Women’s liberation

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!

Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945

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I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!

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“Don’t Let Them Die!”: The British Far Left and the Armagh Women’s Prisoner Protest

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As mentioned here, a former student and I are writing about the expressions of solidarity between the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol in Northern Ireland who were seeking political prisoner status. While we work on a large and unwieldy draft, I thought I would post some stuff on the relationship between the British far left and the women in Armagh, as well as the wider anti-H-Block movement. This is still a work-in-progress so any feedback is most welcome!

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The anti-H-Block campaign that began in Northern Ireland, quickly spanning to the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, was the first real opportunity to build a (pro-Republican) mass social movement since the anti-internment marches of the early 1970s. Culminating in two series of hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, the anti-H-Block campaign brought together the various Republican groups that existed in Northern Ireland, as well as wider support from the labour movement, the far left, the women’s liberation movement and various faith-based and human rights groups in both Ireland and Britain. While the hunger strikes are seen as a turning point in ‘the Troubles’, F. Stuart Ross has argued that just as much happened within the popular anti-H-Block movement ‘outside the prisons’ (his emphasis).[1]

By the late 1970s, many in Britain had begun to think of ‘the Troubles’ as a distant and external issue, despite the regular threats of bombings in London and other cities in England. However the anti-H-Block campaign created new bonds of solidarity, especially as the hunger strikes got underway in late 1980 and then again in early 1981. Although most of those who went on hunger strike were men belonging to the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) at Long Kesh, three IRA women (Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle) incarcerated at Armagh Women’s Goal also participated in the first hunger strike in the final months of 1980. The involvement of these three Republican women drew a substantial amount of solidarity with sections of the far left in Britain.

This post will explore how the far left in Britain demonstrated their solidarity with the three women in Armagh Women’s Goal on hunger strike in 1980 and their wider engagement with the anti-H-Block movement. It will also examine how other women imprisoned in Armagh who were involved in ‘dirty protests’ against the policy of criminalization were perceived by the various groups of the British left, especially looking at the massive amounts of sympathy expressed for the sick inmate Pauline McLaughlin in the left-wing press. While overshadowed by the death of ten hunger strikers in 1981, which generated worldwide outrage at the British Government, the three female hunger strikers at Armagh had a significant impact on how British socialists viewed women within the Irish Republican struggle.

The British left and Irish Republicanism before the H-Block campaign

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the British far left has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and since 1969, the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland stemmed from the position of the Communist International to support for the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[2] The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland,[3] with C. Desmond Greaves helping to establish the Connolly Association in 1938.

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). However, unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement, rather than Sinn Fein or the Irish Republican Army. Before the advent of ‘the Troubles’ in 1969, the Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, and thus requiring a strategy of devolution, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation seen in many other colonies. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[4]

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party were sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, but were completely caught by surprise, like many of the British left, by the events of 1968-69, which saw British troops intervene.

The main Trotskyist group of the period between the 1950s and the late 1960s was the Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy. Like the CPGB, the SLL (and its predecessor, The Club) believed that the force for change in Ireland was the Irish labour movement and were very sceptical of the IRA as existed before the British intervention in 1969. In late 1958, Healy’s group admonished Irish socialists for the divorce of socialism from the national struggle and opined:

The day must come when Irishmen who hold these aims will form an Irish socialist party that can play a vital part in the national and social struggle.[5]

Meanwhile, the IRA was dismissed as having ‘neither ideals nor courage’.[6]

The beginning of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland coincided with the explosion of the far left in Britain, with the radicalism of 1968 seeing the emergence of the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, both Trotskyist groups that had broken away from being entrist factions within the Labour Party. For many on the left in Britain, the landing of British troops in Derry in August 1969 was initially welcomed as bulwark against the sectarian violence of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the paramilitary police organisation known as the ‘B Specials’, with the International Socialists stating that ‘[o]nly the intervention of British troops stopped the pogrom.’[7] However this intervention was believed to be a temporary measure and that the deepening of the crisis of Northern Ireland gave rise to opportunities for the left to exploit. For example, The Black Dwarf, the newspaper of a broad-based collective including the IMG, praised the people of Bogside for having ‘taken their lives into their own hands’ and while applauding that this had been done by urban struggle and supposedly not using the IRA, the paper called for the people of Ulster to ‘turn the civil war into a revolutionary war’.[8] John Cunningham shows that the Militant were sceptical of the deployment of British troops and instead called for ‘joint defence committees’ run by the labour movement, although Militant’s presence on both sides of the Irish border was minimal at this stage.[9]

