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Feminist Principles meet Political Reality: the case of the National Abortion Campaign
By Dr Lesley Hoggart
Comments about this paper can be sent to: L.Hoggart@mdx.ac.uk


This article examines a specific case of feminist political mobilisation. It considers political pressures that feminists face when attempting to transform feminist political ideology into practical political activity which aim to influence policy developments. It does so with the intention of shedding light on issues of enduring significance for feminist political activists: the relationship between feminist agency and political structures, making choices between compromising feminist principles or standing aloof from formal politics, and, as in this case, the tension generated by forming political alliances with organisations with very different political ideologies and aims. The case is that of the National Abortion Campaign (NAC), one of a number of organisations involved in campaigns to defend the 1967 Abortion Act against a series of Private Members' Bills which threatened to restrict women's abortion rights.

NAC was formed in 1975 in response to James White's Abortion (Amendment) Bill. By the end of the decade, NAC had emerged as one of the most successful feminist campaigning organisations of second wave feminism. It nevertheless also experienced significant tensions which coalesced around the charge that NAC was compromising feminist principles in pursuit of its chosen strategy of alliance with the labour movement. This article focuses on that alliance in the context of NAC's activity in the campaign against the Corrie Bill, introduced in 1979. The material presented is largely based upon an interpretation of NAC's historical archives but also contains material from a number of interviews with NAC members active in the 1970s.

One of the conclusions reached by Marsh and Chambers (1981) in their analysis of the parliamentary process of the Corrie Bill is that both anti-abortion and pro-choice interest groups enjoyed considerable influence over MPs voting patterns. For those defending the 1967 Abortion Act, the importance of the pressure exerted upon Labour MPs is emphasised: '[i]n the entire period between 1967 and 1980 the most significant changes in parliamentary voting have occurred among Labour MPs' (Marsh and Chambers 1981: 25). Marsh and Chambers have little doubt that extra-parliamentary pressure groups, particularly NAC, were largely responsible for this shift away from voting for restrictive amendments. The political philosophy and activity of this group therefore deserve detailed investigation. Although NAC's campaigning activity (including its success at forging working alliances with labour movement organisations) is acknowledged in feminist histories (for example, Bouchier 1983; Coote and Campbell 1982), this has not been considered in relation to analysing the dynamics of feminist political agency attempting to work with more conservative political institutions and organisations.

Feminist Politics: action and theory

The case of NAC is one example, amongst many, of feminist mobilisations of the 1970s. The dramatic radicalisation of feminist politics in this period was one element of the pronounced social and political unrest characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s. The dynamics of second wave feminism were such that, in different ways, feminists debated and campaigned around all issues judged to be of significance to women. The proliferation of campaigns was matched by a spectacular growth of various feminist political currents, sometimes cooperating on a particular issue, at other times in open conflict (Randall 1987). Diversity was an important dimension to feminist politics and each campaign involved varying degrees of debate and disagreement. It is, however, broadly acknowledged that there was something unique which underlies the categorisation of this period as second wave feminism: this was the sudden and mass radicalisation of British feminism known as the Women's Liberation Movement. A unifying call, particularly in the early days, was to claim equality and raise the banner of liberation. It is also broadly acknowledged that deradicalisation was the price feminists paid for becoming involved in state agencies and mainstream political institutions in the 1980s: '[f]eminists had to relinquish control of the definitions of issues that found their way on to mainstream political agendas. Increasingly reliant on state support, feminist organizations had to make their decision-making procedures more hierarchical and bureaucratic' (Lovenduski and Randall 1993: 12). The analysis of NAC's political activity will indicate that these pressures were evident in the 1970s as the perceived necessity for political expediency encouraged a pragmatism that threatened to blunt the feminist political struggle for improved abortion rights.

Misra and Atkins (1998) maintain that feminist scholarship has perpetuated a false dichotomy in which women are viewed either as passive subjects acted upon by state policies and structures or as political actors with space to articulate feminist claims and influence policy. Early analyses of women and welfare policies certainly did present a picture of women as victims of state policies (Pascall 1986; Wilson 1977). This work laid important markers establishing the gendered nature of the state and welfare policies but, by necessity, it was a partial view. A more positive view of the potential of feminist activism coincided with the 1980s movement of feminists into formal politics. This was particularly true of feminist analyses of the early development of welfare states which acknowledged the importance of women's political activity in shaping welfare policies (Bock and Thane 1991; Digby and Stewart 1996; Koven and Michel 1993; Skocpol 1992). What is explored, in some detail, in this historical work is the relationship between feminist political activism and state policies as they engage within state (national and local) institutions. Women as activists and unpaid voluntary and community workers did have an impact on the early development of welfare policy, largely working within state institutions, often at a local level.

A more critical perspective has also been developed as feminist historians have revisited earlier periods of feminist activity and posed more testing questions than in the earlier years of second wave feminism when the concern had been to reveal what was 'hidden from history'. Susan Pedersen (1989), for example, has discussed how the feminist campaign for family allowances lost its radical edge as its 'separate but equal' ideology was co-opted by the state in its creation of policies based on women's dependence. In a parallel development, contemporary feminist political agency, and women's inclusion in formal politics, is increasingly analysed in terms of marginalisation and governmental responses as co-option, diffusion or manipulation (Sapiro 1998). The term 'femocrat', with all its negative connotations, has been adopted in order to explore the dilemma facing feminists who choose to become involved in the state apparatus and face pressures to compromise. There is, however, a shortage of work which examines dilemmas facing feminists who attempt to influence the policy process from an oppositional standpoint. This requires extending the field of analysis from feminists in formal politics to include extra-parliamentary and 'informal' politics.

