Social Science blog

12 March 2013

Sisterhood & After: the Women’s Liberation Oral History Project

Dr. Polly Russell, Lead Curator for Human Geography and Anthropology, writes about her experience of being immersed in a collaborative, feminist, oral history project. She reflects on the difficult process of selecting interviewees and describes the the vibrancy and depth of the resulting interviews.

On Friday 8th March, International Women’s Day, the British Library held an event with 150 guests to celebrate the launch of a new oral history archive and website. This marked the end of a three year research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, called ‘Sisterhood & After: the Women’s Liberation Oral History Project.’ This project has collected oral histories with Women’s Liberation campaigners to create an archive that captures women’s fights for equal rights and liberation in the UK from 1968-1990 through a series of in-depth interviews with 60 feminist activists and intellectuals.

Speakers for the launch event included two of the project’s interviewees, Sally Alexander, feminist activist and historian, and Susie Orbach, co-founder of the Women’s Therapy Centre and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. Sally spoke beautifully of the value of the archive for future historians – she noted how oral history takes seriously emotion, subjectivity and memory as important analytical categories for the historian and researcher. Susie, a veteran campaigner, talked of how the archive would inform new generations of activists and she also reflected, as a psychotherapist, on the process of being interviewed for an oral history

SMALL Equal Pay for Equal Work badge - Image courtesy of The Women's Library

Equal Pay for Equal Work Badge. Image courtesy of the Women's Library.

For the last three years much of my work as a curator at the British Library in the Social Science team has been dominated by this project. Working with Dr Margaretta Jolly and Research Associate Dr Rachel Cohen at the University of Sussex, we have attempted to create a permanent record of the voices and stories of women who were part of the WLM. This has been a wonderful but challenging task. On a practical level we have struggled with the problem of trying to represent a movement involving thousands of women with just 60 oral history interviews. Working closely with an Advisory Board we wrangled over a long-list of more than 400 names and whittled this down, through debate and discussion, to 60.

We wanted to make sure that we captured the accounts of women from across Britain and from a range of different backgrounds, as well as those women whose contribution to the intellectual project of feminism is well known. Interviewees included, for instance, Una Kroll, one-time surgeon and campaigner for women’s rights to be priests; Betty Cook, founder member of Barnsley Miners’ Wives Action Group; Karen McMinn, Co-Ordinator for Women’s Aid Northern Ireland and; Rowena Arshad, member of the first black women’s group in Scotland and Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Scotland 2001-2007. We have worked hard to try and counter simplistic representations of ‘feminists’ and the little that is known about the women who chose the term for themselves during this period. These oral histories, available in full via the British Library or in edited clips on the website, last, on average, seven hours each and are fully transcribed and summarised. Taken individually they are deep biographies accounting for the circumstances and consequences of an individual’s activism. Taken as a whole they bring to life a period of exceptional political vibrancy in which ideas about work, relationships, family and children, the political process, the state, sexuality, culture and identity were freshly explored through the lenses of feminism and social justice.

If interviewee selection has been one focus of our energies, another has been trying to tell the story of the WLM on a website aimed at ‘A’ level and university students. Arguments about feminism, gender and the WLM are contested, subtle and complex but by necessity our website had to be accessible, engaging and informative to a non-specialist audience. In the end we have let our interviewee's voices lead the site with more than 120 oral history extracts and short documentary films used to prompt analysis, discussion and debate.

SMALL If this lady was a car photograph © Jill Posener

If this lady was a car... Image courtesy of © Jill Posener

For me, ‘Sisterhood & After’ is about creating permanent record of the voices and stories of women who were part of the WLM and to provide an account of the movement in all its complexity, contradictions and colour. But I also hope it will create a space of encounters where everyone can be inspired to identify with the political project of feminism and with the experience and challenge of activism in general. The launch event on Friday was not the end of something but the start – we hope that over time the oral history collection will grow in size and scope.

Useful links

There is a long list of useful links on the Sisterhood and After Learning website at the British Library.


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