Sophie Roberts (Northumbria) on anti-Vietnam War activist and Labour MP Ann Kerr

I am extremely grateful for the bursary received from the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH), which enabled me to undertake archival research at the Hull History Centre in August 2016. The materials I consulted at Hull are essential for my thesis, which looks at a number of British female anti-Vietnam War protesters in the period roughly from 1965-74. The money kindly granted by the SSLH enabled me to stay in the centre of Hull, and the short walk to the archives allowed me to spend an intensive week exploring some of the papers of Anne Kerr. Kerr’s is a fascinating story, and her case provides a particularly interesting one for my thesis, as not only was she active in protesting against the Vietnam War, but her election as an MP for the constituency of Rochester and Chatham, a seat which she held from 1964-70, meant that she was directly connected to organised politics in Britain. This makes her unique in comparison to the other women under consideration in my thesis.

Images of Kerr’s correspondence with WSP activist Amy Swerdlow
Kerr’s correspondence with WSP activist Amy Swerdlow

Kerr’s story, and particularly her anti-war protests, were brought to life through her archival papers, and it is hoped that the material collected there will form a chapter documenting her anti-war stance. Kerr truly was an intriguing figure who was involved with a variety of peace organisations including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Vietnam Medical Aid and the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (BCPV). Kerr also cultivated extensive transnational links including with groups such as the American-based Women Strike for Peace, as well as the Union of Women of Vietnam. Kerr also attended the Paris Conference of Women to End the War in Vietnam, in April 1968. This facet of her activism is exceptionally interesting to my thesis, as one of the central aims is to explore the relationship between gender and anti-war activism. For this reason, I have chosen to explore five women (including Kerr), however, none of these women appear to have protested the war on feminist grounds. Kerr’s case is thus a fascinating one because gender appears to have played a perplexing role in her anti-war protests. Kerr was not a feminist per se, however, my research at Hull revealed some of her anti-war efforts to have been exceptionally gendered – as well as being involved with mixed-sex peace groups, she was closely involved with female-only peace groups (such as those mentioned above) and maintained relations with anti-war activists who were in fact feminist in their outlook. Most notably, these include Amy Swerdlow who was the head of the New York chapter of the American peace group Women Strike for Peace (see image above). This group approached much of their anti-Vietnam War activism based on the fact that they were mothers, however, Kerr’s status as mother does not appear to have influenced her activism at all. As my analysis of the documents from the Anne Kerr collection continues, I will therefore be keen to see how Kerr managed to work so closely with this group and to uncover more broadly the extent to which her status as a female informed her activism.

A clipping from the Sun Reporter, 14 September 1968 detailing Kerr’s experiences being sprayed with Mace at close range by Chicago law enforcement officials.

Another fascinating aspect of Kerr’s activism which was in evidence during my research was the extensive overseas contacts and ties she cultivated in order to link with anti-Vietnam movements in different countries. One overseas anti-war endeavour proved particularly distressing for Kerr. In August 1968 she attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where anti-war demonstrations degenerated into rioting. Kerr was arrested and sprayed at close-range with Mace, and there are documents within her collection which testify how distressing an incident this was for her (see image right).

Whilst having a fairly rudimentary knowledge of Kerr’s activities, my research trip to Hull illuminated just how intricate and diverse Kerr’s anti-war networks were. Unfortunately, I did not have sufficient time to explore the papers of another activist which are at Hull, as originally intended. I intend therefore to complete a subsequent trip to Hull in order to gather more material on fascinating individuals whose anti-war stories have yet to be told. I look forward to returning to Hull as much of the city centre was under construction work during my visit due to the city’s award as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.

All images used with permission from Hull History Centre.

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