Women’s history

ASIO and surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the 1970s

This post is an extended version of the paper that I gave recently for the ‘How the Personal Became Political’ symposium, hosted by the ANU Gender Institute. I am posting this on International Women’s Day 2017, so enjoy!

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In the volume of the official history of ASIO that deals with what Greg Langley has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975,[1] there is one mention of the women’s liberation movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, John Blaxland lists the women’s liberation movement as just one of the social movements that was monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights.[2] Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from other autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in the Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology,[3] that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the women’s liberation movement during this period.

Unlike the National Archives in London, the National Archives of Australia have been very forthcoming in releasing ASIO files from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, particularly due to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by people who were subject to ASIO surveillance, as well as by a small number of interested journalists and academics. Although, as Tim Sherratt has written,[4] the publicly available ASIO files often have the most controversial elements still redacted, while more sensitive files are retained by the government. Still the amount of material that has been released has been highly useful for contemporary historians.

Most of the publicly available ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement have been digitised and cover the period from 1970 to 1980. As well as four national files (which are the papers that I have explored), there are a number of files dedicated the movements in New South Wales (9), Victoria (4) and the Australian Capital Territory (2). There are probably more files dedicated to the movements in the other states and territories, but some files on South Australia and Tasmania are incorporated into the national files.

ASIO were not the only branch of the state to be involved in the monitoring of the women’s liberation movement. The Special Branches of each state police force were involved in the surveillance of feminist activists across Australia, with Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter revealing the in-depth monitoring of socialist feminist Carole Ferrier by the Queensland Special Branch between 1975 and 1989.[5] The Special Branch files in most states have been destroyed (or are deemed not locatable),[6] with only glimpses of the work of these Special Branches being seen in their correspondence with ASIO maintained in the released ASIO files (one exception to this being the papers of the South Australian Special Branch made public during the inquiry by Justice White into the Special Branch’s security records in 1977).[7]

As Henderson and Winter, as well as Jon Piccini,[8] have noted in their research into ASIO and Special Branch files, while these files give us a detailed record of events, they also present a narrative of activism as determined by the surveiller and not by the subject of the surveillance. Their actions are deemed noteworthy if they fit in with ‘paranoid’ outlook of the security services, who were trained to see potential threats from a multitude of otherwise innocuous sources. As much as we see the behaviour of the activist in these files, we also see the thinking underpinning the actions of the state, who were much more readily to believe that many independent actors were part of a wider conspiracy against the established political and social order in Australia at the time.

The ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement assembled at the national level begin in early 1970. This provides evidence of three main motivations for surveillance of the movement. Firstly, the file contains plenty of clippings on the women’s liberation movement in the United States and their radicalism, and, as Ruth Rosen has shown, the FBI showed great interest in these feminist activists for a variety of reasons. This suspicion was transferred from the US to Australia, as Australian women started to read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and other US feminist writers. Secondly, the files also note the beginning of various Women’s Liberation Groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1969-70, who are in communication with each other and looking to organise on a national scale, with the Sydney group coming first and then others taking inspiration in the other cities. Thirdly, ASIO were already heavily monitoring the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and it is from these two groups that many of the more militant socialist feminists emerged.

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CPA feminist Olga Silver selling ‘Tribune’

Both the CPA and SYA were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the wider cultural radicalism of the era and tried to organise around the issue of women’s liberation, both within their party structures and within broader activist circles. In the fourteen years since 1956, the CPA had undergone a significant change from a very pro-Stalin and pro-Chinese militant party to a proto-Eurocommunist party that sought to embrace the new social movements that arose in the 1960s. As Margaret Penson has shown, under the new leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA started to take the idea of women’s liberation seriously and several women party members were involved in organising around the issue, with a national conference on women held by the CPA in 1970.[9] At the same time, those within the Party who eschewed these social movements (and held a more pro-Soviet viewpoint) started to agitate against the Aarons leadership and eventually broke away in 1971 to become the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

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The SYA were a Trotskyist group that emerged out of the anti-war movement at Sydney University, influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party and the Mandelite Fourth International, including the British International Marxist Group. Critical of the Communist Party’s ‘Stalinism’, the SYA emphasised its anti-imperial solidarity work, including the establishment of the Third World Bookshop in Sydney, which became an organisational hub for the SYA (but also bugged by ASIO).

