For many women of a political persuasion taking a position and expressing it out loud is not always welcomed with a hug and loud applauseDespite the profound culture shift now taking place in our capacity to talk about women at work, the reality is that from unions to NHS trusts we’re left scanning the promotional horizon for the women of substance who are actually doing the everyday work of politics in the UK.
In the first part of our recordings taken from the Durham Miners’ Gala, here is a conversation between Hilary Cave, head of education for the NUM during the miners’ strike and me, Elizabeth Cotton, who was head of education for the Miners’ International.
Just in case theres a need for clarification, both of us are actual women.
“My dad is a man of his generation from a working class background he loved us so very much he fought for us to have a good education. But I think he was troubled..he was a Marxist at the time.. that he brought up two middle class daughters. He also when I was 16 made me go on a secretarial course and for years would send me cut out job adverts for PAs, secretarial jobs.. I think he couldn’t quite believe I could succeed on merit. It’s this huge contradiction that really prepared me very well for working in the mining sector because there’s a loving and a loathing of women in the unions.”
“I didn’t have problems with rank and file officials because I think they respected people who knew how to do things! When I was asked to organise 5 rallies for the NUM in 1984 to try to rejuvenate the strike..and I had 10 days to do it – they helped me, there was a bomb scare in Notts during the rally and the stewards asked me what to do, they were all men and I said just discreetly look under the seats, you know..and they just did it.”
“The culture of mining was very macho, to cope with the kind of work they did on the ground”
“Yes, I’m not saying there was no machismo. On the national executive committee meeting I remember some people in the crowd yelling “get em out” to us women but women had kept the strike going. What had really angered them was that their children had gone hungry because the government had altered the benefits system so that striking miners did not get a benefit..so everybody was hungry in the family.”
“Sometimes working with mining unions the machismo works in your favour because you’re seen as this exotic creature and if you can actually string a sentence together they’re like wow, round of applause for the lady. When I was working in it I don’t think I had the confidence to use – what I did on a personal level was work way too hard and I also turned down my personality and sexuality so I became non-threatening. As I’ve got older it’s got a lot easier so I’m grateful for that.”
“Often for women, the assumption is that your politics are a bit dodgy. So I’ve spent a lot of time with men telling me what I think politcally. It wasn’t until I came out of these institutional pressures that I felt able to explore my politics – I became very clever with the psychology of groups but I didn’t grow politically as well as I should have done then.”
Like most women, I’m learning to to respond to the compulsive response to #timesup with the “whataboutmen?!!?” question.
Answer A: Really? are we going to waste the first serious opportunity in my lifetime to just be honest about the sexism that is still corrupting our society by worrying about the treatment of men? That’s not balanced debate, its just really annoying.
Answer B: Yes, some men have egos strong enough to tolerate the existence of equality and stop body blocking women taking political leadership.
Some men champion the promotion of women in politics rather than the customary fobbing off with leadership-lip-service. Dave Hopper, the General Secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, Fred Higgs, the General Secretary of the 20 million strong Miners’ International and Alf Cotton, my uncle and a life long trade unionist in the Midlands – all bucked the sexist trends of our times by prioritising their workplace concerns from the teaching assistants in Durham to the diamond workers in the industrial zones of Thailand. All now sadly passed and greatly missed by the women they actually helped.
To hear an extract of this conversation between Hilary and Elizabeth click here.
To hear the full conversation click here.
The event was organised by the Independent Working Class Education Network.
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