Lessons from Canada: On Women’s Libraries and Liberation
A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. (You can read the first, my account of Meghan Murphy’s talk at the Scottish Parliament, here.) This essay describes the phenomenal talk Bec Wonders gave at the For Women Scotland event held on Friday the 14th of May, detailing her experiences as co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and the value of knowledge produced by second wave feminists. Again, this is my personal account of the event. Although I have tried to be faithful to each contribution in letter and spirit, there is always the potential for human error.
Dedicated to Bec, who truly is a wonder. Never have I met a woman with a more fitting name.
Secret locations and covert meetings are typically associated with espionage, not feminist politics. And yet, in the year 2019, women are often forced to keep the venue secret if we are to meet up and discuss our rights in safety. It is essential for any oppressed group to organise collectively if we are ever to overthrow the system that makes us marginal – in this case, patriarchy. Despite the fresh waves of criticism and controversy, there is a new wave of women’s groups starting to form across the United Kingdom.
Down south there is Woman’s Place UK, who have run a series of successful panel discussions about women’s sex-based rights and recently released a manifesto. Their aims include universal free childcare, sustainable investment in the women’s sector, and increased representation of women in public life. And here up north we have two new grassroots groups campaigning around women’s rights: Women and Girls in Scotland, and For Women Scotland. I have been following their work with interest. And so, when For Women Scotland release tickets for an event in Glasgow, I book a place.
Lessons from Canada is the second official meeting co-ordinated by FWS. The speakers are Meghan Murphy, editor of Feminist Current, and Bec Wonders, co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and doctoral researcher. The day before the event, FWS contacts ticket holders directly with the venue details. Boarding the train to Glasgow, I am filled with a sense of excitement. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, which isn’t an everyday occurrence in the west coast of Scotland. And I am going to spend an evening talking, laughing, and drinking with women from a broad range of backgrounds. What more could a feminist ask for?
When I arrive at the venue, there are two security guards keeping watch. Their presence is a comfort. We have all been told to bring ID as part of the security protocol, so I show my driver’s license and sign in. The FWS team are all generous in their praise of the blog post I published about Meghan’s talk at Holyrood. One woman tells me I took the heat right out of the subject – and considering conversations about gender have reached boiling in Britain, this is the best possible feedback I could have hoped for. Nobody wins when the discussion surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality becomes antagonistic – or rather, nobody wins except straight white men. The sooner this conflict is resolved, the more energy women and gender non-conforming people can direct towards dismantling white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.
While waiting to go in to the lecture theatre, I bump into women I know from the digital and analogue spheres of my life. This is one of the great joys that come with occupying feminist space. I am always glad to see Magi Gibson, whose poetry and boldness are both an inspiration. During her time as Reader in Residence at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was too shy to talk to Magi much. But the stories she read us each week, all excerpts of women’s writing, began to nourish a confidence in me.
The books Magi read from, the way they grabbed my imagination and tugged at my heart, unpicked the threads of misogyny I had internalised. After hearing them, it became impossible to think of women’s writing as lesser or insignificant – the way formal education often positions women’s writing in relation to men’s. And seeing the way Magi carries herself, poised with an element of playfulness, was part of what allowed me to stop making myself smaller in public space. Positive female role models make a powerful difference.
When I go through to the lecture theatre, the room is buzzing with positive energy. Crowds are often a source of anxiety for me, and yet I feel at peace in this lecture theatre. The room has a good vibe. Once more, it is mostly women in attendance; women from broadly different social and economic backgrounds finding common cause together.
Susan Smith, from the FWS team, kicks off the proceedings. She tells us that this is only For Women Scotland’s second public meeting, and I am impressed that in such a short period of time they have connected with an international sisterhood. According to Susan, FWS has members from the Scottish borders right up to the highlands. They are keen to support and encourage sister groups around the country.
There is a moment when Susan describes the FWS team as “our ladies” before correcting herself; “women”, Susan says, to applause. Many women in the room, me included, have fought to escape the confines of ‘lady’ – it feels good to hear a term that is loaded with gendered expectations being so roundly rejected. And there’s more applause for Joan McAlpine, the first MSP, and Joanna Cherry, the first MP to bring these conversations about sex and gender into the political mainstream.
