Women throughout history have been involved in struggles and in 1984-1985, women played a very positive role during the period of the miners’ strike. They recognised that the strike was not only in defence of jobs, pits and the mining industry, but in defence of their homes, families and communities and they organised and displayed in action the enormous wealth of talent and ability that is resident in women.
Women’s Support Groups, as they were known in Scotland, were set up during this period when women, plunged into poverty, were able to join together as a formidable force in the strike centre kitchens, out on the picket lines and addressing meetings and rallies. They also forged important links with other women’s organisations, including women in the churches and women in political parties who supported them with food, cash and kind acts and expressions of sisterly solidarity.
Strike Centres were established in the Miners’ Welfares and Labour Clubs in East Lothian and were the means by which the women in the area were able to come together to prepare and distribute food for striking miners and their families, to take part in the decision making on picketing, and to being involved in, and addressing, meetings. They also took part in the many demonstrations that were held not only in East Lothian but also throughout the country. Many of these women had never addressed a meeting in their life, had not taken part in any demonstrations but recognised the importance of being involved to try and save their communities.
The women in East Lothian who were involved in the Support Groups waged an heroic struggle during the strike in 1984/1985 in face of the full force of the State, including the police and the judiciary.
They also became involved very often in face of mistaken resistance in the home and in some sections of the trade union movement. The development of these women during the miners’ strike was a practical manifestation that, in many ways, was totally unexpected. It showed the great strengths of women in the fight to establish women’s rights. It also showed the conditioning of women because it was a fact that at the end of the strike some women were content to return to their traditional role.
The strike changed the lives of many women – it also changed the lives of many men (in the latter case to a lesser degree) – because at the end of the strike, the involvement of the women in the struggle was underestimated by many men who encouraged the women to return to their former role. During and towards the end of the strike, representatives from the Women’s Support Groups in East Lothian were involved in discussions on the question of associate membership in the NUM for women in the Support Groups. In Scotland this was agreed in principle by the NUM (Scottish Area) and the Scottish Colliery Enginemen Boilermen and Tradesmen’s Association (SCEBTA). Unfortunately however, this demand was turned down nationally in the NUM by an overwhelmingly majority of the other areas.
While many women were happy to return to their former role there were others who continued their involvement in the labour and trade union movement and still do so today. The fact however, that they were denied associate membership also contributed to the declining numbers within the Women’s Support Groups and to them eventually being disbanded.