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A Woman’s Place Is on the Picket

The 1984-85 Miners' Strike pitted Thatcher against the male-dominated NUM. But the government's assault against mineworkers also saw women join pickets alongside men, defending their communities and changing the trade union movement for good.

Striking mine workers during the Miners’ Strike picket the Coventry Colliery in Keresley, West Midlands, England, 6th March 1985. A group of women hold a banner saying 'Coventry Miners' Wives - United We Stand'. (Photo by Dunn/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The miners’ strike of 1984-5 pitted the Thatcher government and the National Coal Board against Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), in a battle for the future of Britain’s coal-mining industry, and, by proxy, the entire direction of the country’s political economy. 

The NUM was probably the most male-dominated of any trade union in Britain, and almost all its members were men; women had been excluded from underground work by the ‘protective’ legislation of the nineteenth century. 1960s and 1970s Britain saw, however, women taking an increasingly prominent place on picket lines, in famous strikes like that of the Ford workers in Dagenham in 1968, and at the Grunwick film-processing plant in Willesden between 1976 and 1978. 

In the national miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, a handful of miners’ wives joined a few picket lines around the country. When the miners came out again in March 1984, women’s presence on picket lines was quickly one of the most remarked-upon aspects of the strike. The feminist journalist Jean Stead summed up the widespread view of the women’s support movement in her book Never the Same Again, published in 1987:

When the women … first started to form support groups they could scarcely have foreseen the consequences of their action. What began as an organisation to feed the families and the young, single miners who received no social security money, ended as a new women’s movement.

Stead identified picketing as the key way that women started to ‘branch out’ from the ‘traditional women’s work of fundraising, soup kitchens and food parcels’. The presence of women on picket lines was perhaps the single biggest challenge to gender roles during the strike — but women’s picketing could also, ironically, deploy and entrench traditional notions of gender even as it destabilised the idea of masculine space and masculine roles.

Women started picketing early in the strike, and continued throughout, though only a small minority of women ever participated. In the first weeks and months, women sometimes went to the picket lines simply to take food or hot drinks for men, but quite quickly, women began to picket in their own right. They travelled to join flying pickets of working collieries in areas like Nottinghamshire, or stood on picket lines in their own towns and villages; they organised all-women excursions, or joined mixed pickets. Picketing was a very public way for women’s groups to show their support for the strike, and, as was proven after the arrest of Arthur Scargill’s wife Anne at Silverhill in mid-May, a good way to get coverage in the national media. Anne’s arrest was widely reported: the Daily Mail described how ‘passionately’ Anne, ‘wearing slacks, a dark blue sweater and white blouse’, supported her husband, and the Daily Mirror recorded that ‘Mrs Scargill … is a nice-looking woman. The sort you’d notice — and Arthur is lucky to have a gutsy wife like this’. 

Picket lines could be sites of mundanity and tedium, but they could also be frightening. A woman interviewed by sociologist Penny Green in Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, described a mass picket of the pit there in May: 

All we wanted to do was just to show our presence — not to cause any disturbance, just to see what they would really do with us; well we got the shock of our life that morning, because we got pulled, pushed, dragged, I myself got dragged by three [policemen].

An anonymous account of an all-women picket described travelling to Calverton, in Nottinghamshire, in a car and white van — ‘no seats inside, women crowded in and sat on the floor’ — evading the police, who were ‘on the motorway bridges, cars and figures watching us’, by ‘making up stories … about where we were going and for what purpose’. Later, on the picket line, the women were ‘frightened’: ‘[t]he ring of men is closing in & we cannot walk about in our own space, only stand together. It is getting dark. Then there is some shouting & a struggle.’

Sometimes women simply joined in mixed pickets of a local pit. Lorraine Walsh and her sister Linda Finnis joined local pickets at Betteshanger, in Kent — while Lorraine was heavily pregnant — during the occupation of the pit between 17 and 20 June 1984. The occupation was staged to refute management’s statements that the pit was becoming unsafe due to gas, and to ensure that the two strikebreakers at the pit would desist from going into work. When large numbers of police were brought in to confront the occupation, Lorraine and Linda joined the picket lines, though only when their husbands were present to keep them safe. They were not part of a women’s group, and conceptualised their actions within a paradigm of defending jobs and community rather than as a ‘political’ act. Both agreed it was a positive experience: as Linda told us, it felt like they were ‘doing something’, when generally they felt ‘so useless’: ‘it was scary but it was good. Standing up for what you think is right.’ Similarly, Mig Weldon, from Fife, recalled for us going picketing for pragmatic reasons, ‘just when it was needed — I mean, there was enough men that were doing it’. Nevertheless, she enjoyed picketing, and gave an insight into the emotional release it could provide: ‘all that aggravation that’s been building up inside you … it had to come out!’

