Professor Margaretta Jolly’s research is going beyond changing perceptions of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement. It shows how oral history can connect and humanise, offering lessons in respectful listening and the power of coalitions for today’s activists.
In 2010, Professor Margaretta Jolly embarked on pioneering research with colleagues at Sussex and the British Library to capture oral history interviews with activists in the UK Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). Little did she know that, over a decade later, the work would continue to reach audiences around the world, changing perceptions of feminism and the WLM, and offering valuable perspectives in a time of heightened global tensions around race and gender.
‘Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’ (S&A) came about because there was no national oral history of the post-1968 UK WLM and no published general history. With former Sussex Research Fellow Dr Rachel Cohen and Dr Polly Russell, the project’s curator at the British Library, the team carried out 60 interviews with activists, recorded over many hours, then transcribed and archived on the British Library website.
The interviews shed new light on many aspects of feminism from work and class, relationships and health, to business, spirituality and feminist death. They helped to unpick feminist stereotypes and underlined the continued relevance of WLM ideas and approaches for activists both inside and beyond the movement.
Using the long-life form of interviewing, the women were encouraged to talk about their entire lives and wider families to help explain their influences and how they developed as individuals. The often profoundly moving conversations surfaced both the public and the very personal. The result is an archive that is rich in detail about the period, offering a priceless resource not simply for the perspectives it offers on UK feminist history.
Changing perceptions and educating new generations
One of the main aims for S&A was to create a permanent, accessible and professional oral history collection of the WLM at the British Library that would match the oral history collections of suffrage activists, now recognised to have world heritage value.
But it wasn’t enough for the team to launch the S&A archive online. The project also gave rise to ten short films directed by Sussex’s Professor of Film, Lizzie Thynne. These feature, for example, Rebecca Johnson, a policy advisor on nuclear disarmament, returning to the site of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and Jan McKenley, leader in black educational inclusion, speaking movingly of the personal experiences behind her work with the National Abortion Campaign.
With the British Library, the project also produced a diverse range of educational materials and workshops, exhibitions, conferences and podcasts, as well as a book Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1968–present. These were all designed to engage with audiences, from academics to pupils just starting secondary school, and feminists and activists young and old.
There's something very inspiring about an older generation of activists sharing what they did and how they kept going. Oral history has that magic of a conversation across generations.”
The reach of the project has extended far beyond the UK, with S&A being used as a model of best practice for other oral history projects. In Switzerland, it has helped guide interview methods, selection criteria and the construction of a website for a national oral history of the Swiss women’s movement.
Interest in the project from China Women’s University led to them engaging Margaretta Jolly as a visiting professor to Beijing to help develop their own China Women’s Oral History Project. It was a partnership, explains lead archivist Li Huibo, that enabled Chinese historians to “further understand each other’s idea of gender and of oral history’s political purpose.”
Lessons for us all
“Hearing from long-time activists through all of these oral histories can teach us something about endurance, stamina and resilience – the power of sticking with it,” says Margaretta. “In the wonderful words of feminist scholar Donna Haraway, it’s about ‘staying with the trouble.’ There’s something very inspiring about an older generation of activists sharing what they did and how they kept going. Oral history has that magic of a conversation across generations.”
Among the many remarkable women interviewed, Karen McMinn (Director of Northern Ireland Women’s Aid 1981-1996) strongly underlined for Margaretta how oral history research can offer hope in a world that seems increasingly divided. As McMinn reflected, it’s partly about learning about your forebears but also about engaging with people you may not understand or with whom you completely disagree. Personal oral history can be a hugely powerful tool to connect and to humanise.
And at a time when the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the gender pay gap, and non-binary and trans rights issues are revitalising protest movements while experiencing heated clashes and backlashes, Margaretta feels that projects like S&A have something to teach us all about respectful dialogue.
“There is no quick fix for what we’re facing today,” she says. “Our era is one of political polarisations, and populist politicians have exploited this. At the same time, the internet and social media are fanning the flames of division. What an oral history project of the scale, depth and humanity of S&A can teach us is the power of coalitions – across class, race, sexuality, gender – of overcoming pride and polarisation.”
We can all learn from what Margaretta calls ‘slow listening’. “We must move forward,” she concludes. “And to do so, we need to take time to listen. Listen to the silences as much as the words – to the pauses, the tears, the sighs and the smiles that punctuate these testimonies.”
‘Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’ was funded by The Leverhulme Trust. The Trust also funds ‘The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing’, partnered with The British Library and the University of Cambridge.