Taking Ourselves Seriously
We are rapidly approaching a time when the women who were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s will no longer be here to describe that history in person. Archives which record that history are therefore becoming increasingly important, while cuts in public spending are putting many of them at risk of closure, and the material they house are at risk of being lost or at best dispersed. The following article, which looks at the politics of archiving the women’s movement and makes the case for taking our history seriously, was published in 1996. Later this summer we will be publishing a new piece by Jalna Hanmer, which will offer an update on the state of the various feminist archives in the UK and a sequel to the stories in this piece. This is particularly timely with the news this week that the British Library have just launched the archive of the long-running feminist magazine, Spare Rib.
To know the future is to know the past. To know the current moment is not enough.
Several years ago I realised I am rapidly becoming the only woman left amongst staff and students at the University of Bradford to know how and when Women’s Liberation Movement newsletters, bulletins and other regular publications of the 1970s and early 1980s developed and, frequently, which of these are British. With such a dismal lack of basic information, a knowledge of when, in a longish run, various publications provided the leading theoretical edge of the Women’s Liberation Movement could not even be formulated as a question. Further, without some basic knowledge, women did not know where to begin a search for material relevant to their interests or how to understand whatever they did find in the archival collection on the Women’s Liberation Movement held at the Bradford branch of the Feminist Archive. Problems experienced by women in using the Archive drove home how the recent past — my living memory — is not shared by increasing numbers of women. This wave of women’s political struggle is becoming as opaque and ill-understood as that of the nineteenth century.
Early on in the MA Women’s Studies (Applied) course on Feminisms and Sexual Divisions the question arises, what knowledge do each of us have of 19th century feminism in Britain? I give my own pre-Women’s Liberation Movement knowledge, “some crazy women chained themselves to the railings outside Parliament”. This brief, but total knowledge statement is echoed by those of other women. Only those with access to more recent education in Women’s Studies or some other disciplinary area with work on women and gendered social relations know more. In Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done To Them (1982), Dale Spender explores what it means to lose our heritage and how losing both herstory and history are major ways of securing the subordination of women. It is not an accident that we do not know our past. People without a past do not have a future. They remain subordinated, the onlookers in the history of the socially dominant and, at best, honorary members of the privileged caste, group, or class.
When we discovered violence against women in Britain, we thought we were the first women to do so. We believed no one previously knew about violence to women from men with whom they lived or had lived or were related to in some other way. It was with some surprise that we discovered a small part of the past. It helped to know that someone had written an influential article with a title we did not think we could get away with today, Wife Torture in England (Cobbe: 1878). It helped to read historical accounts of activism on violence against women as this began a process of connection with the past (for example, May: 1978; Tomes: 1978). It helped to engage in a struggle to save the Fawcett Library collection from being broken up and culled for “important” books which were to be placed — within the Dewey decimal system of library classification — at the London School of Economics. We experienced a moment of living heritage when at the Fawcett Society meeting in 1976 (an organisation that many of us from the Women’s Liberation Movement had rushed to join in order to be able to vote), we were confronted by women in their 80s and even 90s speaking of their and their mothers’ likely reaction to the possibility that the collection might be dismembered. “My mother would be appalled”, said one elderly trustee of some ninety books housed in the Fawcett collection, succinctly summing up the personal position of the most elderly and prestigious members of the Society. Those of us who had recently joined the society began to relax, recognising political allies from the so-called “moderate” suffragist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To know the past is to connect with the present.
Saving our knowledge and finding ways of passing it on involves more than attacking revisionist history, important as that is. The aim is to create a map, a guide, for future generations of women so that women who did not share a particular moment in time may have access to it. In Britain the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1969—1979, saw a proliferation of ephemeral publications, so-called “grey material”. Those original ideas, turned out on the duplicator, often indistinct or blurred, and circulated to small numbers through women-only publications, were major source material and remain so for the future. Because political activists in this decade utilised multi-media, there are songs, photographs, posters and film as well as a multiplicity of forms of written work. Organisations and struggles around specific issues had special relationships with particular songs as well as specific visual representations, for example Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, was described at the time as the national anthem of the National Women’s Aid Federation. In some future time, say fifty to 100 years from now, these multi-media source data will be needed for women to be able to assess the development of ideas, actions and times in which we lived and live. They also will enable other women to discover, if it is not possible to maintain conscious continuity, a feminist past, just as we did.
