Sisterhood and After
As ever, damesnet is fashionably late to the party. In this case it’s the British Library’s oral history project, Sisterhood and After. It has been going since 2016, but I only discovered it last week, when reading a review of the recently released film Missbehaviour, about the campaign to disrupt the 1970 Miss World contest in London.
Once I’d logged on to it, what a treasure trove I discovered. There are interviews with 66 of the leading lights of the Women’s Liberation Movement as well as footage of a number of significant events, including the very first Women’s Liberation March on a snowy day in 1970. Even I can do the maths, and therefore ask myself why those ancient demands for equal pay have still not been satisfied.
Caitlin Moran provides a warm and welcoming word of introduction to the content, proclaiming her desire to see the phrase ‘pioneering woman’ fall into misuse, because there will come a time when equal pay and equal representation in Parliament, STEM, industry, the arts, etc. will be taken for granted.
Browsing through the interviews and articles on offer is like being offered the most lavish box of chocolates you could imagine (but purged of the coffee ones). Where to start? Do you leave the best till last? How do you even know which are the best?
A clip entitled ‘Audrey Jones discusses exam questions’ sounded intriguing, so I started there. It related to a compilation of exam questions guaranteed to stultify the ambitions of nascent womanhood, such as this peach: ‘Your brother has been out for a football match and brought a friend home for a meal. Describe the steps you would take to arrange for their laundry and the meal you would provide for them.’
If you’ve recovered from your apoplexy, how about a 1983 short film from the Leeds Animation Workshop? Give Us a Smile packs into 86 seconds a gallop through the ways in which media stereotyping keeps women in their place – and looking decorative. Again, you couldn’t really say that anything has changed very much, not with the objectification evident in most music videos.
To conclude this brief scratching of the surface of the riches in this archive on a positive note, I’ve gone for an interview with Pragna Patel. After finding herself one of only two black people in the whole of her college, it was hugely energising for her discover Southall Black Sisters and their anti-racist, feminist activism, and to find that they actually worked alongside a lot of Asian men. Though the group was in decline when she joined, she felt that this was where she belonged, so she just restarted it, attracted new recruits and is now the director of the organisation.
There are many more fascinating interviews, and although the focus is on capturing the voices of ‘ordinary’ women, we also hear from many women who have been in the public eye over the years: Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray, journalist Bea Campbell and feminist theorist Juliet Mitchell among them. The blokes have not been left out either, and there are several interviews on fatherhood, guilt at being part of the patriarchy, and how to live anti-sexism.
‘Hello, browsers’ is how Caitlin Moran greets us in her introduction, and you certainly could do a lot worse than losing yourself for a few hours in this wide-ranging and stimulating record of a campaign that has yet to achieve its aims.