Dave Waddington: Remembering women’s role in the miners’ strike

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THIRTY years on from the miners’ strike, a new play gives a rare and powerful insight into the role played by women during the year-long struggle. Queen Coal, which had its world premiere in Sheffield, centres on the fractured relationships between a miner, his ex-wife and his sister – seen from the very different perspectives of the two women.

It takes me back to the aftermath of the ‘orderly return to work’ which signalled the end of the strike. I was part of a team of researchers from the former Sheffield City Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, which set out to examine the social impact of the dispute on the residents of mining communities in South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire.

We paid particular attention to the experience of the women in these villages and quickly realised that, far from occupying a peripheral role in the conflict, their efforts were arguably more vital than those of their men-folk, both in maintaining the miners’ struggle and in representing the case against pit closures.

“Women were the backbone of the strike,” was how one striking Yorkshire pit canteen worker put it. “Women run a house, don’t they?” she rhetorically asked. “They do the shopping and therefore they’ve got to make ends meet, whether it’s £100 coming in or £10. I’ve got a big freezer and it was full to the top over Christmas and I felt like saying to Maggie Thatcher, ‘Come and have a look at this, it’s all down to family and friends,’ because I feel she thought she could starve us. Maybe she thought the women would push their husbands back to work, but it didn’t work that way, did it?”

This woman was instrumental in setting up a community soup kitchen for strikers and their families. Other local women engaged in equally important activities such as collecting donations of food and money, holding raffles, going on demonstrations or attending picket lines.

Not long into the dispute, they were joined by sympathetic women living outside of the local area, as Women’s Support Groups or Women’s Action Groups evolved in support of the strike. Regardless of the extent of their activism, the wives of striking miners underwent a year-long ‘crash course in reality’ which forced them to question the fairness of key social and political institutions, and to reappraise their own self-worth and social positions.

Sometimes the lessons they received were especially harsh or unsavoury. Miners’ wives out walking at night with husbands who had never strayed close to a picket line found themselves taunted as ‘slags’ and ‘whores’ by marauding bands of locally billeted police officers, from ‘outside’ forces like Greater Manchester and (most notoriously of all, the Metropolitan Police), who were hell-bent on humiliating their menfolk or, better still, goading them into receiving a ‘good thumping’.

Such women saw at first-hand how ‘good, honest local men’ were being fined, sent down and subjected to debilitating curfews – often on the flimsiest and most unreliable of evidence – by a judicial system that seemed intent on sapping the collective morale. They were further incensed by coverage of picket-line confrontation, such as television reporting of the so-called Battle of Orgreave, which habitually underplayed the police part in any violence that occurred.

Women activists who dared to step outside traditional gender roles by attending picket lines were in for an especially rude awakening. Police officers immediately set about ‘defeminising’ them as the ‘belt and braces brigade’. One heavily-pregnant picket was asked by a smirking police constable: “Who’d want to breed off a cow like you?”

Attitudes to the police were correspondingly and irretrievably transformed. As a member of one Derbyshire WSG explained: “To people outside of mining communities, many of them down South, these policemen were doing a wonderful thing. And there you are having your brains knocked out but, because you’re a miner on strike or because you’re a miner’s wife and you’re picketing, then you bloody well deserved it.”

It was not only female activists who began to re-evaluate their political standpoints. Dozens of the women we interviewed disclosed how they had developed far more sympathy towards those gay and lesbian communities which had been so wonderfully supportive of the strike.

They also acknowledged a much closer affinity with other ‘oppressed’ groups, such as black African miners and British ethnic minorities.

Although feminist optimism that the experience of those men who took on more housework during the strike might induce a lasting realignment of gender roles proved to be short-lived, its legacy was a much greater recognition and appreciation of the importance of women’s unpaid labour. Any ‘emancipation’ of women resulting from the miners’ strike was most vividly reflected in those cases of individuals entering local politics, paid work, or further or higher education.

A small minority of marriages failed to survive the tensions. However, most married couples reported that the strike – and their shared experience of the struggle – had undoubtedly strengthened their relationship.

• Dave Waddington is professor of communications at Sheffield Hallam University. Queen Coal is showing at Sheffield Crucible Theatre until November 22.