22 March 2022
In 2020 the British Library acquired the papers of Anthony Barnett, best known as the founder of the campaigning organisation Charter 88 and the website openDemocracy. This series of six posts highlights a discrete part of the archive, consisting of documents and ephemera from Barnett’s time as a member of the collective behind the revolutionary weekly newspaper '7 Days'.
Fifty years ago, on 22 March 1972, '7 Days' published an emergency issue that saw it go into ‘suspended animation’. Funds were sought for a relaunch but, apart from a special issue in May 1972 to commemorate the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, the paper disappeared. In this sixth and final post in our series, Maxine Molyneux recalls her time as Arts and Culture Editor and reflects on a unique experiment in cultural politics.
Cover of the emergency issue of 7 Days, March 22, 1972. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
Not long before the launch of the first issue I was invited by the 7 Days collective to take on the job of Arts and Culture Editor. At the time, I was stitching together a living as a freelance journalist, writing articles here and there, doing part-time editing and translation jobs and writing PR leaflets on art shows for the amusingly titled Tomorrow’s News. I was lucky to have a regular commission for the International Herald Tribune to cover exhibitions and fine art auctions, and write the odd feature and book review, for which I was paid $12 a piece, almost covering my weekly rent.
In 1971, London’s cultural scene was alive with radical groups of artists, film makers and playwrights who were part of the broader political ferment, not only of the student movement but of a generation. At various times in that transitory world I had found myself sharing houses and flats with activists and artists, one time with the founders of the Red Ladder agitprop theatre group, another with one of the leaders of the radical film activist group, Cinema Action. There was a feeling of excitement, of innovation about, but there was also an intellectual appetite for the radical cultural moments and thinkers of the past, whether in drama, art or film.
Young activists debated the work of Brecht and Eisenstein, read Freud and Lacan as well as Marx, Mao and Lenin. I recall attending a very serious weekly (or was it fortnightly?) - Theoretical Practice group  run by Kasim Kahn from his flat in Finsbury Park. We travelled up by car, me, the feminist artist Mary Kelly, and Clive Goodwin (our driver), literary agent and founder of the Black Dwarf. There, in our group of seven, we pored over passages of Althusser, Balibar, Pierre Phillipe Rey and learned that The Grundrisse marked a distinct break in Marx’s thinking.
My life then was lived in contrasting spaces – private views in the old art world’s Bond Street galleries – and the fringe world of art activism, politics and theory groups, and they would often collide. I remember being at some private view held at the Royal Academy when a group calling themselves ‘the Black Hand Gang’ let off a small smoke bomb leading to a dramatic evacuation of the assembled guests. Agitprop cinema and theatre, fringe performance and avante garde music, and some madness too – all were part of the wave of creative energy and radical politics of that time.
What was compelling about 7 Days was that it was a project of the independent Marxist left, and was fully committed to serious and critical coverage of culture. I was ready for a change, and without hesitation I accepted their offer and took the post of Arts Editor for the brief life of the paper.
7 Days’ arts coverage attempted to bridge high and popular culture. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
I knew some members of the collective if not personally then by name. I had met Peter Fuller in his art critic days at an ICA exhibition of Picasso’s Minotaur prints which we were both covering, and got to know him as a friend. I had also met Fred Halliday earlier at the offices of Black Dwarf, on my return from a work trip to Argentina, and was serving as interpreter for some Latin American revolutionaries who were on a European fundraising tour. When Fred and I met again in 7 Days we ended up sharing a tiny office with grimy red lino, and freezing, but for a bar heater which my co-occupant would stand in front of to warm up while the backs of his trousers slowly burned ever larger holes. No one cared much about their threads on the 7 Days collective.
Reviewing the 21 issues of the paper half a century later I am struck by the breadth and depth of its cultural coverage. 7 Days aimed to transform what it saw as the regressive tropes contained in ‘British values’, racism, sexism, philistinism, homophobia and elitism among them.
The first year of the gay liberation movement’s existence celebrated in 7 Days with a discussion of the London GLF group’s manifesto. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
More ‘Gramsci than Guevara” it was a platform for feminist ideas, and it was committed to anti-racist struggles and cultural interventions. In its arts coverage in particular it sought to create a bridge between high culture and popular culture. Short articles were accompanied by longer think pieces, underground and radical manifestos, analyses of advertisements, reviews of books like One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. Thanks to being able to draw on a pool of talented writers sympathetic to 7 Days, there was no difficulty in finding a diversity of cultural content. Peter Wollen (aka Lucien Rey) on Realism, John Berger and Anya Bostock on a biography of Mayakovsky, but also a ‘Rock Special’ which included an interview with Jack Bruce ‘Life with Cream” and an appreciation of Miles Davis.
