Bringing post-1968 feminism to life for new audiences: enriching public appreciation and understanding of the British Women’s Liberation Movement
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Sussex
Unit of AssessmentCommunication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Sociology
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
In March 2013, the British Library (BL) launched the first national
oral-history archive of the British Women's Liberation Movement (WLM). A
permanent public resource preserving the voices of 1970s/1980s feminists,
the archive was the outcome of 'Sisterhood and After: The Women's
Liberation Oral History Project', a three-year Leverhulme-funded
research-partnership project led by PI Margaretta Jolly, in partnership
with curators at the BL and the Women's Library (WL). Through the national
prominence this archive has achieved and the numerous curatorial,
educational, cultural and community activities directly associated with
it, the research is having a significant impact on the public perception
of feminism, bringing it to life for new audiences.
Key researchers: Dr Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural
Studies at the University of Sussex (2007-present) with Dr Rachel Cohen,
SAA Research Fellow at the University of Sussex (2010-2013); Lizzie
Thynne, Senior Lecturer in Film at Sussex (2001-present), 20 per cent
SAA Research Fellow (2011-13).
`Sisterhood and After' (SAA) was conceived because there was no national
oral history of the (post- 1968) WLM in Britain, nor any published general
history. Motivated by a sense of urgency (WLM activists are mostly now in
their 60s and 70s), SAA aimed to produce this history in the form of a
professionally sustained and accessible archive collection and subsequent
monograph in order to reveal, to as wide an audience as possible, the
conditions of gender relations in late twentieth- century Britain, and the
strategies women used to improve them.
Building on expertise developed at the University of Sussex's Centre for
Life History and Life Writing Research (CLHLWR, 1999-present), oral
history interviews with 60 activists were chosen as a practice-based
method for capturing and analysing memories of the WLM, and to cover a
wide range of campaigns and perspectives. In these (on average)
seven-hour-long interviews, participants were asked about their role in
campaigns and ideas, their own experiments with personal and political
relationships, their experiences of adolescence, bodily life and identity,
their views on the diversity of movements across and within the four
nations of the UK, and how their lives compared with those of their
mothers. Further biographical material was collected. Interviewees could
correct and amplify the transcripts and summaries produced of their audio
As well as interviewee selection and documentation, Jolly — Director of
CLHLWR and a leading specialist in feminist history [Section 3, R4].—
undertook a third of the interviews. Research Fellow Cohen carried out
most of the rest. As PI, Jolly worked closely with Polly Russell, SAA's
curator at the BL (2005-present), to conceptualise the BL collection and
presentation of material, and planned outreach activities. SAA's archive
also includes 10 short films, dramatising particular campaigns based on
the audio interview research. These were produced and directed by Thynne.
Taken as individual recordings, the SAA interviews constitute deep
biographies that shed light on the circumstances and consequences of a
person's activism. Taken together as a history, the collection
documents the emergence, development and structure of the WLM, revealing a
greater range of networks, political positions and campaigns than
previously acknowledged. The researchers identified 10 core narratives,
evident across the interviews, about women's rights movements during the
1970s and 1980s and further sourced supporting archival and visual
materials that would help to illustrate these narratives for a public
audience. The project's research publications have further elucidated the
biographical consequences of activism, enabling greater understanding of
its impact on the many individuals who became life-long activists. SAA has
also made a contribution to cultural-memory research, showing how gender
relations can be different and better, and how oral history projects can
be part of a process of feminist influence that goes beyond the more
measurable aspects of campaigns. The team's analysis of methodologies and
findings, presented in public as well as in academic conferences and
publications, offers guidance to future scholars — including community
historians beyond academia — struggling with issues of representativeness
and oral history practice [R2].
References to the research
R1 BL Collection C1420: Sisterhood and After: The Women's
Liberation Oral History Project (60 audio interviews and verbatim
transcripts; 10 documentary films - in electronic form). Catalogue entry
120 audio clips from the collection are already accessible online,
alongside the 10 films, with all the material to follow, at the BL
Learning Programme website `Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation
Oral History Project', URL:
R2 Jolly, M., Russell, P. and Cohen, R. (2012) `Sisterhood and
after: individualism, ethics and an oral history of the Women's Liberation
Movement', Social Movement Studies, 11(2): 211-226. Official URL:
• Jolly, M. and Roseneil, S. (2012b) `Researching women's movements: an
introduction to Femcit and sisterhood and after', Women's Studies
International Forum, 35(3): 125-128.