However this view soon shifted as the British military presence was seen as an imperialist and invading force, linked to reinforcing Stormont and the structures of the loyalist state. The rising stature of the (Provisional) IRA after 1970 as the vanguard of resistance against the British occupation split the British left. Taking their cues from Leon Trotsky’s opposition to the anarchist terror of the Narodniks in late nineteenth century Russia, Militant argued that the IRA’s terror campaign against the British were adventurist and counter-productive.[10] Both the Communist Party of Great Britain (through the lens of the Communist Party of Ireland)[11] and the International Socialists viewed the leadership of the IRA within the Republican movement signified a failure of the left to convince the working class in Northern Ireland of a socialist solution to ‘the Troubles’. As Eamonn McCann, a founding member of the Belfast-based People’s Democracy, wrote for International Socialism journal in 1972, ‘The Provisionals filled the vacuum created by the effective absence of the Left and the irrelevance of the right.’[12] The most supportive group in Britain towards the IRA (both the Provisional and Official wings) was the International Marxist Group, who had political reservations about the IRA’s programme, but defended the organisations as an anti-imperialist force engaged in a guerrilla war with the British. As an editorial for the IMG’s The Red Mole proposed in 1972:

Both wings of the IRA have the military capacity and the support amongst the people needed to make the occupation of [Free Derry and Free Belfast] a very difficult problem for the British. The IRA does not need to force the British Army out at gunpoint, all they need to do is deny the British any peace…[13]

As the conflict in Northern Ireland became a violent stalemate in the mid-1970s, the British left focused their activities for peace in the region through the Troops Out Movement (TOM), which was established in 1974 by the IMG, the CPGB, the libertarian group Big Flame and the Anti-Internment League. Jacob Murphy has argued that ‘TOM was the leading organisation in the British Left campaign for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.’[14] With the experience of the IMG in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), the TOM with devised on the model of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hope that a focus on the casualties of the conflict ‘would provoke an identical crisis whereby the British public would demand the withdrawal of troops.[15] However there were divisions inside the movement over how the withdrawal of troops would happen – it raised questions of whether the withdrawal would be immediate or a gradual process – and this led to accusations of ‘reformism’ by some of the smaller tendencies within TOM, namely the Revolutionary Communist Group and Workers’ Fight (both of whom had split from the IS previously).[16] The TOM went into a temporary decline in April 1977, when the IMG and Big Flame sought to split the organisation’s leadership, but like the rest of the British far left, after the anti-H-Block campaign, a restructured TOM was rejuvenated for the early 1980s.[17]

The response by the British left to the Armagh protests

 SW Armagh

The left wing press – the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge

As mentioned above, the anti-H-Block campaign regalvanised support for the Irish Republican movement in Britain, particularly as the Thatcher government took a hardline on making any concessions to the Republicans, and the 1980 hunger strikes attracted much attention from the British left. However the various groups on the British left were divided over their attitude towards the hunger strikers. The Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group all supported the hunger strikers and their demands for political prisoner status, with both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker demanding ‘Don’t let the hunger strikers die’.[18]

However Militant were more apprehensive in their approach, explicitly stating that their support was on ‘the basis of humanitarian grounds and not particular support for the IRA.’[19] In the organisation’s internal bulletin, some members questioned whether these ‘sectarian assassins’ could be called ‘political prisoners’ and stated that the ‘methods of the Provos have themselves made it extremely difficult before now to take up this issue.’[20] John Cunningham has shown that Militant argued that any concessions made to political prisoners ‘should be extended to all prisoners on a human rights basis’ and the review of those sentenced in the no-jury Diplock courts ‘should be adjudicated by the labour movement’.[21]

While there was considerable focus on the hunger strike by the seven men in Long Kesh, the newspapers of the CPGB, SWP and IMG all gave significant coverage to the Armagh women in their ‘dirty protest’ campaign and the eventual hunger strike. The Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the three women prisoners. The Morning Star called it ‘a sharp new twist’ in the hunger strike protests,[22] while Socialist Worker, writing in late November 1980, mentioned that ‘three to five of the 28 women will join the strike’, but also noted that ‘Sinn Fein still hopes to persuade them not to go on strike’.[23] The reason for this, the paper gave, was that ‘[i]t is not expected that they could endure a hunger strike for very long.’[24] Socialist Challenge announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the Armagh prisoners with the headline ‘NOW IT’S TEN WHO FACE DEATH’ and called for mass demonstrations by the labour movement in Britain in support of the hunger strikers, warning that ‘silence could well prove fatal for Mairead Farrell and her comrades’.[25]

These newspapers sought to humanise the women involved in the hunger strike, especially as Mairead Nugent’s mother, Margaret, toured the UK to raise awareness about the strike and gave interviews to both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker. In the interview with Margaret Nugent, Socialist Worker emphasised the terrible conditions faced by her daughter and the other women at Armagh, writing that Mairead was ‘[w]ithout anything to do but stare at the walls around her, walls that since February she has smeared with her excrement and with her menstrual blood.’[26] It continued:

Mairead does not do this because her conditions have driven her insane, though they might have done.

