Social Science blog

6 posts categorized "Women's histories"

25 August 2021

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20 July 2021

Unfinished Business: finally giving black feminist history and contribution its due

A guest post by Dr Hannana Siddiqui

Dr Hannana Siddiqui is a leading multi-award winning expert and activist on violence against black and minority women. She has worked at Southall Black Sisters for 35 years and is also a freelance consultant researcher and policy advocate. She has published widely on black feminism and co-edited the book, ‘Moving in the Shadows’ in 2013. 

Walking around the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business, with mask and mobile phone camera in hand, I went mad with taking photographs. There was so much to take from the first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and protest poems written on toilet paper in Holloway Prison by Sylvia Pankhurst to objects and images from modern feminism, both familiar and unfamiliar. A world of discovery for old feminists and new; but also much to learn for the unaware and the unreconstructed.

In one corner, there are pictures of me! (Surreal or what?) The section on Southall Black Sisters (SBS) is part of a familiar history, but distilled into a few objects. SBS has a long and proud history of struggle and survival, having led black feminists' fight against gender-based violence in black and minority communities for over 40 years. I saw the annual report that I assisted in writing, and a poster and note from the Free Kiranjit Ahluwalia Campaign that I helped to win. Kiranjit is an Asian woman who we campaigned to free from life imprisonment after she was convicted of the murder of her husband, who had subjected her to ten years of violence. In 1992, the conviction was overturned, and she was released. The landmark case reformed the law of provocation so that it took account of the cumulative impact of abuse on women; and propelled the issue of domestic abuse in Asian communities onto the national agenda. A poignant piece, which I had to dig up from piles of documents in the office, was the Charter of Slavery, a note in which Kiranjit promises to give up all her freedoms and hopes to placate her abusive husband. A sad moment in history, but also, ironically, a liberating one, as its presentation in court proved the history of abuse which ultimately freed her.

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Banners on display at Unfinished Business

The other pictures I captured on my camera and in my mind included key campaigns led or supported by black and minority women. One featured Sophia Duleep Singh, a lesser known suffragette, who was a recent discovery for SBS too. The survivors at SBS acknowledged her contribution to obtaining women’s right to vote in a banner at the centenary celebrations in 2018. Another section showed the Grunwick Strikers, led by Jayaben Desaiand other Asian women to win worker’s rights. Camden Black Sisters were also featured along with black feminist icons such as activists and authors, Claudia Jones and bell hooks, as well as black politicians, space scientists, artists and punk rockers. Old banners also hung from the ceiling (remember to look up!). One SBS banner marked a 1980s march on violence against women. The banner was based on the controversial SBS poster of a multi-armed Goddess, Kali, holding multiple weapons to fight male violence. Also hanging up was the banner produced for the successful legal battle for our race equality fight for specialist services in 2008. These and other exhibits highlight the intersections with race, gender and class inequality which black and minority women have led on to address without proper credit, until now.    

Grunwick poster

Dan Jones, Look back at Grunwick, 1978 On loan from Bishopsgate Institute.

I bumped into Susie Orbach and we shared our enthusiasm for the exhibition, which we were both unfortunately rushed through in the early morning before a busy day at work.  Susie co-founded the Women’s Therapy Centre back in 1976, a place where I have referred women seeking recovery from the trauma of abuse. The section on her work in the exhibition connected the past with the present. Mental health problems are now heightened with the Covid-19 pandemic and over a year of lockdowns and social distancing. Domestic abuse has surged with black and minority women particularly affected. Asian women are three times more likely to kill themselves than women generally, and I worry how many are being driven to suicide and self-harm while in isolation or locked in with abusive partners or family members. SBS and other women’s groups have seen a rise in mental health problems, and have called for more action from government to alleviate the crisis.

In the midst of these and other troubles, the feminist struggle continues, and there is indeed ‘unfinished business’. However, although we still have much to do, the exhibition is also a symbol of hope as we know from the past that victories, small and great, have been won and so will be in the future. I need to go back as there is much more to see and know. Next time, though, I must remember to take my husband!

 16 July 2021

Twitter: @hannanasiddiqui

 

08 March 2021

"Just Leave Me Alone": responses to Unfinished Business

A guest post on International Women's Day by Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive

In December 2020 Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive, Customer Service Apprentices in the British Library’s Learning team, visited the exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s RightsGrounded in their own personal experiences as young women, here they reflect on their responses to the exhibition and some of the objects that particularly resonated with them.

