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The Women's Library in London: a khôra and a call to arms

At a time in which the word ‘occupy’ has become synonymous with social movements, the threat of closure to The Women’s Library is a crucial reminder that women’s history must also occupy its own space in order to maintain the public profile of women's activism in Britain.

If you walk along Aldgate High Street in East London on a busy day, weave your way up the bustling street and turn left into Old Castle Street you’ll find her: a beautiful red brick building with a striking pink neon sign that reads The Women’s Library. Inside, the smell of coffee mingles with the pages of new publishing and a photocopier. Scholars fly in from as far as Australia to read and revel in the vast collection of women’s history held here and locals come along with needle and thread of an evening for workshops by Stiches in Time. Museum lovers can pop in to catch an exhibition and treat themselves to a Women’s Lib souvenir: tin of ‘empowermints’ anyone? – to be sucked on tongue in cheek. Other visitors stumble upon the Library by chance. "Sometimes we get local guys speeding past on their bikes. They pop their heads round the door thirty seconds later to ask, outraged ‘what, is this a library just for women?’”, explains Susanna, an administration assistant, “Of course we explain that the library is open to everyone”.

The Women’s Library houses the most extensive collection of women’s history in Europe. It is also the second oldest women’s library in the world after Barcelona’s Biblioteca Francesca Bonnemaison. Originally established In 1926 to support the work of the London National Society for Women’s Service (now the Fawcett Society), it holds over 60,000 books and pamphlets, thousands of periodicals, newspaper cuttings and prints, 500 archives and a museum collection of more than 5,000 objects dating from the 16th century to the present day. The Library is at once a khôra and a call to arms. Red badge reading 'War is Menstruation Envy' Photo: The Women's Library, London
Metropolitan University.
Here a 1792 edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women sits next to a collection of self-published third wave Zines, and Suffragette Emily Davison's mysterious return train ticket to Victoria Station – which has prompted some historians to suggest that she merely intended to interrupt the Derby protest in 1913 rather than kill herself - is filed alongside peace badges from Greenham common. One is bright red and reads ‘War is Menstruation Envy’. 

The Library has received wide international acclaim. In 2011 its documentation of the women’s suffrage movement won it a place in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Among its contributions to the “outstanding heritage” of the United Kingdom are the 1866 Petition with which John Stuart Mill became the first person in Parliament to call for votes for women, and a congratulatory letter from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Millicent Fawcett (leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and founder of the Library) dated 5th August 1928, one month after all women won the right to vote in Britain.

Letter from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin addressed to Millcent Fawcett Letter from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Millcent Fawcett.
Photo: The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University.

The collection’s curious history reflects the many trials and tribulations of the lives it documents. It was bombed during the Blitz and evacuated to Oxford in 1940. Having become part of London Metropolitan University (then City Polytechnic) in the late 70s, it fled flooding in its basement location in the 90s, and finally came to settle in the purposely built premises in Aldgate on the site of an old bath house in 2002. This was made possible by a grant of £4.2 million in 1998 by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was the first time the Library had a public programme, an exhibition space and a classroom for schools. 

In recent months The Women’s Library and its staff have braced themselves for yet another battle, with the building at risk of being abandoned and its many outreach programmes shelved. This threat comes from the onslaught of public spending cuts.

In March London Metropolitan University announced its desire to find a new owner for the collection as part of efforts to meet its shrunken budget. Seven institutions have put in bids: Senate House; Manchester City Council; London School of Economics (LSE); Warwick University, University of York; Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford and York St John University. In the framework of these bids the dedicated building is far from secure since the Selection Criteria through which the bids will be judged contain no specific reference to keeping the collection in Algdate. In their online manifesto, LSE proposes to integrate the collection into its current library, whilst other institutions have not made their intentions clear.

The assault on the Library has been met by fierce opposition nationally, with broad media coverage and high profile figures including broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and historian Melvyn Bragg speaking out in its defence. While much of the early campaigning focused on keeping the collection together - a battle than now appears to have been won - through the Save The Women’s Library campaign, London Met UNISON are now calling for bidders to retain its expert staff, keep the building, and ensure that all negotiations are “open and transparent and consultative of the staff themselves.” A petition by the Save the Women's Library campaign has received 11,989 signatures to date – just 11 off its goal of 12,000.  “Under no circumstances”, it reads, “should The Women's Library suffer in any way”.

