Radical Objects

Radical Objects: The London Women’s Handbook

On an otherwise quiet August morning at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was busily shuffling some archive boxes around when a colleague called me downstairs because there was a visitor she felt I should meet. I was undertaking an internship at the library, cataloguing the archive of the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group, and I’d been regularly sharing archive items and titbits of feminist histories on Twitter; earlier that week, I’d tweeted about lesbian feminist knowledge networks. Spurred by these tweets, our visitor decided to donate a book right at the heart of feminist information activism in the 1980s: The London Women’s Handbook. This copy was, she told me conspiratorially, her spare – ‘my other copy’s been written all over’ – and we pondered how a book that was so radical and widely distributed in its day is now all but unknown.

The London Women’s Handbook, 1986. This is the copy donated to the Glasgow Women’s Library in August 2021.

In March 1986 the Women’s Committee of the Labour-led Greater London Council (GLC) published the Handbook, a 380-page compendium of resources, services, community and local government initiatives, and information, all relating to the specific issues and needs of women living and working across London. The book’s contents are organised into 26 sections, running alphabetically from ‘Black and Ethnic Minority Women’ to ‘Women’s Resources and Campaigning’, and encompassing everything from childcare to housing, policing, and much more in between. I’ve since landed myself a copy from a second-hand bookshop, and in it some of these headings are starred, their constituent sections annotated in green ink; on the title page, a name written in scratchy biro (‘Angela D.’) and a stamp from a feminist bookseller are further clues to the book’s past life. 

Linocut illustration from the Black and Ethnic Minority Women section.

Chiefly, this book is a practical guide to the services and organisations that can help them and provides relatively nuanced, accessible information on a range of issues. It attests to the work of the GLC Women’s Committee, established in 1981 to represent and advocate for women’s issues and to improve the quality of local women’s everyday lives. On another level, the Handbook also represents a socialist administration working to prioritise equal opportunities for minoritised communities, in the face of hostility and repression by national government. Just one month after the Handbook’s publication, the GLC was unceremoniously abolished by the Thatcher Government. From the book’s introduction:

[This publication] ought to be continually developed and updated – and it would have been if the Council and therefore the Women’s Committee were not abolished. At the time of going to print we are hoping to find a ‘home’ for the Handbook and an organisation which will update it regularly.’

In the months and years that followed, the rich network of services and organisations that this book documents would be critically eroded by administrative reform, central funding cuts, and active repression campaigns. As a result, then, the London Women’s Handbook captures a particular moment in the British political landscape, one in which a feminist agenda was apparently put at the heart of local government.

When in 1981 a socialist Labour administration took control of the Greater London Council, this heralded a new era for London, one in which the Council not only managed efficient public service provision but sought to kickstart regeneration in a stagnant economic climate of mass unemployment, deindustrialisation, and deep public spending cuts by Margaret Thatcher’s government. 

Led by ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone, the new GLC prioritised local job creation, equal opportunities, workers’ rights, and planning and investing ‘from the bottom up’ rather than at a central, administrative level. Directly aligning itself with the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) and international feminist campaigns like Wages for Housework, the GLC also pledged to support the domestic economy – the heavily feminised, typically unpaid and unacknowledged labour of caregiving and domestic work – by investing heavily in free childcare provision, improving public transport, and campaigning to narrow the gender pay gap. The establishment of its Women’s Committee reflected a short-lived but nonetheless significant paradigm in local politics, rooted in mainstream and WLM-era feminism, which saw the formation of more than forty such committees in local authorities across the UK; this strategic focus on women’s issues has since been labelled ‘municipal feminism’. From an initial staff of 3 and a budge of £332,000 in its first year, the Women’s Committee grew rapidly, and by its fourth and final year it employed 96 people and managed a budget of £16million. Elsewhere, the GLC pursued an anti-racist agenda by publishing research on systemic racism across employment sectors and in the Met Police, by refusing tenders to companies whose recruitment policies were found to be discriminatory, and by providing grant funding to Black-led organisations. It also supported the burgeoning movement for gay and lesbian rights by awarding grants for gay and lesbian centres like the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre and funding mechanisms to monitor homophobia in areas including employment, housing, and policing, such as Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights (LAGER) and the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (Galop).

Linocut illustration from the Lesbian Mothers section.