• Jolly, M. (2012a) `Recognising place, space and nation in researching
women's movements: sisterhood and after', Women's Studies
International Forum, 35(3): 144-146.
• Jolly, M. (2012b) `Assessing the impact of women's movements:
sisterhood and after', Women's Studies International Forum, 35(3):
R4 Jolly, M. (2008) In Love and Struggle: Letters in
Contemporary Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.
R5 Grant: Leverhulme Trust Award F/00 230/AK for `Sisterhood and
After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project': £325,526, March 2010
to May 2013.
Outputs can be supplied by the University on request.
Details of the impact
The `Sisterhood and After' research has succeeded in enriching public
appreciation and understanding of post-1968 feminism in the following
- It led directly to the production of a new, public, digital and
searchable archive of personal voices about the WLM held at the BL Sound
Archive, with two public, multi-media gateways, both of which drew on
the team's practice-based research: an extensive schools-facing website
(online at: http://bl.uk/sisterhood),
permanently hosted by the BL's Learning Programme, which provides 10
detailed but accessible narratives to trace campaigns and debates; and
the online short films produced/directed by Thynne. The narratives
showcase 120 audio clips alongside the films, supporting images,
animations and a detailed timeline, and are framed with questions for
discussion and Teachers' Notes. The site links to the Sound Archive
catalogue, where the full archive entry is found. In its first 18 days,
the Learning Programme website attracted over 12,000 visitors and nearly
30,000 page views. Between 8 March and 31 July page views totalled
- SAA research project material was used to enrich national
- Propaganda: Power and Persuasion Exhibition at the BL, 17 May-17
September 2013, featuring extracts from and workshops about SAA,
including two of the films by Thynne.
- The Long March to Equality' Exhibition at the WL, featuring extracts
from `Sisterhood and After', 17 October 2012 to 22 March 2013. Kate
Murphy, guest curator, noted that it `added great depth to the
exhibition to be able to hear the voices of women who had been involved
in the many events and campaigns of the 60s, 70s and 80s that were
- The research was used directly in public and educational outreach
activities by its two national cultural-institution partners:
- The BL prepared a substantial series of public-outreach engagements
(March 2013-March 2014) to use and showcase SAA material, including 10
fully-booked 90-minute-long schools workshops for Year 7-13 pupils
(May-September 2013) in relation to the BL's `Propaganda and Power'
exhibition (300 pupils attended). Russell also shared the research at a
BL Teachers' Forum in London on 6 July 2013 for secondary-school English
teachers, after which attendee Anne Turvey wrote that `I know I speak
for so many people. It was thought-provoking and moving AND full of
things for teachers to think about "using"'. This event led to three
further bespoke group workshops at the BL and Russell also fed project
materials into other exhibitions, media events and focus groups. At one
of the latter, participant Claire Stansfield wrote: `We'll use [SAA] in
A-level politics for feminism / AS history for the changing nature of
women and I've passed it on to colleagues for use in sociology'.
- SAA's other curatorial partner, the WL (now based at LSE) used a
public-facing website to share its creative interpretation of SAA
- The launch of the SAA archive attracted prominent news and social
- The BBC World Service `World News' programme announced the launch in
its bulletins on 7 March 2013.
- Positive articles about SAA were published in The Telegraph (7
February and 8 March 2013), The Guardian (9 March) and The
Times (9 March).
- A link to the SAA page on the BL Learning Programme site link was
tweeted on the exhibition launch date by journalists Caitlin Moran and
Zoe Williams, with just under 500,000 Twitter followers between them.
- Curators and community historians, teachers and pupils, and writers,
broadcasters and artists have used the research to challenge stereotypes
and offer role models in further pursuit of equal rights and gender
justice, and to bring feminism to life for new audiences.
- In BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour on 6 March 2013, presenter (and
SAA interviewee) Jenni Murray used extracts from the archive alongside
interviews with a project team member and a feminist academic to
publicise the SAA project launch and to follow up on a multigenerational
phone-in on `What feminism means to you?'. The senior producer for the
feature, Kate Murphy, said that `extracts from the Sisterhood and After
Project were used to great effect [in it], bringing these voices to the
wider general public'.
