At that time, what we weren’t conscious of was that we were part of a sociological shift. There was a whole stratum of people from lower-middle-class and working-class backgrounds that started to get into higher education in our generation. It was a small minority, but there were people who came from backgrounds where no one had been to university. And there were more men in that situation than women, because when I was at school, girls were encouraged to go to teacher training college if they were staying on in the sixth form.
So in my year, only a handful — about three of us — went to university, which meant we were kind of odd. And in being odd, we began to question our position more. The young men who went into left groups were often from exactly the same situation — they were people who’d gone to university and started to question the values of their parents and their backgrounds — but the accusation was always that we were too middle-class, whereas they were middle-class, too.
It was different with trade union men. It was not the case that there was a universal hostility. The Institute for Workers’ Control, for example — a group formed in 1968, which advocated workers’ control of the means of production — was where some of these ideas about women’s experiences started to come up. And there were people like Audrey Wise, who, because of her politics as a trade union woman, could cross over between young, intellectual women and people who were in the trade union movement.
And, of course, there were a lot of union women from a rather different situation questioning their own position, who brought women’s issues organically into the movement. They didn’t want to sit around in consciousness-raising groups, discussing their inner beings, but they were very aware of their situation, and compared it sometimes to other kinds of civil rights educational meetings. When I read the reports from the women’s section of the TUC, I saw that there were lots of those issues being raised by women in the conference, too. And that was really strengthening.
There was a traditional section for women in trade unions in the past, going back to the 1940s, but quite a lot of independent-minded trade union women in the late sixties and seventies felt that they were being contained by being put into a particular women’s section within the union. It was similar with women’s sections in the Labour Party. Women could sometimes be dismissed — for most of us, that’s an experience we have in common.