She does it because the alternative is to leave her own dirt on the floor where she sleeps. And that is her only choice, if you call it ‘choice’ at all. Like another 31 Republican women prisoners in Armagh jail, Mairead is denied access to toilet and washing facilities because she refused to classed as a ‘criminal’.[27]

Both newspapers conveyed Margaret Nugent’s message that Mairead and the other two on hunger strike at Armagh were determined to continue with their strike and that they entered into this on their own terms. They were neither ‘dupes’ of the IRA leadership, nor ‘weak’ women who were likely to break, as suggested by some within the Republican movement. The Morning Star quoted Margaret as saying:

They have made their decision. It is their choice. It is not up to us.

I just cannot imagine what they will look like after 40 days of hunger strike – but it is a choice I know they are determined to follow through…

I know my daughter is determined to win or die.[28]

The Socialist Worker stated that Margaret didn’t try to change Mairead’s mind, because she respected her too much for that and ultimately, the ‘hunger strike… is the last hope the Republican prisoners have.’[29]

Socialist Challenge reminded its readers that for the hunger strikes and the anti-H-Block movement to work, there needed a large mobilisation of people in sympathy with those on strike ready to challenge the position of the government. In early December, the newspaper warned that first hunger striker could die before Christmas and called for the fight for political status to be ‘stepped up’ before this occurred. To reiterate this point, the paper quoted the latest statement from the Armagh women:

Mobilise your resources and use every possible means to pressurise the British government into conceding our just demands before death and all its stark reality intervenes here.[30]

In the last edition before the Christmas of 1980, the newspaper warned that ‘it now seems certain that a number of Irish political prisoners will die an agonising death over Xmas’ and called for the Labour Party and its supporters to speak out against this.[31] In the event of any death, the newspaper declared that the national Ad Hoc Irish Hunger Strike Committee would hold a picket outside Downing St, with regional demonstrations in Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff to follow.[32]

However the 1980 strike was called off before any deaths and in the aftermath, Socialist Challenge portrayed it as a temporary relief from the deadlock of the strike and in the words of People’s Democracy, a ‘limited victory’. But referring to a statement from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, acknowledged that not much had changed from before the strike and warned of the ‘possibility of another hunger strike’. At the same time, the newspaper pointed to ‘unquestionable victories’ in the campaign, such as the emphasis on mass action, the thousands of people mobilised against the H-Block conditions and the enduring pressure applied by the community in both Ireland and the UK against the British government.[33]

The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Review

While the CPGB, SWP and IMG all covered the hunger strike in their newspapers, only the SWP also discussed the strikes in the monthly journal, Socialist Review. The CPGB’s other publications, the fortnightly Comment and the monthly Marxism Today had no coverage of these strikes or the wider anti-H-Block movement. As an example of this lack of interest, Socialist Review reported that at the 1980 National Union of Students Conference that a SWP call for a collection to be held at the conference for the Armagh women’s campaign was opposed by a Eurocommunist member of the CPGB, ‘to the amazement of even many CP members’.[34]

In the pages of Socialist Review, the SWP’s Irish correspondent, Shaun Docherty, emphasised the importance of the ‘propaganda war’ being fought between the hunger strikers and the British government and the fact that ‘[t]he extent to which their struggle will be successful depends on the response to their tremendous sacrifice’.[35] As Socialist Challenge maintained, Docherty said that the hunger strike campaign needed support from the labour movement in Britain to put pressure on the Labour Party to challenge the Thatcher government. Writing in November 1980, Docherty stated:

It is the job of socialists in this country to build a mass campaign of support for the demands of the hunger strikers that will put enough pressure on the government to make it concede on all issues [regarding political status]…

[W]e must seek to transform this support into a movement that will force the government to concede.[36]

In the months after the strike ended, Chris Harman wrote that the anti-H-Block campaign had challenged the centrality of militarism to the Republican struggle, but acknowledged that ‘[t]he “left” still tolerate the subordination of everything to the military struggle’.[37] As Kieren Allen from the SWP’s Irish sister organisation, the Socialist Workers Movement, wrote, ‘The Provos are clearly seen as the fighters against British imperialism and the most consistent agitators for a united Ireland.’[38] Of the British far left political organisations, the SWP was probably the most influential of the groups that covered the hunger strikes, especially compared with the CPGB, IMG and Militant (although the much smaller Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency also gave considerable coverage to the strike and the wider Irish Republican struggle). However within the party’s coverage of the strike, there was little outside of the pages of Socialist Worker that mentioned the female hunger strikers in Armagh. It is not that the SWP focused on the hunger striking men at Long Kesh, but the women were not explicitly mentioned either – the strikers were only discussed as an entity that did not differentiate between the two groups.

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The Troops Out Movement

A newly restructured TOM was revived by the anti-H-Block campaign and the TOM was part of the campaign in Britain to mobilise people against the continued ‘criminalisation’ policy of the British government. Troops Out, the journal of the TOM, consistently featured stories on the Armagh women as they began their dirty protest in January 1980 and gave coverage to campaigns by various women’s liberation groups, primarily the Belfast-based Women Against Imperialism. The journal continually reported on the 33 women who were involved in the protest inside Armagh Gaol, giving details about the unsanitary conditions faced by these women and how these changed as months went by. At the beginning of 1980, the journal described the conditions as such:

The wing the women are held in is the largest block in the prison, with three stories, and on the Governor’s orders, only one orderly is detailed to clean it. So it is filthy. The women themselves have been on 21-hour lock up, so they have only three hours to clean themselves, their clothes, and their cells. There are two baths for the 33, the washroom has no hot water and regularly flood, there are no mops and one brush, Wing dirt gets walked into cells landing bins are not emptied. The place is maggot-infested.

