Feminist Epiphanies

(Paper given at the Scottish Women’s Liberation Movement History Workshop at the University of Edinburgh, May 2009.)

The word EPIPHANY, used in religion and mythology to signify an encounter with a god or goddess, also has a secular, literary meaning.

Raymond Carver describes, in his essay A Storyteller’s Shoptalk,  the “sharp sense of relief and anticipation” that comes with the realisation that things that used to be mysterious to a character, have suddenly become clear.

So it was for me in 1969 when I first encountered three little words which, although I had met them before individually, I had never seen side by side in the same phrase: the words “women’s”, “liberation” and “movement”.


I was 20, and I was a student at the university of St Andrews, but I wasn’t actually in St Andrews at the time. I was at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg Virginia USA, on an exchange programme – a year out from my four-year degree course at St Andrews.

Since the year in the US would not count towards my St Andrews degree, this meant I was going to be an undergraduate for five years. Was that not excessive, friends wondered, particularly those at English universities who expected to get their first degrees in three years.

Not at all, was my reply, though not always spoken out loud. For me, being an eternal student was a strategy for avoiding being an adult woman. For who in her right mind would want to be an adult woman?

All adult women were one of two things: married or single. (The number of women I knew who were divorced, or admitted to being divorced, was so small as not to really enter the discussion.) From observation, it seemed clear to me that if women were married, they were chattels and domestic drudges. Even if they had other work, they were expected to put it second. Their domestic duties came first, and these duties seemed burdensome and joyless and never-ending.

If women remained single, on the other hand, they were openly pitied and despised. Never mind that they had freedom and fun and their own homes. In the only thing that mattered, they had failed.

If you had asked me then whether I personally felt oppressed as a woman, I would probably have said no. I would have reserved the word “oppressed” for women who worked in factories and offices for less than equal pay. Or women like my mother who worked full-time for no pay. Or black people living under apartheid. Or civilians and conscripts involved in the war in Vietnam, and anyone anywhere in the world who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. They were oppressed. I was not.

I was, however, uneasy.


I was supposed to be engaged. There was a ring on my finger, given to me by my fiancé, and one on his finger, given to him by me. I loved him, or I thought I did. But that didn’t mean I wanted to be gift wrapped in white and handed over to him in a church by my father. It didn’t mean I wanted to be a bride, or a wife.

I was starting to get published as a writer, but couldn’t understand why so many reviewers seemed more interested in what I looked like than in what I had written. That made me uneasy too.

I was determined to have a career. But how would that work if I got married and had babies?

I had no wish to be a mother. But I wanted to have sex with my boyfriend, and perhaps other men too. Contraception was the answer – particularly the latest invention, the pill. Its manufacturers claimed that it was, if used correctly, 100% reliable. Liberation indeed. Unfortunately, however, enclosed in every monthly packet was a leaflet listing side effects to watch out for and report to your GP: anything from hairs on your chest to hairs on your face, putting on weight, losing weight, going to the loo all the time, not going to the loo at all, bleeding, not bleeding, flu-like symptoms, cancer-like symptoms. Swallowing the pill felt less like liberation and more like dicing with death.

My moment of epiphany came in the autumn of 1969 when I read in my room-mate’s Washington Post about an incident at a Senate committee of enquiry into the safety of the pill. The committee consisted of doctors, pharmacologists, politicians and priests – every one of them male.

According to the news report, women invaded the hearings, with banners, slogans and a lot of noise. They called themselves the women’s liberation movement, and in the subsequent publicity made clear that their action was not just about all-male enquiries into women’s health issues, but all unearned male privilege everywhere. Patriarchy, they called it. It wasn’t just a list of unrelated grievances, it was a system, devised and operated by men, for their benefit and at women’s expense. The women’s liberation movement was opposed to patriarchy. Where do I sign up?, I wondered.


There was nothing to sign, but I joined anyway. A few months later, back on my side of the Atlantic,  I joined again in St Andrews, becoming one of the founder-members of the first St Andrews women’s liberation group. Others included Paula Jennings, who is here today, Judy and Dorothy Ekins, Marguerite Rahill, Anne Jackson, Stephanie Norris, Diane Lee, Maggie Ledwith and the late Sue Innes.