A 1971 report on the Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference, organised by the CPA’s Aileen Beaver, explicitly outlined the ASIO’s interest in the women’s liberation movement in Australia:

Over the past months the Women’s Liberation Movement has been gaining increasing support… and many of the Groups appear to be dominated by Communist Party of Australia (CPAS) members, eg, the Working Women’s Women’s Liberation Group in Sydney or by Maoists eg, the Worker Student Alliance Women’s Liberation Group in Melbourne or by Trotskyists eg, Sydney Bread and Roses Women’s Liberation Group. It is for this reason that ASIO is maintaining an interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (my emphasis)[10]

Much of ASIO’s surveillance of the women’s liberation movement came from its surveillance of the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance, through the bugging of the CPA and SYA offices, and reports by agents at meetings and conferences. As David Lockwood has noted, these ASIO files often observed the mundane every-day activities of those involved in progressive and left-wing politics. Page after page is filled with short memos outlining particular people of interest, their links to other people and organisations under surveillance and often with a short description of the person. With the case of feminist activists, these candid remarks by ASIO agents reveal the sexist contempt that they had for the women’s liberation movement at the time. For example, a memo on Isabelle Sandford (also known as ‘Coonie’) stated:

Coonie is approximately 23 years of age, approximately 5’2” tall, with shoulder length straight dark brown hair. She has brown eyes, weights approximately 8 stone. She has a good figure, is neat and well groomed. She is not popular with the other members of the Women’s Liberation Group as they consider she talks a lot of rot, and has in fact been accused on occasions of being a liar.[11]

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Another memo on Elisabeth Elliott seemed to complain that while she was considered ‘a very attractive girl’, she was deemed to be ‘untidy in her general appearance’.[12]

The CPA had overseen the establishment of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in the 1950s, but by the early 1970s, it was being taken over by the Women’s Liberation Groups which involved both CPA and SYA members. One report from November 1970 noted ‘a lot of bickering’ at a South District branch meeting over whether the UAW was still the ‘main CPA women’s organisation’,[13] with dissidents (who would eventually form the SPA) allegedly pressing for the traditional organisation to maintain its role. In March 1971, ASIO further noted that future SPA leading figure Pat Clancy:

spoke disparagingly of the CPA leadership’s attitude of concentrating on Women’s Liberation as he feels that the potential of Women’s Liberation is minor compared to the possibility of organising women in the industrial area.[14]

The CPA maintained its support for women’s liberation movement and published a pamphlet in 1971 titled, What Every Woman Should Know, under the guise of the Women’s Liberation Working Women’s Group. An ASIO intercept report noted that the CPA sold out its initial run of the pamphlet and that hundreds of copies were to be sent to CPA bookshops in Melbourne and Perth.[15] In July 1972, ASIO still saw the CPA as ‘the best appointed Women’s Liberation’ group, but noted that ‘even within it there is quite strong opposition from many of the men’.[16] An agent’s briefing from 1972 National Congress of the CPA noted that one male Communist Party member spoke out against women’s liberation at the Congress, reporting:

He was very much against the part of Women’s Liberation where they were men hating. He felt that this was a bad attitude which could do nothing but harm to the organisation.[17]

As Steve James has written, the primary function of ASIO was intelligence gathering,[18] but one wonders about what use the information gathered by ASIO agents would be. For example, after a Women’s Liberation Conference held in Guthega in NSW in January 1972 by a faction within the SYA, a brief called for the following from any agents or informants attending the conference:

  • Identification of persons attending the Conference with particular reference to their political leanings…
  • Information concerning the reported split within the Socialist Youth Alliance over the issues of Women’s Liberation.
  • Information concerning a possible split in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney following the formation of the New Communist Party (Socialist Party of Australia).[19]

The first three national files are dedicated to the years from 1970 to 1972, but the last file covers the years from 1972 to 1980, suggesting a reduction in interest from ASIO, particularly in relation to the links between the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance to the women’s liberation movement, which was, as quoted above, the main reason for ASIO’s surveillance of the movement. This neatly coincides with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the reform of ASIO after the raid ordered by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in early 1973.

However surveillance did not stop entirely in this period and it seems that ASIO seemed to shift their focus of concern from the women’s liberation movement being a political concern with regards to Communist and Trotskyist entrism to a concern about the impact that the movement was having socially and culturally. One document drafted in November 1972, just before the election of Whitlam, argued explicitly that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a subversive movement… in a unique manner.’[20] Firstly, the report acknowledged, as had been ASIO thinking over the last few years, that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a target movement… for communist action organisations.’[21] The report expanded on this, stating:

This feature of Women’s Liberation, by itself, would make Women’s Liberation of security interest as the expressed aim of the communists is to capture, control, exploit every critical, reformist movement or organisation and develop it into a new revolutionary context.[22]

But this communist infiltration was not the only concern of ASIO. The same report purported:

Women’s Liberation… is not directly concerned with political subversion but is concerned with subversion on a higher and more sophisticated level, (that is social subversion, into which political subversion is incorporated).[23]

This suggested that certain people within the security services believed that the women’s liberation movement were actively undermining the moral fabric of Australian society in the 1970s. The report outlined at length the ways in which this moral subversion alleged manifested itself, including through the degradation of the education system, reconfiguration of sex values and conduct, promotion of drug use, rejection of traditional social values, and undermining of traditional understandings of ‘democracy’.