Misra and Atkins (1998) call for further theorisation of feminist political agency in which women are neither seen as acted upon nor as actors but as both. This would involve trying to piece together a balanced picture which acknowledges feminist potential for forcing change without ignoring structural constraints. In what might be viewed as part of a response to such a call, Hobson and Lindholm (1998) analyse the case of Swedish women's collectives during the 1930s. They use the case to develop a model of feminist political activity which has the potential to articulate claims and exercise power in welfare states whilst taking structural constraints into consideration. They maintain that feminist collectivities should aim for a process of collective-identity formation that is inclusive in order successfully to compose constituencies (this might apply to building a movement or a specific campaign). The alternative weakens feminist politics: '[w]omen's movements that appear divisive and fractured forfeit a crucial resource, their discursive power, the ability of leaders and spokespersons to claim that they speak for a women's constituency' (Hobson and Lindholm 1998: 488). Political formulations do affect outcomes: collective-identity formation may be a vital stage of political activity which greatly influences successful outcomes: '[w]e argue for a dynamic concept of political opportunities in which collective-identity formation emerges as a crucial component in the composing of constituencies, the power-resources social groups deploy, and the conversion of political opportunities into social policy' (Hobson and Lindholm 1998: 499). In other words, the political approaches and aims of feminist campaigns impact upon the likely success of campaigning activity. If they are not inclusive the movement is not powerful, would be outside the broad discursive terrain, it would have trouble making organisational alliances and networking and ultimately lack influence on the policy-making process.

These ideas will be considered in relation to the political activity of NAC. A guiding theme relates to costs attached to framing feminist politics with organisational alliances in mind. Analysis will be undertaken in two sections. In the first instance, the political ideas of NAC are historically grounded within the political context of the 1970s. Two factors of especial relevance are explored: the politics of second wave feminism and that of existing political institutions and organisations. The second section turns to analysis of NAC in action and considers how successfully NAC was able to negotiate the contradictory pulls of two different sets of abortion politics: those emanating from second wave feminism and those acceptable to NAC's chosen political allies and debated in Parliament.

The politics of abortion in the 1970s: political institutions, second wave feminism and NAC.

In the long campaign preceding the successful passage of the 1967 Abortion Act many different political forces pushed for changes in the abortion law, for different reasons. In the House of Commons, a central concern was the high number of illegal 'backstreet' abortions and the associated deaths and health problems. Many believed that the main function of the Act was to transform these into legal abortions. Other concerns were over-population and increasing illegitimacy rates (Lewis 1992). Many of the reformers saw abortion as a means of ensuring a sense of social responsibility, maintaining a stable family and dealing with social problems. Particular categories of women: the medically unfit; those who were psychologically disturbed; women from 'deprived' or 'demoralised' social backgrounds; those whose families were already of an abnormal size and young girls, were to be 'helped' (Greenwood and Young 1976). In her analysis of the parliamentary debates leading to the 1967 Abortion Act, Sheldon (1997) argues that worries about the health of women were continually related to concern for the well-being of their families. There was an explicit agenda, based on a familial ideology, differentiating between potentially 'good' and 'bad' mothers which, as Sheldon points out, became incorporated in an Abortion Act which '[c]ontains a strong moral element, distinguishing between categories of deserving and undeserving "victims" of unwanted pregnancy' (Sheldon 1997: 46). In something of a twist to most welfare policies it was women who were potentially 'bad' mothers who were also 'deserving': 'deserving' greater access to abortion, that is. One consequence was that many reformers who had expected the legislation to affect only women with social problems were amongst the promoters and supporters of amending Bills in the 1970s.

The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was, at this stage, the only pressure group solely concerned with abortion. Primarily a parliamentary pressure group which had successfully involved a growing number of organisations in the call for changes in the law, ALRA did not openly challenge the maternalism or the familial policy aims. After the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act there was a very significant decline in pressure from advocates for a more liberal law and no expectation that abortion rights would become a major issue in the mid 1970s. Two developments changed the political and policy struggle dramatically. First, those opposed to abortion began to organise effectively. As Staggenborg (1991) has noted for the United States, the very success of the pro-choice movement prompted a 'countermovement' which then threatened to turn the clock back. Second, second wave feminism explicitly posed abortion rights as an issue of women's rights, challenging the political conceptions underpinning existing legislation but also responding very fast to challenges to the 1967 Act.

Moving into the 1970s, the abortion debate appeared polarised between what were perceived as two extremes. There was an implicit recognition that abortion raises issues of competing rights between women and the foetus in their bodies. The question of women's rights over their bodies was central to feminist politics whilst the anti-abortionists mobilised around the rights of the unborn child. A third view supporting the 1967 Act, with possible reservations about it opening the door to 'abortion on demand' and certainly unwilling to go further, occupied what might be termed the 'middle ground'. It was, however, this broad and shifting middle-ground that dominated debate within Parliament.

Second Wave Feminism and the Politics of Abortion

The radicalisation of feminist politics in this period was a new and important part of the politics of abortion. It also brings new issues into debates around feminist political agency and involvement in the policy process. A previous generation of feminists who had campaigned for improved reproductive rights had, to a certain extent, concurred with the explicit maternalism of state policies (Hoggart 1996; Rowbotham 1977). Many second wave feminists, and certainly NAC, were quite different. A central concern was not only to reject familial policies but actively to challenge the authority of the state to govern women's choices.

In turn, abortion rights rapidly became one of the most important issues in second wave feminism (Rowbotham 1989; Randall 1987). As Dahlerup (1986:10) puts it, '[f]ree abortion on demand became one of the most central, if not the central, demands of the new women's movement of the 1970s. It became a catalyst, a mobilizing factor for the women's movement. Free abortion on demand was an end in itself, but it also became a symbol of women's fight against patriarchal society and the establishment'. Free contraception and abortion on demand was one of 'four demands' which formed the basis of much feminist campaigning activity in the 1970s (Bouchier 1983). Following the formulation of the Four Demands a group was set up around each demand. The Women's Abortion and Contraception Campaign (WAC) was one of these groups which comprised a combination of International Marxist Group (IMG) women members and other feminists. This group was subsumed into NAC at its formation in 1975. The Women's Charter Campaign was also involved in the formation of NAC, as was a small 'Ad Hoc Committee against SPUC'. There was thus present within NAC, from its formation, elements loosely based on the WLM, the extra-parliamentary socialist left and the labour movement.

Central to the politics of second wave feminism was the onslaught on the institution and ideology of the nuclear family (Barrett and McIntosh 1985; Rowbotham 1989). The knowledge that women's experience of paid work was mediated by their place in the family played a large part in feminist analyses. There was also a growing awareness that women's 'burden' of domestic labour in the home helped generate inequalities, and sexual segregation, in employment (Rowbotham 1972). What this signified was a shift in the sexual division of labour, in the direction of women taking on two roles, worker and mother (Myrdal and Klein 1956). This 'double-burden' of work in and out of the home became an established part of the lives of middle-class and working-class women and was attacked as such by second wave feminists (Cambridge Women's Studies Group 1981). The importance of the restrictions imposed by motherhood and women's responsibility for childcare was stressed, and much feminist writing identified the family as a source of women's subordination (Barrett and McIntosh 1982; Firestone 1979; Greer 1971; Millett 1977; Riley 1981). The demand for improved reproductive control was linked to this feminist recoil from the family.

Reproductive control as a prerequisite for freedom and equality was related, by NAC, to the campaign for abortion rights: 'full control over our fertility is one of the absolutely basic preconditions for women's liberation'. There was a recognition within NAC that it was fighting against women being confined to the restricted roles of mother and wife within the family: greater reproductive control was seen as vital in order to help women avoid dependency.

NAC also addressed the question of sexuality, arguing the need to break the link between sex and reproduction: '[t]he fight for abortion rights is an essential part of the fight for women's liberation and against all those forces who want to ensure women's sexuality remains forever tied to the reproductive function in the nuclear family'. Mary Evans (1997) argues that sex and sexuality became an explicit part of the political agenda of the 1960s and that by the end of the decade sexual codes had changed and 'permissiveness' had arrived. These new sexual politics have been described as constituting a 'sexual revolution'.

The relationship between the emergence of second wave feminism, growing sexual liberation, women's reproductive control and the technological breakthrough of oral contraceptives is complex. Second wave feminism, and the 'sexual revolution' were viewed by many feminists as responses to the breakthrough in contraceptive technology (Firestone 1979; Millett 1977). Other feminists adopted a quite different approach, arguing that social change preceded the technological developments and created the high demand for the new contraceptives, including by unmarried women (Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs 1987; Rowbotham 1989). Linda Gordon (1977: 412) comments: '[b]irth-control use is more a measure of women's increased self-esteem and sense of opportunity than a cause of it'.

The position adopted here is that it is incorrect to seek precedence for either technological developments or social change: they sustained and influenced each other. Changes in women's lives encouraged wider access to birth control: the sudden development of new birth control methods, and their wider availability accelerated these changes. The increased use of birth control was a powerful factor in the growth of an existing women's movement, combining structural changes, including technological development, and the activity and desires of women themselves. The longer term changes associated with industrialisation, increases in women's education and employment and the weakening of the institution of the family, promoted both feminism and greater sexual freedom, and these responded to, and were stimulated by, a greater demand for reproductive control.

NAC's political aims

NAC's main slogan, Free Abortion on Demand - A Woman's Right to Choose, incorporated second wave feminist politics of women's choice and rights. NAC clearly privileged women's rights to control their bodies, rejecting the right of other institutions - the state, the church or medical bodies - to make the choice, and rejecting the concept of foetal rights. The dominant trend within NAC was determined to promote the politics of women's absolute choice and therefore to shun compromise: '[w]e do not believe there can be any political concessions to the anti-abortionists on the question of viability. And we do not believe that it is the job of NAC, an abortion campaign acting for women, to also take up other issues such as defence of foetuses'. A debate within NAC which became known as the 'positive legislation debate' gathered momentum in 1977. One pre-conference paper, also submitted to the April 1977 Feminism and Socialism Workshop on 'Sexuality' and presented as a contribution towards formulating a feminist position on abortion rights, argued a non-compromise position: '[a] Woman's Right to Choose means total control over reproduction. That is the principle we stand for. In so far as her choice is impaired, then we must recognise that her right is impaired. Abortion "on condition", or abortion "until a certain time" is not a "Woman's Right to Choose"'

The elevation of women's right to choose above any rights of the foetus at any stage in pregnancy makes abortion politics much more radical, but also much more unpopular because of the 'common sense' view that the nearer birth the foetus gets the more right to life it has. Feminists were, and still are, divided (Hadley 1996; Himmelweit 1988). There was, indeed, never a unanimous position on positive legislation within NAC, and many NAC members were against abortion on demand after the point of foetal viability. A woman's right to choose with no restrictions was, however, the position most commonly presented by NAC, the position which gained the most support at the organisation's conferences and it was, above all, the position most commonly associated with NAC by the other pro-choice activists. This position was not widely acceptable, even within the pro-choice movement and in November 1978 NAC came very close to being expelled from The Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act (Co-Ord ). This debate illustrates the distance between NAC's politics on abortion, which can be viewed as narrow, exclusive and outside the discursive terrain, and those of its potential allies.

NAC faced pressures to downplay its more gender-oriented, radical, political aims whilst engaged in political activity in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act. It was the 'middle ground' that NAC sought to win over to its campaign defending the 1967 Abortion Act. Faced with this task, NAC developed a hierarchy of political aims related to its assessment of long-term and short-term political possibilities. Three levels of propaganda and activity can be identified from archival documents: first, a feminist critique of the 1967 Abortion Act itself on the grounds that it was not based on women's rights to choose; second, criticism of the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act, and campaigning activity to improve women's access to abortion rights within the framework of the Act itself; third, defence of the 1967 Abortion Act against any attempts at restrictive legislation. The political dexterity involved in maintaining all these approaches simultaneously was considerable. What was especially difficult was retaining the feminist critique, based upon total reproductive control for all women, whilst organising campaigns around the much more limited aim of defending the 1967 Act.

If the concepts of Hobson and Lindholm (1998) are applied, it can be see that NAC's collective-identity formation was inclusive and exclusive at the same time in that different political aims of NAC were directed at different audiences. The defence of the 1967 Act was inclusive, but it brought with it dilemmas associated with inclusion with organisations which did not share more radical feminist aims, and the effect of this inclusion on grass-roots feminism. A strategic question of what can be achieved and at what cost is important here. NAC's more radical position on abortion was 'pure' but exclusionary: what will now be considered is whether any headway was made with this aim.

NAC in action: confronting political realities

NAC's political activity was dominated by campaigns to defend the 1967 Abortion Act. Therefore, regardless of the wishes of most of its members to remain outside formal politics, NAC was dragged into an engagement with parliamentary politics. It was very concerned to lobby and influence Labour MPs and worked very closely with a number of Labour women MPs. The issue of abortion pulled Labour women MPs together and they displayed an 'unprecedented unity' in their determination to defeat restrictive Bills in the 1970s (Vallance 1979: 88). And, although NAC remained highly critical of the Labour Party, it also worked hard to build a 'mass' extra-parliamentary movement, largely through a working alliance with labour movement organisations, particularly the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This alliance created tensions within NAC largely around the perception that feminist principles were being sacrificed for the sake of the political strategy of working with the labour movement. NAC's political engagement was with a much more conservative set of abortion politics than that characterising second wave feminism.

The selection of political allies influences the nature of the political campaign mounted: '[p]olitics is always a matter of the allies you choose' (Gordon 1994: 304). The strategy of sidelining radical demands for 'A Woman's Right to Choose' in favour of pragmatically defending the 1967 Abortion Act, tailored NAC's political demands to the aims of its chosen allies. The appropriate site to campaign for specifically feminist aims for women's sexual freedom and women's right to choose was the women's movement and not the labour movement. The labour movement, on the other hand, was an appropriate ally for a broad-based, national, campaign in defence of limited abortion rights. The women's movement had no equivalent structures, organisation, influence or membership. The political alliance highlights the tensions and difficulties of pursuing feminist politics.

It is difficult to disentangle the various factors behind the TUC involvement in the campaign in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act. The rising numbers of women trade unionists linked to the positive approach of the women's TUC and the TUC Women's Advisory Committee contributed. The activity of individual women trade unionists, like Terry Marsland of the Tobacco Workers' Union, as well as NAC supporters in different unions, was also important. These activists ensured that the motions were debated at national conferences and that those motions were acted upon. But the motions also drew considerable rank and file support. NAC was active in all these areas of mobilisation. It is, however, also the case that the TUC throughout the 1970s consistently supported the 1967 Abortion Act on the grounds that working-class women and girls would suffer a return to backstreet abortions, or be forced to continue an unplanned pregnancy, were the Act to be amended in a restrictive manner. Within both the Labour Party and the trade union movement there was a clear difference between the political positions of the organisations as a whole (mainly male) and a large number of pro-choice activists (mainly female). The trade union movement did support the 1967 Abortion Act but it resisted endorsing the feminist policy of abortion on demand. Likewise, the Labour Party would not support the call for a woman's right to choose. NAC, on the other hand, was formed on the basis of the feminist politics of calling for 'free abortion on demand - a woman's right to choose'. An important area of investigation is how these feminist politics engaged with those of their potential political allies in the labour movement.

By 1979, NAC was aware that its aims, especially in relation to positive legislation, were too extreme for the mobilisation of large numbers of people, especially the labour movement. There was a mismatch between the political aims of NAC and its potential allies. On 13 July 1979 the Corrie Bill passed its second reading, in the House of Commons, by 242-98 votes and NAC organised a rally attended by hundreds of people at which the Campaign Against the Corrie Bill (CACB) was launched. The focus was on defending the 1967 Abortion Act. The CACB held its first meeting on 17 July 1979. That meeting was attended by at least 43 people representing a number of different organisations but NAC had a strong and guiding presence. The nature of the CACB as a broad-based campaigning organisation was clear: the emphasis was on involving as many people as possible to undertake whatever activity they desired. The campaign was to use NAC offices and facilities but intended to pay its own expenses, including the cost of an office worker. As the campaign progressed, NAC remained the dominant force within the CACB and undertook much of the organisational work. NAC aimed to maintain its own political approach within this broader framework. In practice, it found it difficult to keep a high political profile when most of its activity was defensive in nature, specifically directed against the Corrie Bill and a very long way from demanding 'A Woman's Right to Choose'.

The CACB was responsible for the creation of the 'mass' movement which NAC argued was necessary to defeat the Corrie Bill. In particular, the CACB worked with the labour movement, organising a number of events. Of these, the most significant was the national demonstration of October 1979 called by the TUC. The contacts that had already been built up by NAC within the trade union movement provided a nucleus of pro-choice activists within the trade union movement which was able to mobilise larger numbers of trade unionists. Over 60,000 participants joined the demonstration, on 28 October 1979, making it the largest pro-abortion demonstration that had taken place in Britain. The demonstration was seen as a significant indicator of public opinion on abortion. Press coverage was generally favourable.

In their history of the 'women's movement', Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell (1982) are generally highly critical of the attitude of the labour movement towards feminist issues. They grudgingly admit that one achievement was the defeat of the Corrie Bill. The success of NAC's strategy should be seen as an indication of what can be achieved, in particular circumstances, given enough determination on the part of feminist campaigners. The process leading up to the TUC Demonstration in 1979, for instance, required NAC supporters making sure resolutions in favour of such a demonstration were passed through their own union branches. They then had to maintain the pressure through all the intervening stages until a motion was finally passed at the TUC Conference. The resolution that was pushed all the way to the TUC Conference contained a clause committing the TUC to organising a demonstration in support of the 1967 Abortion Act were it to be the subject of another amending Bill.

As the Corrie Bill progressed through Parliament, labour movement activities continued. Regional trade union conferences on abortion were organised, as were 'weeks of action' in January 1980 which included trade union activity. Two major events were organised for February 1980. A mass lobby and rally on 5 February was called by the CACB and supported by the South East Regional TUC. This lobby, which focused entirely on the defence of the 1967 Act, was called and organised by the CACB, not NAC. Speakers included MPs Tony Benn, David Steel, Jo Richardson, Rnee Short and Ian Mikardo, trade union representatives, a representative from the BMA (Dr Frank Wells) and many more prominent individuals and campaigners. About 12,000 pro-choice activists attended, with thousands queuing in Parliament Square for hours to lobby their MPs. This represented a significant level of support for existing policy from politicians, members of the medical profession and extra-parliamentary forces. On 8 February, NAC called a Women's Assembly, supported by the CACB. This was timed to coincide with the Third Reading of the Corrie Bill and designed to demonstrate that women were not prepared to accept restrictions on their right to choose.

Throughout this period, the nature of the propoganda produced by the CACB, as an organisation defending the 1967 Abortion Act, was markedly different from that produced by NAC. This indicated tactical flexibility and a willingness to relate different political aims to different political actors in order to achieve more limited goals. The CACB leaflets and circulars explained the implications of the Corrie Bill, often with details of the various clauses. Great prominence was given to the claim that if the Bill was passed it would mean a return to backstreet abortions for poorer women. The CACB leaflet advertising the 28 October demonstration spelt out how the Corrie Bill would restrict all abortions, changing the grounds, time limits, damaging the charities and extending the conscience clause. The result would be backstreet abortions. This emphasis connected with the official TUC slogan of 'keep it legal - keep it safe'. The CACB leaflet advertising the mass lobby of Parliament of 5 February 1980 declared that the Corrie Bill would cut up to 80 per cent of the legal abortions then taking place. Both these key leaflets were defensive in tone. During this campaign, CACB leaflets carried the slogan, 'Defend the 1967 Abortion Act', whilst NAC's carried its slogan, 'Free Abortion on Demand - A Woman's Right to Choose'. NAC continued to argue for 'Free Abortion on Demand - A Woman's Right to Choose' in the broadest sense. An issue of NAC News produced for the TUC demonstration in 1979 makes NAC's aims quite explicit. The front page headline, 'Extend not only Defend '67 Act', carried its message for the Corrie Campaign. NAC's position was presented as placing abortion within the context of women's rights:

    The National Abortion Campaign believes it is every woman's right to decide whether and when she has a baby. Every baby a wanted baby. Only then could we make real decisions about our lives. And only then could we express our sexuality without fear of pregnancy and without sex being tied to reproduction, to having or not having babies. Only then, too, could we take an equal part in society, and in efforts to change it.
Corrie officially withdrew his bill on 26 March 1980, before the Third Reading, whilst the House of Commons was still engaged in debating amendments to the Bill. It had become clear that the Bill would not succeed as it stood and Corrie was unwilling to compromise until it was too late (Randall 1987). There was no move within Parliament to reconsider abortion on demand. The pro-choice campaigners, inside and outside Parliament, had succeeded in defeating the Corrie Bill but in the process NAC had faced a dilemma: in order to gain the support of the labour movement it had organised and run the CACB and yet had been unable to integrate its own aims into the aims of the defensive organisation. NAC remained much more explicitly an organisation of second wave feminism, presenting sexual politics, but increasingly criticised by many activists for compromising feminist principles. By the end of the 1970s, two broad, overlapping, areas of feminist criticism can be distinguished. Firstly, NAC was criticised by some of its own supporters for neglecting the more radical work of NAC. Secondly, as radical feminism developed and grew in strength, an alternative political strategy, based on women's autonomy, was pressed. In addition, NAC struggled to tackle new political issues debated within second wave feminism.

Points of Conflict

By the end of the campaign against the Corrie Bill, political tensions within NAC, and between NAC and other feminists, had increased as the organisation juggled with the divergent elements of its political strategy. The combination of feminism, left activism and a perspective which emphasised the importance of the labour movement created a powerful 'mass' movement but also caused internal disputes.

There was constant debate within NAC around the effectiveness of having a separate organisation to campaign against the Corrie Bill, and growing calls to disband the CACB as soon as possible. Within this debate many other areas of dispute within NAC were also aired, especially concerning the desirability of the labour movement alliance. At NAC's September 1979 National Planning Meeting unease was expressed at the existence of the CACB, especially from Sheffield NAC. NAC's Steering Committee pointed out that the CACB was a broad-based campaign aimed specifically at building support for the forthcoming TUC demonstration and that a decision would be made about its continued existence after the demonstration. This position was defended in NAC News, '[i]t is immeasurably better for the women's choice campaign, especially when faced with an attack such as Corrie's Bill, to have an enormous TUC demo in defence of the '67 Act, rather than a smaller demo on "free abortion on demand, a woman's right to choose with no legal or medical restrictions". When the women's movement has the opportunity to drag the labour movement behind it in defence of a hard won step forward for women's liberation - then it must obviously be grabbed with all hands and feet'.

Internal NAC documents indicate that NAC's leadership was pushed hard, by local branches and activists, throughout the campaign against the Corrie Bill to be less defensive in practice, to assert NAC's feminism in propaganda leaflets and other publicity and to carry this into political practice making abortion a women's issue in all its campaigning activity, including within the CACB. These demands were not always satisfied and some (mainly radical) feminists were therefore tempted to assert them independently of NAC. Two incidents on the TUC October 1979 demonstration had indicated the mood of a growing number of women. As the demonstration left Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, about 300 women carrying the London Women's Liberation banner and Women's Aid banner took the front of the procession and the march was delayed whilst an argument ensued as to who should lead the demonstration. The eventual compromise was to create a gap between these women and the main procession led by the TUC General Secretary, Len Murray. Later in the day, at the rally, some women attempted to place a WLM banner on the platform.

The women's action prompted much debate within the women's movement and swords were crossed in the pages of Spare Rib, (December 1979: 22) with A statement from the National Abortion Campaign Steering Committee .... and from some of the women who went to the front. The women who went to the front argued that abortion was a women's issue and that the unions' male hierarchy had dominated and worked against the 'women's movement' on the demonstration. They stated that without the 'women's movement' abortion would not be a political issue: '[w]e wonder why the TUC did not want women to lead the march. It is women who have consistently fought for control over our own lives; the right to abortion is an important part of this. So why did the TUC want to restrict it to simply being a "union issue"?' This prompted NAC into open criticism and to defend its own strategy. The statement from NAC's Steering Committee stressed the achievement of gaining trade union support and reassessed its importance: '[w]e positively fought for a TUC demonstration because we believed that it was the best way of bringing together the widest number of people to oppose the Corrie Bill. Without the trade unions, there was no hope of reaching women outside the limited circle of the women's movement (and readers of the Guardian)'. NAC stressed that the success of the demonstration was due to the amount of work women, including women trade unionists and NAC, had done over the years to gain labour movement involvement in the campaign: '[i]t was the women who had fought to get policy through the trade union branches who were in those trade union contingents at the front. The action of taking it over was an insult to them, an assumption that they had less right to be there than other women who had not been directly involved in the campaign at all.'

The radical feminists who had tried to lead the demonstration became known as the Abortion Action Group (AAG). They remained outside NAC and criticised it for 'concentrating its energies too much on the male bureaucracies of the unions rather than the women at the grass roots'. A mixture of responses were received at NAC's office from local groups. Leeds NAC expressed mixed feelings as to whether women should have tried to go to the front of the TUC march and advanced an explanation for the problems in NAC: '[w]e feel that the problems on the march are symptomatic of the disarray in NAC over the whole muddle of CAC. Obviously the TUC would only deal with CAC, and there has been considerable confusion at NAC planning meetings over the control and position of NAC vis a vis CAC'.

NAC, through the CACB, continued striving for labour movement support in the face of growing criticism from many feminists about male involvement and compromises and whilst the activities of some feminists were making it more difficult to gain that support. The TUC had not responded well to the women's attempt to lead the demonstration. The TUC Women's Advisory Committee had agreed to support the 5 February lobby, organised by the CACB, but, significantly, not the 8 February Women's Assembly, organised by NAC. The two events in February 1980 were symptomatic of NAC's attempt to combine two approaches. In its Newsletter, NAC stressed the need to keep the support of the trade unions for the 5 February lobby: '[i]t is imperative that we get trade union support'. But it also organised a women-only event on 8 February: '[a]gain we want maximum participation but on this day, while the debate takes place, we feel it is right that it should be women who are seen to protest and that it will be women who are there in Central Hall when the result of the vote is heard'.

At the 8 February Women's Assembly, NAC was once again upstaged by radical feminists critical of its political priorities. Many women, angry at male press and television presence in the hall, disrupted the meeting. In addition, some women were arrested in the House of Commons for unfurling their banner, and when women rushed into the hall where the Assembly was taking place calling for a mass exodus to Parliament, the Assembly turned into chaos. These events prompted further serious debate within NAC. The attempt to combine a feminist event with a mass public campaigning event had failed. Whilst NAC was trying to organise orderly events to present its case in a positive and respectable light, radical feminists were deliberately disruptive and disreputable, advocating spontaneity and direct action. NAC could not accommodate radical feminist political strategy and practices within a 'mass' campaign in alliance with labour movement organisations.

Sections of the women's movement continued to press a radical feminist approach, to be expressed by women leading demonstrations, by women's demands being given greater prominence and by women-only activity. Although NAC did initiate such political activity it was not prepared to go down the separatist road. One important aspect of NAC's approach to the labour movement was to make a conscious effort not to exclude men. As radical feminism developed and grew in strength towards the end of the 1970s, conflict with the predominantly socialist feminist approach of NAC increased substantially. Criticism of NAC based on the charge that it was willing to work with men called into question its entire political strategy and NAC activists realised that this was a divisive issue:
    The issue of women's autonomy must be confronted by NAC and fully discussed. It is the issue that many women in the WLM are confronting us with; it is an issue that confronts us as a result of involving the labour movement and more men in the campaign than ever before and it is an issue that is already a controversy in NAC itself... We are fighting for choice and the fight for abortion rights is essentially a struggle for sexual freedom and we must win the support of the labour movement on this understanding as well as class reasons
NAC, however, was not able to gain the support of the labour movement on this basis and by the end of the 1970s, some feminists felt that women's claims for free sexuality had not attained a high enough profile in NAC's campaigning activity.

A further area of conflict was pressure upon NAC to move forward from being a single-issue campaign. From the first NAC conference in 1975 there had been calls to move NAC forward from a single-issue campaign to embrace issues of reproductive rights more fully. A basic contradiction in the approach of NAC was that although it argued that abortion could not be seen in isolation, it was a single issue campaign and resisted calls to extend its political aims. This was particularly felt in debates around the general question of reproductive rights, one of the issues which illustrated the tensions within NAC between feminists who were also members of the organised left, predominantly the IMG, and those who described themselves as 'non-aligned'. Debate around reproductive rights eventually led NAC to split at its 1983 Conference when the largest group left to form the Women's Reproductive Rights Campaign (Henry 1984). It was the non-aligned, autonomous feminists who broke from NAC. This debate was connected to broadening their politics away from a single issue campaign to take into account other related issues, in particular those of race and sexuality.

As the 1970s progressed there was a growing awareness of divisions amongst women along the lines of race and ethnicity, as well as class. Many feminists found themselves targets of accusations that feminism was a white, middle class movement (hooks 1982; Joseph 1981). These accusations were also levelled at NAC. The most telling criticism was that NAC's slogan, based upon an abstract concept of rights, missed the point that minority women were often subject to a racist pressure towards abortion, sterilisation and unsafe (but effective) contraceptives. NAC had always emphasised that abortion had to be a real choice, argued against sterilisation and pressure on ethnic minority women to 'choose' abortion, and thus implicitly challenged racist attitudes. However, because the focus on women's rights became an abstract slogan of individual rights the social context of abortion was sidelined. What then developed towards the end of the 1970s was a more direct acknowledgement, within the women's movement in general and within NAC in particular, that racism was a central issue to be addressed in the abortion debate. NAC stressed that the right to choose must include the choice to have children and that this stress on choice should preclude the possibility of racist population politics.

These points of conflict also raised the whole issue of what constitutes feminist political activity. Some NAC members warned of the dangers of hierarchies developing and the need to distribute power and responsibility throughout the organisation both regionally and locally. This danger is related to the view that the highly organised, structured political approach needed in order to achieve social change conflicted with the participatory, spontaneous and open political approach favoured by feminists (Freeman 1975). NAC members complained that too great an emphasis had been placed on parliamentary campaigns, that the women on the Steering Committee were distant and official and did not even belong to the local groups. One member deliberately counterposed feminist politics to the strategy pursued by NAC:

    As a feminist organisation we must commit ourselves to the practices of collective work and responsibility, making it easier to acquire knowledge and skills and putting much more emphasis on grassroots consciousness-raising... We don't have to liaise with the TUC in order to influence women who haven't joined. If we are to stop thinking about power in terms of men who make laws, and about victory and defeat in terms of incomprehensible manoeuvrings in Parliament, and about strength in terms of the number of organisations who unwittingly affiliate to a campaign which is radical beyond their wildest imaginings, then we have to situate ourselves firmly within the women's movement. This isn't opting out or making ourselves inaccessible in feminist havens; it is benefiting from contact with women who, with us, can create real alternatives to political structures that only oppress us.
NAC had successfully pursued its socialist feminist strategy of gaining the labour movement as a political ally in the campaign to defend the 1967 Abortion Act. Madeleine Simms, a prominent ALRA activist in the 1960s and 1970s, has claimed that NAC's close links with the labour movement '[i]ntroduced a new and important element into the political struggle to preserve legal abortion. Once the trade unions and Labour women were involved it became increasingly difficult for even the Roman Catholic Labour MPs to actively support any restriction of the Abortion Act' (Simms 1985: 91). This was a real political shift. Many feminists, however, were not prepared to accept the costs of compromise that this support entailed. The disagreements surrounding the existence of the CACB thus reflected the inherent problem of attacking the 1967 Act whilst also seeking to defend it, and the tensions created by drawing support from both the women's movement and the labour movement.

NAC remained committed to the idea of further legislation on abortion which would provide the mechanism for achieving a woman's right to choose and, in the final stages of the campaign against the Corrie Bill declared: '[a]fter five years of campaigning, NAC has shown that those who support a woman's right to choose have the power to stop restrictions on abortion in Parliament, and that together we can go further and win a woman's right to choose in law and in practice.' This single sentence contains two claims. NAC could justifiably argue that it had achieved the first. It had not, however, achieved the latter. 'A Woman's Right to Choose' did not attain a high profile in the campaign and has not been achieved in practice. It was the work undertaken in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act that had occupied the attention of most of NAC's activists and attracted 'mass' support.


Although NAC did sideline its distinctively feminist political aims, it could justifiably claim that these aims were never abandoned. This was because it maintained a hierarchy of demands, and also formed 'front' organisations to take the main responsibility for working with the labour movement. This appeared to simplify its political strategy, but raises difficult questions about the connections between theory and practice. If a political organisation is unable to campaign for its maximum demands, but is rather continually engaged in pursuing lesser demands, such as the defence of the 1967 Act, its radical activists face constant disappointment. As Anne Phillips has noted: '[f]ifteen years of campaigning activity did little more than hold on to an Act which had been introduced by a Liberal MP' (Phillips 1987: 2). NAC emerged from within second wave feminism with the ideals and optimism of a new and radical movement: the compromises of its involvement in practical politics appear to have come as a rude shock to many of its supporters.

What NAC experienced was the need to compromise long term principles of gender equality (in order to defend improvements in women's reproductive lives) even though it remained outside the state apparatus. The feminist debate between policy advocacy and statist scepticism in which sceptics argue that to remain 'true' to feminist principles feminists should remain outside the state apparatus (see Everett 1998) therefore needs extending. NAC was pressured into compromise even though it remained outside the state apparatus.

There is no smooth transition from political ideas through political strategy to exerting political influence. It is a complex interaction in which feminist agency is held back by the state, and by other political actors, but can also make a difference. Rosalind Petchesky (1986) makes a distinction which can be applied to analyses of feminism in action. She suggests that although women, as individuals, do not make reproductive choices as they please, collective involvement in a political campaign can contribute towards changing conditions. Precisely because collective political action can make an impact, political ideas, strategy and tactics are important. The revolutionary feminist politics of NAC moved it to reject the tactics of a parliamentary pressure group, but there was always a contradiction between NAC's inclination towards such a rejection and the knowledge that policy struggle over existing legislation is necessarily centred upon Parliament. When defending the 1967 Abortion Act, NAC was drawn into political debate through trying to win over those in the middle ground, who did not hold an entrenched position in abortion politics. Whilst NAC pointed to the inadequacies of the 1967 Abortion Act, the concern expressed in the House of Commons was to make the 1967 Act work effectively as a public health measure within definite limits. There was a general consensus that women have greater rights before the point of foetal viability. The connection of health with class, especially in relation to working-class women, was an important shared concern between NAC and the labour movement. In contrast, both NAC's calls for women's rights to abortion on demand and pro-life activists' total opposition to the 1967 Abortion Act, were very much minority demands.

NAC, in this period, can be characterised as comprising two sets of politics. The first was the political approach of NAC itself. This was an approach identified with the call for 'free abortion on demand, a woman's right to choose with no restrictions' that excluded most of the pro-choice movement, and even some NAC members. It represented one extreme of the polarised abortion politics of the 1970s and NAC was not successful in forwarding this aim. The second set of politics was best represented by the CACB. It was determinedly inclusive with the broad aim of defending the 1967 Abortion Act, something the pro-choice movement, large sections of the labour movement and much of the 'middle-ground' could agree upon. It was largely successful in this defensive aim. There was, however, a cost attached to this success and that was a very low profile for feminist politics within the campaign.

The lack of political engagement had consequences. NAC's feminist politics on abortion became marginalised within its campaigning activity. Because NAC felt that it retained its feminist aims quite separately from its practical political activity in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act developing shared meanings (inclusive cognitive framing) based upon feminist politics, within the front organisation, the CACB, was not a major priority. Indeed, revolutionary feminist credentials became tied to what was viewed as an extreme position, on abortion with no limits, which had no possibility of success.

In addition, although NAC did have a rounded, holistic understanding of the need for individual control to be linked with wider issues of women's subordination this got lost in the heat of campaigning activity. As Eileen Fariweather (1981: 27) pointed out in an influential article, 'abortion became a political football ... we duly kicked back and, faced with the opposition's set of slogans, defensively came up with our own. In our rush to do that, the complexity of abortion and its emotional significance for women somehow got lost'. NAC found itself drawn into an extreme polarisation of the abortion debate and tied to abstract slogans that did not deal with the complexity of abortion as a political issue.

Because the gap between the politics of NAC and the politics it actually campaigned around in CACB was great there was limited political engagement on feminist terms. This militated against making advances towards improving women's abortion rights. A more productive approach may have been facilitated by attempting to develop a non-exclusive feminist politics on abortion, taking account of differences between women and making connections with non-feminist organisations without accommodation. This need not mean that more ambitious feminist aims must be abandoned. The conflicts and dilemmas faced by NAC may be viewed as producing a creative tension: NAC did after all maintain its radical politics and successfully pursued the strategy of building and maintaining a broad alliance with more limited aims. Gains were made by presenting a feminist case to a wider audience and directing activity not against men but towards forming working alliances. The issue is whether a movement more favourable to feminist politics on reproductive rights might have been achieved with more political flexibility.

In order to influence policy development feminists need to formulate aims that can appeal to a broader audience outside their own ranks. The case of NAC has shown the complexity of feminist engagement in political struggle in which the task is to formulate aims that can be accepted by the middle ground in debates around reproductive control. Women, and men, are profoundly divided over what rights can be attributed to the woman, the foetus and the father. In the face of a multiplicity of political outlooks, feminist campaigns cannot afford to be too exclusive.

Whilst a maximum aim might remain 'a feminist programme for reproductive freedom' (Petchesky 1980: 663), it might also be possible to make compromised gains, or even consolidate previous compromises and reforms. The ability to compromise is central to involvement in the policy process as is the ongoing dilemma of tapping into institutional power without losing feminist aims. Feminists today might consider consolidating the 1967 Abortion Act by campaigning for women's choice up to a given point specifying foetal viability; by calling for improvements in NHS abortion provision in the light of continued unevenness (ALRA 1997); or by campaigning to normalise early abortions, such that they are viewed as part of a web of reproductive control rather than a desperate, unfortunate necessity (Hadley 1996). The study of NAC has also demonstrated that, short of a dramatic change in the politics of abortion, campaigning for women's choice after the point of viability is not realistic.


The Corrie Bill had four objectives: first, to reduce the upper time limit from 28 to 20 weeks; second, to reduce the social grounds for abortion; third, to extend the 'conscience' clause so that medical staff might refuse to take part in abortions on moral grounds; fourth, to restrict the abortion charities by tightening licensing procedures and breaking the link between referral agencies and clinics.

The archives are housed at the Contemporary Medical Archive Centre, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (hereafter referred to as 'CMAC, Wellcome Institute'). They had not been catalogued when I consulted them. Information, and opinions, gained from the interviews will be acknowledged but individuals will not be named. I have also omitted identifying authors of internal documents by name. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

NAC Discussion paper, Methods of Struggle, (NAC archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

NAC leaflet for the 1977 National Union of Student' Conference (NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

Discussion Paper written for NAC's 1976 Conference (NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

NAC was concerned to provide proposals to legislate for A Woman's Right to Choose. In this sense the legislation was positive because it was in favour of legislating for the right to an abortion, rather than just reducing restrictions.

NAC Discussion Paper Why NAC does not support ALRA's Bill, 1977 (NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

NAC internal documents (NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute). This point was confirmed in personal interviews.

In March 1976, sections of the medical profession which supported the 1967 Act, plus other social work and related professions, formed the Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act (Co-ord). Other interested groups, including campaigning organisations, political parties and religious groups, affiliated to Co-ord. By 1980, more that fifty organisations were members of the Committee (Simms 1985). Co-ord was an umbrella organisation which involved very disparate organisations, ranging from Tories for Free Choice through the Child Poverty Action Group to the Young Communist League (Birth Control Trust 1978: 32.

Minutes, CACB meeting, 17 July 1979 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

The motion at the 1978 Trades Union Congress was proposed by Dr J. Gray (ASTMS: Medical Practitioners' Section). The motion reaffirmed opposition to any move to restrictively amend the 1967 Act and called on the General Council to put pressure on the government to establish out-patient abortion clinics. It also endorsed the TUC Women's Conference resolution calling for a TUC demonstration before the final parliamentary vote on any future restrictive abortion legislation. (Report of the 110th Annual Trades Union Congress: 642, TUC Archives, Congress House).

CACB leaflet publicising the mass lobby and rally of 5 February 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

Daily Express, 6 February 1980.

NAC leaflet publicising the Women's Assembly of 8 February 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

CACB leaflet (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

CACB leaflet (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC leaflets, (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC News, 28 October 1979: 1 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC's National Planning Meetings, Leicester, 1 September 1979. These demands were repeated at the November 1979 National Planning Meeting (minutes of the meetings, NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

NAC News, 28 October 1979: 3. (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

Labour Weekly, 2 November 1979: 5.

NAC Newsletter 5 February 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

The CACB was sometimes referred to as CAC.

Letter to NAC's office from Leeds NAC 31 December 1979 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC National Planning Meeting Minutes, 5 January 1980. (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute). NAC and LARC had written to the Women's Advisory Committee requesting its support for both these events expressing the hope that 'the abortion campaign and the TUC can continue the close links established around the October demonstration and that together we can smooth over these difficulties' (23 November 1970 letter, File 2651, TUC Archives, Congress House).

NAC Newsletter, probably November 1975 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC Discussion Document, Women's Autonomy is not separation, March 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

For example, NAC News, 28 October 1979 (NAC Archives, CACB, Wellcome Institute).

National Abortion Campaign Special Newsletter on Sexuality For Women Only, 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).

NAC leaflet, February 1980 (NAC Archives, CMAC, Wellcome Institute).


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