The title quote comes from an old Feminist Library flyer. The original version is ‘when I grow up I want a feminist library’, and it was produced by a young daughter of one of our former volunteers, Zoe Hyde. And my dream is to still have the Feminist Library around when I’m old. 4 more decades from now. Or 40… I might no longer be around to see it then, but future generations of feminists should still be able to get inspired by it then!
My story of feminism started around 10 years ago in London. I grew up in Poland – still a very traditional, in the patriarchal sense, country, as you might have heard from the recent fairly high profile debates around abortion rights there that might make you feel like it’s 1967 again, if you remember the time before abortion was made accessible in England. And so I’d never even heard about feminism before (unless you count the occasional classroom jokes that make you believe all feminist are witches or Nazis, or communists – yes, communism is seen pretty much on par with Nazism in my home country; I write more about these things on my Polish feminist blogs for alfa-fem), until I moved to London. And then it was almost like another dimension had opened up in front of me – it was always there, but, for some bizarre reason (i.e. patriarchy), I had no access to it until then, but as soon as I’d discovered it I knew I was not leaving it, ever!
A very important part of this world for me, from the start, was the Feminist Library. I discovered it when I came to one of my first ever feminist events, so it has always had quite a strong personal meaning to me – as a space which grounded me to real life, actionable feminism, after I’d spent the first couple of years following my ‘discovery’ just reading about it in utter amazement that I had not heard about it before! And I’m still discovering the space to this day – it’s a magical place, full of women’s stories, past and present – or herstories as I like that call them – that interweave with activism and practice, and inspire it. 43 years of collecting and making herstories, and counting.
The story of the Library itself is what I’m focusing on discovering at present. The Library had four homes over the 4+ decades of its existence – each of them linked to the fascinating herstory of feminist London. First, the Library shared its space with Sisterwrite – a feminist bookshop in King’s Cross, also linked to a feminist café (which was a story I explored a bit more in my Angels & Witches blog some time ago, and you can also read more about it on the History Workshop blog). Then it moved in with the famous Spare Rib in Clerkenwell. And finally, before moving to its current space – a community resource space for the past 30+ years, currently in process of being gentrified, for about 5 years, it shared a space with A Woman’s Place in Embankment, which, again, itself had some interesting herstory, as it stemmed from the Women’s Liberation Workshop, also linked to Shrew – another feminist magazine of the time (the history of the origins of A Woman’s Place* is described here and here; although I struggled to find a comprehensive online resource on it, and this has made me think that I should write one myself).
It was at that time that the resource was renamed as it remains to this day – Feminist Library, having been called the Women’s Research and Resource Centre for the first decade or so. It was a step made in an effort to set itself apart from the growing move towards academisation of feminism at the time; the Feminist Library wanting to remain close to its roots – grounded in activism and feminist practice, at least as much as it is in theory – in the face of that. And it was that Feminist Library home that was the last one in its herstory that was directly linked to other feminist spaces, even though the Library remains deeply rooted and continually linked to the movement.
After that, the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to be generally allergic to all grassroots and feminist activity, and shortly afterwards all those feminist spaces – that had been supported by the GLC Women’s Committee – started dying one by one. The Feminist Library was lucky to be able to weather the storm and remain, not just as a custodian of thousands feminist books, periodicals and archives, but also of this fascinating herstory of the women behind it, the feminist movement, and feminist London.
And it is one which I am passionate about telling to the generations of feminists who were not lucky enough to witness it themselves, so they can see that things can really be different, better – as they already had been, at least in some respects, like feminist spaces. Another world really is possible. Herstory is the witness, and the Feminist Library the place where it lives on.
It was also thanks to a recently produced A Woman’s Place’s* booklet that I was able to dig out all this fascinating herstory of London – there was a map in it, of feminist London in the late 70s/early 80s, which pictured all those amazing spaces and more, and which set me off on this journey of discovery. Prior to that, as many young feminists do, I just assumed that things are generally just getting better over time. But that’s not necessarily the case. Hi/herstory is much more convoluted than that. That’s why in feminism they call it Waves… There are periods in which feminism is riding high and we think we can do anything, and then there are times of backlash, when things go backwards, sometimes by more than we care to admit. And sometimes we don’t realise by just how much, because by the time it gets to the next generation, the herstory is at least partially lost or forgotten. Mainstream history books tend to cover it up pretty well. And so we have to, again and again, set off on these individual journey of recovery. The trick is to ensure that the herstory of the high (and low, because us feminists are still out there) times in our movement is not forgotten, so that generations of new feminists don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time.
And it is as important now as ever. Despite the many powerful, that at times felt unstoppable, waves of the feminist movement, herstories and their safeguarding are still in a precarious place.
“The almost-disappearance of this installation-exhibition from history is political. It is evidence of the precarious position that work by women artists [and women generally] occupies, often little supported in its production or its preservation.”
As Amy Tobin says about A Woman’s Place* and her journey to rediscover its history. I went on the same journey when writing this article, with the same realisation at the end.
And that’s why the Feminist Library is so important to me, and to the feminist movement as a whole – it is a home of feminist stories, those individual and those collective that are much more difficult to tell, because they have so many insider perspectives, each of them different. It is also much more than just a custodian – it protects, as well as co-creating those herstories, as it remains a living, breathing part of the movement to this day. And that’s why I joined the struggle to protect it. Which, in a way, is more crucial now than ever before, with the takeover of the digital as the predominant space for feminist activity. As we enter the growing discussion about digitisation at the Feminist Library, we also try to raise awareness of the dangers of relying on the internet too much. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a very powerful tool, making access to knowledge almost instant in some cases. But it does not have permanence built in – there is no guarantee that your website or digital flyer will remain out there for posterity, unless someone decides to archive it, and even then the human factor is still a key. And, ultimately, as with every other sphere, feminism remains an area of gross underrepresentation online – just try going on the journey that I’ve just told you about here, and you will find that herstories are not that easy to unearth, even in the digital age.
Interested in supporting this amazing precious resource? We’re always on a look out for new volunteers. There’s no such thing as a woman without skills! Better still, sign up here to be a Friend of the Feminist Library and help it become fully sustainable. It doesn’t take much, just a couple of pounds a month really does make a difference.
*Although this particular A Woman’s Place is a temporary art space in the early 70s, not the place where the Feminist Library resided in in the 80s, the herstories are linked, as always; you can read some of its story here and here.