Socialist Worker

The Women’s Library is amazing—it should stay free for all

Shelia Rowbotham, writer and historian, backs the campaign

Published Tue 8 May 2012
Issue No. 2302

Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham


The Women’s Library has the most incredible collection for all those wanting to study the history of the suffrage movement.

It goes back to the 19th century origins of feminism and right up to the struggles and debates of the present day.

In the US, documents on the contemporary women’s movement are kept in several great universities.

In contrast the Women’s Library is a single place with a national document collection that can form the basis for future histories and research to be written.

Its strength is the number of donated papers and archives.

I have donated papers. The first donation was material on the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s. It’s now available for anyone to look at.

It’s great to go to the library and see young women reading all the material from past struggles.

I was very keen to have my papers accessible to a new generation. There are so many myths about the 1970s.

The WLM suffered from attitudes of contempt from the media throughout the 1980s.

I wanted to expose the myth that women were only interested in equality, and not in racism or class for instance.

I kept material showing the interconnectedness of the WLM in Britain to other movements.

Because I was a historian I made especially sure to collect local newsletters and pamphlets that might not otherwise have survived.

I even included a scrap of paper with instructions written out in pencil for the 1971 protest outside the Miss World contest.

When the movement died women’s liberation became a subject of academic study.

You do need theory but I believe theory has to be combined with practice.

It’s a problem when intellectual resources get locked into academia. Even digital access to academic papers and journals online can be too expensive for ordinary people to be able to use them.

Now the TUC library’s future is also in jeopardy. This is not because we are a poor society—we are not. It’s a matter of priorities.

The Women’s Library came out of the Fawcett Library, which survived the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Today it’s vital that we hang on to the right to use all libraries for free.


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Tue 8 May 2012, 16:29 BST
Issue No. 2302
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