Telling – and not telling – feminist stories

As part of York’s International Women’s Week celebrations – and connected to York’s Alternative History – we held an event to explore York’s feminist history. We’d called the event ‘Telling Feminist Stories’ but it became clear right from the opening discussions that the issue of the day was precisely what should, and should not, be ‘told’ in a public context.

The initial focus for this discussion was that much of the publicity, leaflets and newsletters of the 1970s and 1980s state, very clearly, that they are for ‘women only’. The politics of autonomous women’s campaigns therefore raising questions of how they can be shared via the York’s Alternative History Flickr page and, indeed, how they should be managed in an archive. An issue which some of the women involved in the relevant campaigns are going to explore further.

However, this specific issue was just the most tangible aspect of what became a much wider debate – a debate which is relevant for the whole project of York’s Alternative History – about the relationship between the personal, the public and the political.

It has become a bit of a cliché that second wave feminism – otherwise known as the Women’s Liberation Movement – generated the slogan ‘the personal is political’. This is most often interpreted now as making the point that things like housework and sex are also political issues. Yet the discussions at the Telling Feminist Stories event also helped me understand that while the personal might be political this does not mean, at all, that it should therefore be ‘public’.

Much of the activism I’ve been involved in has, in a very literal sense, been focused on being in public – that is, after all, the meaning of to demonstrate. Marches, pickets, protests, stalls are all practices which understand political change as coming through the ability to be seen.

While these modes of politics also have their intimacies – the quiet conversations between strangers at public stalls, the friendships that happen before, during and after public meetings or the in-passing discussions where things suddenly fall into place – what was different about the Women’s Liberation Movement was that these intimacies were not seen as incidental but as central. Consciousness Raising was precisely about moving between specific and intensely personal experiences and a broader political analysis. Within that re-imagining of the political lies a complex theory of change as that which happens within and between people and in private and in public.

One of the driving forces of ‘radical history’ has being that its focus is on people and practices understood as ‘hidden’ or ‘ignored’ – and women’s lives and the fact that they have often happened in not-public spaces have especially provoked that logic. Yet perhaps more radical is to de-centre the imagined ‘public’ for which ‘history’ is intended and instead to recognize that something’s importance and value can be lost by too thorough documentation, by being pinned down too much or by shining too bright a light. There is an academic and archivist arrogance to the noble idea of searching out that which has been ‘hidden from history’ – after all it ain’t ever been hidden from those involved.

The feminist story I was told in this workshop was that I and you and the archive don’t need to know the details and intimacies of the various groups linked to York’s Women’s Liberation Movement. Those who need to know already do. We do urgently need, however, to feel the importance of the personal and personal-political relationships as a register of activism. While there are things which may never be of ‘public record’, in a time when political contest will require much, much more from us that the odd day on strike or attendance at a set piece national demonstration, knowing this much is to know a lot.

Other archives, projects and publications on the histories of the Women’s Liberation Movement:

Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project

The Feminist Seventies

The Feminist Archive North