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ASIO outlines the ‘subversive’ agenda of the WLM in Australia (1972)

‘Because of its relentless critique of the existing social order, and the unique nature of its critique,’ ASIO stated, the women’s liberation movement was ‘a fertile field for communist activity’.[24] The report continued…

Women’s Liberation is engaged in the same process of dismantling existing institutions that the communists engage in AFTER the revolution (and, of course, continuously attempt). The communists are delighted to have a ‘captive audience’ which can be mobilised against the capitalist system…

From the Women’s Liberation social analysis, then, it is a short step to the communist analysis of political and social power in capitalist societies.[25]

However as the 1970s progressed, the focus of ASIO on communist entrism in the Women’s Liberation Movement shifted to other parties than the CPA and the SYA (which had become Socialist Workers League after 1972). Between 1972 and 1975, ASIO noted the increased interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The aforementioned report from November 1972 noted that the CPA(M-L) held the line that women should organise inside the Communist Party as ‘Marxism-Leninism is the only correct theory on this question.’[26] Two memos from 1975 reveal that some within the SPA, who were originally sceptical of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, argued that the Party ‘must associate with groups such as Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby because in these groups is where the progressive people are.’[27] Geoff Curthoys was quoted as saying that ‘the S.P.A. must not sever connections with these groups’.[28] Freda Brown reportedly agreed with Curthoys, but stated that ‘the S.P.A. has not got the women’s forces’ to work with these groups.[29]

By 1980, the focus had moved the Australian branch of the Spartacist League, a highly sectarian orthodox Trotskyist group that had grown from the US and UK in the late 1970s. A memo from June 1980 commented that the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand were ‘active in two main groups… the Gay Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole, not in individual groups within the movements’, with the Women’s Action Committee identified as the group that the Spartacists were ‘specifically interested in’.[30] In one document from 1980, ASIO outlined the strategy of the Spartacists to acquire members, remarking ‘[i]t is a very long slow process but they gradually draw people away from groups like Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights’.[31] However a document from 1977 had already noted that the Women’s Liberation Movement had already expelled a number of Spartacist League members.[32]

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From ‘Australian Spartacist’, May 1980.

The current batch of files run out in 1980, but the last file of the series demonstrates that ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement had greatly waned by the late 1970s. Over the preceding decade, the movement had moved from the extra-parliamentary sphere to the heart of parliamentary politics and policy, as evidenced, for example, by the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the first Advisor on Women’s Affairs by Gough Whitlam in 1973. The role that the far left played in Australian politics had also waned after the upturn in radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that surveillance of the far left and other social movements continued into the 1980s, but the files relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement do not continue into Hawke era.

[1] Greg Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Homefront, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

[2] John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 4.

[3] Anne Summers, ‘Number C/57/61: What ASIO Knew’, in Meredith Burgmann, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: New South, 2014).

[4] Tim Sherratt, ‘Turning the Inside Out’, Discontents, October 24, 2016, http://discontents.com.au/turning-the-inside-out/ (accessed 6 March, 2017)

[5] Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Police Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) pp. 349-367.

[6] Andrew Moore, ‘“A Secret Policeman’s Lot”: The Working Life of Fred Longbottom of the New South Wales Special Branch’, in John Shields (ed), All Our Labours: Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1992) pp. 193-226; Mark Finnane, ‘Long Gone, But Not Forgotten’, Griffith Review, 21 (2008) https://griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/ (accessed 7 March 2017).

[7] Justice White, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report (Adelaide: Government of South Australia, 1977); Richard G. Fox, ‘The Salisbury Affair: Special Branches, Security and Subversion’, Monash University Law Review, 5/4 (June 1979) pp. 251-270; Anna Kovac, ‘ASIO’s Surveillance of Brian Medlin’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, 31 (2015) pp. 132-133.

[8] Jon Piccini, ‘“People Treated Me With Equality”: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc During the Cold War’, Labour History, 111 (November 2016) p. 2.

[9] Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[10] ‘Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference’, August 1971, A6122 2573, National Archives of Australia (Canberra).

[11] ‘Isabelle SANDFORD’, 6 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[12] ‘Elizabeth ELLIOTT’, 8 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[13] ‘South Coast District – Communist Party of Australia’, 13 November, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[14] ‘Communist Party of Australia Dissidents – Activities in Trade Unions’, 30 March, 1971, A6122 2274, NAA.

