STRIKE! magazine was lucky enough to be part of the occupation of the Women’s Library, which took place last March. It was a remarkably empowering experience, so we asked Feminist Fightback to write an article about it for our Feminist Issue.
In turn, they asked people who’d been involved in the occupation for their opinion, in a series of interviews; these are the voices from the Women’s Library occupation…
Illustration by Hannah Meese.
Occupy Feminism – by Feminist Fightback
Last year, on 8th March, feminists gathered at two locations in London, ready to mark International Women’s Day by taking direct action against the austerity regime. They didn’t know where they would be going, or what the action would entail, but had been persuaded by a ‘call to action’ circulated online, through leafleting and by word of mouth, coordinated by a coalition of feminists and anti-cuts activists. The call-out invited people ‘tired of watching helpless while the government destroys people’s lives and creates a world we don’t want to live in’, to use International Women’s Day to take action against the cuts and their gendered impact.
The focus for the action was The Women’s Library, in Whitechapel, London. Activists from two East and South London meeting-points arrived to find that it had been occupied by a small group of feminists minutes before. What followed was a two-day occupation of the historic building in London’s East End; an act of protest not only against the Library’s imminent closure, but also in opposition to the austerity regime – highlighting how cuts exacerbate existing inequalities along lines of gender, race, class and disability.
Over two hundred of us came in the days that the building was occupied, of all ages and genders; we discussed together, planned together, and lived together. At the time, there was a sense that something a bit different was happening. The occupation was mixed-gender but women-led and explicitly feminist, and this affected the way people organised being in the space and how we related to one another. It was also a protest defined by joy as well as rage – with music, dancing, new friendships, and a drawing of strength from the history of earlier feminist struggle documented in the Library’s world-renowned archive. And for many of us, it was the first time we had been in a political space where an ‘intersectional’ approach to feminist politics (the idea that any struggle for gender liberation also needs to encompass struggles against racism and class exploitation) was a consensus from which we started, rather than something we had to argue for.
The occupation was just a tiny part of wider (if fragmented and sporadic) resistance against the destructive impact of austerity on people’s daily lives. And yet, despite the small-scale of the action, a number of us from the coalition that organised the occupation felt it was important that the occupation was not lost to memory. For us, it had been a significant event in our political lives and we wanted to find out more about other people’s experiences of it, and what political reflections it might have provided.
We have therefore embarked on a project to record the voices of The Women’s Library occupiers. What follows are some of those voices, collected during one semi-structured group interview conducted in January 2014. We hope that this will form the basis of an on-going oral history project in which we will not only seek to add to a revolutionary memory, but also reflect upon and critique our own participation in the occupation. We want to think about how memories and histories of political struggle are created and how they inform subsequent struggles. Such a project will, we hope, be an appropriate contribution to The Women’s Library archive itself, and help to ensure that it remains a Library which can play an active role in day-to-day struggles against oppression, rather than just becoming an academic resource.
“The interesting thing is that it’s the university [London Met] with the highest percentage of working-class and ethnic minority students in the country.”
The occupation took place on the day that the Women’s Library’s exhibition ‘The Long Road to Equality’ was due to be closed, pending the building’s permanent closure. London Metropolitan University, who had held the library’s world-renowned collection since 1977, announced the previous spring that it wanted to rid itself of the library, claiming that too much of its use now came from outside of the University. Such outside use of the library and visits to its exhibition space included local schoolchildren, women’s groups, adult education students and local families. The occupation challenged the decision to close the doors of the historic building in a predominantly working-class area of London’s East End, and move the collection to the fourth floor of the academic library of the elite London School of Economics.
A sense of anger against the closure of a building that was a community as well as an academic resource was expressed by lots of the interviewees, many of them reflecting on their own experiences of using the library. However, the impetus behind the occupation was much broader. As one interviewee, who had been involved in the organization of the occupation explained: “The idea was to have a thing that was about cuts to women’s services and the gendered impact of austerity.”
Much of the Women’s Library collection is a history of women’s struggles, and the occupation explicitly drew on this history as an act of protest against the government’s austerity regime. An interviewee recalled a fellow occupier’s creativity in extending the timeline in the exhibition space detailing milestones in women’s fight for equality in Britain to include the occupation.
This occupation set out to be explicitly a feminist occupation, and this was important to the organising group as previous experiences of student occupations and also the Occupy movement had highlighted gender inequalities within the Left. One person said of her experience at a student occupation: “No one really spoke to you, no one welcomed you. I found it hard to find out about anything. I did sleep there, but it felt very unsafe.” By contrast, The Women’s Library occupation was explicitly feminist:
“From the beginning we had quite an explicit understanding that we wanted this to be a feminist occupation, and partly what that meant was a response to cases of sexual violence within what were incredibly exciting new political spaces that were emerging.”
Yet the occupiers were also clear from the start that the kind of feminism they thought to practice was not to be limited only to questions of ‘sex’ or ‘gender’. Rather, the occupation represented an attempt to put into practice the now famous quotation from the Latina feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan: ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.’ This message was emblazoned in 2 foot high letters in the front window of the occupied library. It informed the occupiers decision to focus not only on the imminent closure of the women’s library, but to situate this in the context of an austerity regime which worked upon intensifying inequalities of class and race as well as those of gender. The challenges of putting ‘intersectional’ feminism into practice was the theme of one of the workshops at the occupation. Occupiers subsequently agreed that the political lessons drawn from there were one of the most important legacies of the occupation.
“It came a year after all those student occupations and the UK Uncut action…definitely I think things changed in those few years in terms of political strategies and confidence about things…”
Interviewees recalled the diversity of groups involved in the planning of the occupation: which included Disabled People Against the Cuts, Fem Cells, Feminist Fightback, Occupy, Solidarity Federation and UK Uncut. They felt this diversity and the coalition-building process was an important part of the action: ‘I felt it promoted some interesting coalitions.’ Another, involved in Feminist Fightback, recalled how working together during The Women’s Library Occupation had led to more joint working on other actions in the months that followed:
“The links we built in the planning and during the occupation, and I think the trust that was necessary for that, has led to us doing other joint actions since then. In Feminist Fightback a couple of us went and helped with the UK Uncut action [against welfare cuts] outside Lord Freud’s house, and we have also done some pickets of shops who take staff on the workfare programme with SolFed. It really helped to get to know people in other groups personally – I think it helps to create a basis for working together, in a political scene that is very often pretty fragmented.”
This occupation built from the momentum that had been ignited by the student occupations the previous year, yet differed from them in seeking to widen participation beyond students, to include a cross section of people trying to highlight the effects of the cuts. This form of direct action seems to have been particularly inspiring to participants frustrated with more traditional methods of political protest:
“It provided a tiny glimpse into possible ways of living differently. People kept commenting on how good the atmosphere was, how well people were treating each other, how it was possible to bring children. In meetings it felt like people were very genuinely trying to think about how we best organise the occupation and what our strategy should be, and were listening to each other. The Friday night where [the feminist band] Moby Clit played is a very happy memory. And while we were waiting for the eviction and someone put on the sound system and we started dancing.”
Were you at The Women’s Library Occupation? If you would like to participate in further oral history interviews or send us your written memories, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org