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The incredible legacy of women in the miners’ strike still shines

Women gathered in Durham on Saturday March 2 to celebrate their role in the miners’ strike of 1984-5 – and what a celebration it was, writes Morning Star northern reporter PETER LAZENBY

FOR a “small do” it was a pretty big event. Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) mobilised hundreds of veteran activists, their daughters, grand-daughters and friends, to march through the streets of Durham, banners raised, in a reunion and a celebration of the role played by women in the 1984-5 miners’ strike whose 40th anniversary begins on Wednesday.

Common wisdom has it that without the mobilisation of the women of the coalfields, the year-long miners’ strike against pit closures would have ended in October 1984, seven months after it started. Instead, it continued until March 1985.

On Saturday the banners they raised in Durham were an indication of the breadth of the women’s mobilisation during the strike: Vane Tempest Vigil, South Wales Support Groups, Corpull and Chorley Miners’ Wives from Lancashire, Durham Miners’ Wives’ Action Group, and Durham Support Groups.

Joining them were Grimethorpe Women’s Pit Camp, “Houghton Main Women’s Pit Camp, and Sheffield WAPC from Yorkshire. There were more than 20 banners in all. Another was Barnsley Miners’ Wives — and UMWA Women Miners.

UMWA is the United Mineworkers of America, and one of the eight-strong US delegation was banner-bearer Libby Lindsey, a woman former coalminer from West Virginia and long-time friend of WAPC.

She had made the journey, she said, “To celebrate these women who are so amazing. They inspired us during the strike. They inspire us now. They stepped up.

“They did so much more than just soup kitchens. They saw what needed to be done and they just did it. They built their solidarity, and it went all over the world.”

The reception the marchers received as they marched through the crowded streets from Durham Cathedral surprised some of the women.

The hurrying shoppers, students and tourists came to a standstill. They lined the streets. Then they burst into applause.

 “There were hundreds of them,” said one marcher. “They just kept clapping us.”

There was a pause part-way through the march outside The Swan and Three Cygnets, a pub known to anyone who has attended the Durham Miners’ Gala. There the women sang the WAPC anthem, Women of the Working Class, also known as We Are Women We Are Strong. It was one of many renditions of the anthem on Saturday, sung by the women with clenched fists raised.

The march passed through a guard of honour of Durham ex-miners who stood with their pit lodge banners either side of the route in tribute. Easington Lodge, Sacriston, Black Hall, Wearmouth, Horden — pits long closed, but their community spirit as alive as ever.

At the end of the march, surrounded by women, men and banners, and standing in the street, socialist singer-songwriter Joe Solo performed a song he had written for the occasion. He was cheered and applauded.

Then the celebrations really began. The women, their banners and their supporters filed into Durham University Students’ Union for an afternoon of speeches, music, song and poetry. The main hall was filled to capacity. An overflow room was also full, and the proceedings were passed through a video link.

On the tables, there were cakes, thick with icing bearing the logo of the WAPC movement.

Heather Wood from Easington, who is secretary of National WAPC, opened the proceedings and told how her husband John had advised her to “keep it small” when she raised the idea of an event.

“But just like WAPC, it kept on growing,” she told the audience.

What followed was a glorious medley of spoken memories, moving speeches and equally moving performances, including a choir from the Cheesy Waffles Project which involves children with special educational needs, who sang in hard hats and orange boiler suits.

The event drew overseas women supporters not just from the US but also from Germany and the Netherlands, and a TV crew from France — the French CGT union was one of the biggest overseas supporters of the miners, their families and their communities during the strike.

“This is an important event for us,” one member of the crew said.

Sabine Leopold had travelled from Herten in the industrial Ruhr in Germany.

She told the Morning Star: “In Germany during the strike we organised solidarity. We collected clothing and food. Our comrades, we went into the streets in the mining communities and collected. Everyone gave — 20 Deutschemarks, 30.

“But in Germany, the mining companies tried to divide us. They tried to take scab coal to Britain from Germany. The German miners said: ‘No. We will not send this coal to break the strike.’

“We were together. The wives and the miners organised together. As miners’ wives, we are still organised together. The women’s miners’ movement in Germany was inspired by the miners’ wives of Britain.”

The delegation from the Netherlands included Halinka Augustin.

“I was 27 when the strike took place,” she told the Morning Star. “I am the wife of a docker from Rotterdam. We had a campaign in Rotterdam and a women’s committee to support the miners. We went to Kent, to Snowdown Colliery, with goods and money in support.

“It was an exchange visit. They also came to the Netherlands. Then we got in touch with miners in Scotland, and in Barnsley.

“We heard the song We Are Women We Are Strong from the women in the mining communities. We learnt it, we learnt to sing it. We support women in other communities and we brought them that song. Now we sing it always.”

Speakers included Durham Labour MP Mary Foy, the general secretary of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union Sarah Woolley and the general secretary of Civil Service union PCS Fran Heathcote.

Also, there was Betty Cook, one of Yorkshire’s original WAPC.

During the strike Cook, now in her eighties and frail, suffered a broken leg when she was struck by a police truncheon on the picket line. The next day, on crutches and with her leg encased in plaster, she was back on the picket line.

The formation of WAPC brought her a lasting friendship with one of the movement’s founders, Anne Scargill.

Cook told the gathering about her life as the young wife of a miner, of poverty in the early years, and shocking living conditions.

“Like everybody else I hated Thatcher,” she said. She began her involvement in the strike by working in one of the food kitchens.

“Some of the women didn’t want to get involved in other things. But then we went picketing because all the men were getting arrested. We could do anything we wanted because they couldn’t sack us. From there we went speaking all over to raise money for the cause.”

Along with other women she was arrested for her activities — and created mayhem in the police station, refusing to accept a caution, resulting in her release and the release of all the women arrested with her.

After one incident in which the she and other women were arrested they had left a brazier burning.

“As the police van drove away with us I could see that the brazier was still blazing,” she said. “They did not put that light out then and they will never put that light out.”

The gathering erupted with applause.

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