Last week, I found out that the Parisian feminist library has been saved. Which is excellent news and I am overjoyed for them. But thinking about it still makes me sad, because of the context of it all: feminist spaces all over the world are diminishing and those that are still around are under threat from more than just gentrification.
It’s as though the whole society has slowly and somewhat unwittingly turned against us. When the London Feminist Library was in space crisis it got an offer from the South Bank University to house its collection. I’m sure the intentions were good, but it would have been just another London Women’s Library story – from accessibility to academia. LSE’s promises to keep the Library open to all have faded with time and the resource has gradually turned into just another ‘special collection’ of an academic library.
I believe it does not all happen out of ill will. The Feminist Library had a lot of kind offers to house its collections – including from the Marx Memorial Library, Union Chapel and Newington Green Unitarian Chapel – most of them unsuitable for the size of the Library and its purpose, but all well meaning. The last particularly put smiles on the Library team’s faces as it’s also know as ‘the birthplace of feminism’ – until it turned out they could only offer us a little bit of exhibition space…
But the Feminist Library is so much more than just a pile of books. It’s an activist space, a community centre and a safe space for feminists to talk about the issues that often can still make us very uncomfortable to raise in the outside world. And so it particularly hurts to think that people see it as just a collection of books when one realises just how rare spaces like that are. There are only 3 autonomous feminist libraries in the UK – the Nottingham Women’s Centre one, the Women’s Library in Glasgow and the Feminist one in London. The remaining ones are all now a part of larger, academic, institutions, with varying levels of accessibility limitations that go with it.
And what really struck me as part of the save the Feminist Library campaign is that even some feminists were suggesting that we should try and move into a university. Even the feminist designers team, now responsible for creating the new space for the Feminist Library in Peckham, thought that was a good idea at one point. It seems to me that it would be a great loss to lose the only remaining independent feminist library in London to a university. Regardless of how friendly and welcoming the university seems, it would still mean a loss of independence.
Feminist libraries, and spaces in general, are neither ‘special interest’ nor simply libraries, and so should not be closed off to the public as an academic resource, as if feminism is now just a piece of history, no longer relevant to us presently. FGM is still very much an issue, as is child marriage, rape, not to mention the pay gap or the glass ceiling. Feminism has made great strides already but still has a long way to go. Nobody can tell me that feminism is a thing of the past.
“The woman question is answered. It is now understood that women can do anything that men can do (…) The future is female, we are told. Feminism has served its purpose and should now eff off (…) Though parliament is unconcerned about women’s issues, universities appear obsessed by them (…) As far as the intellectual establishment is concerned there is still a profound and ramified women question, which has still to be correctly asked, let alone answered.”
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman
Greer wrote these words 20 years ago, but the mentality rings just as true now. Feminism has been relegated into the academia, and there seems to be a tendency to try and brush all feminist spaces into the academic world too.
But I believe that as long as we don’t have universally accessible feminist education, issues like that will keep being perpetuated. Academia is not for everyone. There is a massive gap between academic thinking and language, and the rest of us, including not just activists and the wider community. Academic language can be massively inaccessible and detached from the outside world. So we need more autonomous, open to all feminist spaces, not fewer!
Photo courtesy of Feminist Library Bookshop