The early women's movement resisted the charity label

Bridget Lockyer
Bridget Lockyer

In a recent paper I gave to a Voluntary Action History Society seminar, I explored the history of voluntary work in the women's liberation movement. I based the paper on interviews I carried out with women in Bradford in 2011, and further interviews for my PhD research on women's work in the voluntary sector.

Some of the most notable voluntary organisations to have emerged from the movement of the 1970s and 1980s were Rape Crisis, Women's Aid and Refuge. But hundreds of smaller, less well-known groups from all over the country provided much-needed services for women, such as advice lines, health centres and free creches.

The movement provided motivation for women who were willing to address public needs in a feminist framework, as well as a ready-made workforce. Yet I found there was some ambivalence about calling this voluntary work and a desire to distance themselves from the "do-gooder" volunteer, operating in the confines of traditional charity.

The political impetus was very powerful, but perhaps not sustainable in the long term. As the organisations and those women working in them grew older, volunteering huge amounts of unpaid labour became untenable and the emotional nature of the work put individuals at serious risk of burnout.

They began to recognise the need for paid workers and more defined structures, and in order to attract more funding they had to work more closely with the state. Many organisations underwent a process of professionalisation and bureaucratisation, becoming legitimate players in the traditional voluntary sector.

For some organisations, this was too much of a compromise, reducing their capacity to be radical, innovative and at the cutting edge. For others, it was the key to their endurance and helped to establish and bring feminist aims and objectives in public services and wider society into the mainstream.

Bridget Lockyer is a post-doctorate research fellow at the Centre for Applied Psychology, Canterbury Christ Church University

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