Friday, 19 January 2007

Being a Socialist Woman – An Activist’s Experience

As regular readers will know my PhD thesis is on the radicalisation and commitment of socialist activists. This means I’m spending a great deal of time undertaking intensive life history interviews with comrades from the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party.

As women’s liberation remains a key political question for all radical projects, I ask all my respondents for their views on the matter given the difficult historical relationship between feminism and socialism. Below is a small section of an interview I did with an SP member a couple of months ago. In the extract she responds to questions about her experience of being a woman and a revolutionary socialist; her involvement with the internal caucus, Socialist Women; and whether there are significant political issues arising from gendered dispositions and outlooks.

I hope all readers will find something interesting in the transcript, and if it gets some male comrades out there to be more sensitive to women comrade’s perceptions, so much the better.

For your information, I = Interviewer, and R = Respondent.

I: I know being a bloke this is quite a difficult question to ask, but do you think being a woman has meant being a socialist is somehow different to what it is for men? Do you think there are things expected of you as a socialist woman that isn’t expected of socialist men?
R: … Doing women’s meetings! (laughs). I guess there can be a little bit of, “you should be bringing women into the party”. Some times you get that, depending on the branch you’re in and what the situation is. The first lead off I did was a woman’s meeting-related lead off to a group of young men (laughs). That was interesting! I think some women feel the pressures of going into places that are perceived as “male environments”. I’ve always been perfectly happy with that but I know for other women it has been an issue. This can be reflected in where meetings are held. If a branch is mostly men they will be quite happy to meet in a rough bit of town in a backstreet pub. If you’re a woman you have to go along and be assertive about not being happy coming here on your own. Other women will feel the same so you’ve got to change it. But overall I wouldn’t say my gender has mattered too much. A lot of the leading members of the party are women so you have a lot of role models and also a lot of these women have families so you realise you can do it. It shows it’s possible to go full time and have a family. They also provide a support network so you can talk about how they do this and that.
I: Have you found the woman’s group in the party quite useful?
R: It hasn’t really taken off in a big way. They do have meetings but these generally take place in different parts of the country. The last one was in Yorkshire and I was living down south so it was hard for me to get to, so it’s been difficult for me to get involved. Other female comrades are very much into the women’s group. It is positive. I took some young women who weren’t party members but were interested from Brighton to one of the last women’s meetings in London. They were happier going to that than coming to the branch meeting, so the group is definitely a positive thing to have. One of the best I had was a South West regional meeting when I was living in Bristol. It was small but very good. The branch I was in at the time was male dominated, in fact I think it was nearly all men so it was nice to talk in a different way, because I think women tend to talk about politics in a different way to men. It is nice to be in such an environment, it can be more comfortable.
I: Have you come across any comrades in the organisation who might treat women members differently from the men?
R: Not that I can think of, in fact I think it might be more the other way. Often male comrades don’t think about things from a woman’s perspective, such as the desirability of meeting in a back alley pub. If a meeting is going to go on until late that might not think about whether the women are able to get home safely, things like that. This is apart from the “you must do the women’s meetings” you get sometimes (laughs). You do think though just because I’m the only woman in the branch, why should I do the women’s meetings? Apart from that it’s not been an issue.
I: Seeing as you’re pregnant at the moment how has that changed comrades’ perceptions toward you?
R: I think they expect me to collapse a lot! (laughs). They all look very worried to me! They’ve been very good about not asking me to do things; it’s been very much up to me what activity I’ve done. This is very good because I would not want to feel that pressure of doing a stall when in fact I wasn’t feeling very well. They’ve been very welcoming, very supportive. Being pregnant means I’ve done a lot less physical stuff such as stalls because I can’t stand for very long. I do stand I feel a bit off so that’s not much use really! I’ve done less of that sort of thing. I didn’t go on the student demo when normally I would have done. I’ve still gone to meetings though and that sort of thing and I’ve still been speaking, even if a little cloudy-headed and getting hot! (laughs).
I: (Laughs). Turning now to some of the ideas of feminism, do these tend to have currency among the women’s group? Or does the group tend to just provide a space where “women’s issues” can be discussed and reflected on in more depth?
R: More of the latter I think. People I’ve brought to meetings and other people who’ve come along as well don’t have illusions in strong feminist ideas. But women’s meetings I’ve been to are more about specific issues. For example, ‘What policy should we have on unionising sex workers?’ The way we discussed it was in more or less the same way we discuss all ideas in the party. It has been more like that than bringing in feminist ideas.
I: Also when you report back to branches about the women’s meetings you’ve been to, are you met with genuine interest? Or do some roll their eyes and you can tell they’re not that bothered really?
R: There has been a lot of interest, certainly on the one in London I went to. The branch in Brighton had quite a few young men and they were very interested, I think we actually had a separate branch meeting to discuss some of the issues that had come up.


maps said...

Good luck with the PhD. I'm not sure how far in you are, but I hope you'll post draft chapters and the like on your blog for our edification. Don't underestimate the importance of the work you're doing, and the appeal that it can have: I've been amazed how many people are interested in my pedantic excavations of episodes from the intellectual biography of EP Thompson. Your topic is interesting, and the field of oral history is a fascinating one. There's been some nice work done recently down here on the experiences of women in the Communist Party of NZ.

Unknown said...

I think you ran into a few issues on the whole which I do all the time. You can give me a call when you have time. I am not hard to find. Best of luck with your work.

Atlee Yarrow

Anonymous said...

Phil: What I would also be interested in and expanded on is how women, mainly younger women, relate to feminism.

And how do your women comrades perceive socialist feminism. I know the negatives stereotypes attached to feminism and so wonder how they cut through it. Such as relating feminism to the everyday experiences as a woman etc.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Maps. I'm approximately half way through my 3 years, and my time is currently spent transcribing and churning out occasional drafts. I will be putting up more stuff in the future, I promise!

Louise, there are as many attitudes toward feminism as there are activists in the SP, never mind women members! It is an area I'm exploring and more will be forthcoming some point down the line.

Okay, got to wake myself up a bit and set some time aside for a report of this weekend's CANE conference.