Learning from feminist oral history

Life stories have fired my imagination for as long as I can remember. And as my own political and feminist consciousness has evolved, the vitality and purpose of these stories have become ever more urgent and compelling. 

So, you can imagine the alacrity with which I seized the opportunity in 2010 to partner with curator Polly Russell at the British Library to lead Sisterhood and After.

One goal was to create a national, permanent, accessible and professional oral history collection of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement, comparable to the oral history collections of suffrage activists at The Women’s Library, now recognised as having world heritage value. 

As a wider team we completed 60 long-life interviews with activists, transcribed, summarised, then archived in the British Library’s Oral History collections. Like so many life history-led recordings, they offer a priceless resource, not simply for their perspectives on a particular history or activity, but also for the light they shine on the broader moments and times in which they are situated.

It’s not hard for me to recall some of my project highlights. Leading peace campaigner Rebecca Johnson launching into song, recalling the heady days of Greenham. Writer Beatrix Campbell explaining how she learned about the fundamental feminist demand for work-life balance from women trade unionists working at Ford’s. Educator Nadira Mirza, chatting cheerfully about the Christian gravedigger who specialises in Muslim burials in Bradford, as she mused on feminism in faith-based communities at all stages of life. And Barbara Jones’account of how she became one of the tiny handful of  women builders in the UK (still just 1% of the total construction workforce) through Women in Manual Trades, which has become one of my favourite examples of feminist transformation on all fronts.

Many more campaigns, themes and debates are featured on the Sisterhood and Aftersection of the British Library’s website, including 120 sound clips, 10 short films, teachers’ packs and biographies, designed to share the great range of ideas and achievements of intersecting women’s movements in the 1970s and 80s. We have also listed 60 other oral histories of related interest –  more have been developed since – acknowledging that we could only scratch the surface of activisms where many thousands were involved.

In 2020, I enjoyed meeting again with four Sisterhood and After interviewees to record Memories for a Feminist Future, a podcast exploring what might have changed in the ten years since the project.

We shared a sobering sense of the unfinished business of racial inequality, as Black Lives Matter foregrounded so many of the questions raised by Black women’s movements of the 1970s: systemic impoverishment, violence, cultural exclusion.

We reflected on the ongoing constraints on sexual freedom and choice, and oral histories as survivor testimonies. 

Yet at the same time, we agreed on the enduring power of coalition. Karen McMinn, former Director of Women’s Aid, Northern Ireland, movingly spoke of her own work using oral histories and life storytelling as reconciliation tools in post-conflict societies.

And it’s hard to resist the exchange between Stella Dadzie, who urged modern feminists not to reinvent the wheel, and Sally Alexander, who felt that each generation has to do just that! Both are surely right. 

Thinking of wheels takes me back to the suffrage interviews, and feeling my ears go hot under the headphones in the beautiful reading room of The Women’s Library, as I listened recently to Brian Harrison interviewing Juanita Frances in 1974.[i]

Former nurse and outstanding suffrage campaigner, Frances roundly dismissed the new Women’s Liberation activists as ‘pretty disgraceful really, I mean anti-bra and anti-pants’. Yet Frances had fought for the legal and financial rights of married women for at least forty years, and was still active aged 73, lobbying the government on the eve of the Sex Discrimination Act’s passing. ‘It won’t be long now’, she says, with a trace of Australian lilt and a cacophony of birdsong in the background.

It isn’t that our political forbears will always be right – but that we are able to hear them in the round, where political opinion is resituated in a human struggle on many fronts. Oral histories allow us to listen to their voices directly, across the accents, sighs, silences, chuckles and aural punctum (the thunder which rolled outside her Edinburgh window, as Mukami McCrum recalled her childhood in Kenya; Jenni Murray’s yapping chihuahuas).

Unreliable in the best sense, such versions of activist history are elicited by an equally variable interviewer (Frances says to Harrison ‘I hope you aren’t a Conservative!, he replies ‘well I sometimes vote Conservative, I sometimes vote Labour’). Knowing this, the Sisterhood interview team finished the project by briefly interviewing each other, concluding with the invitation to compare our lives with those of our mothers, just as we did for the activists. As we heard our own intake of breath at the question, we knew the struggle wasn’t finished. It never is!

Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The Trust also funds The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, partnered with The British Library and the University of Cambridge.

Picture credits
Top Left: Karen McMinn (fist raised) rally in support of abuse-survivor Noreen Winchester, Belfast (1976) © Derek Speirs. Top Right: Co-authors of The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (1984), Suzanne Scafe, Beverley Bryan and Stella Dadzie L-R © Stella Dadzie. Bottom Left: Barbara Jones, roofing, Cefn Foellacht, Women’s Land in Wales (late 1980s) © Carol Hubbard. Bottom Right: Sally Alexander (with Gareth Stedman Jones, Juliet Mitchell and Arielle Aberson behind) at the first national Women’s Liberation Movement Conference, Ruskin College in Oxford (1970).

[i] Oral Evidence on the Suffragette and Suffragist Movements: the Brian Harrison interviews 8SUF/B/022 Box 1, Disc 5.

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