During their apprenticeship, Rebecca and Georgia learnt more about the audiences we work with in the Learning team, gained new experiences, knowledge, and skills such as web editing, and provided invaluable support for a range of events and projects for school learners, teachers, families and young people, such as our National Library of Miniature Books.

 

Please note that this post contains some discussion of abortion and sexual violence.

Rebecca writes…

I felt a particular affinity with Gloria Steinem’s statement ‘The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off’ whilst walking through the Unfinished Business exhibition. A sentiment that I not only felt in the exhibition space, but one that I have felt many times whilst navigating through life as a young woman.

This exhibition evokes pride, solidarity and anger, but the main emotion that hit me was exhaustion. As we got further and further in, the main phrase that came to mind was ‘just leave me alone’. It may not be a particularly profound sentiment, but many of the exhibition objects reminded me of just how many times I've been driven to exhaustion just by simply having to exist as a girl and woman. Why does that person care what I’m wearing? Why won’t that man leave me be? Why is it that seemingly every choice I make, is one that’s inherently based in my gender?

A few items particularly stood out to me as being exemplary of my feminine fatigue, namely the No More Page 3 t-shirt and the Consent Zine.

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No More Page Three campaign t-shirt, worn by Dr Caroline Lucas MP at a debate on media sexism in 2013. © Parliamentary Recording Unit

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Caro Berry of Pretty in Punk, ‘Towards a Pro-Consent Revolution’. London, 2013. © Caro Berry

I remember my first time seeing a Page 3 spread was when I was barely pubescent and I found some copies of The Sun in my friend’s bathroom. It was one of those things that I knew existed but had been so normalised that I hadn’t really processed how it affected me and the way I perceived myself. As puberty started I knew that I was already being seen as a sexual object, but at that point I had absolutely no idea what the male gaze was.

If only I’d been to an exhibition like this at that age, I would’ve spotted the Laura Mulvey quote nestled in the corner that reads, ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’. Maybe then I would’ve been able to look at the women on Page 3 (who couldn’t look back at me) and not project my own internalised male gaze through them and back onto myself, but instead thought: why the hell am I looking at softporn whilst on the loo?

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Laura Mulvey quotation as it appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition, edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly.

 

Georgia writes…

Initially I found myself frustrated and very much overwhelmed, looking up and around at all of the injustices on display in the Unfinished Business exhibition. Questions spun around in my head, many reoccurring ones such as ‘why?’ and ‘wait, what?’. In the section on ‘Autonomy’, I spotted a question that I thought at first glance seemed easily answered. ‘Do you have control over your body?’ was written on a panel at the beginning of the exhibition.

Autonomy label

Panel introducing the sub-section on 'Autonomy' in the 'Body' section of the exhibition.

I stood and thought about this for a moment, as if someone was interrogating me directly. Yes, I have control over my body. I decide when I am hungry, so I eat. I can wave my hand, and I can close my eyes. It is such a simple question, yet it runs deep enough to send me spiralling. The answer became abundantly clear to me as I explored the exhibition in more detail.

Being in this environment brought up a lot of personal experiences for me. It made me feel an overwhelming resentment toward the men who feel it is ok to comment on a woman’s body, or even touch it, unprompted. Instances like this made me very aware of the lack of control I have over my own body, from the way it is perceived to the way it is treated. The one sure answer I had to this question was that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

In the exhibition I was inspired to read about the work a wonderful charity called BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) has done to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The abortion debate is a topic that never fails to get me worked up. It is an opinion that I’ve never been able to comprehend properly, that a woman should not get a say in whether or not she should grow a human inside her stomach, and give birth to it.

This constriction of women’s rights to their own anatomy of course extends further into their private lives. I was utterly perplexed to find out that in the UK marital rape was not even an established crime until 1991, just 30 years ago. It is unfathomable to me, that many of the people I work with, and a lot of my family, grew up in a society where a man could rape his own wife and face no consequences. To me, that sounds medieval.

Cultural-southall-black-sisters-banner-women-march-designed-by-shakila-taranum-maan-and-kindly-loaned-by-southall-black-sisters

Banner on loan from Southall Black Sisters: ‘Women march against male violence’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 1986 

While this information made me feel shocked and completely disgusted, it oddly gave me a sense of optimism for the strides that could be made in my own lifetime. Surrounded by the work of activists, I could see how change happens. No, I do not have complete control over my own body. But I am working on it, and I will get there.

_____________

Find out more about apprenticeships at the British Library

 

Our public spaces are closed for the moment. In the meantime, you can visit our website Women’s Rights which highlights the powerful and vital stories of feminist activism and agitation in the UK. The website invites visitors to explore the complex history of women’s rights through the voices of our contributors, and through the lens of the rich collections – from photographs, printed material, audio recordings and videos – held at the British Library.  You can also find themed podcasts, recordings of events related to the exhibition, and recordings of events held by partner libraries in the Living Knowledge Network.  