The warders have cut down even more on toilet visits – twice a day only, and women are allowed only two sanitary towels daily, regardless of need. They have had to relieve themselves in the cells.[39]

In early February 1980, the journal reported a mass attack by prisoner guards on the women, with assistance from riot officers from Long Kesh, and ‘[a]fter this [incident], no-one was allowed to wash or use the toilets’.[40] In May 1980, the journal recounted the more severe conditions that followed as the prisoners stepped up their protest and the wardens sought to punish them:

The women had to dump their chamber pots through the spyholes and the windows of the cells. These were then blocked up by the warders, since when the women have had to smear excreta and empty urine in the cells themselves, or in the corridors during their one-hour exercise period.[41]

To protest these conditions and the violence experienced by the prisoners, the journal publicised the work done by Women Against Imperialism and the large demonstration held on International Women’s Day 1980 in Belfast in solidarity with the prisoners, as well as subsequent speeches.

The journal dedicated significant space to these mobilisations by Republican women and the August/September 1980 dedicated a page to the campaigning by former Armagh prisoner Rose McAllister in London, containing an excerpt of a speech given at Caxton House the previous month. McAllister concluded her speech by emphasising:

There isn’t one girl or one woman on protest there who’s a masochist, who enjoys that protest or enjoys living in filth and dirt for five months as it stands now. They don’t enjoy it, but they’re doing it and they’re doing it for one reason and one reason only. And everyone in this room should understand the urgency of this, they’re doing it because they’re political prisoners. They’re prisoners of war that’s going on the North of Ireland that the British public are being duped about.[42]

While the coverage of the dirty protest by the Armagh prisoners was extensive, once the hunger strike began, the three women subsumed by the wider reporting on the two strikes at Long Kesh and Armagh. The December 1980 issue of the Troops Out journal featured an article profiling each of the men on hunger strike, however the women did not get this in-depth treatment.

The Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency

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The Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT) were two breakaway groups from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, with the RCG forming first in 1975, and then the RCT in 1978. John Callaghan argued that both of these groups differentiated themselves from the rest of the left for their uncritical support for the IRA and the INLA.[43] The RCG had a ‘Third Worldist’ position and endorsed the theory of a labour aristocracy, which purported that Western workers directly benefitted from the exploitation of people in the developing countries, and therefore the RCG’s political activism was primarily organised around anti-imperialist issues, such as solidarity with Irish Republicanism, the anti-Apartheid movement[44] and anti-deportation campaigns.[45] This was reflected in the title of their newspaper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

The RCG were part of the TOM and gave significant coverage to the anti-H-Block campaign in their newspaper. The newspaper had a special section of the newspaper dedicated to the RCG’s campaign, Hands off Ireland!, which often featured the prisons struggle and the newspaper had a special prisons correspondent. In July 1980, the newspaper highlighted that the prison authorities were ‘increasing efforts… to force these prisoners to give up the rights associated with special category status and hence in effect to withdraw political status from them’, and part of this was removing inmates who had been granted special category status before 1974, such as Marian Price.[46] The RCG concluded that the ‘release of Marian price at this was designed not only to ensure that she did not die in prison… but also to distract public attention from the worsening conditions of the protesting prisoners in Armagh.’[47] The following issue reprinted a statement published in An Phoblacht, celebrating those on protest in Armagh with this statement:

In the face of long periods confined to their cells, and the denial of basic facilities, such as adequate medical facilities, the courageous prisoners have refused to bend the knee to foreign rule and are an example of Republican resistance even when in the clutches of the enemy.

WE SALUTE THEM![48]

On the other hand, the RCT started its own campaign, Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act, in 1979, which sought to bring other anti-H-Block groups in Britain under the leadership of the RCT. A flyer for its initial run of demonstrations to support this campaign claimed support from a variety of left-wing groups and social movements, but the RCT did little to foster good relationships with others. In one pamphlet, the RCT claimed:

The left always tries to downplay the question of national oppression. In this way it tries to turn the Irish War into a trade union issue or a matter if human rights and civil liberties.[49]

The RCT were particularly critical of any left-wing condemnation of the IRA’s terrorism, declaring, ‘The left is ready to denounce the violence of the oppressed – especially when it is conducted in the heartlands of the oppressor, in Britain itself.’[50] This, the Tendency argued, left them with ‘no role to play on Ireland other than a pressure group on the Liberal and Labour Parties’.[51]

In contrast to this, the RCT’s Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act campaign called for two things – mass demonstrations against the PTA and in support of the H-Block prisoners, and for rank-and-file trade unionists to campaign inside the Trades Union Congress to take a decisive stance against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. At the beginning of the hunger strike in Long Kesh in October 1980, the RCT called for a march from Hackney Town Hall to Stoke Newington in support of the hunger strike, with four slogans daubed on the flyer:

TROOPS OUT OF IRELAND NOW!

