WHS Annual Conference 2016- ‘Feminisms: Histories, Ideas & Practice’ – Report and Resources

[Images: top right © Scottish Women’s Aid Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library, bottom right © University of Glasgow Archive Services, DC127/22a]

Women’s History Scotland Annual Conference: ‘Feminisms: Histories, Ideas & Practice’

[Please see the ‘Resources‘ section below for access to some of the powerpoint presentations from the day and link to the audio on Soundcloud]

Conference Report – Hannah Telling

The annual WHS conference which examined the theme of ‘Feminisms: Histories, Ideas & Practice’, was held on Friday 9 September. Glasgow Women’s Library, recently lauded in the national press as ‘a treasure trove that shows how far feminism has come’, served as a fitting venue for this year’s event. At the completely sold out conference, delegates were treated to a host of wonderful papers, with themes ranging from the emergence of Women’s Aid to the feminist fashion of Doc Martens. The event concluded with the Sue Innes Memorial Lecture, delivered by the inimitable and inspiring Zoe Fairbairns.

After an introduction to Women’s History Scotland delivered by convenor Alison McCall, Tanya Cheadle delivered a paper on the late nineteenth-century feminist and socialist activist, Bella Pearce. Tanya’s paper talked of the ‘uneasy relationship between socialism and feminism in the 1890s’, as feminist social reformers attempted to navigate labour parties that were ‘first and foremost a man’s party’. Pearce’s feminist activism contrasted, in a perhaps unique example, with her unconventional faith. She became a devout disciple of a Christian sexual mysticism organisation, the Brotherhood of New Life, whose founder espoused the doctrine that ‘by denying sexuality, Christianity becomes sterile’. Tanya’s paper provided a fascinating insight into the relationships, activism and faith of one feminist reformer in late nineteenth-century Scotland.

Jane Rendall was next to deliver her paper, exploring female friendly societies in Scotland, c.1789-1830 and ‘the principle of Mutual Support’. Jane began her talk by discussing the role of ritual-based, religious and philanthropic societies and their growth in this period. Interestingly, whilst Jane had detected 1560 male friendly societies, only 66 female equivalents were discovered. These female friendly societies were concentrated in South West Scotland and were noticeably absent from the urban centres where the strength and influence of male trade predominated. Despite the limited number of female friendly societies, Jane revealed how such organisations helped to consolidate neighbourhood ties, provide recognition of women’s identities and allow members of all classes new experiences and opportunities.

Sarah Browne of the ‘Speaking Out’ project presented the final paper of the ‘Activism’ panel, examining the links between feminism and Women’s Aid in the 1970s and 1980s. Women’s Aid, which campaigned to end domestic abuse and assisted women seeking to escape abusive partners, emerged out of and became a testimony to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Sarah talked of how attention to the ‘Herstory of Women’s Aid’ allowed for a reclamation of women’s pasts, whilst providing opportunities for reflection on what had been achieved and what still needed to be done. Sarah reinforced the central tenet of Women’s Aid and indeed feminism – that the abuse of women was (and still is) central to women’s unequal position within society. In concluding, Sarah emphasised that whilst Women’s Aid is ‘always moving forwards’, the organisation’s roots in the Women’s Liberation Movement will continue to be acknowledged.

Georgia Mackay opened up the second panel on ‘Material and Visual Culture’ with a wonderful paper on Doc Martens and feminism. Georgia pointed out that Cinderella teaches us that ‘one shoe can change your life’, yet asked what happened when women rejected ‘overtly sexual’ sky-high heels for ‘kick ass heavy boots’, the Doc Martens. In a paper that explored the links between fashion and feminist subculture, Georgia explored the history of Doc Martens, whilst reinforcing the idea that ‘any item of clothing can be feminist if intended so by the wearer’.

Nel Whiting concluded the morning session with a paper that applied feminist methodology to portraiture, unearthing the subtle gender dynamics of David Allan’s The Family of the Earl & Countess of Hopetoun. Nel’s application of gender theory and close analysis revealed implicit power relations contained within the portrait. Nel argued that artwork reflected and replicated contemporary values and thus formed a key part of society’s discursive network, thereby demonstrates how analysing portraiture can be of great use to the researcher of eighteenth-century gender relations.

The editors of the 2nd edition of the ‘Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women’ gave an update on their progress after lunch, informing delegates that the volume will include 150 new entries of notable women throughout Scottish history.

In keeping with the theme of ‘Biographies’, Sarah Edwards delivered a paper on Dr Dorothy Meads, the principal of Bishop Otterly College. The paper included a history of the college itself, from teacher-training college to RAF base during World War II. Sarah talked about Dr Meads’ reforms and how she embodied the contemporary conceptualisation of female principal in this period – an amalgamation of feminine nurturer and masculine protector exhibiting quasi-parental control over the female students.

