Community, Politics and Gender: Women’s involvement in the South Wales Coalfield during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike (Dissertation proposal by Rhian Greaves)

Community, Politics and Gender: Women's involvement in the South Wales Coalfield during the 1984-85 Miners' Strike (Dissertation proposal by Rhian Greaves)

This dissertation will discuss, analyse and evaluate the roles that women in the coalfield of South Wales played in their communities during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. It will also scrutinise the legacies of the strike and their influence upon women’s memories of the event. The prominence of women across South Wales who formed a cohesive group to save their communities highlighted their significant role during this period. These elevated roles will be investigated in order to appreciate how far the women’s understanding of the strike altered and shaped their recollections of the event. This in turn, influenced gender and community relations and shaped who they are today.

The National Union of Miners, in March 1984, called out to its members to stand in solidarity against the actions made by the Conservative Government and the National Coal Board to close ‘uneconomic pits’. This call followed an earlier decision made by the NUM to adhere to an overtime ban in November 1983. The announcement of the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire and the cuts by the National Coal Board equating to four million tonnes capacity in addition to 20 pit closures and 20,000 jobs, were pre-cursors that influenced the decision to commence a strike. The strike lasted for 12 months. Women played a significantly important role within their communities and were key to sustaining the strike. Women in mining villages and communities organised and campaigned for their survival on a scale that had not been seen previously before.

Since the 1960s, pit closures across Britain that resulted from the National Coal Board’s (NCB) attempts to become profitable saw many collieries and communities become victims of degeneration. The closures increased during the premiership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. These closures meant that miners who were previously reliant on the coal mines for employment did not necessarily continue to work within their communities. This was especially true within South Wales. For example, miners located in the Cynon and Rhondda Valleys had to travel to Lady Windsor (Ynysybwl) or Merthyr Tydfil for work after the closures of their local pits. The closure of Deep Dyffryn Colliery in the Cynon Valley in 1979 marked the start of a trend of increased polarisation of community and work life. As men were increasingly beginning to work outside of their own communities, women were beginning to realise that if the collieries closed, their communities would be devastated and that the solidarity that characterised community responses to earlier disputes such as in 1972 and 1974 would vanish. The women also acknowledged that an increasing amount of jobs losses were made across other industries. For example, British Steel Corporation, which had sites across South Wales, had shed 15,000 jobs by the early 1980s. This meant that they and their families were more heavily dependent on coal. As a result of contraction in the coal industry, many women had part time jobs especially in domestic areas such as childcare and schools. Consequently, they were seen to take on more ‘traditional’ roles. Their recollections evidently demonstrated their conformity to these traditional roles, although it must be noted that this was not true for all women in the coalfield.

The scarred coalfaces across South Wales hide any indication that the valleys’ culture, geography and history are intrinsically and intimately linked to coal. Collieries played a fundamental role in Welsh valleys community life. Throughout Welsh history, coal became increasingly important as it provided many residents employment and financial security when no other alternatives were available. This in turn, enabled communities to become more cohesive, and this is said to be to be one of the most striking features about support in South Wales during the strike. The landscape of the valleys meant that it was difficult for residents to seek out jobs further afield, either in cars or on public transport. Apart from collieries in the eastern side of the coalfield near Cardiff (where alternative employment opportunities were available), coal mining gave residents in the valleys foundations upon which to build their communities. The South Wales coalfield extended from the east side of Wales including mining villages such as Pontypool, through to Merthyr Tydfil to Cynheidre and Pembrokeshire in the West. As these valleys were closely associated with mining and many women played central roles in these communities, this marks the boundaries of the proposed research.

Growing up as a child in South Wales after the strike ended, I came across photos that showed past family members working in the collieries during the 1940s. This sparked personal interests into the 1984-85 miners’ strike, as the legacies of the closures of mines upon the villages that surround my town were striking, and the roles of women during the strike were pivotal within their communities. The strike itself generated a large number of historiography and literature (both immediately after the strike and in the following years) that recorded the experiences of miners and their families and documented the consequences of the event upon communities. The historiography of the strike mostly consists of books that focus upon the strike in both Wales and Britain. These are works which give general overviews of the strike and assign women a marginal role. This began to change as over the last thirty and forty years in both Wales and Britain, more and more research has been conducted on the history of women. For example, works by Sheila Rowbotham and Stephanie Linkogle alongside Susan Kingsley-Kent have contributed to this historiography that concerns women which has mutated into gender history. Historiography that does focus upon the roles of women in the strike concerns women in particular locations. Joan Witham was one of the first to attempt an analysis of the roles of women in a British coalfield. Her book Hearts and Minds discuss the roles of the Nottingham women and carries out an analysis on the emergence and politicisation of the women to understand what the strike meant for them. It is an excellent documentation of the roles of women in this area. Despite it being one of the first books that fully analyses the roles of women, it is geographically limited as it is focuses solely on Nottingham. In addition, the book was published shortly after the strike ended and objectivity is therefore an issue.