A Woman’s Place

Women on picket lines were not just metaphorically, but also quite literally, intruding on traditionally male space. Their presence brought into question ideas about the proper place for women: by standing on picket lines, women were claiming their right to be seen as legitimate actors in the strike, and their presence could be disturbing to striking miners. Picketing was often the occasion for disputes between women’s support groups and local NUM branches, and between women and their husbands. One woman remembered shortly after the strike that ‘one thing my husband was dead against — me going on picket lines. I could do meetings. I could go on rallies and demonstrations … He had seen the violence.’ In Fife, Anne Kirby’s husband, Frank, was worried about her wish to go to a local picket line: Anne was pregnant, and he insisted she should not go to what he described as — deploying military language — the ‘front line’. Anne told us:

So I stood right back, I didn’t take the children either … It was quite frightening how violence can reach a height — escalate — because from a peaceful protest, a peaceful picket line, to then when the buses came in, with scabs, to throwing the stones, and banging on the buses, and you know, young men climbing on the buses, and banging them, and the shouting and everything … it was frightening. It was frightening … At that point, Frank was aware that I was there, and he wasn’t happy, because he was sacred I’d get hurt. But I wanted to see for myself.

Many men saw picket lines as rough and dangerous: no place for women. 

There were several reports of NUM men ‘refusing’ to let women to go picketing. Women in Oakdale, South Wales, interviewed in August 1984, suggested that some women acquiesced in this: they said that the men would not ‘let’ them go picketing, but that the women ‘don’t mind’, after what they had seen of picket line violence. On other occasions, however, this was a source of tension. Marxist-feminist writer Beatrix Campbell thought picketing ‘seemed to cause most differences between men and women’, though Campbell was notably hostile towards the NUM, which she saw as implacably patriarchal. Liz Marshall, who was involved in the women’s pickets at Barony pit, in Scotland, remembered that ‘initially’ the men would not allow the women to be involved in picketing, instead expecting to be fed by them after a picketing shift. Another Scottish activist, Margo Thorburn, recalled: ‘[i]t was different at different strike centres. Our men wouldn’t let us go. We wanted to go. I wanted to go and experience picketing … We asked at the centre one day, but they wouldn’t let us.’ Many women, however, did not wait for permission, and went without the blessing of local NUM men. In some places, such as Askern, in South Yorkshire, it appeared that if picketing was done under the direction of NUM men, it was acceptable. The opposition to picketing was not just rooted in patriarchal understandings of the need to protect women, but also in larger disputes between the NUM and the women’s groups about the NUM’s right to direct them. 

Many women did get hurt on picket lines, and a number were arrested. Aggie Currie remembered vividly the first time she was arrested after picketing a Nottinghamshire pit. She had attended with her elderly mother and aunt, and had already had an altercation with the police over abuse directed at them on the picket line. When she went to the toilet, two policemen insisted on accompanying her: she shouted, ‘first time they’ve been on piss duty!’, and was promptly arrested for insulting a police officer. Aggie was treated roughly, hit, put into a police wagon, taken to a local police station and put into a cell with approximately twelve men, where she had to spend the night. She told us, ‘they do clobber you, they don’t give a shit whether you be male or female, they don’t give a shit’. The men she was in a cell with (all striking miners arrested for picketing) turned their backs when she needed to go to the toilet, to help her preserve some privacy, but Aggie believed she was put in the mixed cell deliberately by the police: ‘they tried to degrade me, I think … they really tried to break us.’ This was the first of many arrests for Aggie, but she was released the next morning without charge, as she would be every time. Aggie believed that she wasn’t charged because ‘[t]hey would have made women martyrs, wouldn’t they, and that’s something they didn’t want to do’ — although later in the strike some women were charged. 

There are many accounts of police brutality towards women arrested on picket lines. Two women recounted not being allowed to go to the toilet after being arrested and wetting themselves. Others told tales of police violence that had sexualised overtones. All this strongly suggests that the tactics of the police were as much about the psychological violence of humiliation and degradation as they were about the physical violence of dragging and hitting: the police were weaponising the traditional gender order to try to tell women that their place was not on the picket line. When the arrested miners in the cell with Aggie turned their backs to allow her to use the toilet, they were resisting the effects of such treatment. 

Jean Crane noted that the first time Askern Women’s Support Group went picketing, the women were not as outspoken or abusive as they became later. Stewart, a striking miner in Lancashire, remembered similarly:

When I first went to the picket line and they was bringing women on the picket line, maybe about half a dozen women turned up. The women were quite loud, shouting what men shout like ‘scab’ and a bit of all this … The very next day, we had maybe thirty to forty women on the picket line. Let me tell you, they were rougher than the men. And for that reason, I did not want my wife mixing with these women. ’Cause I’m telling you, they was as rough as cowboys.

His wife, Stewart emphasised, was a ‘lady’. Some women felt the same. Jackie Keating, of Cortonwood Women’s Action Group, went to rallies with her mother — both wanted to ‘be seen showing our support for our husbands’ — but they soon realised rallies were, 

totally out of our league. Listening to the abuse of some of the women to the police made my toes curl, appalled is an understatement. We had both been brought up to be polite, civil, and at all times courteous to all members of the police force. Some of the pit language used against them made me ashamed.

