Sisterhood and After: first oral history archive of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement

Image included: If this lady was a car photograph © Jill Posener

This week, the editor of RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, Rachel Tavernor, shares information about a new oral history archive.

Today is International Women’s Day, the launch of a new archive and my birthday. So the final point about my birthday is irrelevant to many of you. However turning 25, I realise I am from a generation who has been lucky to hear first-hand accounts from women who contributed to many of the significant struggles in the UK for gender and sexual equality. From women’s fight for equal pay to the peace camps at Greenham Common, I have been engaged by personal narratives from family, friends and colleagues who were part of the action. However, as many of the activists are now in their sixties and seventies, a request from within the movement emerged for their stories to be permanently documented.

Today the British Library launched the first national Women’s Liberation Oral History archive titled, Sisterhood and After. The archive is the result of a three-year Leverhulme Trust funded project that was led by cultural researcher Dr. Margaretta Jolly and developed by the British Library in partnership with the University of Sussex and The Women’s Library. The archive brings together personal stories from 60 key activists from within the Women’s Liberation Movement. It contains over 400 hours of audio, as well as video interviews with some of the campaigners who were formative in defining the Movement for gender and sexual equality.

Lizzie Thynne, filmmaker and academic, directed and produced several short films for the Sisterhood and After project. Many are included in a new online learning environment, hosted by the British Library, to encourage the study of the Women’s Liberation Movement within schools. Dr. Jolly hopes this dedicated learning space will bring, “the history of the Movement to a new generation of young people for whom these debates and issues still resonate today”.

The deep biographies captured, document narratives of personal and collective struggle as well as illustrating the wider circumstances and impacts of the actions taken. Dr. Jolly shares, “it’s very magical now to be able to hear the voices of women who were so formative in defining and struggling for equal rights that we enjoy in the early twenty-first century”. The archive includes a diverse selection of voices from high profile campaigners, such as feminist writer Susie Orbach to grassroots activists who had experienced an injustice and decided to fight for an alternative. Dr. Jolly highlights that the cliché of feminist activists involved in the movement are housewives, “fed up with being unpaid and sexually frustrated” however the interviews conducted illustrate that many were politically active prior to the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The archive includes:
1. Bronagh Hinds, an activist who founded DemocraShe in 2000 to empower women in politics, policy influence and peace-building;

2. Una Kroll, a former doctor and nun who campaigned for women’s right to be priests;

3. Dame Jenni Murray OBE, a journalist, broadcaster and the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour;

4. Betty Cook, a miner’s wife who became politicised during the miners’ strike, forming Women Against Pit Closures ;

5. Mary McIntosh (1936-2013) was a sociologist known for her work on gay and lesbian identity, the family and social deviance.

The full archive, including transcripts of the interviews conducted and unedited recordings, will be made available to the public in the reading rooms of the British Library. Dr. Polly Russell, Lead Curator in Social Sciences at the British Library, says: “Oral history is a powerful means of recording the unique memories and life experiences of people, whose stories might otherwise have been lost. This oral history archive will be an invaluable resource to researchers now and in the future to understand what this generation achieved, and to learn about the women’s liberation movement in their own words.”

Dr. Margaretta Jolly and Lizzie Thynne will also be paying tribute to the life of Mary McIntosh (1936 – 2013), and sharing their final interview with her at the Queer, Feminist and Social Media Praxis workshop on 17th May 2013 at the University of Sussex.

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