Socialist Worker

Unique women’s library is facing closure from cuts

Librarians tell Judith Orr about a vital collection of women’s history that university bosses want to shut down—for the sake of just £1 million

Issue No. 2302

The Women’s Freedom League notebooks  (Pic: http://www.guysmallman.com/Guy Smallman )

The Women’s Freedom League notebooks (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The unique Women’s Library in east London could be shut by the end of the year if bosses at London Metropolitan University get their way.

There is no other collection like this in the world. You can find records of women war workers alongside original feminist magazines and political leaflets from the 1970s.

There are papers and archives from Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst and Sheila Rowbotham.

And 90 percent of the collection has been donated by supporters in the movement.

The joy of the library is that so much of the collection is on open shelves. But like the TUC library—with which it organises joint exhibitions—the Women’s Library is part of London Metropolitan University, where vice chancellor Malcolm Gillies is making wholesale cuts.

The library’s staff are very proud that it is open to everyone, but this obviously rankles with Gillies. He has said the university can no longer fund a service that is used by so many from outside the institution.

If funding is not found by December the library may close or be limited to opening only one day a week.

Staff are fighting to keep the archive together and the library open. “We don’t want some Russell Group university to cherry-pick this collection,” one librarian told Socialist Worker. “It would end up scattered in libraries where only academics may have access.”

The library has always had a close association with campaigning, noted collections manager Teresa Doherty. “It was founded in 1926 from what had been the Fawcett Society. The records of the suffrage movement from a large part of our archive. But really it’s all about the fight for equality.”

There are copies of Shafts, one of the earliest magazines for working class women. Where original sources have become too fragile to handle, they have been painstaking photographed and bound.

Alongside the books, pamphlets, and original documents the library also houses an audio collection.

“We have the biggest collection of women’s biographies—but oral history is also really important,” said Theresa Doherty.

These archives are full of gems that shed light on centuries of struggle by women and the working class.

There is still much to research among all the donated materials. As one librarian there put it, “This library has a lot of hidden history that is yet to be discovered”.

This makes it all the more important that it should be kept open as a resource for the people whose lives and struggle it celebrates.


From miners to matchgirls

All Work and No Pay is a joint exhibition by the Women’s Library and the TUC library archives—both of which are under threat.

It includes a carefully handwritten register of the names and ages of all those who took part in the 1888 Bryant & May matchgirls’ strike.

There are records and images of the Grunwick dispute and women who fought in the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85.

Another display case shows hammers used by the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath.

They waged a ten-week battle in 1910 winning the right to minimum wages across the industry.


Women’s Freedom League notebooks

The archive includes the original handwritten minutes of the political committee of the Women’s Freedom League (pictured above).

The League was a group of socialist women who broke from the mainstream suffragettes to concentrate on organising among working class women.


Emily’s unused return ticket

“The smallest item actually carries the most weight for me,” said collections manager Teresa Doherty. “It is the little purse that belonged to Emily Davison, the suffragette who died in 1913 when she threw herself in front of the king’s horse to demand the right to vote for women. Inside the purse is the return half of her ticket.”

Sign and share the petition to keep the library open

To find out more about the campaign to save the Women's Library, visit savethewomenslibrary.blogspot.co.uk.


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