Related collections Thinking about collections

Future of Women’s Pasts conference: Some thoughts on the power of archiving

A couple of weeks ago I took part in ‘The Future of Women’s Pasts’ at the University of Leeds, a one day conference that brought together archivists, researchers and activists to reflect on women’s archives and the archiving of women’s histories.

Source: Kate Dossett
Source: Kate Dossett, University of Leeds

I gave a short paper about the prominence of women in our archive, both in terms of content, such as the story of the Abasindi Women’s Co-op, and the role of women as donors to the collection and advocates for the organisation. It’s true that women have been very important to the history of the Resource Centre, and until preparing this paper I hadn’t really reflected on why. It certainly has to do with the leading role that women have played in grassroots community development in Manchester – activities that are well represented in our archive. But it also seems to have been women who had the foresight to preserve the material evidence of their activities; a sense that what they were doing back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s would be of historical significance.

Source: Kate Dossett
Source: Kate Dossett, University of Leeds

But maybe this is a generalisation. It’s just a tentative observation on the gender implications of our archive collections, which we’re so accustomed to thinking about just in terms of race. So it was great to hear from the other speakers, who included representatives from women’s libraries and archives, academics of women’s history, as well as artists and activists, all of whom had a lot to say about the gender specificity of archives and archiving. We discussed the traditional visibility / invisibility of women in archives, the myth that women don’t think their histories are worth preserving (certainly a myth if our collection is anything to go by!), and the politically important act of archiving for women and for women’s movements.  It was fascinating for me to locate the work that we do within this context.

In particular it was interesting to hear some insights on Black feminism. Gail Chester from the Feminist Library spoke on behalf of her colleague Yula Burin (who couldn’t attend) about the challenges of preserving the ‘herstory’ of Black British feminism. Feminists of colour have had to fight simultaneously on two battle fronts, those of race and gender, so when looking for a place to donate their papers neither general Black history collections nor mainstream feminist archives seem quite right. Either would, inevitably and perhaps unintentionally, simplify the duality of these experiences. Archives are not neutral repositories after all, they write history as much as they preserve it.

Gail pointed us to Yula’s paper from Feminist Review, co-written with Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski; ‘sister to sister: developing a black British feminist archival consciousness’ (1). This is free to access and well worth a read if you’re interested in this topic. For them, the capacity to collectively remember experiences is inherent to Black British feminism. They describe the process of archiving the papers of the Lambeth Women’s Project as a sort of ‘archival therapy’, an act of self-determination that gave them a chance to not simply preserve this history but also to write it for future generations of Black female activists.

They include this quote from Beverly and Barbara Smith (2), which captures what they see as the urgent necessity for a specifically Black and feminist archive:

Also as Black women, as lesbians and feminists, there is no guarantee that our lives will ever be looked at with the kind of respect given to certain people from other races, sexes or classes. There is similarly no guarantee that we or our movement will survive long enough to become safely historical. We must document ourselves now.

The conference has made me reflect on archives as places of power. Creating or donating to an archive can be, perhaps always is, a political act. It’s a way of taking control of how we will be remembered with a view to shaping the future. No wonder women’s libraries and resource centres have played such a vital role in the feminist movement.

Collecting organisations like ours are activators as well as preservers of history. But this power goes both ways. There are many, many different experiences that could come under the rubric of ‘Black history’, but through our collecting and engagement activities we probably do emphasise certain narratives, which might inadvertently create barriers for those whose stories are different. The insights from The Future of Women’s Pasts, and in particular the experiences of Black British feminism, have given me plenty to think about.

If you want to know more you can check out the libraries and archives that also took part in the conference:
Feminist Archive North
Glasgow Women’s Library

Feminist Library
And the projects:
Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures (University of Leeds)
Sisterhood and After (British Library)
Family Archive Project

(1) Yula Burin, Y. and E. Ahaiwe Sowinski (2014) sister to sister: developing a black British feminist archival consciousness Feminist Review 108, 112-119

(2) Smith, B. and Smith, B. (1978) ‘I Am Not Meant to be Alone and Without You Who Understand: Letters from Black Feminists 1972–1978’ Conditions, Vol. 4, Winter 62–77

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

3 replies on “Future of Women’s Pasts conference: Some thoughts on the power of archiving”

I am, this morning, just in the process of classifying some of my letters and e-mails from the year 1983 (when I began to study the journals of Anne Lister) for my personal archive – so this article is hugely interesting to me. It helps to know that other people think women’s history is worth the time we put into such archival work.

Glad to hear it listorian. The importance of women firstly appreciating the historical value of the work they have done, and secondly documenting this through archiving, was something we talked about a lot at the conference. Keep up the good (archival) work!

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