I’ve just finished reading Virginia Woolf's 1928 classic, A Room of One’s Own, a feisty polemic which dragged me right back to a time when women were not permitted to the Oxford University library without being escorted by a Fellow of the College and when it was almost unconceivable for women to be able write decent books. For, according to Sir Egerton Brydges, “women rarely possess men’s healthy love of rhetoric. It is a strange lack in the sex which is in other things more primitive and more materialistic.”[i] Really?
Well, this is certainly a stark reminder of the progress we have made over the last century with regards to equality. Not only are there some incredible female and feminist authors and books, but we have our own libraries and some delightful bookshops dedicated solely to female authors.
The feminist library is back!
This is the story, herstory, of a journey. It is also herstory of resilience, survival – and a story about love.
Gentrification is taking its toll on London. Increasing rents have meant that many grassroots organisations and community projects have been forced to close down or relocate. In 2016, after 32 years in its Westminster Bridge Road home, the feminist library faced the same fate – eviction!
But somehow the planets aligned. What could have been an outright catastrophe, quickly turned into an opportunity and as soon as a suitable venue was identified, an amazing team of feminist architects, designers and makers sat around the ‘feminist table’ (as described by author Sarah Ahmed[ii]) and helped ‘create an accessible feminist public space that feels like a truly loving home for the collection of books and ephemera, as well as staff and visitors.’
It took four years of dedication, passion and hard work to find, redesign, catalogue, pack, store, fundraise and finally relocate the beloved archive – a mammoth project that would have been impossible without scores of committed volunteers and supporters. The story of how the feminist library was saved from closure is carefully recorded in a wonderful ‘zine’ - keeping feminist tradition alive!
The library was officially inaugurated on 31st January with not one, but two opening parties at its new home – the Sojourner Truth[iii] Community Centre in Peckham, South London. And what pleasure it was to browse the packed shelves and impressive collection of fiction, non-fiction and periodicals – including lots of precious women’s liberation movement, second wave materials – as well as posters and banners.
Feminist booklovers shout out!
As a special feature for World Book Day UK and International Women’s Day, I spoke to two inspiring, independent feminist bookworms about feminism, literature and their favourite books. Meet Martha and Alexia:
Martha_is_reading … and writing brilliant, straight to the point reviews, which have attracted quite a following on instagram. She spoke to me about loving books since she was a child and her penchant for beautiful covers – check out her flatlays. Martha discovered feminism through Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism but her take on feminism has changed since, moving from white female authors to a more intersectional reading list, with books by women of colour and disabled women. She was keen to mention the issue of the white, heteronormative, middle class bias of the publishing industry and the outrage of the last year’s joint booker prize which Bernadine Evaristo had to share with Margaret Atwood.
In addition to Bernadine Evaristo’s booker prize Girl, Woman, Other, Martha also recommends Yaa Gyai’s Homegoing and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Looking for inspiration and ideas? Check out her book ratings on instagram and blog!
Alexia - @alexianotalexa on twitter – is a feminist activist. She started Back To Books Brum last year, as a way to start a gentler career, try her own business. It is an opportunity for her to have the space to continue her feminist activism through sharing thought-provoking and diverse books. She calls it booktivism! Her book choices, like Martha’s, focus on feminist experiences and analysis and resist the lens of an all-white and middle class cast. This drew from her #aidtoo campaigning on sexual violence and oppression in the international charity sector. She is looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other coming out in paperback on world book day and loved Kit de Waal’s Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers.
The Sojourner Truth Community Centre
161 Sumner Road, London SE15 6JL
Oval underground (Northern Line) and 36 bus (Harris Academy stop)
Peckham Rye and Queens Road Peckham over ground stations
The Feminist Library is trans-inclusive and welcomes visitors of all genders
____________________________________________ [i] Sir Egerton Brydges, New Criterion, June 1928
[ii] Living a Feminist Life, Sarah Ahmed, Duke University Press, 2017
[iii] Sojourner Truth was an outspoken nineteenth century African American advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil and women’s rights (1797 – 1883)