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The British Library and the sisterhood


oral history, british library, women's liberation movementOnline now: an oral history of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The British Library’s Sisterhood and After website is part of a wider project the aim of which is to create an original and extensive oral history archive of the lives of feminist change-makers of the 1970s and ‘80s.

The archive provides the resources for new studies of a whole social movement and its legacy, capturing the voices of a unique generation before it is too late.

The site will also illustrate the continuities and changes that have marked women’s struggles for equality and expression over time, and help answer questions about feminist histories and futures.

Questions such as: Should boys and girls be educated together or separately? Does gender influence career choice? Should women be paid to do housework? Are masculinity and femininity opposites? What do women from different races and classes have in common? How do they differ?

The women featured on the site took on these and other questions in an extraordinary period of British history. They strived for political and social equality, and struggled for changes that would grant both women and men new freedoms.

This British Library site hopes visitors can learn about what they fought for, what they achieved and how they achieved it.

The Women’s Liberation Movement prided itself upon its lack of stars and a variety of views. There is no one history of feminism, but many, just as there is no one women’s movement but many.

Their stories are illustrated by oral history recordings and films that capture the voices of women at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Recordings from another oral history project, led by Dr Lucy Delap, and called ‘Unbecoming Men: Masculinities and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1970-1985’ also feature on this site. You can view this project at Who We Were, Who We Are.

The full interviews from ‘Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’ can be accessed here.

This website, and the oral history behind it, captures only a fragment of a living archive that hopes are will grow at the British Library and elsewhere.

The aim has been to represent a diverse range of voices, reflecting the multifaceted nature of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Further details about the project outcomes, publications and partners can be found here.

Ten films were specially commissioned for this project.

They were directed and produced by film maker Lizzie Thynne and highlight key themes that were vital to the Women’s Liberation Movement.

YBA Wife?
Zoë Fairbairns remembers her moment of epiphany after reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) and realising that she did not have to get married.

She got involved in the ‘YBA Wife?’ campaign and reveals her ongoing commitment to co-habitation and not going to weddings. To watch it, click here.

The Feelings Behind the Slogans, 1-4
Jan McKenley reflects on her personal experience of abortion and the importance of being able to grieve while upholding a woman’s right to choose.

Jan’s experience led her to work for the National Abortion Campaign. She remembers too the importance of a women’s health group in allowing her to cherish her own body. To watch part 1, click here; part 2 click here; part 3 click here and part 4, click here.

From GLF to WLM
Mary McIntosh, sociologist and author of key papers and books such as The Homosexual Role (1968) and The Anti-Social Family (1982), recalls coming out in the 1960s.

Moving from her early involvement in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) kiss-ins and protests against the commercial club scene, she describes her trip to the 1971 Women’s Liberation Conference at Skegness where the GLF women took decisive action to stop male activists running the show. To watch it, click here.

Return to Sender
In 1993 the Greenham women’s peace camp got US cruise missiles sent back home. But nuclear weapons are still being made in the UK.

This short film follows Rebecca Johnson, still a tireless campaigner for disarmament, go to the monthly women’s peace camp at Aldermaston and to the now tranquil common where the missiles were once installed. To watch it, click here.

Crossing the Divides
On 30 January 1972, a young student, Bronagh Hinds, along with 20,000 other protestors travelled to Derry, Northern Ireland, to march for civil rights. The event, which became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after 26 people were shot by the British Army, spurred Bronagh’s deep commitment to equality.

As a member of the inventive Women’s Coalition (1996-2006) Bronagh contributed to the 1998 Peace Agreement which brought an end to years of violent conflict in Ulster. To watch this film, click here.

On Tools
A look at the work of Barbara Jones, founder of the first women’s building company ‘Hilda’s Builders’ in the 1980s and now a pioneer in sustainable straw bale construction.

Barbara’s enthusiasm for the trade is boundless and her belief that women can do anything in a traditionally male occupation is inspiring. To watch it, click here.

In the Beginning We Demanded
In 1970 the first women’s liberation conference took place at Ruskin College, Oxford.

It was the first of several national conferences in the UK which formulated the demands of the women’s movement and sparked the campaigns to make those demands – from equal wages to a woman’s right to choose – a reality.

Director Sue Crockford made ‘A Woman’s Place’ a unique film about the event. She describes the excitement of this inaugural moment of modern feminism and the challenges of covering it. To watch it, click here.

A Safe House
Karen McMinn was one of the founders of Women’s Aid in Belfast, supporting victims of domestic violence.

Karen highlights the challenges and achievements of this vital organisation – working in a war zone, where men were often armed and police were reluctant to respond to calls from women in Republican areas. To watch, click here.

A Democracy for Women
Women are still badly under-represented in politics. For instance, despite significant advances in the 1990s, not even 25 per cent of the MPs at Westminster are women. In 1980, the year after, Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister only 4 per cent of the Members of Parliament were women.

Lesley Abdela, who had stood as a Liberal candidate, founded the 300 group to get 300 women into the parliament. Interwoven with glimpses of iconic women MPs from the past, Lesley relates the history and impact of the campaign and compares the situation in England with the relative advances of female politicians in the other UK nations and beyond. To watch, click here.

Red Flannel: Liberating Women on Film
Michele Ryan was a member of one of the few women’s film co-operatives to exist in Britain – Red Flannel in Wales – funded by the unique workshop system established by Channel 4.

She discusses the collaborative process of working on the film ‘Mam’ (1988) about the history of women in the Welsh valleys, whose lives and work had until then, scarcely been recorded. To watch this, click here.

Many other oral history projects have been and are being carried out around the world. To find out more about some of the projects, and link to their sites, or to explore the British Library’s site further, click here.

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