SELF-DETERMINATION FOR THE IRISH PEOPLE!

SMASH THE PREVENTION OF TERRORISM ACT!

PRISONER OF WAR STATUS FOR IRISH ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRISONERS![52]

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The other tactic of the Smash the PTA campaign was to call for rank-and-file trade unionists to put pressure on the TUC and the Labour Party to challenge the existence of British troops in Northern Ireland. As the 1981 hunger strikes began, the campaign published a pamphlet asking for agitation on this issue at the forthcoming TUC Congress. The first of the five points of the proposed motion included in the campaign’s pamphlet stated:

This branch/union/trades council

  • deplores the failure of the official labour movement to support the demands for political status of republican prisoners of war in the Six Counties of Ireland.[53]

The pamphlet then ended with the plea, ‘Don’t let the prisoners in H-Blocks and Armagh struggle in vain! Fight for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Ireland!’[54]

This rank-and-file pressure was part of the RCT’s broader slogan on the ‘Irish War’, which was ‘Bring the War to Britain’. On one hand, it was ‘a call to make the Irish War an issue in the British labour movement’. But it also, as the Tendency recognised, ‘implie[d] support for a violent attack on the British state – not only in the Six Counties – but in Britain itself.’[55] With its origins in the Leninist idea of converting an imperialist war into a civil war[56] and the early Irish Communists inside the CPGB,[57] the RCT’s slogan also echoed the slogan of the US leftist terror group the Weathermen Underground, whose slogan was ‘Bring the War Home’.[58] However, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of the RCT, its influence upon the anti-H-Block movement was limited by its sectarianism. Although many outside the two groups could not differentiate between them, the approach of the RCG and its emphasis on the prisoners fit more with the wider currents within the Irish Republican movement in the early 1980s. On the other hand, the revolutionary and violent rhetoric of the RCT came at a time when the IRA were moving away from pursuing a primarily militarist strategy – inspired by the anti-H-Block movement and the hunger strikes.

The case of Pauline McLaughlin

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While attention was given to the dirty protest by the 33 women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the three hunger strikers by sections of the British left, within this coverage by these groups, another prisoner was also highlighted – the young Pauline McLaughlin. McLaughlin was a young illiterate woman who was imprisoned in Armagh serving an ‘indefinite’ sentence,[59] but also suffering from mental health issues. Sentenced before 1976, McLaughlin qualified for special prisoner status, but was denied this. She originally joined the protest movement inside the Northern Irish prisons to gain this special status, but became ill and according to some sources, ‘blackmailed by the prison doctor to end her action’.[60] Since that time, McLaughlin had suffered from stomach problems and was unable to digest food, which caused her to rapidly lose weight. Shuffled between prison hospital and Armagh, McLaughlin’s condition was viewed as potentially fatal and there were calls by the anti-H-Block movement for her to be released on compassionate grounds. However the Thatcher government refused to do so, with Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins claiming that her condition was ‘not at present critical’.[61] Atkins continued:

While Miss McLaughlin’s health does give cause for serious concern, it is considered in the light of all the advice available that there are insufficient grounds for taking the exceptional course of releasing her on licence from the indeterminate sentence and using the Royal Prerogative to remit the balance of the fixed terms.[62]

The Morning Star dedicated a significant portion of an issue to highlight the case of McLaughlin, declaring, ‘Every day she remains in the prison her life is in danger – a senior consultant from a Northern Ireland hospital has diagnosed a psychogenic vomiting complaint.[63] The newspaper quoted government minister, Michael Allison, as saying, ‘If there is inescapable evidence that the condition is not self-induced we would respond by releasing her on medical grounds… But it may be that she is manipulating her illness.’ The newspaper then asked what ‘inescapable evidence’ did Allison need, writing:

That final, fatal cardiac crisis? Or have they rather been gambling with her life, refusing to free her while the H-Block crisis was nearing the climax, fearing that if they did that the government might appear weak?