Among the women we interviewed, Carol Willis recalled similarly that when she took her mother on a demonstration in Blythe, the slogan used by some of the demonstrators — ‘Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Ian McGregor is one’ — shocked her mother, who said she hoped no one saw them there.

Respectability was fundamentally linked to the maintenance of the gender order for these interviewees — as feminist historians have shown. While feminists have rightly challenged the notion that the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was ever truly hegemonic, there was still a sense for these men and women that the passage from the relatively hidden ‘backstage’ role of making food to the much more public one of attending picket lines or demonstrations marked a transgression of women’s ‘natural’ association with the private or domestic sphere. Maureen Coates, who described herself as a feminist and was involved in a women’s support group, laughed when we asked her whether she had ever been on a picket line, and said, ‘I weren’t that feminist!’ Even for a woman like Maureen, who was comfortable identifying as a feminist, being present on picket lines represented a transgression greater than she was comfortable with.

NUM picket lines were masculine spaces not only because they were peopled by men, but also because many of their distinctive practices were coded as male: solidarity, violence, and ‘pit language’, or swearing. When women appeared on picket lines, in some places men and women worked together to make their presence less threatening to the sanctity of masculine space by changing how they behaved. On the picket line at Grimethorpe, for example, a no-swearing rule was instigated. However, few picket lines seem to have changed substantially to accommodate the presence of women, and some women felt changed by their experiences on the picket lines in quite profound ways. One woman from Thurcroft, in South Yorkshire, ‘K’ remembered that later in the strike when picketing in the village she would not stand near her husband: ‘I thought “If he hears me swearing like this, he’ll say ‘Oh, shut up’.” But when I was on my own I didn’t care. It’s alright to use it on a picket line, but not in the home. You’re a different person on the picket line.’ ‘K’ was not alone in taking up swearing during the strike: Aggie Currie, who was given the nickname ‘gobshite’ during the strike for her outspokenness, did not swear prior to 1984. Women’s incursion into the male space of the picket line — and the heightened atmosphere and anger of picket lines — had a powerful effect on some. 

However, the power of women on the picket lines could sometimes rely on conservative understandings of gender roles that striking miners, female picketers, and strike-breakers all shared. The famous photograph by John Harris of Sheffield WAPC member Lesley Boulton narrowly missing being struck on the head with a truncheon by a mounted policeman at the Battle of Orgreave on 18 June draws its power from the officer’s transgression in hitting a woman. When they first went to a picket line, at Creswell, in Derbyshire, the Askern Women’s Support Group made a banner reading, ‘Askern Women will fight for your jobs, why won’t you?’ With this slogan they challenged the masculinity of the strike-breakers, and implied that women were forced onto the picket line simply because men could not act as men. Similarly, in a picket undertaken by Derbyshire women, Betty Savage recalled bringing frilly knickers to wave at the strike-breakers, saying, ‘they’re not really men, are they?’ Women in Thurcroft shouted at strikebreakers, ‘[y]ou’re not a man, you’re a mouse, at least our men are men!’ Rather than challenging the gender order, women such as these were suggesting that the inverted gender order that their presence at the picket line demonstrated represented the inverted morality of working miners. Without shared conservative understandings of gender, protests like these would not have made sense. As such, the presence of women on picket lines could work as much to reinscribe the patriarchal gender order as to destabilise it. 

The activism of women’s support groups, and particularly the novel sight of women on picket lines outside pits, has continued to be a much-remarked feature of the strike. Some commentators, like Jean Stead, have suggested that the women’s activism constituted a new ‘working-class feminism’. This overstates the case: the activism of coalfield women in the strike didn’t represent a sudden and unexpected revolution in the gender roles women inhabited, but reflected women’s increasing visibility in all spheres of public life in Britain by the 1980s. In fact, the gender politics of the strike support movement was unstable. As critics like Beatrix Campbell have noted, the focus of most women on the task of feeding did little to challenge traditional roles; and even when it came to picketing, activism sometimes relied on conservative understanding of gender norms to give it ideological heft.

Women sometimes came into conflict with men of the NUM over their right to participate in activities like picketing; but the women’s movement was, on a fundamental level, convened to support the trade union, and women often deployed the language of home, family and community to describe what they were defending. These complexities did not render women’s picketing any less significant. Women made deep incursions into male space; picketing was a hugely powerful symbol of women’s place in the strike, and profoundly transformative for some of those who took part. As ‘K’ from Thurcroft said, she felt like a ‘different person’ when swept up in the drama of the picket lines.

This is an edited extract from Women and the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5. You can buy the book here.

About the Author

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a historian of twentieth-century Britain. She is the co-author of Women and the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5.

Natalie Thomlinson is a historian of feminism and gender in modern Britain. She is the co-author of Women and the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5.