Many fear that a move to one of the big Russell Group libraries could cause significant suffering by reducing, or at worst halting, public access to the collection, and thus diminishing the spirit in which the Library was established. It is this spirit which staff are most concerned about: “the Women’s Library has come a long way in the last ten years”, explains curator Gail Cameron, “the next ten years was a chance for it to feel a bit more confident in its skin and be even more capable of seeing itself as a community hub, a place of debate, and a place where women who have an active role in transforming women’s politics can have more of a role in running the library. Is this possible with any of the seven institutions that are bidding?” Such freedom may not be granted, even if the winning institution does elect to keep the building.

The current exhibition, ‘Cycling to Suffrage: The Bicycle and Women's Rights, 1890-1914’ has been extraordinarily popular and brought a whole new group of people into the library, explains Dr Sheila Hanlon, curator of the exhibition, “what else can bridge the Women’s Institute and a group of cycling fanatics?”. Other recent projects have included a local school restaging the match girls’ strike of 1888, and women active in feminist movements in the 70s and 80s meeting with today’s young feminists to discuss the library’s vast collection of Zines. On the back of this they made their own, many of which are now part of the Library’s collection: “it’s been nice to see it be a way of feeding into a community as well as collecting from it,” says Indy Bhullar, a resident librarian and recently converted Zine aficionado.

At a recent campaign meeting we climb three floors up a narrow wooden staircase to the attic room of a neighbouring anarchist bookshop. These men and women - a mix of staff, community users, and representatives from feminist groups – are concerned that their views are not represented in the Selection Criteria or by those on the Selection Committee. Although the Selection Committee features stakeholders from academia and the women’s movement, and the Selection Criteria refer to “audience development” and “identity” in addition to conditions of “collection development” and “financial security”, one attendee laments, “will the Committee understand what the Library means to local stakeholders and to groups like Magic Me?”

Magic Me is an annual intergenerational community project involving schoolgirls and older women in the area. This year participants drew on Women’s Library materials to create Where The Heart Is, an interactive “walk of love” through local streets and back in time featuring podcasts, maps and videos exploring stories of passion and belonging. In a recent statement, participants explained, “we have been coming to the library for nine years, using the fantastic collection to get us thinking and talking. We are a group of women aged from 14 to 80 and it is relevant to us all. The Library is a place of history, inspiration and love. Women's voices are important and we women want our voices heard today. The building was once a wash house. It was important to the community then and it is now. Like the suffragettes before us, we will not give in.” 

At a time in which the word ‘occupy’ has become synonymous with social movements, The Women’s Library is a crucial reminder that women’s history also needs the chance to occupy its own space. Given this chance, it can transform it into a place full of meaning, activism and learning. For Fahmida Naznin, a Year 11 student, and hundreds of others The Women’s Library has been “the foundation of my ambitions to make change, especially for women”. The bidding process itself raises a wider question about what a library is, the purpose of knowledge and how it should be used. For some it reflects a wider dynamic of elite appropriation of public goods, a theme raised by many audience members at a recent public meeting, and the parallels with the closure of other libraries and public spaces are many.

Yet a further question concerns the public profile of women’s history. Danny Boyle may have given the suffragettes a starring role in his much-celebrated display of Britishness at the London Olympics, but looking towards the future the current threats faced by this extraordinary public resource could not have come at a worse time. It’s six years until the centenary of the women’s vote in Britain, and museum staff predict that it will take a good six years of preparation to get this celebration off the ground. “Instead of fighting for the Library’s life we could have been galvanising the thousands of people who are now campaigning to keep it alive around the planning!”, says Gail. “Where does The Women’s Library sit in terms of being at the core of marking these celebrations?” Whilst the Selection Committee examines the bids and staff make contingency plans for both the building and their futures, this question rests uncertain. Meanwhile another question echoes around the walls of the old bath house, “if the collection is moved, will it ever find a home like this again?”

About the author

Jennifer Allsopp is a writer and researcher working on migration, gender and social policy. She was a commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50 between 2011 and 2017, facilitating the People on the Move migration platform (2011-2017) and series including 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (2012), Unlocking Detention (2014-15) and working with francophone activists for Our Africa (2012-14). She reported from numerous international feminist gatherings including for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (2015) and the Nobel Women's Initiative (2012, 2015, 2017). She has worked at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Queen Mary's and is completing a PhD at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. Twitter @JenniferAllsopp.


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