Beyond the dismal decade

Issue 

Surviving the Blues: Growing up in the Thatcher Decade
Edited by Joan Scanlon
Virago, 1990. 198 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Vannessa Hearman

This book is not new, but it's so good that it would be a pity to ignore it. It consists of essays by 16 women growing up and living through Thatcher's reign in the 1980s. The women came from backgrounds seen as undesirable in the conservative era — they are migrants, Scottish, Irish, working class and/or disabled.

The 1980s were the decade of individualism, unemployment, prejudice and hardship generally in Britain. Social services were being cut back. The Falklands War was an orgy of chauvinism. These women, growing up in such an inhospitable environment, discovered feminism, what it means to be feminist, to be an activist.

Many women were politicised through the pit closures of the early '80s, the Greenham Common peace camps, the republican struggle in Ireland, or by just trying to survive on a daily basis, encountering prejudice and sexism. These stories make clear the importance of personal experiences in politicising people.

One of the most interesting contributions is by an Iranian woman, Norah-Al-Ani, initially a cleaner at a women's resource centre. Her story highlights the need for the women's movement to take into account the oppression suffered by migrant women. At the centre, she was looked upon as invisible: "Don't ask her, she's just the cleaner". This changed, however, when the women were later made to clean up after themselves.

Another powerful contribution is the story of Jacqueline McCafferty, a young Irish woman. Through her, we gain an insight into the impact of the republican struggle on ordinary lives. She confronts prejudice against her Irish background at English tertiary institutions.

The role of tertiary education for some women is

positive, but for others, such as Louise Donald from Scotland, university was a place of intellectual snobbery. Working-class women coming to university find a "different sort of diminishment" and intimidation.

These women find fulfilment in political activity, in feminism, in striking out and finding out about their own goals in life. The essays should continually remind feminists of the need to have a broad, independent women's movement that can relate to class and race issues affecting great numbers of women.

"For the 1990s, I would like to see people getting involved in politics (in whatever form) because they believed that things can change, rather than from a sense of duty or worse still as a kind of hobby ... those who are still in there (after the 80s) are there for the duration", says Clare Ramsaran. What a positive outcome from such a dismal decade.