On this note Susan introduces Bec Wonders, who is our first speaker of the night. Bec is working on a PhD researching print culture within the second wave of the feminist movement, and from the moment she starts talking it’s evident that Bec has found a sound balance between feminist theory and practice.
In February 2017, Bec opened Vancouver Women’s Library with a friend. To begin with, the Library consisted of 80 books from their personal collections. It opened from the “shared belief that women’s writing is revolutionary, women’s perspectives are world-changing, and women’s histories profoundly matter.” The Library’s purpose was “sharing books by women among women.”
From her research, Bec has reached the conclusion that “women’s presses, bookstores, and libraries were not intended to exist in isolation.” She describes reading as “relational, a call to action that demands feminist accountability.” There must always be a connection between feminist ideas and feminist actions – this, I agree with completely.
A feminism that is rooted solely in academia runs the risk of valuing the production of knowledge over women’s lived realities – it is unlikely to take the action required to change those lived realities for the better. Equally, it isn’t possible to unlock the full revolutionary power of feminism without a grasp of the principles and beliefs that have driven generations of change-makers. To Bec, the unnatural split between theory and practice is why so many younger feminists are trying to reinvent the wheel instead of understanding themselves as part of a movement that has spanned continents and decades.
Publications like WIRES – the Women’s Information and Referral Enquiry Service – emerged as a “reaction to the way women found themselves trapped and isolated” by the patriarchal division between public and private spheres. Women shared information across channels that were not controlled or regulated by men, which was an incredibly powerful strategy for resistance.
In recent years, Bec believes that feminist publishing has regressed. Although we are seeing a resurgence of feminist titles, and even reprints of classics by writers such as Audre Lorde and Simone de Beauvoir, there are fewer independent feminist presses, bookshops, and community spaces now than there were back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Mainstream publishing houses are interested in movement as market.”
Given the need for feminist spaces that exist independently of the market, the importance of learning resources available to all women without the barrier of cost, it would be natural to assume that Vancouver’s feminist scene would welcome the addition of a Women’s Library. Many local women did – when they opened, the VWL team were overwhelmed by women trying to sign up as members and participate in Library life. But there was also intense and malicious anti-feminist backlash.
When Vancouver Women’s Library held their launch party, an organisation known as Gays Against Gentrification crashed the celebration. A group of 24 protestors intimidated women, and physically barred them from entering the Library despite the evening’s sub-zero temperature. They poured wine on books, tore down a poster of Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto, spray painted the outside of the venue, stole wine from the Library’s makeshift bar, and pulled the fire alarm in an effort to prevent women from gathering there. Protestors chanted “No SWERFs! No TERFs!”, disrupting multiple women’s attempts at mediation.
Listening to Bec recount these horrors, I am filled with fury that anybody would treat a women’s community space in this way. The culprits were allegedly ‘against gentrification’, but there is nothing further from gentrification than a Library set up by grassroots feminist organising. From this angle, their motivation looks much more like woman-hating than anti-capitalist protest.
In addition, GAG demanded that the Library remove 20 out of their 80 books from circulation. The books GAG found objectionable were mostly written by second wave feminists, many of whom are lesbians. GAG claimed that VWL “enact[s] violence on sex workers by working to deny their access to resources and support. They work alongside the colonial government to pass bills that do direct violence to sex workers, such as Bill C-36.” However, Bill C-36 was introduced in 2013 – four years before the inception of Vancouver Women’s Library. More to the point, the Library contained the accounts and political writings of multiple Indigenous women who survived the sex industry. Living at the intersection of race, class, and gender, Indigenous women are grossly over-represented in Canada’s sex trade.
To say that women who take a global view of prostitution and see it in a context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny — [feminists] who aren’t just focused on white Western middle class camgirls — are ‘exclusionary’ makes no sense. It doesn’t hold up to any cognitive scrutiny. – Jindi Mehat
GAG also objected to the Library’s statement of values, which said “we welcome all women regardless of creed/class/gender/race/sexuality.” GAG’s statement denounced this advocacy of intersectional sisterhood, saying “…this language is used by cis women as a move to innocence from their complicity in violence against transwomen. It is used to mark transwomen as ‘Other’ and centre themselves as victims of patriarchy.”
