The miners’ strike of the 1980s is often depicted as a bitter clash between Ian MacGregor and Margaret Thatcher on one side, and Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers on the other. The battle lines were drawn up and down the country as flying pickets and the police went head to head. The strike was the closest the UK has come to civil war in recent times. Not even the 1980s or 2011 riots can compare to the year-long confrontation.
Much has been written about this strike, but what is often missing from this story of rage and dissent are the voices of the women involved. This was a pivotal moment in Britain and the women, often absent from the media’s gaze and the public’s memory, were there fighting alongside with the men. Their presence on the picket lines has been acknowledged but their story of defiance, their skill in raising funds, promoting the cause and standing in battle with the men is generally overlooked.
“Coal not dole” stickers covered the plastic buckets that were used to collect donations from the public. The women travelled beyond their pit villages and around the country to raise funds. They spoke at rallies in London and abroad, talking about the struggle and the hardships that the miners’ and their families faced. The result was allegiance from people and places they least expected, and when it was most needed – Russia sent lorries to the UK providing food and Christmas presents for the miners’ children.
In her book “Queen Coal” Triona Holden tells how the women in Yorkshire experienced opposition to setting up a soup kitchen from the local NUM representatives who wanted the kitchen to serve the striking men only. Determined that a soup kitchen would also serve the families, the women organised cutlery, crockery and the necessary permissions. They raised money by knocking on doors and asked people if they could spare a bit of food. This and funding from “Women Against Pit Closure” meant that they were able to feed the the striking community.
But women were not resigned to domestic duties alone, they were also at the coalface of the strike, they were on the front line – not shouting from the sidelines but in battle, along with the men, against the police. Some were arrested, some went to court and some were even strip-searched.
Defying the times
The 1980s was a different time socially, economically and politically for women. Despite having a woman prime minister, women were discouraged from working and an arrogant, male culture pervaded. But the women who took part in the strike were strong working-class activists whose actions undermined the narcissistic culture of the time. Their livelihoods, their families, their communities and their way of life was under threat and this fuelled their anger. In many cases, these women never returned to domestic life after the strikes. Some even took up careers in politics.
The women’s welfare clinics ensured the strikers’ families received the benefits to which they were entitled. The National Union of Miners encouraged strikers to claim benefits, but the number of members who actually made claims had been low in previous strikes. In 1984, when the welfare clinics were up and running, the benefit take-up rate was nearly 80%. This record high was a result of the women being able to successfully advise striking miners and their families about welfare claims and benefit applications, preventing them from going hungry. These actions, it might be argued, helped give the strike longevity.
Many of the women surprised even themselves with their tenacity during the strike. For them this was a working-class fight and they demonstrated a camaraderie and a skill that rivalled that of the men working down the pits. They even had their own campaign song:
We are women, we are strong,
We are fighting for our lives
Side by side with our men
Who work the nation’s mines,
United by the past,
And it’s - Here we go! Here we go!
For the women of the working class.
Today retail parks and new roads have been built over the ground upon which communities once thrived and fierce battles took place. However what cannot be erased from history is how this group of men and women, led by Scargill, defied class and gender boundaries and went head-to-head with the government.
Now, 20 years on, society is in a different place. The topless Page 3 model has disappeared and #MeToo is holding men to account. The miners’ wives maintained they were not feminists and perhaps their collective description “miners’ wives” is evidence of that position. But ironically Thatcher and the strike helped to liberalise gender relationships. The women’s collective voices occupied a space not occupied by other feminist groups. They had created their own working-class feminism that spoke of protecting the family and their husbands while also claiming a place in the workspace.