Black History, Blog, Blog and News

Socialism and the Black British Women’s Movement – Kelly-Ann Gordon

Generally, researchers of Black British history have focused upon men, producing a version of history from which Black women have been largely excluded.[1] However, this is now changing. Natalie Thomlinson’s work has mapped the emergence of a Black British women’s movement during the 1960s, which opposed the racist and patriarchal frameworks of government, (white, middle-class) feminism, and Black radicalism.[2] Similarly, Jade Bentil has explored Black British women’s advocacy across the twentieth-century, for example researching Black women’s defiance of Thatcher’s ultraconservative politics during the 1980s.[3]

Socialism as a political identity was endorsed by many Black British women whose politics encompassed race, gender, and class oppression synchronously. Indeed, as Black women abandoned the male-dominated, Black radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, many preserved socialist philosophies while embracing a more recognisably (Black) feminist politics focused on personal experiences as a basis from which a new social and political theory of intersectionality was formed.[4] My undergraduate dissertation assessed the Black British women’s movement’s socialist advocacy during the post-war period, focusing specifically on notions of community, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and intersectionality. As well as evidencing Black women’s agency, I hope to encourage the provision of (racialised, gendered, and classed) spaces for Black British women across the historiographical discourse.

During the post-war period, as power dynamics were being challenged on a global scale, many Black Britons formed various anti-racist socialist organisations as a means of opposing British racism and classism.[5] Indeed, members of Britain’s Black Panther Movement (BPM) developed a sense of solidarity and community from a shared notion of being ‘politically Black’, having common experiences of oppression because of Western capitalism and imperialism.[6] However, being commanded by men, such groups were often overshadowed by male chauvinism and sexism.[7] In consequence, Black women’s unique experiences of racism, sexism, and classism were regularly disregarded by Black men, who made no moves “to seriously take up women’s issues” because “they just weren’t considered immediately pressing.”[8] Accordingly, many Black women began organising separately from Black men.

Brixton Black Women (BBW) and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) were founded during the 1970s. These groups  organised around how the concerns of Britain’s Black communities affected Black women more specifically.[9] For example, problems of police violence specifically concerned Black women who ‘rushed to the police stations’ when family members had been apprehended and who ‘cleared up the debris’ when police officers raided homes unannounced.[10] As such, following the Brixton Uprising of 1981, a Brixton Defence Campaign was founded by members of BWW to survey police presence across Brixton’s Black community.[11]

Similarly, Black women also founded the SCRAP SUS campaign, opposing so-called ‘sus laws’ under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which awarded police officers power to suspend anyone who seemingly had ‘intent to commit an arrestable offence’.[12] Black women were also victims of police violence. Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, for example, was shot during a police raid on her Brixton home in 1985, leaving her paralysed from the waist downwards. Echoing the Brixton Campaign, a Groce Family Support and Community Defence Campaign was founded by local Black women as a means of pursuing ‘justice for Mrs Cherry Groce, support her family in their time of stress and also to ensure the defence of the community’.[13] Indeed, defending Black women, who bore a unique danger of being ‘not only racialised but also sexualised, exoticized and eroticised – all at the same time’, from police violence became a prime concern for many organisations. Such advocacy, whereby space was pressurised for Black women’s voices and gender-specific needs across Britain’s Black communities reflects socialism’s philosophy of community development as well as Black feminism’s philosophy of intersectionality.[14] Such campaigns would provide a basis for more conscious socialist-political organising.

In July 1948, the National Health Service (NHS) was founded.[15] Black women’s labour was essential to realising such a radical programme, especially for lower-ranking roles which ‘whites refused’, such as State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) and ancillary workers.[16] Indeed, by 1980, around 20 per cent of beginner nurses and midwives, 55 per cent of catering, and 78 percent of domestic workers across the NHS were women born overseas.[17] During the 1980s, as government officials launched a mass campaign of privatisation, many NHS workers unionised. Ancillary workers, which included around 70,000 Black women by the early 1980s, organised around basic demands such as higher wages and an enhanced working environment. On 22 September 1982, NHS workers gained national prominence when over 120,000 people marched across London, opposing ongoing service remissions, hospital closures, and privatisation.[18] For Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, such militancy arose from Black women’s understanding of migration being utilised by modern British capitalism and privatisation favouring austerity over worker’s rights. Indeed, migration was viewed as merely renewing Britain’s ‘labour supply with fit, white, male workers’ and hence reconciling the demands of British people with the needs of British capitalists. They argued this mimicked ‘a long tradition of back-breaking labour in the service of European capitalism.’[19]

