‘What Women’s Lib – The Aberdeen Women’s Liberation Movement and the Workers Education Association’ and ‘Feminism in Scotland: European Links and Lessons’

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On 10 February 2015, the Centre welcomed Emily Flaherty and Esther Breitenbach to discuss ‘What Women’s Lib – The Aberdeen Women’s Liberation Movement and the Workers Education Association’ (Emily) and ‘Feminism in Scotland: European Links and Lessons’ (Esther). Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lectures.

The Women’s Liberation Movement has often been examined from a national basis, with a bias towards sprawling urban centres, but Emily’s research focuses on the locality of Torry in Aberdeen in the 1970s. Established to provide adult education for the working class, the Aberdeen Workers Education Association was closely linked to Labour and trade unions – it has even been called the ‘University of the Labour Party’. Young feminist tutors gradually introduced a series of topics that went beyond the typical militant trade union fare, including abortion, contraception, and equal opportunities. An emphasis was placed upon personal issues such as health, and free discussion was encouraged in the hope that participants would draw their own political conclusions.

Some of the participants voiced scepticism about feminism, viewing it as ‘unrealistic’. Similarly, some of the tutors struggled to reconcile their role when they felt their ‘students’ contributed more of value by holding down multiple jobs, raising a family, and dealing with ‘difficult’ partners.

Although this programme had no direct links with the continent, many of its ideas were reflected in the ‘150 Hours’ scheme in Milan and Turin, which provided women with 150 hours of paid leave to attain a basic diploma. Developing ‘a sense of self’ was integral to this scheme, and it was argued that ‘listening passionately’ would raise consciousness of wider political movements. This shows broad trends within the Women’s Liberation Movement across Europe, even in the absence of direct networks.


Esther’s presentation was based primarily on personal reminiscence as an activist and academic. Between the 1970s and early 2000s, the European context consistently exerted an influence on the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United Kingdom. Scandinavian countries were frequent exemplars (their introduction of quotas for example) and this influence continues today, as seen in Lesley Riddoch’s book, Blossom. 

‘Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir is a key example of the transmission of ideas from Europe to the UK, and this publication provided the movement with ‘intellectual respectability’. However, Esther and some of her peers actually criticised de Beauvoir. Despite her admirable political activism and philosophies, her approach to feminism amounted to little more than masculine behaviour and an anti-maternity stance.

Feminist networks such as the European Forum for Socialist Feminism also facilitated the transmission of ideas, but more importantly provided practical insight into governance. This Forum was initially led by representatives from Germany and Denmark who had already grappled with political power to introduce quota systems and childcare reform. Esther expressed some scepticism about the efficacy of quota systems such as 50/50 representation, and criticised the Smith Commission for failing to devolve power over equal opportunities to the Scottish Parliament.

The influence of Europe could be intermittent, and the trans-Atlantic (or ‘British World’) context was always an important touching stone for the movement in the UK. Overall, European interaction was not a driver of change but an opportunity for reflection, and promoted solidarity in pursuit of a common feminist agenda.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next week, the Centre is holding its own 3-Minute Thesis Competition. The format and examples can be found on http://threeminutethesis.org This will be a fun, informal event that will nevertheless enhance the communication power of the competitors! Please indicate your interest to our administrator:  Cara.Graham@Glasgow.ac.uk

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