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A selection of placards displayed in the Unfinished Business exhibition.

 

 

16 December 2020

Digitised Spare Rib resource

As many of you know, back in 2015 the British Library, working closely with partners at Jisc’s Journal Archives platform and with copyright holders, digitised and made freely available the entire run of Spare Rib magazines. We are delighted that this resource, documenting a vibrant and important period of women’s activism in the UK, has been so well used by researchers and those interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

It is therefore with considerable regret that we are confirming that the resource, as a result of the UK leaving the European Union, will no longer be available following the end of the transition period. The decision to close down the Spare Rib resource once the UK leaves the EU was made on the basis of the copyright status of the digitised magazine, which relies heavily on the EU orphan works directive. For a more detailed account of the reasons behind the suspension please see the British Library’s blog from February 2019.

For researchers working on Spare Rib, the full run of the hardcopy magazine remains available via the British Library’s Reading Rooms in London and at Boston Spa. Furthermore, the curated Spare Rib website, with contextual essays and digital images of selected magazine content, will remain available. This has recently been updated to include an interactive research map which plots feminist activity in the UK between 1972 – 1993 based on analysis of Spare Rib letters and listings. Please see this recent blog post for more information about the map and the Business of Women’s Words research project which created it with the British Library.

While we recognise that the suspension of the digitised Spare Rib resource is a loss, we hope these other resources go some way to compensate. We will continue to liaise with the relevant Government departments to seek ways that the regulations could be updated to enable scholarship and research through an Orphan Works exception, so that this resource and others like it, can be made available in the future.

30 October 2020

New Spare Rib map resource: putting women's activism on the map

Written by The Business of Women's Words team.

Think 1970s UK feminism was a purely metropolitan affair? Ever wondered whether the Women’s Liberation Movement stretched beyond the boundaries of big cities? The new digital map resource at the British Library might have some surprising answers.

Spare rib

Spare Rib cover, Nov 1976, Issue 52 © Michael Ann Mullen

 The Spare Rib map is the first digital resource to visualise the networks and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) across the UK and Ireland. It has been created by the Business of Women’s Words project, a research partnership between the British Library and the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Its data is drawn from Spare Rib  (1972-1993)the iconic feminist magazine digitised by the British Library. Based on a sample (around 30%) of Spare Rib’s listings, adverts and letters pages, the map represents a slice of the intense feminist activity that flowered during the magazine’s twenty-year run. What it shows is that the WLM was a truly national movement, with datapoints ranging from the Western Isles of Scotland to Leiston in Suffolk, and from Derry in Ireland to Falmouth in Cornwall.

Map
Snapshot of the Spare Rib map from 1983

The map sheds new light on the structure of the WLM and illuminates its regional centres and hubs, as well as a wider web of more isolated feminist activity. Lancaster, for example, was a regional hub that hosted a number of feminist publications, women’s counselling services, a lesbian helpline and took part in the Feminist Book Fortnight; and Bangor in Wales offered an array of feminist groups, businesses selling feminist postcards, jewellery and shoes, and alternative communal accommodation. The map’s colour-coded categories and symbols visualise the sheer diversity of activities and goods generated by the WLM, from political demonstrations to carpentry workshops to co-operatively produced clothing.

Although the WLM is often thought of as outside capitalist transactions of buying and selling, the map makes clear that Spare Rib, and the movement more broadly, was a site of exchange – personal, ideological, but also commercial. Businesses, from dating agencies to therapists to bookshops and publishers, were a key part of the feminist community and helped to advance the reach of the movement. The extraordinary number of women-only or lesbian B&Bs advertised in Spare Rib in the 1980s, for instance, demonstrate how women-run businesses extended the movement into some of the most rural parts of the UK, from the Lake District to the Isle of Arran, and from Piltown in Ireland to Yelverton in Devon. By drawing on letters as well as listings and adverts sent into Spare Rib, the map visualises not only the nationwide distribution of feminist events, commodities and services, but a network of (often critical) consumers and activists. It charts change over time, revealing the changing priorities and infrastructure of the movement, from consciousness raising groups to women’s centres, feminist businesses and women’s studies courses.

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Fully searchable by category, year, keyword and geographical location, the Spare Rib map is a rich interactive resource which opens up new avenues of research for historians of UK and Irish women’s movements across two decades of intense activism.

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