[15] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1971, A6122 2573, NAA.

[16] ‘Communist Party of Australia 23rd National Congress – Women’s Liberation’, 12 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[17] ‘Leslie William SMITH (S/65/20)’, 10 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[18] Steve James, ‘Policing Political Violence in Australia’ in, David Lowe, et. al., Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Internal War (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013) p. 342.

[19] ‘Women’s Liberation Conference, Guthega, New South Wales, 29th-31st January, 1972’, 13 January, 1972, p. 2, A6122 2573, NAA.

[20] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1972, p. 1, A6122 2575, NAA.

[21] Ibid., p. 1.

[22] Ibid., p. 1.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Ibid., p. 2.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[26] Ibid., p. 4.

[27] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206003’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206005’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[30] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Interest in Mass Issues’, 30 June, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[31] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Tactics at Demonstrations’, 23 July, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[32] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ)’, 20 June, 1977, p. 3, A6122 2575, NAA.

ASIO memo on Germaine Greer from 1971

I am currently putting together a work-in-progress paper on ASIO’s monitoring of the women’s liberation movement in Australia for an upcoming symposium hosted by the ANU Gender Institute, ‘How the Personal Became Political: Reassessing Australia’s Revolutions in Gender and Sexuality in the 1970s’. As part of the several ASIO on the WLM that have been digitised, I found this memo on prominent feminist Germaine Greer, written up in response to an article by Richard Neville (of Oz magazine fame) and possible inquiry from the UK security services.

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Alongside this memo, there is a facsimile of Greer’s passport renewal application from the UK, when she was at the University of Warwick. The memo also notes her notoriety in the UK at the time and inquires to her ‘security history’ in Australia. Looking at the records of the National Archives of Australia, no ASIO files regarding Greer as individual have been disclosed at this stage – but files on other prominent feminist activists in Australia during this period suggest that they do exist (someone needs to put in an FOI request for them to be made public).

Like other social movements in Australia, the women’s liberation movement first came to the attention of ASIO because of the involvement of several Communist Party of Australia women in the movement, as well as the fear of the feminist movement spreading from the United States. Greer’s publications feature heavily in the first file, alongside the writings of several others, such as Kate Millet, but the intelligence reports seem to focus on those involved in the Communist Party or the various Trotskyist groups that were around at the time.

After the symposium, I will post a version of my paper. Stay tuned!

Buy ‘Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control’ from Palgrave and save £30

Palgrave cover

This is just a quick plug to let you all know that Palgrave Macmillan are having a “£30 off” sale until December 31, 2016 and while they do publish a ton of great books, you should really use it to buy our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control. You can buy it from the Palgrave website here. Remember to use the code PHLDY16EP.

If you don’t know what the book is about, here’s the blurb:

This book analyses the practice of virginity testing endured by South Asian women who wished to enter Britain between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, and places this practice into a wider historical context. Using recently opened government documents the extent to which these women were interrogated and scrutinized at the border is uncovered.

And here’s some nice words that people have said about it:

“An important and revelatory study of a shameful episode in 20th century British immigration history that was shaped by Imperial racism.” – Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor, The Guardian

“It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of Smith and Marmo’s study. Their chilling documentation of abuses permitted and vigorously denied by the Home Office represents feminist scholarship at its best.” – Philippa Levine, Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin, US

“This historical study examines the intertwining of ‘race’, gender and the body in the application of immigration controls in Britain since the 1970s. Drawing on research in British Government archives, ‘Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control’ begins with the shocking case of virginity testing of a 35 year old woman, who arrived at Heathrow Airport, London in 1979 to marry her fiancé. Smith and Marmo unpick these obscene practices as symptomatic of the de-humanising treatment of migrants from the former colonies and the dense racialized, sexual politics of British border controls. Crucially, Smith and Marmo also explore the incredible resistance of South Asian women and anti-deportation activists against the discriminatory practices of the British state. This important new history of immigration control speaks directly to the contemporary situation of border securitisation in Britain and beyond. It will be of interest to, and will be widely read by all interested in migration, citizenship, human rights, post-colonial migration, and histories of resistance to unjust border controls.” – Dr Imogen Tyler, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University, UK

#BlackPantherWoman: Black Power, gender and limits of transnationalism – a guest post by Jon Piccini

Once again, Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) has written a splendid piece on the recently shown documentary Black Panther Woman and I’m delighted that this blog is able to post it. Jon also wrote this piece on Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police a few months ago.