Issue 4 ran a photo-feature on the 1971 Miss World protests by womens’ and gay liberation activists. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
By today’s standard 7 Days was neither egalitarian nor inclusive in its internal relations.
As Rosie Van de Beek observes, the collective was made up of ‘insiders and outsiders’. Nor was it as inclusive in its coverage – notably of Black artists and writers - as it would be today. A piece on Mustafa Matura’s play As Time Goes By was perhaps the exception.
Yet feminist content there was aplenty, thanks largely to the women in and around the collective. Articles included ‘A bash at Women’s Hour’; a review by Sally Beauman of Cosmopolitan, flagged up as ‘an odious new magazine for women’, a critical discussion of the Playboy exhibition, a special feature on Miss World and Mecca, a photo feature on what was described in somewhat patronising language as a ‘ large and satisfactory demonstration’ that ‘took place outside the Albert Hall’. This, along with critical coverage of vaginal deodorants - symptomatic of capitalism - a report on a revolt by members of the BFI against the governors, pieces on Surrealism, a Hogarth show, and Kathleen Tynan interviewing Germaine Greer on the publication of The Female Eunuch. Positive appraisals of Alexandra Kollontai and an extended interview with Simone de Beauvoir by Rosalind Delmar, and pieces by Laura Mulvey and Mary Kelly, brought feminist analysis and politics into art theory, film and popular music.
Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive
It is sad to note how many of the active members of the collective and its supporters are no longer with us, friends Peter Wollen, Clive Goodwin, Peter Fuller, and dear Fred Halliday  among them. Also sad to recall others whose brilliant work in the cultural field has fallen out of favour - I think here of Trevor Griffiths whose play Occupations, on the Turin strikes of 1922, was a subtle exploration of Gramsci and left political strategy.
Playwright Trevor Griffiths respond to Tom Nairn’s review of his play ‘Occupations’. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
Since those times the work of the margins has mostly moved into the mainstream, and the members of the collective went into the academy, publishing, or into other professions. 7 Days was a short, intense, highly rewarding and formative experience for those associated with it. It was a space where politics, culture and radical ideas found expression. It forged some important and enduring friendships. When it folded I decided not to continue in journalism but to head for university, where I remained.
The times of 7 Days were so very different, shaped as they were by a young generation that believed that political progress and social change was possible. Important and positive things were achieved in and after the 1970s before reaction set in. Today we live in more threatening, darker times, but a new generation of radical activists has come into politics, incensed by growing inequality, corrupt elites, and the failures of governments to tackle the climate crisis. There is a revival of interest in Marxism and radical thought among students, and more urgent talk of the need for change. The work of cultural transformation continues, but proceeds by other means - the print media is joined by podcasts, social networking, blogs and much else besides. I suspect that if 7 Days were alive today it would be in one of those formats, or perhaps something entirely new, and, who knows, it might well have been able to survive and to flourish.
‘Seven days to save 7 Days’. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
 Theoretical Practice started in 1970 as a reading group and set up other groups dedicated to thinking critically about Marx’s work and that of the French structuralists. It went on to produce seven issues of a journal also called Theoretical Practice, that published translations of leading theorists in the Althusserian school.
 Fred and Maxine married and had their son Alex in 1985.
21 October 2021
This post picks out a selection of cultural studies and postcolonial studies books relevant to Black history that can be accessed freely online.
Black History Month is a good time to track down some of the lesser known books that bring Black history and creativity to life. I’ve seen some great booklists such as this from members of the Black Writers Guild. The Library's own Black British literature timeline is full of inspiration. Some of us will be able to browse the shelves of a good bookshop or settle down with a paperback. Others may be inspired to visit their local public library or come into the British Library.
There's also a small but growing number of books available free, online, on Open Access platforms, where anyone who has an internet connection and a suitable digital device can read them. It can be a challenge to find what is out there, but hopefully this post can act as a way in.
