In the 1990s, Jane Hargreaves was a trustee of the FAS and took great care in developing the collections. We asked her to write her memories of working with the collections, and here they are in the form of a letter….
You said that I had obviously felt very strongly about the Women’s Caravan of Peace which Dora Russell took to the communist bloc countries of East Europe at the height of the cold war in 1958. Yes I do feel awed – principally because they went at a time when women had very little autonomy. I had that same feeling of admiration when I came across a small archive of a young PE teacher called Barbara Dodds who went out to the then colonial Kenya in the 50′s to be in charge of physical education for girls country-wide. Barbara immediately interpreted this to mean for all girls regardless of ethnic group or social disadvantage. She later travelled worldwide as an activist for women’s peace groups. Both of these archives are really outside the remit of the FAS in that the origin of ‘second wave ‘ feminism is reckoned to be in the late 60′s and reform did not become revolution until the 70′s. But they chime with me.
I arrived at the FAS in the 90′s having retired from teaching. I had been deeply involved in creating a policy of equal opportunities at the school where I had taught. I had helped to institute and been part of a team delivering the highly successful Professional Development for Women Teachers course. I thought I knew what feminism was. Now I found this amazing mound of dusty papers and books and periodicals piled up in the corner of the FA room presenting whole new aspects of feminist history.
So I fell upon the books and discovered Mary Daly and Gyn/Ecology. I revelled in her use of language and her excoriation of ‘Godfather’ theology. And then I came across Fran Hosken and was shocked by her exposure of female genital mutilation and angered that in the 30 years since she wrote it so little has been done to eradicate this. On the lighter side I had a choice of the complete set of novels from Virago, the first all-woman publishing house. I laughed at Cath Tait cartoons. I revelled in the art work in the two boxes of book jackets from the earliest days of the Women’s Press. I found lovely prints by Monica Sjoo and drawers full of posters ranging from women’s theatre to political campaigns. There were striking prints by Pen Dalton. I am not likely to forget ‘Women are Revolting’ or ‘Free Castration on Demand’. We spent happy hours photographing posters and badges and putting them on our old website which was up and running as early as 1997.
There were friendships to be made. Just when I thought that nobody would ever look at the Dora Russell archive up popped a German-Portuguese researcher. Then Margaretta Jolly researched women’s letters and gave us a new computer! And when I had finally sorted out most of our Greenham Peace Camp holdings, Holger Terp, a near-blind researcher from Denmark, began a quest for songs from Greenham and for a heady time we were crisscrossing sources until his site had as complete a collection as he could make it. Archif Menywod Cymru/Women’s Archive of Wales showed welcome sisterhood. IIAV (the Dutch international women’s archive) in Amsterdam were practical and generous. I had a mindboggling time getting to grips with their international Women’s Thesaurus and this led to me reorganising the classification system in the FAS for the second time. That is the prosaic reason that all the labels are scrawled over and rewritten two or three times. Not neat but I hope effective!
The reclassification led me to look at the various papers scattered around under the loose heading of ‘abortion’. We managed to trace a history of abortion law reform in these papers from the 1967 Act to the discussions about embryo research in the 90′s. Together with articles in periodicals and pamphlets these are records of the steadfast campaigning of abortion law activists both locally and nationally. For me they were a reminder of the repressive atmosphere and hypocrisy of the 50′s.
Most women know of the legendary Spare Rib magazine. There is a complete set in FAS. But there is also a huge (unpublished) box of letters to the editor; not for general readership, but perhaps the time is right for restricted research. What else? There is a music collection on vinyl and an audio collection on tapes which may be disintegrating before examination. The collecting phase at FAS will largely be over when the pivotal Ellen Malos archive has been accessed. Now it all needs to be understood and interpreted by a different generation.