Principles of socialism and Black feminism have always been closely bound. Indeed, Black women’s experiences have been shaped by unique ‘intersecting’ forms of discrimination, usually based upon groupings of race, gender, and class, from the dawn of European colonialism.[20] Thus, Audre Lorde considers wholescale disavowals of Western capitalism and imperialism as decisive principles for Black feminism and Black women’s political organising.[21] Though Black women’s experiences have been overlooked, perseverance and an unwavering sense of community has ensured Black feminist philosophies have become central to more mainstream feminism over recent decades. Britain’s Black women’s movement was a dynamic political and social force during the post-war period, challenging the core of white British post-colonial identity.[22]

KellyAnn Gordon has recently finished her degree in history at Northumbria University. Her research was longlisted for the women’s history network prize for the best undergraduate dissertation in women’s history. She is now working in community services before returning to university for postgraduate study.

The Heart of the Race is published by Verso Books. 

[1] Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (London: Virago, 1985), p. 1.

[2] Natalie Thomlinson, ‘‘Second-Wave’ Black Feminist Periodicals in Britain’, Women: A Cultural Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, (2017), p. 433.

[3] Jade Bentil, ‘Black Women Fighting Back in Thatcher’s Britain’, MA diss. (University of Leeds, 2017).

[4] Thomlinson, ‘‘Second-Wave’ Black Feminist Periodicals’, p. 450.

[5] Robert Gildea, James Mark, and Anette Warring (eds.), Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[6] Uvanney Maylor, ‘What is the Meaning of ‘Black’? Researching ‘Black’ Respondents’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, (2009), p. 373.; Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013), pp. 65-66.; A. Sivanandan, ‘Black Power: The Politics of Existence’, Politics & Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, (1971), p. 230.

[7] Ann Phoenix, ‘Theories of Gender and Black Families’, in Heidi Safia Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism: A Reader (Abingdon: Routledge, 1997), p. 64.

[8] Anonymous Interview in Bryan, The Heart of the Race, pp. 144-145.

[9] Beverley Bryan, Interview with Beverley Bryan (2009), available at Black Cultural Archives, accessed 5 May 2022.; Stella Dadzie, Stella Dadzie Discusses OWAAD (June 2011), available at, accessed 5 May 2022.; Stella Dadzie and Tobi Thomas, ‘Stella Dadzie, Feminist Pioneer: ‘The Black British Women’s Movement Was About Life-and-Death Issues’’, The Guardian, 30 September 2021.

[10] Nicholas Abercrombie and Alan Warde (eds.), Contemporary British Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), pp. 257-258.; Bryan, The Heart of the Race, pp. 163-164.

[11] Anonymous Interview in Bryan, The Heart of the Race, pp. 177-178.

[12] BBW, ‘Black Women Organising’, Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives, Feminist Review, No. 17, (1984), p. 85.; Vagrancy Act 1824, Section 4 (London: HMSO, 1842).

[13] Amina Mama, ‘Violence Against Black Women: Gender, Race and State Responses’, Feminist Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, (1989), pp. 41-42.; The Groce Family Support and Community Defence Campaign, Press Release, (1985), in Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), pp. 342-343.

[14] Jesse Spafford, ‘Community as Socialist Value’, Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3, (2019), p. 215.

[15] Charles Webster, The Health Services Since the War (London: Stationary Office, 1996), p. 399.

[16] Amina Mama, ‘Black Women, the Economic Crisis and the British State’, Many Voices, One Chant, pp. 26-27.; Mukti, No. 4, 1985, pp. 4-5.; FOWAAD, No. 4, February 1980.

[17] Lesley Doyal, Geoff Hunt and Jenny Mellor, ‘Your Life in their Hands: Migrant Workers in the National Health Service’, Critical Social Policy, Vol. 1, No. 2, (1981), pp. 54 & 59.

[18] Jane Lewis, ‘Government and NHS Reform Since the 1980s’, Working Paper, Vol. 5, No. 20, (2020), p. 1.; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (London: Verso, 1987), pp. 310 & 317-318.

[19] Bryan, The Heart of the Race, p. 38, 89 & 15.

[20] Kimberlé Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, No. 1, (1989), pp. 139-140.

[21] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (London: Sheba, 1982), p. 226.

[22] Ranu Samantrai, AlterNatives: Black Feminism in the Post Imperial Nation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 2.