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The Women’s Library: Fairness and Resistance

2012 March 20

As a special treat for Women’s History Month, the London Metropolitan University Board of Governors has decided to “seek new homes” for their world-class trade union and women’s history collections.

Kicking ass since 1926

The Women’s Library collection was created in 1926 and has been housed in its purpose-built home in Aldgate for a decade. It’s in constant use as a research facility and in recent years it has also branched out to become a vibrant force in the local community and beyond.

Their exhibitions, events and collaborations with artists are accessible, relevant and often hard-hitting. Their 2007 exhibition about prostitution was one of the most thought-provoking, balanced and insightful I’ve ever been to (and I spend a *lot* of time in museums) and was firmly rooted in partnership with local charities working with women on East End streets.

Another example is their immensely popular ‘Alternative Jack the Ripper Walk’ and (In) Memoriam installation, which included putting up memorial plaques to each of the Ripper’s victims. The work presented an articulate challenge to the misogynist undertones of much of the murder tourism which brings visitors to their neighbourhood in Whitechapel while raising awareness of the violence against women that never seems to go out of fashion.

Missing statues

Group of Afghan women, 1927. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Group of Afghan women, 1927. Not many of images of Middle Eastern flappers about, are there?

As you can probably sense, when I heard that London Met Uni is giving this vital centre the boot I was pretty angry. But I wasn’t shocked. With educational institutions’ budgets dribbling away and competition for research funding becoming ever more cut-throat, naturally specialist social history collections are in the firing line.

Social history is already viewed by some as fluffy girly history to the hard, throbbing Real Man’s history of wars, leaders and money. And the social history of marginalised groups? The fluffiest, wimpiest, most irrelevant history of all! Fetch me a beer and a tiger to wrestle.

I’ve written before about why discovering and recognising the history of marginalised groups is vital. It’s not just about fairness, it’s about resistance. It’s having the weapons to fight back when you’re told ‘oh that’s just the way things are’, or ‘but it’s tradition’. It’s about stopping people telling whatever story they want about your life.

It’s also a way of keeping yourself going, whether by looking back and seeing how far we’ve come, or by drawing inspiration from the people who came before you. That’s why it matters whether or not we build all those missing statues. Or it should matter to anyone who’s ever been on the sharp end of cultural hegemony.

Look back, look forward

According to For Books’ Sake there will be a campaign against the decision to move the Women’s Library and the TUC Library. For more information your best bet is probably to follow the Women’s Library on Twitter or Facebook and watch out for updates.

There are other archives of women’s history which are available to the public in buildings and online, I’ve listed some below (please add more in the comments!) But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Please visit them, use them, value them.

And while fully recognising the subtle, changeable and intricate nature of identity I’d say whoever you are, learn your history, whatever that means to you. And as an act of solidarity educate yourself about the people who’ve been written out of the textbooks.



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