A view from a Welsh coalfield is put forward by Jill Miller who compiled an anthology of interviews from twelve members of the Abertillery women’s support group. She explores the various roles that women carried out during the strike, in support of their husbands and communities. Miller also illustrates the solidarity of the community alongside the changing relationships between the women and their husbands. However, she does not attempt any analysis of the longer term effects of the strike upon the women as the book was published shortly after the end of the strike and the study is geographically constrained to one area in the eastern side of the South Wales coalfield. In addition, the book was aimed at a general readership so no clearly defined scholarly basis is apparent. The methodology of this book is oral interviews which are naturally subjected to distortion due to the interviewees’ personal beliefs and active involvement. However, it is a useful framework to work with to examine the women’s roles in a particular area of the coalfield.

A more inclusive account of the roles of women is shown in Vicky Seddon’s edited book that developed from numerous interviews of many women across Britain. The book includes many accounts of women in South Wales from Gwent to the Cynon Valley and touches upon links with other support networks, picketing and their awareness of the importance of their roles. While the book is extremely useful as a source to understand the activities of Welsh women during the strike, no assessment is made of longer term implications. It provides a useful foundation to examine the women’s roles across the coalfield which has been neglected. In general terms, the historiography of women in the strike is of a fragmentary nature as writings focused upon life experiences of specific women in particular locations. Furthermore, the objectivity and recollections of the strike by women are difficult to gauge as the books were published shortly after the strike ended. While the sources are valuable in raising awareness into the roles of women, no attempts are made to carry out an analysis of remembrance. As my dissertation specifically addresses the roles of women from South Wales and the legacies of the strike, the clear need for a longer term analysis of the activities and involvement of women is addressed.

The year that marked the 25th anniversary of the strike saw a flurry of writings that began to reflect back on the strike. Accordingly, the historiography assigned women a greater role in the strike and analysed the impact of the strike upon women. The most relevant historiography that is available comes from books published to commemorate the strike. Hilary Wainwright in Shafted: The media, the miner’s strike & the aftermath explores the longer term development of women in County Durham after the strike. She concluded that the strike marked a shift in both gender relations and political support as women continued after the strike to affiliate themselves with a new kind of politics. Hywel Francis replicated this as he carried out an analysis upon longer-term developments in Wales. His work is distinctive as it is the most comprehensive account that focuses upon memories of the strike in Wales. Focus upon the women’s support groups is apparent as he insinuated that the strike did have a significant impact upon the lives of the women. He concluded that the legacies of the strike manifested themselves into a “reality of economic and social loss, changing gender relations and the enduring sense of community.” Despite concluding that women played important roles in the strike, Francis’s book is aimed at a general readership and marginally contributes to a wider discussion of Welsh women’s roles, and the manner in which their memories of the strike were shaped by their involvement. These books are very useful to understand the roles of women during the strike and how the strike empowered them but no discussion is made of their specific recollections. By addressing this issue, which hitherto has been neglected, my dissertation will propose an original insight into the roles of the women and the legacies of the strike.

Memory is intrinsically linked to oral history. It is therefore a vital component to the construction of historical record. Elizabeth Loftus underlines the importance of memory to oral history as she says that “without memory, we would not have the sense of continuity even to know who we are.” Memory can be viewed in individual and collective aspects. Differences in gender to how memories are formed have been elaborated upon by the historian Joan Sangster. She contends in her research that ‘gender, race and class as structural and ideological relations, have shaped the construction of historical memory” Later, she argues that women were more likely to dismiss the importance of their roles due to their conformity to ‘traditional’ norms. This may be true for some women in coalfields but this is not certainly the case with the women in South Wales. She goes on to further elaborate upon the process whereby interviewees are willing to open up to interviewers that share similar characteristics to themselves whether it is gender, race or class. As women are recalling their memories, an issue that can arise is mythology. The myth that women were always so supportive in the strike could become prevalent and this in turn could have an impact upon memories. Indeed, it is possible that some women could have been traumatised as a result of family conflict over their involvement in the strike and therefore repressed their memories and presented a fabricated account.

