Protest stories (3): We Protest! – campaigning for change

Welcome to the third and final of our blogs featuring highlights from the Special Collections We Protest! exhibition. This week we look at campaigns by protest groups from the 1960s onwards, in particular student protests and the work of a very singular Jewish organisation: the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry.

Handcuffs used at Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry demonstrations

Handcuffs used at demonstrations by the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry [MS254 A980/5/4/3]

Student protests

Although mass student protests had been taking place prior to May 1968, it was the demonstrations in Paris of that year that brought newfound energy to political campus activism. At Southampton that activism was to reflect many of the social, economic as well as political concerns of the modern era and the form that student protests have taken — such as marches, boycotts and sit-ins — likewise have followed the repertoire of contention of campus protests.

The material featured in the exhibition dates from the 1960s onwards. In this decade it was the apartheid regime in South Africa, as well as the Vietnam War, that was to be the focus of demonstrations.

Student group leaflet for boycott against South Africa, 25 November 1969

Student group leaflet advocating boycott against South Africa, 25 November 1969 [Rare Books Univ. Coll. c LF 788.89]

Students at Southampton were amongst those at a number of institutions involved in sit-ins in the 1970s: for instance, the 48 hours occupation of the Administration Building on 14-15 November 1973 in support of the National Union of Students’ campaign for grants.

Student sit-in in support of the grants campaign

Headline from Wessex News, reporting on the sit-in in support of the NUS grants campaign, 1973 [Univ. Coll. LF789.9]

The late 1980s saw student loans coming to the fore as an issue, with the Students Union passing a motion in 1988 describing top-up loans, as ‘merely the thin end of the wedge … eventually leading to a full loans system’.

No_Loans_MS1_19_263 (2)

“No loans” campaign by students [MS1/Phot/19/263]

Current activism, such as that on climate change, likewise reflects the concerns of the present era.

“Those wonderful women in black” – the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Campaign badges of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Badges of the 35’s: Campaign for Soviet Jewry [MS254 A980/5/4/1]

Established in 1971, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry was a pressure group set up to assist members of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union wishing to leave the country, but denied permission. The term “refusnik” was coined to describe these individuals. On hearing the news that thirty-five-year-old librarian Raisa Palatnik from Odessa had been arrested for distributing samizdat, (banned literature), a small group of women decided to hold a protest outside the Soviet Embassy in London. From these modest beginnings grew the campaign on behalf of the refusniks.

Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry demonstration at the Soviet embassy, London, 1973

Demonstration held at Soviet Embassy, London, with placards bearing slogan ‘SHKOLNIK YAVOR USSR How Many More?’ and ‘Sheffield Concern for Soviet Jewry’, Autumn 1973 [MS254 A980/4/20/1]

Many of the founder members of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (affectionately known as the 35s due to the average age of the group) were middle-class, Jewish housewives from North West London who had no previous experience of activism or campaigns. They proved themselves to be a formidable force, conducting a tireless campaign to heighten public awareness of their cause, and were known for their effective and highly imaginative demonstrations.

Women's campaign for Soviet Jewry demonstration at Wembley Arena

Demonstration outside Wembley Arena, with placards in support of Anatoly Sharansky and a protester wearing a Brezhnev mask [MS254 A980/4/22/178]

Indeed, the “wonderful women in black” were to prove to be excellent examples of how clothing could be used in a performance capacity to support political activism and demands for social reform.

Red protest t-shirt worn by the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Red t-shirt used for Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry demonstrations featuring Yuri Federov, Josef Mendelevich and Aleksey Muzhenko on the front. Ida Nudel, Anatoly Sharansky and Vladimir Slepak are featured on the back. [MS254 A980/5/1/3]

White protest t-shirt of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry

White t-shirt used for Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry demonstrations with the logo ‘KGB release Sharansky’ [MS254 A980/5/1/2]

We hope that you have enjoyed over the last three weeks this showcase of some of the items from the recent Special Collections exhibition. We hope that you will be able to join us for future exhibitions, both in the galleries and online.

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