Tuesday, July 03, 2007

From Herstory to Ourstory: the Feminist Library by Anne Welsh, with thanks to Gail Chester

In a recent blog comment on the local elections, author Anne Brooke made the point, “Whenever I feel the urge not to get out there and vote, I think of Mrs Pankhurst and get my coat on! What that woman went through (and all of the suffragettes indeed) to get us the vote doesn't bear thinking about!”[1] While this is a sentiment shared by most women, how many of us spare a thought for the achievements of the second wave women’s movement of the 1970s? Once we had the vote in the early 20th century, what else were we fighting for?

The Autumn 2005 issue of StopGap, the journal of the Fawcett Society, points out that the thirty-year-olds of 2005 were the first women to enjoy equal opportunities their whole lives:
Before the [Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay] Acts were enforced, women could be sexually harassed in the workplace, be denied a job because they were pregnant and be paid less than men doing the same job just because they were female. Women could be sacked from their jobs if they got married or became pregnant and men were not allowed to work as midwives.[3]

The passing of the Acts did not mean that equal rights were mainstream:

As the BBC reported: “The Act[s] came as a culture shock to many in a society where some venues still barred women. Many commentators said the combined Acts were too radical.”

And remember, this news report was broadcast in 1975.

The mid-1970s was a significant period for the Fawcett Society. While the law was changing due to pressure from Fawcett members and a whole range of other feminists, the society was itself under pressure to find a home for its library collection of women’s history. We know now that City of London Polytechnic took it in, the Poly going on to become London Metropolitan University and the Fawcett growing to become the Women’s Library, a world-class archive, library and exhibition space.

However, in 1975, the Fawcett Library’s future was far from certain. In this climate, a group of women, mostly academics, who wanted to ensure the survival of the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) came together to found the Women’s Research and Resources Centre (WRRC).

Originally a small collection of contemporary material, it has grown to become “the largest library of contemporary feminist material in the UK … [with] approximately 10,000 books, 1500 periodicals, 1200 articles [and] more than 2000 pamphlets and ephemera.”
[5] Now known as the Feminist Library, it provides access to a range of material produced by or directly pertaining to the study of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and international material allowing it to be contextualized beyond the British Isles.

Significantly, around a third of the collection is fiction and poetry, which is unusual for a library based round a political movement. Many of the books and pamphlets, both fiction and poetry and non-fiction, were self-published, reflecting the ethos of the Library and of the whole WLM. As writer, activist and book historian Gail Chester explains:

In the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of opposition to the ‘star system’, which singled out the achievements of individual women. The idea was that thousands of women – known and unknown – were able to access the material we were making available.

From a writer’s point of view, this cuts straight to the heart of the ‘Liberation’ offered by the WLM. A generation previously, Virginia Woolf had advocated “a room of one’s own” in which creativity and particularly writing could take place. One aim of the Feminist Library was to provide that space for every woman, or every woman that wanted it. By providing campaigning and factual information for anyone who wanted it, the Library created a climate for women to write, research, and publish, to draw confidence from the thousands of books by women writers lining the shelves and the group of people using and running the Library.

In 1975, Gail Chester was part of the collective producing Women’s Report, a self-published news magazine. She herself went on to write numerous articles and book chapters as well as co-editing In Other Words: Writing as a Feminist, while the Library’s staff included Ruth Harris and Zoe Fairbairns. Indeed, Fairbairns was the Library’s first paid employee,
[7] working, according to Gail Chester, in “a small basement room in North Gower Street surrounded by books.”

This collection of books has been assembled as a consciously feminist act, which is what makes the library unique. As with many special collections, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and while it could be argued that the better-known books are also held by the Women’s Library and that certainly all the mainstream titles are in the British Library, the difficulty in accessing specialist subject areas in massive collections like the BL’s is finding them in the first place. If you know the author or title, it’s fine, but subject searches will often return hundreds or even thousands of items, many of them not specific enough to meet your needs.

Searching the Feminist Library catalogue or browsing its shelves, you’re searching only women’s movement material, so your chance of finding exactly what you want is higher. And, at 32 years old, the collection is ripe for academic study; though continuing to add to the collection is high on the management group’s list of priorities. With the growth of undergraduate and postgraduate courses on gender studies, women’s studies and women’s history, more and more people are writing theses on an aspect of the WLM, and several of them have gratefully used the Library.

But, it’s not all about academia. The Library provides a fantastic resource for anyone writing fiction set in the women’s movement. Anyone who enjoyed Big Women (Fay Weldon’s novel about the growth of a women’s press) will find ample inspiration here.

The proportion of self-published titles – many of them by authors who were in writing and groups and decided to self-publish, and are well-known today – tells its own story of the challenges faced by women trying to find a publisher in the 1970s and 80s. The ideal described by Gail Chester still holds true – standing in the Feminist Library surrounded by 10,000 books, it’s impossible not to think if they could do it then, I can certainly do it now.

Every female writer or aspiring writer should visit the Women’s Library and the Feminist Library for the inspiration to be found there. And yet, these guardians of our heritage have suffered very different fates. While the Women’s Library is part of an academic institution and has found external funding for world-leading collection development, promotion and exhibitions, the Feminist Library has remained autonomous – autonomous and poor. Run by an honorary Management Committee and a team of volunteers, this year is the Library’s last push to remain independent. If funding cannot be found, it will cease to exist as an entity in 2008, and in all likelihood, be broken up and absorbed into a disparate range of collections – each with their own priorities and their own valid reasons to want only part of the collection.

Ironically, it is the fiction and poetry, described by Gail Chester as “the jewel in the crown” of the Library that is the hardest to place. Normal library procedures on taking in a new collection is to ‘de-duplicate’ – that is to add to stock only those items that are not already in the existing collection. De-duplication will almost certainly be the fate of the Feminist Library’s fiction and poetry, whichever larger libraries were to take it in.

I asked Gail Chester what Hags readers could do to help. The answer was clear and simple – “Stand by your pens. Send an email to us now at
feministlibraryappeal@gmail.com saying you want to be kept informed of what happens: numbers count when we’re looking for funds. Add www.myspace.com/feministlibrary to your myspace friends for the same reason.” So, whether or not your feminist guilt persuaded you to vote at the last elections, open up your email and drop the Feminist Library a line. After all, its 10,000 books and 1200 articles can give us courage, and certainly bear witness to the power of the woman writer’s pen.

[1] Brooke, Anne (2007) comment on Elections? What elections? http://blog.myspace.com/lauracwilkinson 2 May, accessed 23/05/2007).
[2] Bell, Rachel (2005) First born. StopGap, Autumn: 8-9, http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/StopGap%20Autumn%2005.pdf accessed 23/05/2007.
[3] Hanman, Natalie (2005) Caught in the Act StopGap, Autumn: 6-7, http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/StopGap%20Autumn%2005.pdf accessed 23/05/2007.
[4] Hanman, Natalie Ibid.
[5] Hobson, Charlotte et al. (2007) Where now for the Feminist Library?: a discussion document for meeting, 24 February 2007.
[6] Interview with Gail Chester, 21 May 2007.
[7] (2005) The Feminist Library Newsletter, March: 3, http://www.womeninlondon.org.uk/download/fem_lib_news1.pdf


Laura Wilkinson said...

This is a really thought provoking piece Anne - thank you. I have visited The Women's Library on many occasions but I have never been to the Feminist Library. I will put it on my 'to visit' list next time I'm in town and will do all I can to help preserve what sounds like a unique and priceless collection. This is something that we should all want to preserve and champion!

Anonymous said...

Wow all I can say is that you are a great writer! Where can I contact you if I want to hire you?