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The airing of Blackfella Film’s Black Panther Woman on SBS is significant for a few reasons. It highlights sexual crimes and violence within what academics broadly call the ‘New Left’ – those social movements of the 1960s and 1970s which challenged the capitalist/racial/gender/sexual status quo. As the film’s protagonist, Marlene Cummins, notes: “the thing is that violence on women permeates the whole of society: white or black”, and sexist/patriarchal values infused these social movements as well.

Here, I want to look briefly at the construction of masculinity in these movements and how this provided the political foundations for such violence. Secondly, I want to draw out some of the interesting parallels between Cummins’ trip to New York in the film, and similar trips taken by radical aboriginal activists in the 1970s.

Masculinity was at the centre of the 1960s revolts. For the white student left, heroic, handsome figures like Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara were the epitome of a rebellious masculinity, and groups such as Students for a Democratic Society in America (and of course similar groups in Australia) were overwhelmingly led by males who relegated women to menial secretarial or typing jobs – much as women were in the workforce and society at large. Sara Evans has described well how the second wave feminist movement emerged not only out of a rebellion against sexist society – but the continuation of these practices within the white left and indeed the black civil rights movement.

For the ‘coloured’ left, masculinity was equally vital, but for a whole range of other reasons. For black power radicals in the United States, black men had been robbed of their masculinity by the dehumanisation of slavery and their continued status as colonial subjects. If black men had been emasculated and feminised by colonial white society, then the enactment of a proud black masculinity was seen as vital to the reclaiming of this. Such an ideology left little space for women. Stokely Charmical famously commented that the place of black women in the movement was “prone” – women’s place was to ascribe to traditional feminine values and faithfully serve their men – including being effective sexual chattels – so as to not contribute to the colonist’s emasculation.

As Black Panther Woman highlights, this hideous gender politics travelled across the Pacific to Australia alongside the whole package of Black Panther Party iconography, lexicon and practice – fusing with a pre-existing sexism and unofficial code of silence. The place of women in the Black Panther and broader civil rights/black power movement has been reassessed in recent decades, with quite a bit of academic work now existing exploring the importance of both well-known women radicals like Kathleen Cleaver, and the lesser known activists whose day-to-day work was vital to the success of these movements. Marlene’s story of political dedication amidst such personal pain is sobering and heart wrenching, highlighting a gap in our understanding of the reality of sexual violence within New Left movements.

The documentary was also fascinating from another perspective – that of the global imagination of radicals during the period. Marlene’s obvious pleasure at being invited to New York to attend a gathering of Black Panther-inspired radicals from around the world is a fascinating mirroring of the experience of another indigenous woman travelling to America forty-five years earlier – Patsy Kruger. Kruger, 30 years old and president of the Victorian branch of the Aboriginals Advancement League, was invited along with four other Australians – Bruce McGuinness, Solomon Belear, Jack Davis and Bob Maza – to attend a the 1970 Congress of African People’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Thankfully for historians, the five recorded their thoughts on the trip in a now very-rare book on the trip.

Upon receiving the invitation to travel to the congress, Kruger recalled thinking “my feeling good could know no bounds”. Interviewed by The Age before her departure, Patsy explained a bit of why she felt such excitement: “Intelligent, vocal and articulate, [Kruger] is determined to learn all she can…about how best to start a revolution for Aboriginal rights in Australia.” This desire to learn from black activists in the USA was mirrored by other travellers, many of whom had already begun using the rhetoric of Black Power in the few years previously to express their frustration at the failure of the 1967 referendum to engender any real change. As Kruger put it, white Australians were

apathetic, selfish or self-centred… oh, they have a conscience about it. They proved that in the 1967 referendum. But they subdued it and didn’t really go to the basic problems of the Aboriginals.

Yet, the visit to the United States actually delivered only mixed results for the travellers. Kruger recalls the Congress of African People’s being a terrific experience, having “met, talked and lived with black brothers and sisters in the struggle, mostly from North America, but also from the United Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa”. Cummins enjoys a similar euphoria in the documentary, being surrounded by activists from around the world united by a sense of (now somewhat nostalgic) attachment to ideals of Black Nationalism.

The significance of this level of contact for aboriginal activists in the 1970s cannot be overstated – for many activists of colour around the world seemed just as unaware of their existence as white Australians pretended to be. Aboriginal activist Bobbi Sykes remembers going to a famous black political bookstore in Harlem, New York, only to be told “that there weren’t any blacks in Australia. Hence no Black Australia section”. Kruger described leaving the conference as a “sister in the struggle for the liberation of black people wherever they are and whoever they are”.

Yet, these important contacts and lessons also highlighted for some the impracticability of global connections. Cummins’ narrative is one of holus bolus transition of Black Panther ideas from America to Australia – but the reality was much more complex. Bob Maza, for example, reflected in a later interview how:

The black situation in the USA made me realise that if our black movement here in Australia is going to be left in the hands of whatever ego-trippers there are around… then we are going to head the same way that the black Americans did.