One of the British Library’s aims is to connect people with knowledge, wherever they are, not just in the Library’s reading rooms. That’s why the Library works in partnerships to support Open Access initiatives where appropriate. I was inspired to put together this brief listing because, as part of my regular library work, I am preparing for our annual meeting with Knowledge Unlatched. In its own words, “Knowledge Unlatched (KU) makes scholarly content freely available to everyone and contributes to the further development of the Open Access infrastructure.” That means KU works with libraries and publishers to make some books and journals available to read or download free, online.
The phrase ‘scholarly content’ probably isn’t the best advertisement for some of the books that are available through the Open Research Library or the OAPEN Library. I spent a morning looking for open access books that come within the broad heading of Black history, and this blog post picks out what I found to be some of the most engaging and readable books. They all fall broadly within the area of cultural studies, and either take a biographical approach or a historical approach focused on a single city. All are relevant to the social sciences.
In eleven readable chapters by different contributors, West Indian intellectuals in Britain, edited by Bill Schwarz, explores the new ways of thinking and ideas which West Indian migrants brought with them to Britain. “For more than a century West Indians living in Britain developed a dazzling intellectual critique of the codes of Imperial Britain.” The chapters give an insight into the lives and work of major Caribbean thinkers who came to live in twentieth-century Britain including Harold Moody, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, Una Marson, George Padmore, C. L. R. James, George Lamming and V. S. Naipaul, as well as the Caribbean Artists Movement and the BBC’s Caribbean Voices.
Having worked on the Library’s Unfinished Business exhibition, I found the chapter on the poet and journalist Claude McKay fascinating because his journalism and connection with Sylvia Pankhurst featured in the books I read about her work. It’s also good to see the focus here on Una Marson’s journalism and the different audiences she addressed. Taken as a whole the book creates a sense of the connections between key individuals and movements from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Mongrel Nation: diasporic culture and the making of postcolonial Britain, by Ashley Dawson (2010) looks at postcolonial literature in Britain. Chapters available online include one on the novelist Sam Selvon, the relationship between the Caribbean Artists Movement and the British black power movement and on the writing of novelist Buchi Emecheta. Other chapters of the book are not available in the open access version.
Invoking Flora Nwapa, by Paula Uimonen (2020). This study of Nigerian author Flora Nwapa will appeal to anyone interested in postcolonial and literary studies. “Honoured as the ‘Mother of African Women’s Writing’, Flora Nwapa has been described as a ‘trail-blazer’ in the ‘world literary canon’” (p.42). Born in 1931, her novel Efuru made her the first African woman writer to have her work published in English when it appeared in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1966. She continued to write, publish and teach in Nigeria and in the United States until her death in 1993.
In the Service of God and Humanity: conscience, reason, and the mind of Martin R. Delany, by Tunde Adeleke (2021) Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) was one of the most influential Black activists and nationalists in American history. His ideas have inspired generations of activists and movements, including Marcus Garvey in the early 1920s, Malcolm X and Black Power in 1960s, and even today's Black Lives Matter. Tunde Adeleke argues that there is more to Delany to appreciate beyond his contribution to Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism.
This study by Christine Levecq, published in 2019, focuses on the lives and thought of three extraordinary men—Jacobus Capitein, Jean-Baptiste Belley, and John Marrant—who traveled extensively throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Unlike millions of uprooted Africans and their descendants at the time, these men had freedom to travel and contribute to writing and publishing in their day. As public intellectuals, Capitein, Belley, and Marrant were inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution and developed a cosmopolitan vision of the world based in the republican ideals of civic virtue and communal life. By exploring these men’s connections to their black communities, Levecq shows how these eighteenth-century black thinkers took advantage of surrounding ideas to spread a message of inclusion and egalitarianism.
Amy Absher’s The Black Musician and the White City (2014) tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. While depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during the 1930s to 1950s. Absher takes the history beyond the study of jazz and blues by examining the significant role that classically trained black musicians played in building the Chicago South Side community. Absher argues that black migrants in Chicago had diverse education and economic backgrounds but found common cause in the city’s music community.
From Slavery to Civil Rights, by Hilary McLaughlin-Stonham (2020) traces the history of segregation on New Orleans streetcars. It traces the formation of stereotypes that were used to justify segregation and looks at the way white supremacy came to be played out daily, in public. Streetcars became the 'theatres' for black resistance throughout the era and this survey considers the symbolic part they played in civil rights up to the present day.
This post has dipped into just a few of the titles that have been made available through Open Access initiatives. As I noted at the foot of an earlier blog post there are many more Open Access titles relevant to Black history as well as a wide range of subjects across all disciplines. The books listed here are available to readers under a Creative Commons (4) licence, and while they are free to access, download or share, appropriate credit must be given.
