Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures

Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures

By Rona Murray

Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures is the title of a project at Leeds University (School of History and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute), led by Dr Kate Dossett. Two events held this year (May and June) have continued its work, bringing together artists, historians, activists and industry professionals to discuss the practices of feminist archiving and how feminist pasts can inform feminist activism, artistry and scholarship now.

The programmes for both events are available here. Filmed interviews with participants and extracts from the events will be available. For updates on how to access these videos, please see here or follow the project at @feministarchive.

“We’ve been here before…”

A woman writes the words “We’ve been here before…” on a beach; the tide washes them away; she writes them again. By this anecdote (a memory of a short animation she had seen), Al Garthwaite (Vera Media) captured the importance of archives and of preserving the feminist past to inform our work now.

Telling Her-stories, Recording History

In May, Professor Jalna Hamer introduced the history of Feminist Archive (North). It is a home to materials from Leeds Animation Workshop; Vera Media; and the Women’s Film, Television and Video Network (WFTVN) – representing creative collectives (LAW, VM) and a national organisation for feminist advocacy and representation, a role now undertaken by: http://www.wftv.org.uk). Gina Denton showed how WFTVN’s formal minutes showed, at one stage, the need to remove “committed feminist” from documentation in order to widen its appeal to all women.

At the June event, film-maker and scholar Lizzie Thynne added the ‘Sisterhood and After Project’ (accessible via the British Library website) to this historical perspective. A Leverhulme Trust-funded project, its aim is “to create an original and extensive oral history archive of the lives of feminist change-makers of the 1970s and 80s”. She reflected on the ethical issues of the process of reflecting these historical events through the testimonies of individuals (http://www.bl.uk/sisterhood)

Teaching filmmaking skills to young women in the 1980s was part of Al Garthwaite and Catherine Mitchell’s feminist activism – then, as Video Vera. These courses in media training are still empowering communities in Leeds to tell their own stories:  http://www.vera-media.co.uk.

Producing the Archive

Kate Dossett discussed the power of archiving practice to ‘produce’ our knowledge of women’s activism. Mary Ritter Beard’s inability to persuade Eleanor Roosevelt of the importance of her own papers (for Ritter Beard’s proposed World Center for Women’s Archives in the 1930s) indicates how fragile the production of her-stories can be. In addition, many contributors discussed how theory was a vital tool to shape that knowledge.

Terry Wragg, of the still active feminist film co-operative Leeds Animation Workshop, and Rebekah Taylor (http://www.research.ucreative.ac.uk/profile/1568), at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham, UK), both reflected on the process of archiving historical LAW materials whilst still a working film production company.  Key elements of the animation process are being digitised by UCA for wider access.

Melanie Bell and Vicky Ball presented current work from their AHRC-funded project, Women’s Work in British Film and Television, which combines archival research with oral interviews.  Melanie Bell summarised how designing a model for digitising 67,000 applications to join unions such as BECTU had to be sensitive to feminist theory in the way it would ‘produce knowledge. In carrying out the complementary individual interviews, Vicky Ball reaffirmed the need of feminist scholarship to revise/reconsider the location of authorship, showcasing an excerpt from an interview with scriptwriter Adele Rose, whose credits include Coronation Street.

Working with the Archive

In June, Professor Ann Schofield examined  the archive as a place of activism and affect. This idea re-emerged throughout the day: in Laura King’s presentation of The Family Archive Project (AHRC-funded), Hannah Niblett’s presentation of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, Manchester and Paulien Schuurman’s of Amsterdam-based Atria, all reflecting on women’s primary, emotional role in preserving the materials of family and community histories. See also the work of Kate Davis, current artist-in-residence at The Glasgow Women’s Library, presented in Adele Patrick’s review of the vibrant history of the Library.

We have been here before….

Does The Feminist Library represent a sense of the constant renewal needed in Feminist activism?  The radical and the personal, the past and the present came together in Gail Chester and Yula Burin’s overview of its work as an historical archive and a contemporary organisation – see Chester’s contribution to ‘Breaking the Frame’ (May 2014), Clip 2:

It was obvious from both days that the Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures project has created momentum in bringing together a network of practitioners feeding in disparate her-stories to to create a dynamic conversation between past and present.   More information is available via links in our Resources section.

Rona Murray is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University completing a comparative study of contemporary women filmmakers.  She is Resources Officer for WFTHN.

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