Maza’s injunction was clear – ultra masculine and violent rhetoric would lead to splintering of the working (if tenuous and contested) coalition in Australia between black and white activists.

On a different note, Jack Davis argued that the experience of black Americans, victims of transportation and slavery yet now a significant part of American life, could not really relate to Australian Aborigines, who had been in Australia “since the creation” and had little purchase on public life. Bob Bellear struck a similar chord, noting how “the thing is that blacks in Australia… can’t equate the problems of this country, the problems of class struggle, the problems of racism in this country with problems in any other part of the world”. “[T]he problem…is getting blacks just to know about each other, in such a vast country as this”, Bellear suggested, and thus overseas experiences should only be of secondary concern.

While debated, the importance of overseas travel to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s cannot be contested, as Cummins’ final uniting with her co-thinkers across the world in Black Panther Woman so splendidly demonstrates. Equally, her gut-wrenching story of sexual abuse is a telling lesson and cautionary tale for those of us who want to make political use of the past.

Jon Piccini is a historian of social movements. His book, Global Radicals: Transnational protest, Australia and the 1960s is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. He tweets at @JonPiccini.

Damned Whores and God’s Police, liberation and the power of activist language: A guest post by Jon Piccini

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A few days ago, a conference wrapped up celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the feminist classic, Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers. A bestseller in its publication year of 1975, as historian Michelle Arrow points out, it has also greatly influenced not only the rise of feminist historiography in Australia, but also society itself, famously selling over 100,000 copies and remaining in print over multiple editions to this day.

The conference allowed for a discussion of just how much Australia – and the world – has changed since the hey-day of the second wave feminist movement. An all-star lineup of men and women from a diversity of fields reflected on how much has been achieved, and what still is to be done. The book itself was obviously central, and its effect on Australia was lauded by all, yet in many ways Summers’ book might be to modern readers a strange work, almost alien.

Summers herself even found re-reading the book to be a surprising experience, particularly due to the language the book employed, or rather, didn’t. “It seems extraordinary today but in the mid-1970s we did not use terms like “domestic violence”, “sexual harassment”, “date rape” or “glass ceiling” because they had not yet been coined.” Activists of the period did not possess today’s highly developed language and understanding of the complexities of female oppression.

Yet, what interested me – as historian of 20th century activism – re-reading the book, was the language that was in it. Words like ‘Liberation’, for example, which seem out of place in the activist lexicon of today. Terms which Steve D’arcy in his work on shifts in activist rhetoric calls that of the ‘New Left’. This language employed words such as liberation, solidarity, oppression and the people, and was the inherited by the many activist groups of the sixties and seventies from the civil rights movement in the USA and anti-colonial struggles in the third world. And it had a decidedly collectivist hue, concerned with webs of power and privilege in a highly stratified capitalist society.

In the book’s final chapter, “Prospects for Liberation”, Summers defines liberation thusly:

Liberation is all about altering the most fundamental tenants of our social organisation; it is about abolishing privilege and exploitation and consolidated power. Unless the interrelationship of all determinants of an oppressed person’s existence are taken into account then we are not talking about liberation. We are merely concerned with juggling the levels of the existing social hierarchy…the concept of liberation explicitly challenges the present distribution of power in society and the fact that a small group of people control the lives of the majority (p. 463-5).

A few things are evident in this brief definition. Firstly, the idea of Liberation is tied to challenging what Sixties (broadly speaking) activists saw as ‘the system’, enwrapped in layers of exploitation and power. Secondly, these layers of oppression could not easily be untangled – there was little point challenging women’s oppression in the workplace, or in education, if you were not to challenge the totality of the ideological state apparatuses which governed women’s (and everyone else’s, to varying extents) lives under capitalism.

Summers also defines liberation in opposition to three other conceptual frames – equality, freedom and rights. And it is in these three frames that much contemporary feminism is framed – it is rare outside of the far-left socialist milieu to find a self-identifying ‘women’s liberationist’. Instead, demands for ameliorating the dreadful conditions of women under 21st century capitalism are often framed around these very terms Summers attacks – freedom of choice, women’s equality and respect for human rights.

So, why does Summers so stridently oppose these activist discourses, which today almost monopolise the language not only of the mainstream feminist movement, but many other progressive causes? In short, none of these terms ask the questions that the framework of the ‘New Left’ did. “Equality of the sexes”, Summers puts it, “has become a new and constantly reiterated catch-cry, an unimpeachable goal which requires no rationalisation and little explanation” (465).

As such, everyone form the League of Women’s Voters to the Liberal Party had adopted its rhetoric. Equality for these groups meant that “women ought to be squeezed into the existing system”, leading them to be “slot…into an extant exploitative sexist class system”. Looking into the future, Summers thought it unlikely that even a Liberal government would turn back the path to women’s equality, but in the end what would be achieved but “the right to be equally exploited alongside men” (465)?

This idea of ‘rights’ – now held up in the form of “Human rights” as the universally applicable political ideology of the present – is largely absent from the book, at least in a positive sense. Instead, demands for objectives like “the right of women to control their bodies” are presented as “generalised and often fairly abstract”—needing to be reimagined in line with local circumstances (460). For instance, in Australia “we could not expect a Bill of Rights…to necessarily alter women’s cultural impotence”, Summers argues, highlighting that the sort of government level changes and laws that are the mainstay of rights activism do little to alter those social relations of exploitation that the language of liberation highlight (466).

The idea of ‘freedom’ comes in for equal criticism – how can we demand freedom of choice – to choose an abortion, or to choose what sort of life we want to lead – when our present scope of freedom is “limited by a form of social existence which is hierarchical, stratified and patently unequal”. Freedom is “usually related to law and to custom” within the apparatus of the sexist, capitalist state and culture, while liberation highlights that “one cannot simply select…one level of the hierarchy to fight against, because all are interconnected”. (463)

This discussion of language and its powers might appear pedantic. What does it matter what words activists use, so long as the meaning is communicated? Indeed, Summers herself makes several positive references in the above mentioned article to the “struggle for equality”, seemingly in contradiction to her previous opposition to the term. As Steve D’arcy points out in his discussion of activist languages, activist words and phrases shift in meaning over time and activists could (and do) use the term equality, for instance, to argue for something closer to liberation.

But still, looking at the language employed in Damned Whores and God’s Police makes one ask questions – particularly why the language of liberation – and the ‘New Left’ vocabulary as a whole, went in to such decline during the 1980s and 1990s. D’arcy asks whether the waning of ‘New Left’ discourse “in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era and the wave of defeats inflicted on the Left in those years, indicate that the new vocabulary is not so much innovation as errancy, straying from radical politics in the direction of a de-fanged adaptation to defeat and political marginality?” D’arcy finds more complex answers to these questions, as I hope to in my new project looking closely at changes in Australian activist rhetoric in the post WWII period.

Dennis Altman, author of 1971’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation and an avowed liberationist who has lost none of his 1960s passions, gave a keynote at the #DWGP40 conference, asking why nobody argues for liberation anymore. Altman contended that perhaps the grand scope and ambition of liberation activism to remake the world might be seen as too utopian in 21st century Australia. However, he argued, it might be just what we need to find a path outside of capitalist hegemony.

Jon Piccini is a historian of social movements. His book, Global Radicals: Transnational protest, Australia and the 1960s is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. He tweets at @JonPiccini.

The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.

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Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, the official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[6] For example, in February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:

GRUNWICKS STRIKE IS ABOUT

IMMIGRANTS             WOMEN

TRADE UNION RIGHTS

WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY[17]

However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]

————————————————————–

[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

[4] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154.

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.

 

 

 

Determining the number of ‘virginity testing’ cases within the UK immigration control system

On this day (February 19) in 1979, Labour MP Jo Richardson led the criticism in the House of Commons of the Home Office and the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees over the gynaecological and physical examinations conducted upon South Asian women migrating to the UK, colloquially known as ‘virginity testing’. During this session of parliament, Rees announced:

a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at.

However a month later, Richardson stated that the Indian government was aware of at least 34 cases. The following post is an excerpt from our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which discusses how much we know from the archival records about the number of cases of ‘virginity testing’ there were between 1968 and 1979.

Palgrave cover

We will never know how many women underwent virginity tests, in part because the government pursued a policy of denial and minimisation. Its reconstruction of the facts – and the shielding of evidence – suited its strategy of maintaining ‘good race relations’. For example, on 19 February 1979, Home Office Secretary Rees asserted in Parliament that ‘a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at’.[i] Yet in contrast to this assertion, we know from Amrit Wilson’s visits to immigration detention centres in 1977 that ‘“virginity tests” were routine’[ii], suggesting a completely different picture of what was taking place on British soil. From official and internal documents, we could only establish that the practice was mainly recorded offshore, at the High Commissions on the Indian subcontinent.