I don’t have time to list all our activities, but here are some.

We raised our consciousness. We had meetings in the students union, and the Castle Inn in North Street, and talked about our lives as women. We talked about work and money and beauty, love and sex and advertising and male violence. When Paula suggested we talk about rape, I was puzzled – as far as I was concerned, rape was a crime which took place between strangers in dark alleys. Nasty, but what had it to do with feminism? Paula gave a presentation which outlined how rape victims were often accused of “provoking” rape or “asking for it”. She described how the fear of rape worked as a protection racket: in order to protect yourself from attack by one man, you place yourself under the control of another. Another epiphany.


We talked about sex discrimination at the university appointments board. They agreed to meet us, and gave us a largely sympathetic hearing. They stopped listing female vacancies and male vacancies on separate sheets of paper – pink and blue, if memory serves – and they read the riot act to employers who visited the university with the intention of only interviewing male students. Either they interviewed both sexes on equal terms, these employers were told, or they could stay away.

This was several years before the Sex Discrimination Act would have made such reforms compulsory.

We were less successful with our own student union. The union employed a middle-aged married couple as live-in managers, and we discovered that the wife was being paid significantly less than her husband for their joint endeavours. This, we decided, must be put right. We approached her, to let her know about the campaign we proposed to run on her behalf. She told us to mind our own business and get back to our lectures.

We protested against the Charities Queen contest, a laddish stunt which set out to identify and reward the most beautiful first year female student. This activity was justified by its organisers on the grounds that it raised funds for charity (you paid to vote). Sue Innes, who was one of us, entered as a protest candidate, with a deliberately non-glamorous photograph of herself, and a manifesto which said that since she was neither more nor less beautiful than any other woman in the university, she would, if chosen, devote herself to abolishing beauty contests everywhere. She did not win, and the award ceremony went ahead.  Paula Jennings and other courageous women invaded the stage – and were physically thrown off by the boys. I was less brave, and contented myself with writing angry articles in the student paper Aien, of which I was editor.


The St Andrews Women’s Liberation group also protested against a so-called “slave auction” in which female students – all volunteers, let it be said, just as the candidates for Charities Queen were all volunteers – were auctioned off to the highest bidder for a date. All for charity, of course. When we succeeded in getting this nasty little stunt taken off, we were accused of being uncharitable.


Our group was mainly university-based, and this was reflected in the issues we embraced; but we were aware of a wider world, and concerned about it.

When in 1971, The Guardian ran an article by Jill Tweedie, exposing the use of mass rape of women as a weapon of war in Bangla Desh, we organised a meeting to discuss the issues, and a collection for the women, many of whom had been cast out by their communities as a result of the so-called disgrace of being raped by an invading soldier of the wrong ethnicity and wrong religion.

We were also aware of feminist activities in other parts of the UK – political meetings, demonstrations, cultural events, campaigns. We knew about and supported May Hobbs, a London cleaner and trade unionist, campaigning for the rights of women who clean offices for a living.

In 1971, Sue Innes and Stephanie Norris hitch-hiked to London to take part in the first National Women’s Liberation march. They came back with thrilling tales of marching past Mothercare in Oxford Street chanting “Less mother care, more father care”, and of the actor Buzz Goodbody dancing along Piccadilly singing “Keep Young and Beautiful If You Want To Be Loved”, accompanied by music from a wind-up gramophone pushed in a pram.

We went to conferences in Edinburgh, Dundee, Bristol and London, including the ones which discussed and established seven main demands as a shared manifesto for the women‘s liberation movement.

I personally was very enthusiastic about having a shared programme, however reformist or minimalist it might seem to some. If you want something, I think it is a good idea to say what that is, and I have written about this in the pamphlet SAYING WHAT WE WANT, published in 2006 by Raw Nerve press. Copies are available here, or you can download the pamphlet from my website, www.zoefairbairns.co.uk


I’ve been asked to comment on the effect of feminism on my personal relationships.

In1971, while still theoretically engaged to be married, I read this in The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer: “if women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition, it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry”.

