The Feminist Library in London is, in and of itself, a tribute to women’s history, as well as an incredible statement to the dedication of women, having been volunteer run throughout its history. It is one of the biggest collections of feminist literature in London and the UK, and one of only 3 independent ones in the country, with the largest collection of feminist fiction.
In 2018, the Library is celebrating its 43rd birthday as well as five decades since the start of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the UK, on which the bulk of its collection is based. The latter has caused some debate, as many date it back to a 1970 national women’s conference in Oxford, but in fact by that time the movement was in a pretty decent swing; leading up to this event were countless meetings of Consciousness Raising (CR) groups, which have given birth to one of the most famous mottos of the movement: ‘personal is political’; as well as a number of other relevant developments, not least the 1968 Dagenham equal pay strike. The conference, therefore, was an important and memorable development, but can hardly be argued to be the birthplace. Another way one could look at this is that 1968 was an important year for activists around the UK and beyond, and one of the key impulses for the WLM was the unequal treatment of women in activist circles, which were supposed to be non-hierarchical. After a short while, women came to the realisation that even the spaces which they assumed to feel comfortable in were patriarchal. And that was one of the key, if not the key, birthing impulses for WLM CR. An interesting read on the topic is ’68 ’78 ’88 – a compendium of women’s stories from the time, in which many of the women highlight 1968 as an important wakeup call for the women’s movement for precisely this reason.
Either way, debate on this will carry on, I’m sure, but personally I do not think that there is a date that can definitively be set, once and for all, as the WLM birthday – with several key developments leading up to the eventual eruption of the movement. And in any case, I believe that the more we celebrate and highlight women’s history the better.
Hence Herstory café – the subject of women’s history has been close to my heart for a very long time, but the realisation that it is so often not just forgotten but unwritten, because women are so busy getting on with the work, has been the final impulse, along with my desire to get the Angels & Witches project back on track. The idea is to highlight women’s history, especially the herstories more likely to be forgotten, and particularly in the context of women’s spaces, like the Feminist Library, linking it to the idea of Angels & Witches – a feminist space in the making.
For the longest time, I just thought about finding the perfect space for Angels & Witches, that I rejected the idea of doing pop up café events – the point of the project was to provide a space! A space that would be feminist… and just there as and when needed! But the success of the East End Women’s Museum to find a space after years of campaigning, provided me with renewed energy and enthusiasm to look at my project with a fresh pair of eyes. Not to mention that was the strategy that worked for them!
And so going back to the Feminist Library in this context, its own herstory is fascinating and comforting, as much as it is a story of frustration and struggle against a capitalist patriarchal system, in which the odds are stacked against women’s / feminist organisations. The Feminist Library, over its 43-year history, has moved a number of times, faced numerous space and financial crises, while always striving to remain independent against all this and additional pressures from academic institutions keen on ‘looking after’ its collections. What the academic librarians failed, and still largely fail, to understand is that an absolutely key part of the Library’s ethos is provision of meeting and community space for feminists and activists – something that is unlikely to be transferrable to the academic library environment. Not to mention the fact that within the academia a feminist library becomes a ‘special interest’ section suggesting that women are somehow a minority, rather than more than half the population! And this is just in a range of preconceptions and attitudes that adds on to the problem of feminism seeming inaccessible to many women outside of academia.
The Feminist Library has been a shining beacon of hope for community and activist organisations, managing to prove that persisting in the face of multiple and mounting crises is possible. And that is an invaluable position to be in. There’s no way the Library team is giving this up to become just another ‘special’ buried part of another huge academic institution, inaccessible to all but the most specialised librarians and persistent researchers!