership.
One man, at least, at the meeting was appalled by the men's response. A visiting German student who Vinay Chand tells me was Henning Khulman, stood up in the left corner of the room and spoke with calm authority. He warned the men that they would be making a big mistake if they failed to listen and acknowledge what the women were saying. In Germany already the men's derisive reaction had created a very bitter rift. Despite the hysteria-edged political ethos at Essex his words carried conviction. There was a pause, people were reflecting.
We weren't about to let it go at that and announced a follow-up meeting. Two men came along to this smaller meeting. One was a bearded sikh maoist from Hemel Hempstead who was always known as Mr Bras. A man of uncompromising and dogmatically held opinions he had already provoked a fight in RSSF. The Hemel Hempstead maoists were to play a disastrous role in women's liberation and Mr Bras was to be responsible for a decision to ban men from Women's Liberation conferences when he refused to stop speaking despite an overwhelming show of hands voting for him to shut up at an early conference in Skegness. Mr Bras at this first meeting told us we should read Mao, Lenin and Stalin. This didn't go down very well. Then the other man at the meeting told us we sounded like a women's tea party because we kept giggling in high-pitched voices.
Militancy was being thrust upon us. 'I always rewrite his bloody leaflets when I type them anyway' hissed one exasperated new recruit to feminism. So much for men's strategic political prose!
Reflections, memories, anecdotes