The GLC’s commitment to this diversity of issues plays out across the pages of The London Women’s Handbook. On page 40, under ‘Disability’ (earmarked by the previous owner of my copy), the guide’s authors advocate for wider recognition of how disabled women face the combined oppressions of misogyny, ableism and a lack of economic power, along with racism for disabled women of colour and homophobia for queer disabled women. This is followed by reams of information relating to disability associations, accessibility services, providers of aids and equipment, organisations specifically for Black women and women of colour, and so on. Flick forward to page 128, ‘Health’, and you’ll find a nuanced assessment of the major health issues facing women – many of which endure today – including a lack of clear, accessible info on reproductive rights, a dearth of women-only provision, medical racism, and the privatisation of parts of the NHS by the Thatcher Government. From page 189-199, under ‘Lesbians’, the Handbook supplies information and contact details for advice services, Black lesbian groups, arts spaces, nightlife, housing, lesbian mothers, disabled lesbians, and much more. The Handbook also articulates the Women’s Committee’s sex-worker inclusive feminism, acknowledging sex work as just that – work – and acknowledging the need for decriminalisation, calling the law ‘an outdated hotch-potch of measures’ which largely punish and endanger sex workers themselves.

Linocut illustration from the Transport section.

The London Women’s Handbook attests to the GLC’s political will to bring about equality of opportunity for women across a broad spectrum of experience, but the Council was also blighted by contradictions and shortcomings. As the GLC drew heat from the right-wing tabloids for its support of minoritised groups, it was also criticised from some on the left and within feminist and lesbian and gay circles for conflating glossy rhetoric with direct action. Writing in the feminist periodical off our backs, one author laments the GLC’s lack of long-term planning for the feminist and community initiatives it funded:

Many feminist groups don’t know how they are going to pay the rent come April [1986, the GLC’s abolition]. And what about the workers? Most have to look for new jobs, as most groups never meant to charge enough for their services to cover wages, and they have no way of making money to pay for the work they do. 

Others levelled criticism more specifically at the Women’s Committee, labelling its relationship (and therefore its commitment) to feminist, anti-racist, and lesbian and gay issues as nonorganic and inauthentic. In a damning appraisal of the GLC’s approach to lesbian issues, lesbian feminist Ann Tobin argues that equalities strategies were ‘tagged on’ to existing Labour Party policies rather than integral to their formulation. The rights and freedoms of minoritised groups were tokenised, and the various committees and Equalities Officers employed to enforce them were often regarded with derision by Labour stalwarts, who perceived them as ‘attackers’ of existing work. Of the Women’s Committee, she adds: 

Straight Labour women [had] considerable difficulty in allying themselves with their lesbian sisters, again demonstrating their lack of understanding of what precisely it was they were supporting, and their ignorance of the long debate about lesbianism in the Women’s movement. In particular, straight Labour women found themselves colluding with the oppression of lesbians without realizing that they too were being lined up on the firing line.

Amongst all of this, the GLC’s focus on building allegiances and resources along identity lines created a climate that was ripe for partisanship – in Tobin’s words, ‘the playing off of one oppression against another’ in order to sustain funding – which in turn led to a fragmentation of struggles. Without funding or a wider base of non-institutional support and solidarity, many women’s and LGBT+ groups that relied on GLC grants to support their work struggled to sustain themselves and petered out in the months and years following the GLC’s abolition. 

Linocut illustration from the Peace section.

The London Women’s Handbook captures a turning point in British political and social life. Largely, it is a culmination of the work of the GLC Women’s Committee during its four years in operation, and it documents the strides made towards social progress that flew in the face of Thatcherite values. Given the fact that it was published immediately prior to the Committee’s abolition, the book’s depth and nuance is astounding; information has always been a powerful currency for consciousness-raising, and so it was that the Women’s Committee poured their remaining energies into putting as much information as possible out into the public domain. These books were distributed to women’s centres and community groups, to be handed out free of charge. The book also maps feminist organising at a local level, some of it backed by local authorities and some of it independent of (even oppositional to) institutional support. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the GLC’s failures to build sustainability into many of the ground-breaking initiatives it supported are also contained in the Handbook’s pages. In reflecting on the GLC and its legacy, one must resist romanticising its work or exaggerating the extent to which words translated into action. The memories of some of those who were there – queer, disabled, migrant, working-class, Black women and women of colour – both outside of and within the institution, clearly contradict the notion that Labour has always been a socially progressive party. It’s no coincidence that these are the people who most acutely felt the fallout from the GLC’s abolition, and whose lives have been disproportionately affected by the rampant moralism and nationalism that Thatcher’s government enshrined in law. The Handbook appears to anticipate some of these major reforms to some extent – the 1988 enforcement of Section 28, for instance, or the longer-term reverberations of the 1980 Housing Act which decimated social housing stock by giving tenants the right to buy their council houses. This book is radical, yes, but not merely by virtue of being a feminist resource; it is radical for the divisive, messy, precipitous political moment it documents.

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