To demonstrate that the women’s involvement in the strike has an influence upon their remembrance of the strike and upon gender relations, this dissertation will make use of a variety of primary sources. University of Bristol Special Collections holds the Feminist Archive which contains printed sources that focus upon Greenham Common and the peace movement in relation to women in the South West but also holds documents about the activities of women in South Wales during the strike. This archive holds periodicals such as Coalfield Woman, newspaper articles which analyse the impact of the strike and factsheets that are related to both the strike and women’s involvement. Additionally, Glamorgan Archives holds minutes of meetings held by the South Wales Women’s Support Group (which is a branch of Women against Pit Closures). An issue that arises when using this type of source is that documents, which may have been intended to be read by particular women who were supportive of the strike, was deemed unimportant and therefore no consideration may has been made to preserve the documents for posterity. Many of the sources deposited in the archives lack objectivity as they are strongly influenced by the attitudes and culture of the time of publication. Additionally, many of these documents could lead the reader to form partial conclusions due to incomplete information and significant omissions. Despite their limitations, they are excellent sources that will be used throughout the dissertation to illustrate the roles of women during the strike. Archival research and printed sources alone are not sufficient to fully comprehend the processes of remembrance.

The use of oral history as a genuine historical source had only came about in historiography over the last 40 years. However, as confirmed by the growth of the journal Oral History and retrospectively the Oral History Review, it is an effective method that conveys an idiosyncratic reality of events. The South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University holds a very comprehensive collection of oral testimony relating to the strike. This collection contains many interviews that were conducted at the time of the strike with both men and women individually and in groups. Many of these interviews have also been transcribed which is beneficial for my research as I can correct any misunderstandings that have occurred due to missed information. The South Wales Coalfield Collection also holds records of minutes from support groups meetings in conjunction with photographs and banners from the strike. Local newspapers such as Pontypridd and Llantrisant Observer and Merthyr Express alongside regional and national newspapers such as South Wales Echo and The Times are also held at this collection. These newspapers can be of use as a source as they are very informative of the culture at the time. Articles that appeared in newspapers around the 25th anniversary of the strike are valuable as they can be used to assess the validity of women’s memories. A limitation of these sources can be that an agenda is put forward by the publishers. It is widely acknowledged that the press was very much of an anti-miners’ stance, and this in turn could have had an influence upon recollections and the form in which they are published at the time or subsequently. It is made clear by women that their involvement in the strike was in no way influenced by the media.

I will also be talking to a number of women who were located in South Wales during the strike as talking to them allows me develop a sense of the context and atmosphere of the period. These women come from mining communities that are located across the South Wales coalfield from the west in Dulais Valley to the east towards Abertillery in Blaenau Gwent. These women were all involved in the strike to a great extent. The majority of these women are still living in their communities today except a marginal number who no longer live in South Wales. In order to balance my research, I will also be interviewing women who had little or no involvement in the strike due to various pressures. These women, again, come from locations across the coalfield. The interviews that I will be carrying out will be extremely valuable sources as they give a very rich and detailed insight into the roles of women. In turn, they are very useful to investigate the changing understandings of the strike as women are personally recollecting their memories.

Oral history as a historical source, like any other, poses problems for historians. Methodological issues of validity and reliability crop up time after time. People question the validity, accuracy and reliability of sources alongside the nature of bias. The mechanism by which people remember key events and the subjectivity of the sources is also a concern for literature. These sources can be checked for accuracy by corresponding them to documents and literature that describe the same event. Subjectivity is a concern, particularly in oral history, but as my dissertation aims to understand if, how and why women understood and remembered the strike. The experiences of women in South Wales will be presented.

To effectively answer the research questions that are initially proposed, my dissertation will be structured in a logical and readable form. Chapter One will begin with an analysis of the women’s roles in South Wales during the strike. The manner in which the support groups were formed and organised, the ‘traditional’ roles of the women such as helping in soup kitchens, food distribution and fundraising will be analysed and evaluated alongside more non-conformist roles such as picketing, protesting and marches. This analysis and evaluation of the roles provides a backdrop to explore the legacies of the strike. Many historians concluded that women from South Wales were politicised during the strike and therefore could not return to the way that they were beforehand. Chapter Two will investigate the legacies of the strike and assess whether this conclusion is true. Legacies that will be examined include shifting gender relations, the empowerment of women, and links with other support groups and their politicisation. Changes in gender relations alongside projects such as the co-operative Dove Workshop in Banwen will be surveyed.


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