Although it has a long way to go before equality is reached, London is, in my experience, one of the most feminist cities. As a feminist, you can always find something interesting to do, in fact, most days you will have to pick and choose your events, as you won’t be able to attend everything that’s available! And you can even pick a feminist venue for your evening or day out (I published my guide to feminist London today here). We often have feminists from abroad come in to the Feminist Library and tell us how lucky we are to have it. We know. Even though it has been a struggle keeping it going.
But this story is not about feminist London today nor is it about the Feminist Library (I wrote about the herstory of the Library in my previous blog). It is about feminist London’s herstory.
Believe it or not, but London has been a feminist hub for a long time. In some ways, it used to be even better, as a feminist hub, than it is now. Before the attack of the Tories, via the medium of Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to despise the Greater London Council (GLC) as much as she did us feminists, London feminists had many spaces that we are missing these days, like feminist presses, café and bookshop (we partially have one at the Feminist Library, but it’s very small, as the Library does not suffer from an overflow of space). If you don’t know what the GLC was, you can read up on it here. But what is key for the purposes of this article is its role in the women’s movement – it had a very well funded women’s committee, making the existence of many feminist spaces that we’ll be talking about here possible.
Tracing down – or trying to – the herstory of feminist London is fascinating and inspiring, as much as it’s a source of constant frustration. You find that the stories are rarely accessible, often well hidden, if at all online, and sometimes on the cusp of being forgotten; a reflection on the state of patriarchy, or rather how far we still have to go as feminists, and on herstory more generally – as hard to find as many women’s stories in the wider context, if not more. In the grand scheme of things, feminist stories are seen as just a subsection of women’s stories, making them frequently seen as ‘marginal’, ‘queer’ and, ultimately, unimportant to the general public.
A good case in point is that of A Woman’s Place – originally, it was an exhibition – first of the women-only kind – in 1974, inspired by the 1972 Womanhouse in California. While the US version was well recorded and reported on, and comes up as the first search engine result when you look for it online, A Woman’s Place takes much more digging. I found these two articles by art historian Amy Tobin – who organised a memorial exhibition a few years ago – as one of the very few online resources on the topic. And that is just the top of the proverbial iceberg.
When I came across them, I was actually looking for the story of A Woman’s Place (AWP), the women’s resource centre in the 1980s, that was home to the Feminist Library between 1982-86, as well as one of the most important Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) newsletters at the time (you can think of it as the ultimate guide to feminist London during its time). And I came across exactly nil results online. Of course, you can follow the crumbs – like the Amy Tobin articles, which link back to AWP, as the original exhibition was the name inspiration – and get to the story eventually. But it still proves the point. Women’s history is notoriously precarious.
In order to really dig out the fuller history, I need to use actual physical resources, like the Feminist Library, which holds hard copies of most UK WLM newsletters, such as the one produced by at AWP, and is far from being acknowledged online, let alone digitised.
There are many places like that. If you look back up at the map of women’s London included above, there is about a dozen feminist spaces on there. I challenge you – try to find information on them online. Good luck!
I mean it. I didn’t have much, and that’s why I’m writing this. I know that most younger feminists, who have grown up in the digital age, will tend to assume that all information is easily accessible online, and that’s just not the case, not when it comes to feminist stories.
At the end of the day, feminist herstory needs to be made an integral part of feminist sisterhood – many of our second wave sisters are still around, happy to share their stories, and there is so much we can learn from them!