Gallery: The 1979 Women’s March

The gallery below consists of a set of slowly disintegrating photos of a huge abortion rights march which took place in 1979, rescued from the Freedom Press archive. It’s unclear who took the shots, but we wanted to capture them before their condition got any worse. If you know whose they are please do get in touch! 

In its timeline of the women’s liberation movement the British Library lists two events of major importance taking place in 1979, the founding of Southall Black Sisters and, possibly more controversially, the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman prime minister.

Rather less heralded is a protest which took place just months later, when Thatcher’s newly-anointed government took one of its very first actions as the great reaction started to get into full swing – an attack on abortion rights.

Around 50,000 people are thought to have turned out in October 28th 1979 for the national demonstration against the “Corrie Bill.”

Named for John Corrie, a Scottish Conservative MP, it was one of the very first bills brought forward by the Thatcher government following its election in May of that year. The third major attempt of the era to interfere in abortion rights, its headline measures would have been to reduce the legal limit from 28 to 20 weeks, restrict abortion to instances where the woman’s life was in “grave danger” and criminalise charities offering abortion and pregnancy advice.

Rushed through its early stages on the grounds the Tories were toting a big majority in the House, it had passed its second reading in July with a 144 majority and immediately sparked a massive mobilisation from the left, catalysed by the National Abortion Campaign (NAC) and women organisers in the trade union movement.

The TUC leadership was reportedly very reluctant to involve itself campaigning in the initial stages, with Angela Phillips, an activist with the National Union of Journalists at the time, recalling:

We had major problems winning the male hierarchy of the trade union movement to supporting abortion rights. They said that abortion was too controversial, that it was divisive, and that raising it would split the trade union movement.

A group of us went to the raise the issue at a TUC meeting, but the union leaders wouldn’t let us speak.

Ken Gill was in the chair. He was a longstanding leader of the engineering union and a Communist Party (of Great Britain, now the CPB) member. He wouldn’t let us open our mouths.

It wouldn’t be until the women’s TUC section passed a resolution in favour that the male TUC leadership of the time got on board – and even then, they were insistent on leading, attempting to cut out the NAC.

 

The women’s movement ratcheted up the pressure from July onwards, with October’s march being the centrepiece of the year, one of the first major actions against Margaret “feminist icon” Thatcher and a key plank in the fight for abortion rights, which would go on to grind out a total victory against the bill in March 1980, when Corrie himself dropped it on the grounds it had no chance of getting through.

In an excellent in-depth writeup of the march, Nursing Clio notes that:

In their account of the second wave, Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Bea Campbell witheringly recall how male trade unionists would mention the October march for years to come as proof of their feminist credentials. In fact, they argue, the march was perhaps the only example of the British union movement’s commitment to women’s issues, and that this was unsurprising, considering that abortion access “entailed no threat…to men’s material circumstances,” unlike struggles for equal pay and hours.