- Journalist Caitlin Moran participated in the creation of a video
trailer for SAA.
- The TES produced an online teachers' resource-files
- `The Silver Action Project' Performance Art Event by artist Suzanne
Lacy took place at the Tate Modern, 3 February 2013 (with a follow-up
event involving Jolly on 9 March). A project on older feminists, it
employed Jolly as a consultant because of her SAA role and drew directly
on SAA project findings, expertise and contacts.
- BL Lead Curator of Oral History and Director of National Life Stories,
and Secretary of the Oral History Society, reported that: `The project
also makes a useful contribution to the collective endeavours of the
oral history community in the UK. It is important to the Oral History
Society and public historians in general, to see these kinds of
academic-activist partnerships flourish. I can see the project impacting
on popular historical understandings of the period as well as the
history of gender relations, but also acting as an encouragement to
younger generations of feminists and activists who themselves want to
explore oral history.'
- Feminist Archive South re-used materials from the SAA in their
Heritage Lottery-funded community history project to catalogue Bristol
WLM activist Ellen Malos' archives.
- BL Curator Polly Russell has argued of Jolly's contribution to SAA
that it `complicate[s] the stereotypes around feminist history and
feminist stories. ... [W]hen we're teaching in workshops, that is very
interesting to students, and allows them to explore some of their own
stereotypes and ideas about feminism.' As Abiola Olanipekun,
work-placement trainee at the BL, wrote: `As a young woman, I am not old
enough to recall some of the key aspects of the women's liberation
movement and pivotal turning points for equality in this country.
Nonetheless ... I feel a wholehearted appreciation for the liberation
movement [and] a genuine appreciation for the project of "Sisterhood and
After" which has documented the movement through dedicated and
Sources to corroborate the impact
C1 Interview with BL Curator (4 June 2013); website statistics
reported by BL Web Developer, in emails dated 19 September 2013.
C2 Evidence as follows:
C3 Evidence as follows:
- BL outreach activities: Polly Russell (interview as above). Feedback
from Anne Turvey, attendee at Teachers' Forum, by email to Russell, 8
July; and from Claire Stansfield, BL Focus Group participant, by email
to Russell, 20 June 2013.
- WL curatorial and outreach activities and website: Teresa Doherty
(interview as above).
C4 News and social media indicative coverage
- The BBC World Service `World News' programme, 7 March 2013:
- Emma Barnett, `British Library to open first national Women's
Liberation archive', The Telegraph, 7 February 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/9855707/British-
- Emma Barnett, `The archive remembering the ladies who made women
visible', The Telegraph, 8 March 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/9917436/International-Womens-
- Sheila Rowbotham, `The Week In Books', The Guardian Review, 9
- Fiona Wilson, `British Library launches an archive of Women's Oral
History', The Times, 9 March 2013, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/courtsocial/article3708981.ece.
- Caitlin Moran's tweet: https://twitter.com/caitlinmoran/status/309986918962167808;
Zoe Williams' tweet: https://twitter.com/zoesqwilliams/status/310010582516518912
C5 Evidence as follows:
- BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour, 6 March 2013. Programme currently
online here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r0gp5.
Email from Murphy to Jolly, 19 September, 2013. Woman's Hour's
weekly average audience is 2.68 million people.
- Moran's video trailer for SAA is online: http://www.bl.uk/learning/news/sisterhood.html
Times Educational Supplement, 28 May 2013:
- `Silver Action': http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tanks-tate-modern/music-and-live-performance/bmw-tate-live-
suzanne-lacy-silver-action. On the day, the event attracted 956
visitors, 3,000 mentions on Twitter and 2,900 visitors to the Tate
Modern website (email from A.R. Townsend, 9 October 2013), http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/suzanne-lacy-silver-action-artists-
- Emailed letter from Rob Perks to Jolly, 18 October 2013.
- Interview (3 September 2013) with D.M. Withers, Community Archivist,
Trustee Feminist Archive South and Manager, February to October 2013, of
FAS' Ellen Malos' Archive: http://feministarchivesouth.org.uk/ellen-malos-archives-heritage-lottery-project/
- Russell (interview as above); Olanipekun's account: