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Women Against Pit Closures: ‘We Got On With It’

Against Thatcher’s plans to starve the miners back to work, the political and physical sustenance of the miners’ strike was wholly dependent on the skills and determination of thousands of working-class women.

(Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

On a busy corner in Barnsley, opposite the local college and a dentist’s office, sits the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Built in 1874, the grade II listed building nestled among rows of Victorian townhouses is easy to miss. Once you pass through the wooden doors and climb the stairs, though, it’s hard not to be inspired by the stateliness of the place. The ceiling of the great hall is a sea of white, gold, and blue panelling, its walls lined with banners from across the Yorkshire coalfields — Cortonwood, Wombwell, Kellingley. Dozens of empty chairs fill the room, providing a gentle reminder of the members and the pits that have been lost.

Away from the pomp and circumstance of the main hall, beneath the staircase is an office that is quite unlike the rest of the building. Its door boasts a window obscured by white net curtains. Inside, filing cabinets, wooden desks, and cupboards are adorned with vases of artificial flowers and a striking purple banner featuring a group of women standing arm in arm alongside the words ‘Daughters of Mother Jones’. It was here that, in 2021, I met Anne Scargill and Betty Cook, members of Barnsley Miners’ Wives Action Group and figureheads of the national women’s support movement during the strike and beyond.

‘I mean, prior to ’84/’85, would you have seen a women’s group having an office in the NUM?’ asked Betty.

No way. Funnily enough, I remember we’d gone to the old NUM headquarters in Sheffield to do something, and we were coming down in the lift with Arthur [Scargill] and another guy. Arthur said, ‘Before long, they’ll be wanting an office in the NUM’ — and we did, we got one.

Their home in the NUM is a testament to their legendary status within the miners’ movement. The Barnsley wives would later become affiliated with Women Against Pit Closures, or WAPC, which formed in the summer of 1984 in an effort to unify the countless women’s support groups that had sprung up across the coalfields. Many of these groups share the same origin story: women of the coalfields banding together to ensure that people’s basic needs were met, becoming politically enlightened in the process.

Getting Organised

Yet, in most cases, these groups were led by women with experience of socialist activism and organised support for trade union disputes — like Kay Sutcliffe, for example. Kay had been a member of the Aylesham Ladies’ Action Group, which provided food parcels and catering, and organised social visits for Kent miners during the strike of 1974. As the group became increasingly political, they decided to do away with the old-fashioned title of ‘ladies’, to become the Aylesham Women’s Support Group.

We’d heard that since the strike had started, some of the men had been sleeping rough in the hall. We wanted to do a collection to make sure they had some blankets and had enough to eat … [and] it all started from there.

When the 1984 strike began, Kay was quickly chosen as the chair of the group.

I got a lot of coaching, a lot of help on how to speak in public, but it took some getting used to. I remember one particular event: my husband approached me before I went onstage and said, ‘Guess how many people are out there.’ I didn’t think it would be that many, but he said it was about a 1,000! I thought, I’m not going to be able to do this. But he said, ‘Of course you can. You have to.’

I remember just staring at one woman in the middle, like I was making my speech to her. My mum and some of the other women were in the front row, but I couldn’t look at them — I had to focus on speaking to that one woman because I was that nervous. Afterwards she came up and spoke to us, asking us to help her organise some events.

Others would require a bit more encouragement to get involved. Rose Hunter, from Biddulph in Staffordshire, was 23 when the strike began. She had two young children and another on the way, but as she took trips with her striking husband and children to the local food centre, she felt increasingly compelled to play her part in supporting the cause.

I used to go to the support meetings at the local pub. I was one of the youngest there. All of these women that were there, from all areas of the country, you know, Geordie, Welsh, Staffie … I was just in awe of them. I was absolutely in awe of their strength and their organisational skills and what they were doing.

I ended up getting two buses down to a Women’s Day event at Stoke Poly, and that’s where I met Brenda Proctor and another woman called Bridget Bell. Bridget had organised things and it was really buzzy; and there were all sorts of workshops going on about women’s issues like health and strip searches. The women from Greenham Common [the anti-nuclear peace camp] were there too, and it was great; you thought, ‘God, I really belong here.’

It was women like these who led the charge, sharing their knowledge and encouraging others to become politically active. An experienced organiser and socialist, Bridget Bell had been involved in setting up a women’s refuge in Newcastle-under-Lyme before the establishment of the North Staffordshire Miners’ Wives Action Group. Both Bridget and Brenda Proctor would later serve as senior members of the WAPC and continue to support causes like the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign for the rest of their lives.

Rose continued:

I plucked up my courage, and I went over to speak to them. Brenda was a big character in Stoke. She took up the baton for the miners’ wives and she was on telly a lot.

She just said to me, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s Sunday, so I’ll be looking after the kids and making Sunday dinner.’ And she goes, ‘Your husband’s on strike, isn’t he? Tell him to look after the kids and we’ll come and pick you up. We’re going to a Women Against Pit Closures meeting.’

Community Defence

As their confidence grew, women like Rose built upon the skills they already had to provide wraparound support for their communities. When the Thatcher government blocked striking families from accessing any form of benefit, the provision of daily necessities became central to the prolonged success of the strike. In the absence of state support, women’s groups stepped in to develop an alternative welfare state across every village, ensuring that each striking miner and family received an equal share of food, clothing, and other donations.

It was a system that relied on maximising the potential of every member of the community: women who were well used to balancing part-time work with childcare and homemaking were budgeting and crafting nutritious meal plans to cater for hundreds of families. Others found an affinity for fundraising and events management, hosting Christmas parties with gifts donated by miners from overseas. Speaking of her experiences as an activist in the South Wales Women’s Support Group, former MP and Save the Children fundraiser Siân James pinpoints the importance of harnessing each individual’s skills for the good of the cause.

It was us as a community, as a group of people who were coming together. People’s abilities really came to the fore. I had no qualms going out and asking for money — we asked for donations, we asked for jumble, and my mother and others grew plants to sell door to door.

While traditionally feminine roles became increasingly radical within the context of the strike, women were also determined to join the picket lines as equals. Many, like Rose, were taught how to harness their voices using a song that would become the anthem of every woman involved.

Rose said:

Brenda and Bridget got quite friendly with a theatre company who had played a few of our socials. One night, they said, ‘Why don’t you learn how to sing?’ I was like, ‘Don’t be stupid. We’re not singing … If we’re out, we’re out picketing and causing mayhem, we’re not singing!’

It was on a very cold January night that we all found ourselves down at the poly again at Stoke. Lying on the floor, trying to find our diaphragms. We were like, ‘God’s sake, this is ridiculous.’ Then Mal Finch came down to us, and she taught us how to sing her song ‘Women of the Working Class’ — we’ve sung it ever since.

But finding their voices on the picket would also place them face to face with the very real threat of state violence. Some women were beaten, arrested, and even strip-searched; others were shocked at the brutality they witnessed, having previously respected the police as shepherds of law and order.

Kay explained:

I did go on the pickets a few times — I couldn’t always, because I worked. It wasn’t the nicest experience. The police could be really awful — they would say some horrible things to us. The strike really opened our eyes to things that were happening, that could happen — to injustice, not just in our village, but around the world.

After witnessing the violence of the picket lines, many became educated on their rights and more determined than ever to take a stand.

Betty Cook told Tribune:

There was one time when some women had been taken off in a police van. We decided that we’d go to stand outside a police station and scream and shout and sing, and hope that the women could hear. So, we were outside singing, ‘We are women, we are strong!’ and all that.

A Legacy of Struggle

The strike ended in March 1985. Many women chose to return to the way their lives had been before the dispute, while a number of the key organisers kept fighting for the miners’ cause. In a final charge against a wave of proposed pit closures under John Major’s government in 1992, Anne Scargill, Betty Cook, and Rose Hunter took inspiration from the Greenham Common Peace Camp to establish a number of colliery occupations — or ‘pit camps’ — that endured for several months.

Anne said:

After the strike, if there was something happening, we would go and support people. If someone was on strike, we’d join the picket — so we kept it going, really. When things started up again in ’92, we were determined to do something big.

Others, like Bridget Bell, Siân James, and Brenda Proctor, would go on to act as representatives for working-class women in party politics, launching political careers with Labour, the Socialist Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Thanks to the success of these women, the establishment of WAPC is remembered in countless memoirs, news articles, interviews, and films as a watershed moment for women in mining communities. Plenty of activists, including Siân James and Betty Cook, have described the strike as a turning point in their lives; their experiences shook them free from the shackles of domestic life, helped them escape abusive marriages, or gave them a voice where they previously had none.

But while this version of events is powerful, it is somewhat simplistic. It is true that the emancipation legend has historically played an important part in boosting the public perception of the strike, rallying the support of middle-class feminists and allowing women like Anne and Betty to become media spokeswomen in what was seen as a hyper-masculine struggle. The danger lies in remembering working-class women in simplistic terms, and thereby undermining the tremendous skill and agency they have always displayed. In fighting for their way of life, the miners’ wives proved that they were not only able to take up the mantle but perfectly placed to do so — just as the chain makers of Cradley Heath, the London night cleaners, and the Fakenham factory workers had done before them.

Siân explained:

I had friends turn around and say, ‘No. I’ve got to get back to work now. I’ve got to find a job. It’s been a whole year, and I have to support my family.’ I knew I couldn’t be that person anymore. But were they wrong? No. Did they disappear? No. Did they lose the skills that they had? Not at all.

Our communities changed, but we didn’t lose that activism. There are three words we live by: solidarity, activism, and community. Margaret Thatcher tried to destroy these three words. She didn’t destroy them for me. She didn’t destroy them for thousands of women like me. We got on with it.