Socialist Challenge claimed that the McLaughlin case ‘graphically illustrates the barbarity of Armagh’ and that ‘Pauline’s treatment is typical of that perpetuated by the British on Irish political prisoners’.[64]

Numerous demonstrations and political actions were called upon to highlight McLaughlin’s case, with pickets outside Whitehall and Downing St, emergency resolutions of various organisations being sent to the Northern Ireland Office and various protests against the doctors on staff at Armagh Goal. These actions were co-ordinated by the Armagh Co-Ordinating Committee, run out of a feminist collective space (A Woman’s Place on William IV Street) in London. These protests were given significant coverage in the Morning Star, particularly when actor Frances de la Tour attended a demonstration outside of Downing Street in December 1980.[65] Pickets were also established outside the General Medical Council offices to condemn the role that GMC members played in the inadequate treatment experienced by women in Armagh Gaol.[66]

In January 1981, McLaughlin was eventually released from prison on medical grounds, although it is most likely that the campaign for her release, in amidst the wider anti-H-Block campaign and the hunger strikes, contributed to this outcome. Some of the press in Ireland suggested that McLaughlin was released at a time when the British government were in talks with Sinn Fein over the continuation of the ‘dirty protest’, but Ann Rossiter argues that the grassroots movement that campaigned for McLaughlin’s release succeeded ‘in embarrassing the British government and pinpointing the plight of the women prisoners at the heart of the establishment.’[67] While the left wing press did highlight the plight of McLaughlin, the campaign on the streets was led by feminists in Britain and Ireland.

Conclusion

Most of the British left recognised that the anti-H-Block campaign had revitalised the Irish Republican movement on both sides of the Irish Sea and that despite the inability of the campaign to obtain political status for those imprisoned, a grassroots political mass movement had emerged that offered an alternative to the terror campaign waged by the IRA and the INLA. In Northern Ireland, the initial benefactors of this movement was the reformed People’s Democracy, whose members held important roles in the National H-Block/Armagh Committee, while in Britain, the campaign revived the influence of the Troops Out Movement. The gains made by PD eventually convinced Sinn Fein that their policy of abstentionism had not reached the masses in the same way that the anti-H-Block campaign had and led to the eventual acceptance by SF of gaining power by the ballot box – combined with the sustained terror campaign of the IRA.[68] Besides the RCT and RCG (and later Red Action),[69] the British left preferred the path of the mass political movement rather than the IRA’s terror strategy and expressed solidarity with those in the anti-H-Block campaign. However the British left had to accept that although alternative sites of Republicanism had been built in the early 1980s, the militarism of Sinn Fein and the IRA still dominated the Republican movement.

The ‘dirty protest’ by the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the hunger strike by Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle brought attention to the experiences of Irish women involved in the Republican struggle in both Ireland and Britain. The British far left press followed these protests and the strike, with the pages of the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all covering the developments in Armagh and the campaigns outside – although these campaigns were, at the local level, mostly led by women’s liberation groups, rather than the left-wing parties. Organisationally, the left still deferred much of its campaigning to the Troops Out Movement, which operated as a broad left campaign that reached beyond the traditional audience of the various far left groups. Particular emphasis was given to the plight of inmate Pauline McLaughlin who was not part of the hunger strike, but still suffered from illness due to a lack of food being eaten.

While the CPGB, the SWP and the IMG all broadly supported the anti-H-Block campaign and the women’s hunger strike, Militant was much more ambivalent and supported the campaign for political status purely as a human rights issue, even though the rest of the left acknowledged that the wider issue of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was an integral part of the women prisoner’s campaign. On the other side of the fence, the RCG and the RCT called for ‘direct action’ by British activists in solidarity with those in prison in Long Kesh and Armagh. The RCG maintained a focus on prisoner solidarity and highlighted the issue in their weekly paper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, while the RCT called rank-and-file trade unionists to compel the TUC to explicitly support the Irish Republican cause, as well as promoting the slogan ‘Bring the War to Britain’ (even the slogan was not widely received amongst other activists and left-wing organisations.

In conclusion, it seems that the issue of the women’s protests in Armagh were given much needed publicity in Britain by the left-wing press, but much of the grassroots campaigning was left to various feminist groups, such as the Armagh Co-Ordinating Group and Women Against Imperialism, who launched significant demonstrations in London, Belfast and Dublin between 1979 and 1981.[70] Many of these women were part of the various left-wing groups or the TOM, but organised around this issue as feminists or as Republicans (or even Republican feminists). While an intersectional solidarity was expressed with the women in Armagh, the British far left acceded much of this to the women’s liberation movement.

armagh

Thanks to Rob Marsden, Fidelma Breen, Adrian Kerr, Sarah Grimes, Jacob Murphy, Alastair Renwick, Di Parkin, John Cunningham, Helen Yaffe, Toby Harb, Jim Monaghan, Lindsey Cole and Brodie Nugent for their assistance in providing material for this post. 

[1] F. Stuart Ross, Smashing H-Block: The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011) p. 5.

[2] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm.

[3] Kevin Morgam, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: River Orams Press 2007) pp. 196-202.

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[5] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, The Newsletter, 2/81 (13 December, 1958) p. 6.

[6] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, p. 5.

[7] ‘Ireland’, International Socialism, 1/40 (October/November 1969) p. 2.

[8] ‘Ulster: Turn the Civil War into a Revolutionary War’, Black Dwarf, 14/21 (30 August, 1969) p. 8.

[9] John Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, in Laurence Marley (ed.), The British Labour Party and Twentieth-Century Ireland: The cause of Ireland, the cause of Labour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015) p. 201.

[10] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, p. 200.

[11] In 1973, Marxism Today ran an article by the CPI’s Dublin Area Secretary, Tom Redmond, which argued, ‘Wherever working class leadership is absent the tactics, strategies and content adopted are those of the middle class.’ Redmond further claimed that the ‘social composition of the Provisionals was more middle class [than the Official IRA] and mainly rural’. Tom Redmond, ‘The Forces in the Irish National Liberation Struggle’, Marxism Today (June 1973) pp. 169-170.

[12] Eamonn McCann, ‘After 5 October 1968’, International Socialism, 1/51 (1972) p. 11.

[13] The Red Mole, 48 (7 August, 1972) p. 1.

[14] Jacob Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”: The Troops Out Movement Campaign for the Withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland, 1973-77’, unpublished MA thesis, Newcastle University (2014) p. 4.

[15] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 13.

[16] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 40.

The situation in Ireland was one of the major areas of disagreement between the IS and those who formed Workers’ Fight. See: Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (London: Bookmarks 2011) pp. 322-325.

[17] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, pp. 41-42.

[18] Morning Star, 17 December, 1980; Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[19] ‘H Blocks – Only the Labour Movement has the Solution’, Socialist Youth (February 1981) p. 2.

[20] Militant, Internal Bulletin (March 1981) pp. 6-7.

[21] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland’, p. 208.

[22] Morning Star, 17 November, 1980.

[23] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[24] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[25] Socialist Challenge, 3 December, 1980.

[26] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[27] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[28] Morning Star, 9 December, 1980.

[29] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[30] Socialist Challenge, 10 December, 1980.

[31] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[32] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[33] Socialist Challenge, 1 January, 1981.

[34] ‘Left Advance Left Behind’, Socialist Review (May 1980) p.

[35] Shaun Docherty, ‘Ireland: Bitter Climax’, Socialist Review (December 1980) p. 4.

[36] Shaun Docherty, ‘Don’t Let Them Die!’, Socialist Review (November 1980) p. 22.

[37] Chris Harman, ‘Ireland: After the Hunger Strike’, Socialist Review (January 1981) pp. 20-21.

[38] Kieren Allen, ‘Who’s Who on the Irish Left’, Socialist Review (January 1981) p. 23.

[39] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, Troops Out (March 1980) p. 3.

[40] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, p. 3.

[41] ‘Armagh Conditions Exposed’, Troops Out (May 1980) p. 12.

[42] ‘Rose McAllister Speaks Out Armagh Prison’, Troops Out (August/September 1980) p. 5.

[43] John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) p. 145.

[44] See: Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, ‘Practices of Solidarity: Opposing Apartheid in the Centre of London’, Antipode, 46/1 (January 2014) pp. 34-52.

As Brown and Yaffe mention elsewhere, the RCG portrayed the areas that it worked in as part of a global struggle, as demonstrated by the slogan, ‘Brixton, Belfast, Soweto – One Struggle! One Fight!’ Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, Non-Stop Against Apartheid: Practicing Solidarity Outside the South African Embassy’, Social Movement Studies, 12/2 (2013) p. 232.

[45] Eddie Abrahams, ‘Citizenship and Rights: The Deportation of Viraj Mendis’, Critical Social Policy, 9/26 (September 1989) pp. 107-111; Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013) p. 105; p. 118.

[46] ‘Marian Price Freed’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (July/August 1980) p.

Marian Price was one of two sisters given life sentences in 1973 for terrorism offences. Imprisoned in England, the two sisters, along with two men, went on hunger strike, but were force-fed by the prison authorities. The strike lasted 200 days, before the Price sisters were transferred to Armagh. George Sweeney, ‘Self-Immolative Martyrdom: Explaining the Irish Hunger Strike Tradition’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 93/271 (Autumn 2004) p. 342.

[47] Marian Price Freed’, p.

[48] ‘Armagh Goal’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (September/October 1980) p. 12.

[49] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat (London: RCT pamphlet, 1980) p. 15.

[50] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[51] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[52] RCT, ‘Demonstration in Support of the H-Block Prisoners’, October 1980, RCT flyer.

[53] Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! (London: RCT pamphlet, 1981) p. 15.

[54] Smash the PTA Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! p. 15.

[55] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 23.

[56] V.I. Lenin, ‘The War and Russian Social-Democracy’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/sep/28.htm

[57] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, pp. 21-22.

[58] See: Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[59] ‘Pauline McLaughlin’, Troops Out (December 1980) p. 7.

[60] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[61] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 345w.

[62] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 346w.

[63] Morning Star, 23 December, 1980.

[64] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[65] Morning Star, 12 December, 1980.

[66] Morning Star, 5 November, 1980.

[67] Ann Rossiter, ‘“Not Our Cup of Tea”: Nation, Empire and the Irish Question in English Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s’, unpublished PhD thesis, London South Bank University (2005) p. 225.

[68] Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament (London: Pluto Press 2011) pp. 157-163.

