Feminist Archive North
The Falklands. Conservative government. Strikes. Are we going back in time? On 8th March, the Brotherton Library unlocked the wealth of information it has on the Women’s Liberation Movement to give us a personal trip into the past. The posters, leaflets and t-shirts were just a few of the items the Feminist Archive North (FAN) has collected to chart the course of the Women’s Liberation Movement from 1969 to today. The world may have moved on but some things have worryingly stayed the same.
The most interesting part of the display was of course talking to the volunteers themselves- many of whom had been involved in campaigns across Yorkshire and Lancashire. Compared with the vast campaigns they had been involved in (abortion rights, Greenham common) it is very easy to feel inadequate. But these women were certainly not resting on their laurels and the organisation is always looking for new volunteers. Despite the clichéd image of the “scary” feminist, the volunteers I met were friendly, very helpful and happy to talk about their involvement with the Women’s Liberation Movement and the wider community in West Yorkshire.
There were many posters on display about domestic violence and photos from protests against violence against women. The most poignant display was of the advice given to female university students during the height of Peter Sutcliffe’s attacks; women should not be out late at night. This sadly is the advice still proffered to women today whenever there are questions about our safety. And so often is this accepted as the status quo – it’s dangerous for women at night, sodon’t go out. The FAN displayed an interesting poster suggesting an alternative- a male curfew at night. Just imagine for a second that the police enforced this. Can you picture the protests? Bankers having to rush home after their last meeting to get inside before dark. Male students having to stay at home rather than go for a night on the town. Men would be unable to work as nightclub bouncers, do the nightshift in a hospital or be a taxi driver. In short, such a curfew would upset their economic capacities and their social lives. It seems utterly ridiculous. And yet, this is what the advice to women so often amounts to. Making us afraid to go out at night is not really that different from a curfew- instead of a fine we get attacked. But as the statistics show, women are far more likely to be raped by someone they know than a random stranger on the street. I stood with my nose pressed against the glass for quite some time admiring the alternate reality these posters suggested. The FAN certainly had achieved one aim- it made me stop and think.
There was some positivity to the displays. There are now more women in education than ever before. The University of Leeds has a majority female student population. The language we use has also changed. It has become uncommon to use “he” to refer to an unknown person who could just as easily be female as male. The word ‘Chairman’ is often replaced with the gender neutral ‘Chair’. But the negativity surrounding the word ‘feminist’ still remains and not all battles have been fought and won. This is especially true with the current economic situation pushing women out of the workplace.
I had only one problem with the archive, despite all the great work the FAN is doing. Once we see something under the glass on a display cabinet, it’s all too easy to write it off as completed – ancient history that we only need to engage with on the level of basic curiosity. That was then, now it’s time to move on. The yellowed newspaper cuttings with their corners curling seem to have no relevance today, even though they were only from the 1980s. But this is not the case. One of the great things about speaking to the volunteers was the recognition that it’s not all over. Women and men need to keep working together and keep moving forward to prevent the movement from stagnating and to ever have a chance of finding equality.
With many thanks to Sandra McNeill, Ailsa Swarbrick, Elaine Glover, and Carolyn Cable.
To learn more, please visit the FAN website.