The ten year period, 1969—1979, preceded and provides the basis for the subsequent widespread publication of feminist academic work in books and other publicly available sources. To achieve accessibility to the core ideas of the British Women’s Liberation Movement these ephemeral materials need collecting and ordering in relation to the Women’s Liberation Conferences held between 1970-1978, women’s organisations, demonstrations, campaigns, meetings, and local, regional and national group activities and publications. The first part of the project consists of listing the above activities by date, followed by collecting and cataloguing the relevant newsletters, journals, single publications, conference hand-outs, minutes and other notes on meetings, flyers, posters, and any other materials that relate to each of these. Oral history interviews then run alongside specific occasions or organisations or locally based activities. 
There is a sense of urgency about this project as complete sets sets of some publications are yet to be collected by at least one of the existing archives in the UK. Twenty five years is not that long ago, but it may be too far away to ensure everything is collectable. Further, while the collection of ephemera is being undertaken by women in many locations in Europe, in Britain these poorly funded or unfunded archives are constantly threatened with closure and, as a result, the loss of material. Unfortunately, disagreements amongst women who assume responsibility for collections may also lead to losses. At its best when all else fails, storage in damp garages, sometimes dry attics, provides a slender thread of continuity. This replicates in a material way the retention and loss of conscious knowledge of the past referred to earlier. Because retention and loss of knowledge is about power and whose ideas are to prevail, securing the feminist past in all its diversity is a future oriented radical feminist activity.
So what of the future? If we cannot be sanguine about retaining knowledge of the Women’s Liberation Movement and our radical feminist past then to secure the future, the present must include work to retain consciousness of the past. To keep alive knowledge of women’s struggles with each other and with men; their efforts to understand and organise against their oppression and exploitation, means passing it on from woman to woman from mother to daughter through the generations. There have been bigger waves of protest and activism than that which began at the end of the 1960s and there may be even larger, or perhaps smaller, ones to come. We cannot know this with certainty, but we can point to recurring patterns of high and low mobilisation of women to resist and transform their social situations in countries around the world. If we had full access to this knowledge, our heritage, think how empowered our social and collective identity would be.
Working to retain the past is also a radical feminist activity — in an activist and intellectual sense — in the here and now. Women’s Liberation Movement publications and activities were usually women-only in Britain. To respect the woman-only distribution policy of these publications makes it even more difficult to obtain funding and therefore, secure the future of these sources, but remaining loyal to the intentions and thereby the politics of its authors and editors, is a way to maintain an herstorical organisational tradition. Seeking to secure women-only anything is as subversive now as it was in the 1970s, as a consequence, something of the feelings and meanings attached to women-only activities and publications is conveyed to women today. This simple action, this experience, creates a present connected to the past.
Respecting the diversity of Liberation Movement material is another aspect of radical feminist activity today. This requires coming to terms with emotionally charged beliefs and actions and accepting that sisterhood was, and is, about disagreements as well as agreements. While at the time disagreements could be responded to in intensely personal ways, on another level, disagreements are not unfortunate occurrences linked to personal inadequacies, but central to the development of ideas and understanding. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain was diverse with multiple connections from the student movement, to sexual libertarianism, to the anti-imperialist struggles, to the political left via various forms of Anarchism and Marxism, to gay liberation. To seek to deny the relevance of any source or connection is to create revisionist history.
Because radical feminism is about social transformation in the interests of all women, multiple positions are to be respected. This is of course, easier for women who were not activists during the 1970s as all of us involved in those times have views on what was important and what remains crucial. To move forward each of us should vigorously argue our position, but to secure the future it is up to us to leave as complete an account as possible so that women who come later may make their own judgements, building on our work and achievements just as we have built on those of women who came before us. Taking ourselves seriously is to recognise and value a diverse heritage of our own making and to act to preserve it for future generations of women.
Thanks to Spinifex Press for giving us permission to reproduce this article, which was originally published in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein (1996).
 During the 1994—1995 academic year, Elizabeth Arledge-Ross, as part of the mapping project, began to interview women in Leeds and Bradford about their involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1970s and, with the help of Karen Boyle, to greatly improve the organisation of the Archive and the cataloguing of its material.