In the final paper of the day, Susan Batchelor presented an examination of the life and influence of Pearl Jephcott, whose pioneering sociological research privileged the experiences of ordinary young people in detailed and broad-ranging analyses. Susan showed how Jephcott utilised 1960s sociological approaches, yet also foreshadowed later developments, especially in the form of feminist epistemology in the 1980s. Susan concluded that ‘Jephcott was a sociology research pioneer, yet also a feminist research pioneer’.

The annual Sue Innes Memorial Lecture was delivered by Zoe Fairbairns, who began her lecture by thanking those who have worked so hard to keep Sue Innes’ name alive. Zoe’s wonderful lecture explored ‘Five Decades, Five Feminisms’, demonstrating the many developments that have been made in the pursuit of gender equality. Zoe took the enraptured audience through each decade, from the 1960s when feminism was yet to be named, to the challenges of the new millennium – terrorism, anti-feminist backlashes, the dangers of the internet-age and the continued prevalence of violence against women and children. Despite the work still to be done, Zoe’s lecture was ultimately celebratory. She said that ‘I would say that a lot has changed for the better, and that we, as feminists, should congratulate ourselves for our part in that’. Zoe cited greater representation of women in politics, the successful introduction of equal marriage, women in well-paid employment and men engaging in domestic duties as examples of the many developments achieved through five decades of activism and feminism. To rousing applause, Zoe concluded her lecture, and the WHS annual conference, using Sue Innes’ own words – ‘let’s go on making it work’. 


Resources

For those of you who couldn’t join us – click the relevant links below to access powerpoint presentations from some of the presentations on the day and the audio recordings on Soundcloud

PANEL 1: Activism

Tanya Cheadle, University of Glasgow – Bella Pearce / ‘Lily Bell’: Glasgow Feminist, Socialist and Christian Sexual Mystic – whn-glasgow-pp

Jane Rendall, University of York – ‘The principle of mutual support’: female friendly societies in Scotland c. 1789-1830 – rendall-glasgow

Sarah Browne, Heritage Project Co-ordinator, Scottish Women’s Aid – ‘Pledging our support to the seven demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement’: Feminism and the emergence of Women’s Aid in the 1970s and 1980s – brownewhspresentation

PANEL 2: Material/ Visual Culture

Georgia Mackay, University of Glasgow – The End of High Heels? Doc Martens and Feminism in the late 20th Century – the-end-of-high-heels

Nel Whiting, University of Dundee – A ‘voyeuristic fiction of candour’? Feminist Methodology and Portraiture 

PANEL 3: Biographies

Sarah Edwards, University of Strathclyde – Dr Meads and her wartime flock: the history and representation of Bishop Otter College at Bromley, 1942-45

Susan Batchelor, University of Glasgow – Pearl Jephcott and a Time of One’s Own – revisiting-jephcott-whs-conference-sb-080916

SUE INNES MEMORIAL LECTURE:

Zoë Fairbairns, Five Decades, Five Feminisms – http://www.zoefairbairns.co.uk/Sue_Innes_Memorial.pdf

40 years of Scottish Women’s Aid – Sarah Browne

We’re delighted to have Sarah Browne blog for us this month. Sarah Browne has been a member of Women’s History Scotland for many years, and won the essay prize in 2008 and completed her PhD on the women’s liberation movement in Scotland in 2009 at the University of Dundee. Sarah now blogs for us in her new role as Heritage Project Co-ordinator for Speaking Out, a project which seeks to produce a history of Scottish Women’s Aid in its 40th year. 

Recognising and Recording the Contribution of Women’s Aid in Scotland

As well as ‘but weren’t they all just bra-burners?’, ‘What about Men’s Aid?’ was the question I was most frequently asked during the time when I was conducting PhD research into the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). I’ve lost count of the number of times it was asked by taxi drivers, people in pubs, relatives, and friends and strangers who I chatted to during the three years of my PhD. Depending on who was asking this question and the way they asked it, it more often than not raised my heckles.  This wasn’t just because I was completing a women’s history project to contribute towards redressing the balance in historical accounts which tended to favour the stories of men. It was because this question failed to recognise the hard work and determination of the women who created a Women’s Aid network in Scotland. Women’s Aid didn’t just happen. It wasn’t gifted to women by politicians or some kind benefactor. It wasn’t as simple as just asking ‘what about Women’s Aid?’ and then expecting it to happen.  It was hard fought for and involved women putting in huge amounts of energy and effort alongside paid employment, contributing to other political campaigns, and undertaking caring roles for partners, children and relatives. Those women who contributed to this story deserve to be recognised and celebrated and that is why it is so exciting that the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded Scottish Women’s Aid, in partnership with Glasgow Women’s Library, Women’s History Scotland and the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History, funding for a two year project to document the history of Women’s Aid in Scotland.