[69] Mark Hayes, ‘Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Some Observations Regarding Ideological Apostasy and the Discourse of Proletarian Resistance’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014) pp. 242-243.

[70] See: Christina Loughran, ‘Armagh and Feminist Strategy: Campaigns around Republican Women Prisoners in Armagh Jail’, Feminist Review, 23 (1986) pp. 59-79

CFP FOR EDITED VOLUME ON HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FAR LEFT

CPA pamphlet

Evan Smith (Flinders University), Matthew Worley (University of Reading) and Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) are calling for chapter proposals for an edited volume on the Australian far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present). Expanding on our work looking at the history of the British far left, we believe that a survey of the exciting new work being done of the far left in Australia and its influence on wider Australian political history is due.

We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics:

  • The CPA and Cold War espionage
  • 1956 for the Australian left
  • The peace/nuclear disarmament movement
  • The student left and the anti-Vietnam War movement
  • Radical Marxism since the 1960s (Trotskyism, Maoism, anti-revisionism)
  • Anarchism in Australia
  • ASIO and the new left
  • The left and Indigenous rights
  • The left and the women’s movement
  • The left and gay rights
  • The anti-apartheid movement in Australia
  • Nationalism and internationalism on the far left
  • Trade unionism, the ALP and the left
  • The Green Bans
  • Environmentalism and the Greens as a ‘left’ party
  • Or any other aspect of the Australian far left if suitably interesting.

We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

An internationally recognised publisher has already shown interest in publishing the collection.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: evan.smith@flinders.edu.au (Please CC in m.worley@reading.ac.uk and Jon.Piccini@uqconnect.edu.au into all emails)

Please email any editor with any further questions.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS – 4 APRIL, 2016

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Appeal for primary source material on British/Irish left & female hunger strikers at Armagh 1980

women against

Recently the Irish Times has started running a series of articles on the history of the 1980-81 hunger strikes in the lead up to a symposium being held on the subject in London in June 2016. One of the articles by Maria Power discussed the hunger strike undertaken by three republican women in Armagh Prison in late 1980, whose contribution to the hunger strikes has been overlooked by many.

Coincidentally a former student of mine and I are beginning a small project to look at how the British and Irish left, as well as the women’s liberation movement in both countries, expressed solidarity with these striking women. This will be included in a special journal issue on the British left and Ireland currently being put together by Matt Worley and I. The abstract of our article is here:

Intersectional Solidarity: The female prisoners of Armagh, women’s liberation and the left in Britain and Ireland

In 1980, the Republican women prisoners held in Armagh prison in Northern Ireland joined the dirty protest being waged by the male members of the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army in Maze Prison. This eventually evolved into a 53-day hunger strike conducted by Republican prisoners in October 1980, which was shortly followed by the more infamous hunger strike in 1981 that claimed the lives of 10 strikers. Overshadowed by the fatalities of the 1981 strike, the 1980 strike involved three IRA women in Armagh, who challenged the traditional nationalist notion of the strong male warrior fighting for a united Ireland. Both the blanket/dirty protests and the two hunger strikes generated sympathy and solidarity across the globe, including with the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and Ireland. The various groups of the left, the women’s liberation movement and the republican movement all claimed that the women involved represented their competing ideals and agendas and these movements sought to weave their actions into their narratives. At the same time, many within these movements were also highly critical of these women and their links to the Republican movement. This article will look at how the left and the women’s liberation movement in both Britain and Ireland looked to portray these women within their narratives and how the solidarity expressed became intersectional, imbued with contesting connotations of liberation from British imperialism, monopoly capitalism and patriarchy.

Stop strip searches

Part of this project has been locating the various publications of the various leftist and feminist groups in both Britain and Ireland. Last month, the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog posted an appeal for primary source material, which was very fruitful. However we’re still looking for more material, so here is the appeal again:

My former student and I are writing an article on the British and Irish left and the female hunger strikers at Armargh in 1980. We have (or are getting) material from the CPGB (Morning Star), the SWP (Socialist Worker and Socialist Review), the IMG (Socialist Challenge), the IRSP (the Hunger Strike Bulletin posted at Irish Left Archive) and Women Against Imperialism (a WAI report from 1980). We are also interested in material from the British and Irish women’s liberation movements and have got material from Spare Rib, the IMG’s Socialist Woman and the SWP’s Women’s Voice.

If anyone has access to material of any other British or Irish left-wing papers/journals from the period, would they be able to check whether there was anything on the strike (lasting from Oct-Dec 1980) or their ‘dirty protest’ (which began in Feb 1980)?

We’d be particularly interested in anything from Militant (or its Irish group), the Communist Party of Ireland or SF-WP, but would welcome any primary source material dealing with the topic.

If anyone has material, please contact me at: hatfulofhistory@gmail.com

P79

I would like to thank everyone who has helped us find material so far, and hope that people can help us find more!

Thanks to the Bloody Sunday Trust for the archival pictures.

#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.