GAG, like any other members of the public, were free to use the Library’s suggestion function to influence which books would become part of the collection, and whose voices could be found within the Library’s shelves. Bec tells us that not a single protestor used the suggestion before or after GAG’s attempts to shut down the Library launch. I believe that it is important for the voices of all people made marginal in a society to be heard and recognised. That being said, women have been made marginal for centuries – so it is a radical and subversive act to confer value on women’s writing.
According to Bec, it is right and good for women to centre ourselves as victims of patriarchy. In this we are agreed. From birth, girls are encouraged to prioritise the interests of other people over their own needs. It is part of feminine socialisation, designed to make us into compliant women who do not resist men’s attempts to subordinate us.
From her work with the Vancouver Women’s Library, Bec has learned “not to let men take up my time with arguments meant to distract us.” This is a worthwhile lesson, as efforts to derail feminist action and conversation are designed to direct us back towards the status quo: patriarchy. Bec describes sisterhood as “powerful”, but “necessarily difficult if we are to take it seriously.”
Bec points out the sexist double standard of venerating male philosophers like Freud, Foucault, Plato, and Nietzsche while dismissing great feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Andrea Dworkin as outdated. There is love in her voice as Bec describes the “rich treasure trove” of resources on women’s resistance and organising written by earlier generations of feminists. She is passionate about the importance of learning from the women who have gone before us, the necessity of modern day feminists understanding ourselves as a continuation of a powerful social movement.
After Bec and Meghan finish talking, there is an interesting Q&A. Women talk openly about everything from sexual violence to traumatic experiences of childbirth. I think that it’s a mark of successful feminist space when women feel comfortable disclosing such deeply personal harms. One woman speaks about the way queer community fails lesbian women, and how isolated her daughter feels as a consequence. What she says resonates deeply with me. Gill Smith talks about the way she was pathologised by doctors as a lesbian teenager, and rejected by the LGBT community when she de-transitioned and resumed life as a lesbian. Julie Bindel, Gill says, is one of the few people who stood up for women like her.
A young academic tells us that she’s part of the generation who were taught that all women’s major battles were won, but now she’s feeling the same struggle that our foremothers did – and it’s “fucking awful.” She’s not wrong. Still, there is one great consolation: we are heading to the pub. When Susan announces the name of the bar, where FWS have booked a room for us, there is a mass exodus.
I have been on many a night out in Glasgow. But this is the first night out when I have managed to let go of anxiety to the point that I stop worrying about the time and simply enjoy life. It is an amazing opportunity to speak in person with women I have, until this point, only ever communicated with online. It is a delight to meet Shona Craven, a journalist who has made valuable contributions to the Scottish conversation about sex and gender. A young lesbian feminist speaks with me about the possibility of organising together. I accept with enthusiasm. Gill and I talk about Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics. I also meet Councillor Caroline McAllister, and quickly come to admire her – she’s a welcome change from the posh white men who gravitate towards life as career politicians.
I also speak to Meghan, which is a real treat. While the internet is amazing at connecting women across continents, you can’t take meeting a sister in person for granted when there are ordinarily thousands of kilometres and an ocean between you. Though she hasn’t been here for long, the steady calm and rationality Meghan has brought to the gender debate has inspired several Scottish feminists – me included. Meghan has enjoyed her tour of the UK, though she has spent more time in lecture halls and pubs than seeing the sights. Her next visit, Meghan vows, will involve more time exploring. I am glad that there will be a next time.
The night flies by. I connect with women and drink gin – the best way to spend a Friday night. After a round of photographs to document the celebration, I glance at my phone and see that it’s almost time for the last train home. I make a hasty exit; if I’m quick, there’s enough time to get some chips to eat during the journey.
As the train glides out of Central Station, I am perfectly content. Bec’s perspective on the feminist movement, Meghan’s ideas about sex and gender, and my conversations with women all flit through my mind. Bec is right that sisterhood is complicated; as a Black lesbian, it’s not something I can safely assume extends to women like me in every feminist space. Still, sisterhood is the driving force behind my life and politics. I believe in a sisterhood that bridges differences of race, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and age to encompass all women – and that is what I found in these Lessons from Canada.