25 August 2021
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30 July 2021
‘Like tripe on a slab’: women’s accounts of reproductive healthcare provision in Spare Rib magazine are now available through the Library’s digital map.
A guest post by Alice O’Driscoll
Find out more about the letters and listings made available via the Library's Spare Rib magazine digital map.
Spare Rib 6 December 1972 p. 27 © Sue Coe, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne
When Jo Evans from Bristol was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst after a visit to the hospital in late 1981, her (male) doctor gave her the ‘stark and unsettling ultimatum’ of either having a baby straight away, or a hysterectomy. A third option was available, he conceded, but it was expensive.
Evans was incensed, not just by the lifechanging decision she was being faced with, but with how her doctor had presented the dreadful choice in a ‘jocular fashion’ while several of his medical students awkwardly looked on. ‘He should stop whipping the wombs out of the women of Bristol and resign’ she wrote, ‘so that more women can rise to the top of the gynaecological profession’. (Letter from Jo Evans, ‘Hospital Confrontations: Taking on the “Big Man”’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, pp. 24-5.)
Evans wrote into Spare Ribmagazine shortly after this experience to vent her frustration. She also wanted to express her gratitude to the magazine for their timely publication of an article about hysterectomies, written by Kath Cape with the aid of the Sheffield Women’s Health Group and Sheffield Radical Nurses. (Kath Cope, Sheffield Women’s Health Group, and Sheffield Radical Nurses, ‘Womb Loss’, Spare Rib 112, November 1981, pp. 6–8, 38.)
Complete with diagrams and patient testimonies, the piece, called ‘Womb Loss’, aimed to inform and, consequently, empower. In the case of Evans, it worked. She also consulted friends in the medical profession, and the classic feminist tome on women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Her letter, which opened with an account of her degrading treatment at the hands of hospital staff, ends with an assurance that she ‘will return to the hospital and tell the consultant how outrageous his suggestion is’. Her determination to become an active and assertive recipient of healthcare is clear, this transformation catalysed by her poor treatment and facilitated at least in part by the informative contents of Spare Rib.For scholars interested in the history of women’s healthcare, the form and function of feminist publishing, or the women’s liberation movement more broadly, there is much material to work with here.
First UK edition of Our bodies ourselves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978 (X.319/18521)
Another ‘jolly consultant’ was the object of Abigail Mozley’s ire, a Spare Rib reader from Falmouth who wrote of her humiliation at being surrounded by a ‘small horde of medical students’ during childbirth. (Letter from Abigail Mozley, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 4, February 1973, p. 4.) She felt the same impotence as Evans in the face of an inconsiderate medical profession: ‘they discussed my interesting case as if I wasn’t there, then had me stripped naked’.
A reader named Kathryn Woodward from Sheffield similarly reported having a ‘group of staring students’ standing round her hospital bed as she was giving birth. (Letter from Kathryn Woodward, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 4, February 1973, p. 4.) She too considered herself relegated during the experience, feeling ‘superfluous’ at her own labour, since ‘all congratulations at the end were for the doctor… my only role was being that of a nuisance’. A mother, she said, ‘is often still regarded as an object – a stupid one at that’.
All of these letters are searchable on the interactive Spare Rib magazine digital map of women’s liberation movement networks and activities. The Spare Rib letters pages are littered with accounts such as these, which relay the distress of women made to feel passive and irrelevant, ‘like tripe on a slab’. (Letter from Paula Harmer, ‘...And Choosing Women Doctors’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, p. 25.)
The rise of the epidural
Many of those who wrote into the magazine perceived the problem to stem not from the attitude of the physicians themselves, but in the limitations of their empathy because of their gender. The solution offered by Evans - that more women become gynaecologists - alludes to this, as does Mozley’s memory of being told her epidural would not hurt (‘it did bloody hurt actually’). Paula Harmer from Knottingley asked ‘can we insist on a female doctor, who will perhaps be more thoughtful and understanding?’ (Letter from Paula Harmer, ‘...And Choosing Women Doctors’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, p. 25.)
The rise of the epidural – touted in one Spare Ribarticle as enabling painless childbirth – is undoubtedly a remarkable moment in the history of women’s reproductive healthcare. For the author of this piece, journalist and author Kathleen Tynan, it was a feminist victory, facilitating her own ‘thoroughly unnatural’ labour which defied the ‘Puritan hand-me-down that, to be rewarding, childbirth must also be an agonising process’. (Kathleen Tynan, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 6, December 1972, pp. 6–7.)
