This post looks beyond legislation and parliamentary debates about gender equality at work to consider the stories of Black and Asian women’s workplace activism and their wider campaigning relating to workplace gender equality. These are stories of both influence and of silencing. It draws upon research I am undertaking as part of the AHRC Gender Equalities at Work project, which is exploring how the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA), Equal Pay Act 1970, and their successor the Equality Act 2010 were created, introduced, implemented and changed, in what contexts and with what consequences.
My earlier blog post took an intersectional perspective to look back from the Equality Act to consider how the SDA was discussed in relation to existing race equality legislation in the years leading up to its passing (1964-75). Gender and race equality legislation developed in ‘siloed’, separate ways, with long term effects for thinking about intersectionality. Analyses of official records and documents from this time period show that Black women and women of colour were mostly made invisible in these legislative and parliamentary conversations, which is ultimately unsurprising given their lack of representation in elite structures of government. Yet notwithstanding the exclusion of these voices and perspectives from official records and published accounts, including many feminist ones, there are histories to be charted of both the influence and silencing of Black and women of colour theory and activism in the earlier decades of the Acts.
Exploring this topic is challenging in part because the siloing that characterises equality legislation is also reflected in wider discourses, including media, academic literature and trade union accounts, which often seek to locate this campaigning and activism as being about either gender or race (or reduced to class). Within the field of gender history, some existing literature has been largely preoccupied with the extent to which this campaigning was ‘feminist’. From an intersectional perspective wherein racism and sexism are considered as always-interlocking and ultimately indivisible from one another, this is perhaps beside the point.
Black and Asian women’s activism, including workplace activism, has often had different priorities to that of white women. Initial analysis of existing oral histories of women activists in the postwar period suggests that the language of ‘equal pay’ and ‘sex discrimination’ was more frequently employed by white participants. Indeed, ‘equal pay’ was one of four demands of the first Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970, which was predominantly, though not exclusively, white. At the first conference of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in 1979, employment was one of five conference themes, but in contrast issues were articulated within a broad anti-imperialist lens, and one which we might now call ‘intersectional’, rather than as an issue of women vs. men connoted by ‘equal pay’:
‘We are exploited because we are poor, Black and women. We are poor because the wealth of our countries was seized by White Western Imperialists while, in Britain, because we are Black and women we are also exploited by racism and sexism .’
The lack of emphasis on ‘equal pay’ makes sense when we consider that Black women and women of colour have been more likely to be in segregated occupations where there are limited male comparators from which to campaign for equal pay. Moreover, importantly for Black women and women of colour, equal pay is not just an issue relating to men (in which case there are disparities between white men and men of colour also), but to white women:
Many Black women active in the women’s movements were also active in trade unions in their workplaces, though they noted both the sexism and racism they often experienced from unions. The different priorities to white women are reflected here also: for instance, women have been central in the establishment of Black sections in unions. Black women’s workplace activism has often been misrecognised as being about issues other than gender. An alternative reading would be to see this activism as being driven by their indivisible experiences as Black working class women.
There were a number of industrial disputes in the 1970s in particular which were led by or made up largely of women of colour (most famously Grunwick, Imperial Typewriters, and lesser known ones such as Kenilworth Components). Even when led by women or large majority women and there were clear gender-related claims being made, these intersectional justice claims have been misrecognised on several fronts. The media tended to report on these disputes in a gender-neutral way. Alternatively, these stories have been claimed by both academics and activists as ones about race exclusively, or when (less commonly) viewed through the lens of gender, been found to be not sufficiently ‘feminist’.
Embed from Getty Images
At Imperial Typewriters, a lesser known demand was for representation of women among shop stewards. This dispute, led by and made up predominantly of Asian women, was not supported by the union (TGWU, now Unite, with documented racism within the branch), nor by white workers (men and women alike), while the workplace was frequented by the National Front who attacked strikers.
This campaigning and activism will continue to be explored as the project develops. Rather than seek to arbitrate whether it is feminist or about race or about class, these struggles and factors are considered as indivisible from one another, and their synthesis creates the conditions for the identities and experiences women occupy and create – in the past as well as the present.
Dr Ashlee Christoffersen is Research Fellow on the Gender Equalities at Work project (AH/V001175/1), University of Edinburgh. She specialises in understandings and uses of intersectionality in policy and practice. Her work appears in Policy & Politics, Ethnic and Racial Studies, British Politics and The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy. She has held research and practitioner roles at the Equality Challenge Unit, centred, the Trades Union Congress, and the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Keep up with her on Twitter at @DrAshlee_C and @GenderWork50.
Notes and References
 Natalie Thomlinson, “Black Women’s Activism, c. 1970–1990,” in Race, Ethnicity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1968–1993, Natalie Thomlinson, Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016), 64–103.