Feminist Spaces – A Short Herstory

This story was originally published in a zine prepared for a Womanhouse Revisited exhibition in London, 28th June – 5th July 2019. Copies of the zine edition available on request. 

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I count myself lucky. I work for the Feminist Library in London. Not many feminists have feminist jobs. In some circles – I know because where I work I get to speak to a lot of young feminists – a feminist job is considered something of a unicorn… So hard to believe in that few actually pursue it despite really wanting it.

The Feminist Library is a unique space. It is an independent feminist library in London (the only one that can make a claim to being that), but it is also a space for the feminist community to gather, discuss, argue, plot and organise. Its incredible collections include tens of thousands of books, periodicals, flyers, posters, photographs, pamphlets, zines and archives… many dating back to the Second Wave of the feminist movement. The Feminist Library is also an inclusive events and meeting space, used by many women’s, feminist, activist and community organisations. It provides a space to meet for any feminist groups, regardless of income – which is increasingly rare in the current climate of austerity, especially in London, where property is at such a premium that affordable community spaces are gradually harder to come by these days.

But what I want to tell you about here is a bit of a larger story. It is not (just) about the Library, as marvellous as it may be, and as much as I love to talk about it. It is about the idea of a feminist space as one of those things that seems to have been lost to us, as our herstory has been taken away, again and again. This, in terms of feminist spaces, is something of a modern day affliction – that is, in the context of the previous wave of the feminist movement at least, which is what I’m going to focus on for the purposes of this piece.

We often get new volunteers and visitors at the Library saying that they weren’t really expecting to find anything when they googled ‘feminist library’. They experience a combination of shock and relief when they do – they obviously wanted to find it because they looked for it, but they just didn’t quite expect to find it. They thought, deep down, that it was, somehow, too much to ask…

It is a sad state of affairs where something so necessary (many visitors report feeling ‘at home’ at the Library, as if they needed to find the space – as if it had satisfied a long-hidden longing for a feminist space) is so rare as if to be expected not to exist… We are far from a feminist world if such is the reality of many women – to feel that what they need is just too much to ask. Which is what brings me back to the core of my story…

What I’m trying to say here is it doesn’t have to be this way. Our herstory has been hidden from us, but if we do a little digging (which is what spaces like the Feminist Library are ideal for!) we can find out from our recent herstory that a different world had already existed and has been taken away from us (the Feminist Library has lived to tell the story, thankfully – as opposed to most of the other feminist spaces which have been around when it first started – as most of this herstory is not to be found anywhere online). A world in which feminist spaces were much more common, believe it or not.

In Breaking Down A Woman’s Place , Amy Tobin tells us the story of how that was possible – think of a time before Margaret Thatcher, Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism… A time where one could set up a community space (feminist or otherwise) with little or no money. A time when squatted community spaces were common, and often, once they have been able to demonstrate their value, supported by the local London government. Can you imagine…?!

But in order to put things in a tiny bit more context, let me tell you a little bit more about A Woman’s Place – a feminist space from another feminist era. Breaking Down was produced for a recent exhibition celebrating A Woman’s Place – a space that was created by women artists in London in 1974. It was a squat, an empty house that the artists took over for a period and made into a first of its kind, in London (previous versions existed in the US – the ‘trend’ was started with Womanhouse in 1972, which inspired the exhibition which in turn inspired this story), feminist exhibition. In some ways, the house wasn’t very different from real homes – each room reflected a reality of women’s lives in the 1970s. But it was a critique on the still very stereotypical expectations of a housewife’s life, all too prevalent at the time.

It was a brilliant project, and one that further inspired others like it around the country. Yet, what I was more interested in, personally, when I read Tobin’s piece, is the political context that made it possible. And that also made it possible for other feminist spaces to come to life at the time.

Tobin did an incredible amount of research for it and the part of the story that she produced as a result of it that most grabbed my attention was what made the existence and proliferation of other feminist spaces at the time possible. She lays out the cultural and political factors that made it possible, including: the existence of the GLC (Greater London Council), which subsidised the rental and staff costs for many of those spaces, and had a Women’s Committee with a very generous budget; the socio-political acceptance of squatting (many of the spaces were squatted at first, and then, once they were established and could demonstrate their value, supported and/or subsidised by the GLC); and last but not least, the rise of the second wave of the feminist movement, as well as other social justice movements, at the time. The breaking down of this world was brought upon by the closure of the GLC by the Thatcher government, as part of a larger neoliberal agenda that was being pushed through at the time. The world that we live in now – a world in which feminists believe that a safe place for us doesn’t exist, that for some reason it is not possible, and that sees the destruction of many community spaces – is very much a result of that political agenda, in action.

Today, the Feminist Library, after decades of struggle against austerity and gentrification, is in a relatively secure position (with emphasis on relatively – read more about the most recent part of the story of the struggle here). But most of the feminist – and community – spaces which existed at the time when the Library was set up, were not so lucky and have been lost. The Library itself shared spaces with the Spare Rib , Sisterwrite bookshop and Sisterbite café (part of the same space), and A Woman’s Place (a women’s centre in the 1980s, not the exhibition mentioned above, although, I believe, the name was inspired by the original exhibition), just to name a few, which were all part of a much larger network of feminist spaces network in existence during the Second Wave.

Breaking Down was printed as part of a larger publication celebrating the herstory of A Woman’s Place – the exhibition – and feminist art and activism of the time. In it we also some photographs (rare, as the herstory of the original AWP was not very well recorded, sadly, as Tobin also notes) of the original exhibition, as well as some other related records, including maps of ‘feminist London’ from the time. For that reason, the publication has become one of my most prized possessions. The maps remind me that another world is truly possible, to paraphrase my favourite quote from Arundhati Roy. A world in which we do not have to only dream of feminist spaces; in which they are everywhere and we can feel at home, as women and feminists, wherever we are. And so I share this world with other feminists whenever possible. Hence this story…

One question still remains open in my mind: can we achieve this better world while neoliberalism is still rife? I believe the answer is no, as I think my story shows. But what is clear from it, I hope, is that spaces like the Feminist Library are an absolute necessity while we try to get there – we need to know our own herstory, not just to know how far we’ve come but also to show us the range of possibilities, and a lot of it is not online – contrary to popular belief.

When I met with Amy to talk about Breaking Down, she told me that much of her research was done at the Feminist Library. Her gratitude for the existence of the resource was almost palpable. I only really understood just how important it was when I attempted to look for information on this topic online later, only to find that the one thing of real use that I could find took me back to Breaking Down

To end on a bit more of a positive note, feminist spaces do seem to be making something of a comeback recently! There are a couple of new feminist bookshops just opened up, as well as a Vagina Museum (yes, a Vagina Museum!) and a women’s history museum coming up in London in the next year or so!

To find out more, you can visit my Angels & Witches blog where I try to keep track of these things as they are today. I also wrote more about the topic of history of feminist spaces in London on my Herstory blog here

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