We speak to the curator of Dear Sisters at Lakeside Arts which documents the Women’s Liberation Movement in Nottingham

Words: Sophie Gargett
Monday 20 May 2024
reading time: min, words

For the Women’s Liberation Movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s zines were an integral tool of connection and communication. The Dear Sisters exhibition at Lakeside Arts showcases how the movement connected, campaigned, and made waves through an impressive collection of ephemeral documents.

Feminist Magazine Covers Landscape MSC6177 FME 23 04 05 Web

Would we know how to organise if the internet were to disappear? This was one of the many thoughts which struck me whilst looking at the mass of zines, photographs, posters, papers, campaign badges and personal memories currently on display in Lakeside Art’s Western Gallery. In a time where information can be found, events shared and like-minded communities connected at the touch of a button, what can we take from the pre-digital methods of political organising?

As well as giving a fascinating glimpse into how movements were built and maintained before the digital world, this exhibition documents the wonderful work of the Nottinghamshire Women’s Liberation Movement throughout over a series of decades. For anyone with an interest in political or feminist history, this is a very special display indeed; the wealth of items on display brings life to an important era of history, while also making us reflect on our own times.

Sarah Colborne, an Archivist at the Manuscripts and Special Collections department of the University of Nottingham was kind enough to meet me to give me a tour of the exhibition and explain how it came to be:

“A couple of women approached us who had papers of their own from the time, and they were also interested in recording interviews with women that they knew who were particularly active in the period,” Sarah tells me. “There are feminist archives in the North, in Leeds, and the South, in Bristol, but there wasn't really one that covered the East Midlands region.”

Sarah describes how the archive came together ‘very organically’ through the newly set up Nottingham Feminist Archive Group and the Women's Centre Library, with those involved approaching their friends and local networks, many of whom still live in Nottingham. “The two collections really complement each other because in the archive it can be a bit scrappy. From some women we've got six or seven boxes of stuff showing all the different campaigns they were involved in. Other women have just donated a sketch, a badge or two,or some flyers.”

If you were stuck in a corner of the East Midlands, but were able to subscribe to something like Spare Rib magazine, you could know that there were sisters out there like you

There is information on a huge range of feminist topics and causes; from sexism in higher education, racism in schools, women’s refuges and abortion rights, to campaigns such as Women Against Pit Closures, the Working Women’s Charter, and the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Told through scribbled minutes from discussion groups (‘We all ended up in the pub’, says one record), hand drawn posters for festivals, and zines cobbled together on typewriters, the story of feminism in Nottingham is revealed, and there is a real sense of the women on the other side of the pen.

“You can see a real range in production values. You've got the glossies, and then things like the Working Classrooms Liberation Newsletter, which is so homemade, all cut and pasted and using sugar paper,” Sarah tells me. “And there's an anarchist magazine called Dragon, that's a loan from The Sparrows’ Nest. So there’s some real different approaches.”

Of course, the message that this exhibition puts front and centre is that these rights had to be fought for, and how we often take them for granted today. “These stories and their achievements are not properly celebrated, and you realise how easy it would be to roll back those rights,” says Sarah. “So obviously there's still huge changes that need to be made culturally to get women on equal footing, but it's really inspiring to see the energy, imagination, and the creativity that went into all of that.”

Again, this makes me reflect on how we protest, organise and connect with each other today, which is so bound up in algorithms and the ever-depressing scroll. It’s great that we’re connected and can communicate with such immediacy, but I can’t imagine an exhibition like this in fifty years that would have the same reflective stillness and plethora of tangible items to view.

“With the zines, it's an incredible way of taking control of your messaging and reaching an audience. Now we have social media, but then it was literally people scrapping together these magazines and feeling connected,” Sarah explains. “If you were stuck in a corner of the East Midlands, but were able to subscribe to something like Spare Rib magazine, you could know that there were sisters out there like you.”

The final thought I had of the exhibition was of the lineage of political movements, each built on the shoulders of their predecessors. The granddaughters of the suffragettes, who chained themselves to railings, made zines in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and their granddaughters today make Tiktoks. Who knows what forms of activism will come next. The tools may change but the fight can only persist, and looking back on this impressive display of activism, we can be inspired to carry on.

Dear Sisters is open Tuesday-Sunday at Lakeside Arts’ Western Gallery until Sunday 1 September, with free admission. For information about related talks and gallery tours, visit lakesidearts.org.uk

With thanks to Rosemary Wels, the Nottingham Feminist Archive Group & the Women's Centre Library for use of images.


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