They transformed British society in little more than a generation – campaigning on everything from equal rights to abortion and apartheid. Today hundreds of the veteran activists from some of Britain’s most famous protests, ranging from Greenham Common to the miners’ strike, will gather for the first time. The worlds of social campaigning, politics and art come together today in a «Silver Action» event at the Tate Modern, London, where some 400 women campaigners aged over 60 will talk about their work. Their tweets and blogs, as well as archive footage of protests, will be projected on to walls at the event, devised by artist Suzanne Lacy, 67, herself a veteran feminist. Each has her own story:
Take Rosalind Delmar, 71, from London, a lifelong women’s rights activist who was at the landmark Ruskin conference in Oxford in 1970 – the event that put Women’s Lib on the map. She got into politics as a student, provoked by inequalities such as women being banned from playing pool in the student union. «I’m the kind of person who has always been interested in politics and participation, and I have kept up my interest in feminism.»
And the abortion campaigner Ann Rossiter, 69, from London, is also taking part. She had a back-street abortion in London in the early 1960s, before the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced. «Breaking the silence around abortion and supporting traumatised Irish abortion-seekers who flock to Britain have been central to my political life for the past half century,» she said. «I’ll keep going as long as I have my faculties, and hope I’ll see Ireland, north and south of the border, grant women their full reproductive rights – and on their own turf.»
Jenny Stanton had an early introduction to campaigning as a protester against apartheid. Now 62 and living in Oxford, she recalled: «I’m about 15, in the Bullring in Birmingham, collecting signatures for one of my mum’s petitions asking our government to stop supporting apartheid South Africa. A military-type man argues with me, saying that we – Britain – need the Simon’s Town base [near Cape Town] as part of our naval defences against the Soviet threat, and it wouldn’t be safe in the hands of black Africans. I feel like crying because I can’t convince him.» She added: «Gradually the movement inside and the movement outside overthrew apartheid – but for years and years it was lonely, small actions trying to win people round.»
Anti-nuclear campaigner Stella Harding was a regular at the Greenham Common peace camp in the 1980s. The 62-year-old, who lives in London, said: «I was protesting as a mother for the protection of future generations… The feeling of strength, solidarity, sisterhood and the empowering flow of positive energy as we linked arms in the first ’embrace the base’ in 1982 was a high point that left a lasting legacy.»
Maggie Smith, from London, was one of the founders of the Housewives’ Register in 1960. «We campaigned against capital punishment and things but we also worked on pre-school playgroups – issues that really touched you directly because we all had small children.» Now 81, she said: «I suppose I’ve always been a campaigner, in that we were CND campaigners in the 1950s just before feminism came on the scene. Those were the days when we thought we could do something if we marched. I think it’s very important to stand up and be counted for things you really believe in.»
The nature of protest has changed, according to Sue Mullan, 70, from Portsmouth. «Online campaigning has been positive in certain areas but it’s not profound; it’s very superficial.» She worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) during the miners’ strike. «I had been involved in supporting miners and collecting money for them and remember the huge injustice of it. We had observers out in the field across all the relevant areas and every day they would submit a report of what they had seen. We produced a final report but the NCCL refused to allow it to be published – that was wicked.»
Paula Kaniuk’s «belief in equality and fairness» prompted her to support what became Britain’s longest ever strike – the Silentnight strike in Lancashire in the mid-1980s which lasted 616 days. «The action started just after the miners’ strike in 1984. I thought it was wrong that the Government was further attacking workers’ rights and unions’ power.
«I remember local radio announcing the strike, and drove straight there to support them. We continued to turn up at the picket, by then alongside many other women, who became politically active and fiercely defended the workers who welcomed us all equally,» said the 62-year-old from Rochdale.
Sally Alexander, 69, made international news when she flour-bombed the Miss World final, hosted by Bob Hope at the Albert Hall in London, in 1970. Now a history professor, she said: «We were imagining it as the interruption of a TV spectacle rather than bringing beauty contests to an end.» She added: «There will always be a need for protest and resistance to forms of oppression. There are spectacular one-off demonstrations, like Miss World, and sustained grass-roots organising that other sorts of campaigns need and are just as necessary.»
Yvonne Craig Inskip, 76, remembers becoming a campaigner in 1968 after refusing to obey hospital rules that limited parents’ visits to children to just two hours a week. She stayed by her daughter’s bedside for 11 days. «That experience changed my life and got me started me on years of campaigning.» She went on to lobby for safe toys and for contraception to be freely available.
«It is important to march in public for what you believe in and I have continued to march for a range of topics from asylum-seekers to the NHS,» said Pat Barker, 79, from Exeter. She added: «I cannot sit still and do nothing when others are in danger, in poverty, are suffering hunger or injustice… I want to leave the world a better place for future generations.»