Academic journal article New Formations

'The Feelings Behind the Slogans': Abortion Campaigning and Feminist Mood-Work Circa 1979

Academic journal article New Formations

'The Feelings Behind the Slogans': Abortion Campaigning and Feminist Mood-Work Circa 1979

Article excerpt


In 1982, in the wake of a national debate about abortion law in the UK, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh argued that abortion was an indexical issue, providing 'a litmus test of how well - to put it crudely - feminist and socialist views are bearing up against religious and familist forces'.1 Thirty years later, continuing struggles around abortion show it still stands as a measure of mood for a whole range of half-conscious questions about gender, race, family, work, security, and continuity. It is in this way a prime site for exploring 'how power circulates through feeling and how politically salient ways of being and knowing are produced through affective relations and discourses'.2 Yet understanding the operation of affect is quite different from being able to influence it. The essay explores this through an intense internal debate within the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) over the politics of emotion circa 1979, the year that John Corrie, MP for Bute and Ayrshire, nearly prohibited British women's access to legal abortions. In this I distinguish emotion from affectual mood not just by scale, but by tone, intent and degree of consciousness, as feminists politicised emotions about reproduction in response to Corrie's attack. Yet we shall also see how the debate, and feminists' advocacy of a woman's right to choose, raised powerful feelings within them. Here the politics of mood operates on many levels. We shall also hear how anti-abortion campaigns have played emotional politics, including their characteristically hysterical tone.

I begin by detailing the campaigns against the Corrie Bill. These chart a very different mood-map of 1979 to that captured by the rightist historical set-piece of a winter of discontent supposedly broken by Thatcher's spring- cleaning government. I then focus on the women's movement's internal debates, considering both emotion as movement method and the reality of mixed feelings for individual women involved. I conclude by returning to general questions about how we may apprehend public mood, whether minority social movements may influence it, and also, more generally, the 'moodwork' which an honest account of reproductive politics involves.


While the early months of 1979 are remembered largely for dispiriting clashes between unions and the Labour government, a different political battle was unfolding over women's bodies. This became most apparent when John Corrie, Conservative Mfl put forward a Private Member's Bill to drastically restrict the availability of abortion, soon after Thatcher's election victory in May. This challenged the 1967 Abortion Act which had largely legalised abortion.3 In reaction to the Corrie Bill, the feminist National Abortion Campaign (NAC) sought allies in the Labour movement to stage one of the most successful campaigns of the British Women's Liberation Movement, culminating in the Corrie bill's defeat in 1980.4 The NAC worked locally and nationally, picketing the offices of health authorities where abortions were difficult to obtain, holding conferences, pressuring union branches, and working with the broad-based Committee in Defence of the 1967 Act (Co- Ord) to lobby across the political parties and medical associations. When the Corrie Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons with a large majority, the NAC organised a rally of hundreds of people and immediately launched the Campaign Against the Corrie Bill (CACB).5 Crucially, it also drew the support of the Trade Union Congress, and together they organised a march on 31 Oct of some 100,000 people.6 According to the feminist magazine Spare Rib, this 'was the largest trade union demonstration ever held for a cause which lay beyond the traditional scope of collective bargaining; it was also the biggest ever pro-abortion march'.7

Feminist-led defence of abortion in this period intriguingly 're-moods' a political period conventionally defined as the moment when the nation awoke from its welfare-consensual sleep. …

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