In mid-march 1979, more information emerged at the official level about offshore cases. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Jo Richardson, citing the Indian Minister for External Affairs, revealed that ‘at least 34 cases of virginity testing’ had occurred at the British High Commission in New Delhi.[iii] Behind closed doors, stories of these cases and others were already emerging and being shared amongst certain parties at the Home Office. In a letter in early March 1979 from the FCO to 10 Downing Street staff, Private Secretary J. S. Wall stated that ‘[t]he facts, as far as India is concerned, are that since October 1975 … there appear to have been nine cases in Bombay and 73 in New Delhi’.[iv] By January 1980, the FCO had a much clearer picture of the figures, but was reluctant to make them, or the extent of their impact, known. This was evident in a handwritten note to D. W. Partridge from the Migration and Visa Department of the FCO that we identified, which noted that those 73 cases that had occurred at the British High Commission in Delhi since October 1975 were examinations that ‘formed part of the normal medical examination’ and ‘all examinations [of the genitals] had been visual only’.[v] The same note said there had been 10 cases in Bombay, three of which involved internal vaginal examinations, with it unclear whether the other seven examinations were internal or external examinations of the genitals.[vi]

The note to D. W. Partridge also stated that in Islamabad there had been ‘no requests specifically for vaginal examinations made since 1975’, but acknowledged that ‘in some cases ECOs had asked [the] doctor to report “signs of marriage”’, which was a euphemism amongst High Commission staff for scrutiny to be placed upon the applicant’s genitals, breasts and stomach.[vii] It further stated that ‘no record of the number of such cases’ existed but that ‘they may account to a total of under 20 a year in the past two years’.[viii] The note emphasised that in Dacca, where Alex Lyon knew of previous cases of virginity testing occurring in the mid-1970s, ‘[n]o women were ever referred for vaginal examination’, but admitted that ‘one virginity test’ (emphasis in original) was performed in 1978 ‘by purely external examination, not involving examination of [the] vagina’.[ix]

The same note also referred to the Dacca High Commission, where it was much more common for women to be examined for physical evidence that they had borne children, upon the request of an ECO, which involved doctors examining the breasts and stomach for stretch marks. These cases numbered 20 to 30 per year.[x] The note mentioned that on ‘rare occasions’ women were examined ‘to establish whether they were pregnant when they claimed not to be but obviously were’, and ‘whether the applicants had borne children if conflicting evidence from other family members’ was available.[xi] The note concluded that ‘it is not possible for us to quote a precise and accurate figure’, but gave the approximate figures for the number of women given some form of physical examination to determine whether they had borne children or had ever had sexual relations, as requested by ECOs in South Asia:

          Delhi                            73

          Bombay                       10

          Dacca                      40–60 (over 2 years)

          Islamabad                    [unknown]

          Karachi                        [unknown]

          ————————————-

          Total                            123–143[xii]

There is no evidence in the file that this note was ever typed up and distributed within the FCO other than to Mr Partridge. We also do not know whether and, if so, how Mr Partridge communicated with others on this matter. However, this is the most detailed document that we have identified in our research that records the number of victims of virginity testing and other forms of physical examination imposed upon South Asian women by the British immigration control system. Even though we have captured these figures, there remains a sense that the total picture is difficult to access. Yet these numbers do help us appreciate that virginity testing was far from an isolated practice.

This handwritten note to D. W. Partridge also attempted to draw a distinction between the examinations that occurred at Heathrow and those that occurred in South Asia. Discussing the examinations carried out in Delhi, the note stated that these ‘formed part of a normal medical examination’, but acknowledged that the gynaecologist ‘had been asked to advise on the marital status of the female applicants’.[xiii] However, even though the gynaecologist later stated that ‘all examinations had been visual only and that she had not carried out any internal examinations’[xiv], the examination of the genitals for administrative immigration control purposes, rather than for a medical purpose, was a violation of the human rights of the women involved. The note confirmed that the 10 cases in Bombay involved examinations of daughter dependants (all over the age of 18), with three definitely involving a vaginal examination, as mentioned previously.[xv] While the FCO claimed that these cases were ‘part of a normal medical examination’, a telegram from the High Commission in Delhi stated that it was ‘the practice at all posts in India not … to refer or encourage wives and children under 18 for settlement to have a routine medical examination’.[xvi] The telegram claimed that in the second half of 1979 no women or children under 18 had been referred for medical examination in India, in contrast to 281 husbands.[xvii] This suggests that the physical examination of women at British High Commissions in India was carried out but was not officially recorded, as were medical examinations for men seeking to migrate to Britain.

Guardian front page

[i] Hansard, 19 February, 1979, col. 221.

[ii] Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles, p. 78.

[iii] Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w.

[iv] Letter from J. S. Wall to N. Stephens, 5 March, 1979, PREM 16/2000, National Archives, London (hereafter NA).

[v] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[vi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[vii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[viii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[ix] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[x] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[xi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xiii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[xiv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[xv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, pp. 1-2.

[xvi] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980, FCO 50/676, NA.

[xvii] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980.