Events, Oral History

Event Review – In conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational histories of second wave feminism

On Saturday 12th October 2013 I attended the above event at the British Library, organised by the History of Feminism Network, in association with the University of Sussex and the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Though not on a topic I research, it appealed to me due to the link with a fascinating oral history project Sisterhood and After and as someone who has been watching feminist campaigns making headway in recent months; Everyday Sexism, women on banknotes, No More Page 3 and end online misogyny to name the examples that come to mind.

The day involved sessions where academics and feminists from the current generation talked with women from in and around the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) on topics such as women’s history, reproductive choices, sexuality, race, class and work.

One of the cross-cutting themes of the day I think I will continue to think about is the relationship between academia and activism, which were often treated as binary opposites. Though some did see activism and academia as compatible, that it was possible to be researching, publishing, teaching and campaigning, there persisted a sense that the two were not fully reconciled. Catherine Hall said that women had been marginalised by the academy as History professionalised and amongst some of the academics there there was some agreement about sexism within the academy today. Perhaps here is where ‘activism’ as outside the academy comes in. I do worry about whether sexism remains and what that means for a woman who hopes for a career in academia.  I am also aware that I would not describe myself as an activist and I think I’ll be pondering this distinction for a while to come.

This debate began in the first session on women’s history and carried on throughout the day. That discussing women’s history came first, with Catherine Hall and Sally Alexander, underlined the importance of history within the Movement past and present, which is why it was so apt to see Lucy Delap of History & Policy as an interviewer in that session. The WLM was described as ‘historically minded’ and some older women described how for them feminism had begun with an exploration of the ‘history of ourselves’. As a historian this session raised lots of questions about memory, identity and history, forgetting, subjectivity, and the role of women in academic history today. Sally Alexander said the issue of women and history was twofold; firstly in doing our own histories and secondly of being aware of ourselves when doing historical work (and of course the link between the two), which I think is a good way to put it in such a brief conversation. I do not have the answers to the questions posed by this history of women’s history in terms of perspective, politics, methods and who ‘does’ history, but this session gave me a way of thinking about my own historical research that I have not really had since the obligatory undergraduate session on women’s history delivered very much from within the academy many years ago.

The ‘intergenerational’ element of the event had attracted me to it in first place as someone whose research looks at young people and touches on generational issues. However, in the event, I wanted to hear more of a conversation between generations rather than younger women asking older women questions. The organisers said this is something they hope to do in a future event, but I felt there was room for more of it in this one. I am left with less idea than I would like of what young (academic) feminists think today about some of the topics up for discussion.

Within the day, I thought I saw the best and worst of feminism. The things that make me want to identify as a feminist and the conflicts which feminism continues to wrestle with. There was a moment of quiet sadness and rage as Denise Riley read out the Urban Dictionary definition of ‘Pramface’, which came close to being a moment of unity, but other than that conflict and tension were apparent. Many acknowledged that in the history of feminism there had been tensions and that listening and understanding had sometimes fallen short of the ideal. Unfortunately this seemed to reproduce itself on the day, and there were a couple of times where I thought people needed to listen more to what was actually said, rather than hearing what, perhaps, they expected to hear. Instead we had some awkward moments where things needed clarifying and restating to people who had already taken offence to something that had been said without perhaps the clearest contextualisation.

Herein lies, to me, both the greatest strength and greatest potential weakness of feminism old and new; the lack of unity and huge diversity that can come under the banner of ‘feminism’. It allows feminism to offer something for everyone, but risks its scarcity of common ground being its downfall. In my opinion, this fluidity, and the conversations about contentious issues are key to the way feminism has the power to challenge social inequalities, but there needs to be an acceptance of disunity and differences rather than an attempt to create common ground where there is none. The call at the end for ‘full feminism’ where ‘no woman gets left behind’ for me, means precisely that, and goes beyond feminism into every issue facing society today.

The tensions in the event; between activism and academia, over intersectionality and over generational understandings of feminism, were awkward, keenly felt by many and left unresolved. I left the event feeling confused, frustrated and hopeful at the same time. I am sure I wasn’t the only one. Right at the start the organisers,  Sarah Crook and Signy Gutnick Allen, remarked that the Women’s Liberation Movement was never a single movement, that it was more like a series of heated conversations. I think feminism today is still exactly that and ‘In conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’ certainly showed this in microcosm.

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