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Red Skirts on Clydeside (1984)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A classroom; a narrator describes munitions factories and problems with the import of ammunition. A woman's voice explains that, "we wanted to make a film about the Glasgow rent strikes during the First World War in 1915" and to interview any women who remember the strike and the Glasgow Women's Housing Association. The filmmakers make contact with Jessie Findlay, a political activist, Cathy Maller and Sadie Fulton, Mary and Jessie Barbour, whose parents were involved in the strike. Jessie Findlay describes how women in Partick and Govan would meet in the back courts of the tenements; women could lean out of windows to hear speeches. Women would come out with bells on marches, and gather in certain areas where an eviction might take place.

The City of London Polytechnic's library holds no records of the women involved in the strike; nor does the Fawcett library. The interviewed women describe how, when a Sheriff officer came to evict tenants, the women threw bags of soot at him and threw him on the rubbish heap. What was the background to this militant action? The filmmakers visit the People's Palace in Glasgow; Elspeth King, the curator, describes women involved in the suffrage and peace movements. Helen Crawford was a prominent member of the suffrage movement. At the Marx Memorial Library, they find women in the 'miscellaneous'; section. A photo of Helen Crawford is shown to the women; they remember her as a member of the Communist Party. They are asked about the other women. Agnes Dollan is described as being in the background; her husband wrote for the newspaper. Elspeth points out, "because it is mainly male memoirs left behind, it is hard to know what women achieved".

The women describe the Govan Housing Association, and how hard it was for women to organise themselves, because their husbands forbade them from getting involved. They all defied their husbands; the women were the ones suffering because of the living conditions. Posters of protest meetings, about rent increases during the war. Over 500 women handed in their names at pickets; those women would then be protected from eviction.

Shots of tenement blocks. Old newspaper clippings describe anti-eviction protest marches, banners, children holding banners. Headlines describe landlords as war profiteers. Men were not to be told what was happening at home - this would demoralise forces, begging the question if this was what they were fighting for. Elspeth King points out other campaigns happening at the time, including bread and potato shortages, the peace movement and birth control.

One woman describes the proletariat school that she went to and the socialist training she received as a child. They each describe their political background: learning about socialism through friends and families, socialist choirs, socialist festivals. They went to a socialist Sunday school where children were named, not baptised. Children were encouraged to run their own activities, take minutes at meetings, organise who they wanted as speakers. Some adults supervised but the children chose the subjects. People in the manufacturing industry, miners, bakers and textile workers were invited to talk: John MacLean, Helen Crawford and Campbell Steven were a few. Mrs Barbour continued her involvement in politics after the Rent Strike; it was the beginning of her political career. She worked as a GP and opened the first clinic in Glasgow for birth control.

Over footage of a women's liberation march, Elspeth King describes the women's movement in the 1960s and '70s, a period she describes as the re-emergence of the movement. She notes that the debate was the same in their grandmother's generation and those achievements are forgotten: women were involved in the chartist and anti-slavery movements.

Modern-day Glasgow. Women describe how the history of the working people has been lost and argue this is what should be taught in schools. Returning to the classroom, the filmmaker asks how far they have come in their investigation, how much more of women's history is invisible? And what kind of a women's movement existed after the First World War?