REFUSE to marry? This was a real moment of epiphany for me. Before, I had thought of marriage as something that either you achieved but paid for with unhappiness for the rest of your life, or you failed to achieve, and you paid for that with unhappiness for the rest of your life. Was Germaine Greer saying that you could simply walk away from it? She was, and I did. My fiance and I broke off our engagement – and I am sure he was as relieved as I was.

It wasn’t that I needed Germaine Greer’s permission to make this life-changing choice. But simply by naming it as a possibility, she seemed to validate it. As did the women’s liberation movement as a whole, with its insistence that the personal is political. Marriage wasn’t just a bad idea for me and this man as individuals; it was a patriarchal institution designed to keep women in subjugation. But you didn’t have to join, and I haven’t. In due course I met another man and we have lived together for the past  36 years on our own terms, making it up as we go along.

I recognise the right of other women and men to make different choices. What I applaud and am grateful for about 1970s feminism is that it established a space in which things that were once either compulsory or forbidden, became merely optional.

I made many new friends through feminism. I fear I may also have lost some too, or  irritated them with my cult-like devotion to the cause.


I had all my primary and secondary education in a Catholic convent. This had left me agnostic, humanist and secular, but entirely at home with the idea that, if you had beliefs, you should live them 24/7. The nuns who had taught me, had a Holy Rule which governed every detail of their behaviour. As feminists we had “the personal is political.”

Having had my epiphany, I plunged into feminism as if it were a cult. I didn’t go quite as far as those women who moved into squats and communes and stayed there – my own brief experience of communal life had told me that I like my privacy too much for that. But I abandoned make up, hairdressers, and those of my clothes which I thought would send out the wrong signals to the sorts of men who were looking for women who send out the wrong signals.

When I left St Andrews and returned home to London in 1973, I lived for a while as a full-time feminist. This was possible in those days because – this being the era of student grants – I had left university without debts, and with the ability to live on very little money. I had what might now be called a portfolio career – a feminist one. I had part-time jobs at Spare Rib magazine, and the Women’s Research and Resources Centre (later the Feminist Library) and the Pregnancy Advisory Service. I wrote articles, mainly on feminist themes, for The Guardian, New Society, New Behaviour and New Statesman.

I also did lots of unpaid work – setting up a women’s short story writing group with Valerie Miner, Sara Maitland, Michele Roberts and Michelene Wandor, campaigning with the Women’s Identity Campaign for the right to use “Ms” on our passports (can you imagine such a thing having to be a campaign?), and with the YBA Wife? campaign which demanded better treatment in taxation and benefit law for married women. In 1981, this group produced a badge that said, “Don’t Do It, Di.”


My partner and I moved into a rented flat in an unfashionable part of town – home ownership wasn’t even on our agenda; with our unorthodox lifestyle we probably wouldn’t have been able to get a mortgage anyway, but what did we care?

I wrote prolifically – the idea that the personal is political was richly productive for me. Between 1979 and 1998 I published six feminist novels, that is, novels which engaged with sexual politics, as well as many short stories and journalism. I was also involved with women’s writing groups, and the Feminist Book Fairs, Feminist Book Weeks and Feminist Book Fortnights of the 1980s.

Since 1998, I haven’t published any novels; my novel writing energy has ebbed, along, I must acknowledge, with my campaigning zeal. My involvement in feminism is more a matter of writing cheques, signing petitions, writing articles and keeping up my memberships – of the Fawcett society, of the Feminist Library, and of the National Secular Society which campaigns against religious fundamentalism, one of the major threats to women today. I also subscribe to Abortion Rights, though I do this last with a heavy heart. I had hoped that by now that this issue would have withered away, at least in those parts of the world and parts of society where contraception is freely available. I don’t like abortion, but, with regret, I see its necessity, so I go on supporting a woman’s right to choose.


On the plus side, Dale Spender once said that she had a policy of praising three women every day. I have a policy of using the word “feminist” in a positive way at every opportunity. Among the feminist triumphs I most enjoy are:

  • – family-friendly work places
  • – those wonderfully tough, knowledgeable female foreign correspondents you see on the news, dodging bullets in their flak jackets as they explain what is really going on. Orla Guerin is my favourite, but there are others.
  • – the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate
  • – And events like this one which manage to make me feel extremely old and energetically young all at the same time.

Thank you.