Woodward’s letter, however, inserts a poignant qualifier into this triumphant narrative, one which expands the definition of labour pains by taking into account her dismissive treatment at the hands of the medics around her. Following the epidural, she conceded that she ‘felt no pain’, but she ‘was frightened and humiliated’, leading her to conclude that ‘drugs are just part of the answer’.
Despite the ‘ultimate lack of pain during the delivery I hated the experience and only remember it with horror’ she said, ‘I felt like a failure’. The contractions which had caused her to be in ‘excruciating’ agony before the epidural kicked in were not to be overlooked either.
A screenshot of the interactive Spare Rib digital map
Breast vs Bottle
One letter, written by reader Jane Cottingham and published in 1981, offers a root cause for the problem with the medical profession which would perhaps appeal to the women above whose reproductive healthcare was so distressing: ‘concern is almost always with the infant and rarely with women’. (Letter from Jane Cottingham, ‘Breastfeeding - How Men Brandish the Bottle’, Spare Rib 103, February 1981, pp. 4, 22.)
Cottingham wrote on behalf of ISIS, the women’s international information and communications service based in Geneva and Rome, and her letter therefore not does feature on the Spare Ribdigital map of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The map offers an easily searchable sample and visualises the location of women’s health groups and related events, such as a ‘spiritual midwifery’ tour in 1982, but does not include international letters and listings.
The matter at hand in Cottingham’s case was the recurrent debate between advocates of breastfeeding and bottle-feeding. She had contacted the magazine after having become aware of companies exploitatively promoting their formula to poor women who were then forced further into poverty once their own supply of breastmilk ceased and bottle-feeding became the only option.
Cottingham’s anger was not wholly directed at the market-driven brands, although she was stung by the acute irony that they were ‘capitalizing (literally) on the ideas of the early women’s movement – that our oppression stemmed from our biology and thus we had to get away from reproduction, motherhood, and everything to do with child care in order to be liberated’.
She reserved some of her frustration for the ‘male government delegates, World Health Organisation experts, industry representatives and consumer advocates’ who weighed in to ‘argue about breast or bottle as though the two were interchangeable commodities’ with little regard for the difference forms of parental labour required of the two.
Cottingham’s aim was to problematise the fact that these conversations about ‘breast versus bottle’ were led, at least in the public arena, by the medical profession and corporate stakeholders in childcare. The exclusion of mothers’ perspectives facilitated the commodification of women’s bodies. The fruits of women’s maternal labour, she concluded, were consequently rendered products and services akin to any others in the capitalist system.
While this letter takes a different tone to other, highly personal accounts of their healthcare, Cottingham’s description of the erasure of women’s experiences at a policy level might still have resonated with those who felt invisible during their own treatment, and is part of a larger conversation within the movement that took place through a network of talks and conferences on childbirth, searchable on the Spare Rib map.
The subject and the provenance of Cottingham’s letter speak respectively to the magazine’s international outlook and reach. Regarding those letters about reproductive healthcare which stemmed from within the UK, however, the map can serve as an extremely valuable resource for scholars. It is a wonderful tool for those interested in writing local or geographically-sensitive histories: a full postal address is supplied by many readers and printed alongside their letter, meaning that it is possible in many cases to pinpoint exact hospitals, GPs, playgroups and nurseries.
The map is also searchable by category, allowing researchers to identify relevant material across the two decades the magazine was in print – for instance, ‘Health, Sex & Therapy’. A more specific keyword search allows users to search for, e.g. ‘childbirth’. The cases above are just a fraction of those which have been plotted so far, but their candour and detail hopefully indicate the potential benefits of this resource for scholars of feminist publishing in modern Britain.
Alice O’Driscoll is a PhD student in History at Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Her thesis focuses on women and warfare in seventeenth-century Britain and Ireland, but she is interested in all aspects of gender and violence.
20 July 2021
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.
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.
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
08 March 2021
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 Rights. Grounded 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.
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.
No More Page Three campaign t-shirt, worn by Dr Caroline Lucas MP at a debate on media sexism in 2013. © Parliamentary Recording Unit
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?
Laura Mulvey quotation as it appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition, edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
A selection of placards displayed in the Unfinished Business exhibition.
16 December 2020
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
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 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.
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.
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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