Women’s Aid emerged in Scotland in the early 1970s. Women had been meeting and campaigning as part of the WLM in Scotland, which had emerged in the late 1960s. This movement was a direct challenge to many of the stereotypes, laws and practices which prevented women from living full lives. Campaigning for equal pay, free and available childcare, free and safe abortion, and financial and legal independence amongst many other issues, the WLM was hugely important in politicising a number of women and encouraging them to find practical solutions to some of the issues facing women. Women’s Aid was one such practical solution. In the early 1970s women in Edinburgh and Glasgow formed groups which began researching the practicalities and possibilities of establishing refuges in both cities in order to provide support to women who were living with or leaving violent situations. Inspired by the first refuge in the UK at Chiswick, these women realised that this provided an important model and that women in Scotland needed something similar. By 1977 there were 15 refuges in Scotland and in 1976 Scottish Women’s Aid was set up to help to co-ordinate this emerging network and to provide research, training and support to groups.[i]

Refuges were unfortunately much needed. During the 1970s the prevalence of domestic violence became apparent. Indeed, one of the most important roles of Women’s Aid in Scotland was conducting research which highlighted the incidence of domestic violence. More often than not viewed by many in wider society as a private matter between husband and wife, this research was crucial in demonstrating to politicians, the police, and the general public how prevalent domestic violence actually was. The statistics were eye-watering. Two pioneering researchers based then at Stirling University – Rebecca and Russell Dobash – undertook important work looking at ‘battered wives’ and through interviewing women and looking at police records, they concluded that at the end of the 1970s 25% of all violent crimes involved husbands being violent towards their wives.[ii]

So in addition to organising refuges and the many tasks that were associated with that, Women’s Aid set about providing training and undertaking important educational work to help challenge and change views of those on the frontline – the police, the legal system, the medical profession – as well as the wider public. This led to changes in the way domestic violence was understood and talked about. Even at the level of language, Women’s Aid was central to changing the conceptualisation of this issue, so terminology moved on from ‘battered wives’ to ‘battered women’, and then concepts of domestic violence and domestic abuse were introduced; helping people to realise that domestic abuse was a whole system of degradation, control and fear often expressed in psychological, and not just physical, ways. It is testament to the hard work and courage of all those women involved in the Women’s Aid network that perceptions have shifted. Jennifer Kerr, who was involved with Dundee Women’s Aid, said that our understanding of domestic abuse now includes recognition that:

There are individuals and patterns used by individuals to abuse, that men abuse the power that they have over women. That men abuse the power that they have over children – and that this is wrong and that it is right to get out of those situations. That’s a huge, huge change.[iii]

They did all of this often in the face of opposition from neighbours living next door to refuges, socially conservative politicians who thought Women’s Aid was interfering in relationships, media which often trivialised the issue, and a legal system which could be slow to change. This project hopes to recognise the hard work of the women from the Women’s Aid network but also to draw our attention to the importance of Women’s Aid in transforming our understanding of many aspects of gender relations in Scotland.

So when asked ‘What about Men’s Aid?’, my response usually went something like this: ‘if you want a Men’s Aid, then get together with your friends and comrades and set it up’. That’s what groups of women did in the 1970s and thank goodness they did.

The Project – Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland

This project will collect oral history interviews and archival material and make this available on a website. There will also be a touring exhibition and local events so people around Scotland can engage with the themes of the project. If you or someone you know has a connection with Women’s Aid in Scotland at some point during its history and would like to be interviewed then please get in touch with Sarah Browne, project co-ordinator – sarah.browne@scottishwomensaid.org.uk

Likewise if you would like to volunteer for the project then please contact Sarah. We are currently looking for volunteers to conduct oral history interviews, help out with an exhibition or assist with some film-making. Full training will be given and all reasonable expenses will be reimbursed. We are looking for women to volunteer from around Scotland.

It is so important that women’s voices, memories and lives are recorded as all too often they are written out of history. As Elspeth King said:

There is a clear message for all women who were or are involved in the movement: take your historical papers, correspondence, minute books, cuttings and relevant information and deposit them in a Scottish library or archive before it’s too late. Take your T-shirts, your badges, jewellery and posters to your local museum and demand that they be preserved for posterity. Do not be written out of history.[iv]

We look forward to hearing from you!

Twitter – @SpeakingOut_SWA

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Speaking-Out-874547129328378/?fref=ts

[i] K. Arnot, ‘Leaving the Pain Behind: Women’s Aid in Scotland’, S. Henderson and A. Mackay (eds) Grit and Diamonds: Women in Scotland Making History 1980-1990 (Edinburgh, 1990), p. 80.

[ii] This research was discussed in J. Cunningham, ‘The Battered Wives Who Need Law On Their Side’, The Glasgow Herald, 16th February 1979, p. 7

[iii] Transcript of interview with Jennifer Kerr, 1 May 2007, p. 16 as quoted in S. Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland (Manchester, 2014), p. 156.

[iv] E.King ‘Review of J.D. Young’s Women and Popular Struggles’ in S. Henderson and A. Mackay (eds), Grit and Diamonds: Women in Scotland Making History 1980-1990’ (Edinburgh, 1990), p. ix.