Helen’s testimony (part 2 of 2)

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In the second part of her testimony, Helen talks about her mother’s experiences as a young woman, feeling like part of the wider Women’s Movement through Spare Rib magazine and activism in the early 1980s at the Women Against Violence Against Women conference.

Do you still read feminist magazines or what do you read?

I don’t read feminist magazines. About four or five years ago I subscribed to a new feminist magazine online but I can’t remember the name of it; it lasted about two years and then folded.  That came about from the whole process of being my age, and retiring, and thinking about the past sometimes, and reflecting on who you are. I think I was trying to be more in touch with the person I was in my 20s and my 30s. So I subscribed to this magazine and it was interesting; but as I say I think it came out as a quarterly for about two years and then disappeared. I’ve never been much of a magazine reader apart from Spare Rib. I don’t read other magazines, no.

We’ve [also] been thinking about that relationship between print media and digital media and the difference it makes turning the page of a magazine, waiting for it to come out each month as you described before, versus the ways in which magazines appear online. And that’s a very different kind of experience I think for the reader. When we spoke to someone who worked at Gal Dem, she talked about the 24-hour news cycle and that, basically now you’re expected to produce content all the time and it’s just such a different model to the model that we were used to. Particularly with the monthly magazine which kind of gives a shape in a sense to your year.

Yeah, yeah that’s right, yeah.

I was going to also ask about your mother because we’ve got a question on the website about whether or not your mother read feminist magazines?

No, no she didn’t. She was born in 1922, so she didn’t have the opportunity. There were many, many things she didn’t have the opportunity to do, coming from rural Scotland. She left school when the war started, she went into an office to work, she then married my father who was a very conservative man. He would have been deeply ashamed if his wife had worked. She had to leave the work that she was in when she got married; she wasn’t allowed to carry on. So she had a kind of a life that was constrained by a lot of factors. If she’d lived 40 years later she would have been a different person; well she’d have been the same person but she’d have had such big horizons. She was always very sympathetic to ideas. [She was] a bit anxious at times, [for example], got very anxious when I had an affair with a married man… “oh, what if you get cited in divorce proceedings?” and I’m saying “so what”. But she was very supportive of the ideas and of women being able to do whatever they wished to accomplish.

It’s funny isn’t it because obviously a lot of the time when we see the kind of debates in circulation at the moment. Sometimes it’s tempting to say nothing has changed but then when you think about your mother’s life… certainly I asked my mother similar questions about whether she read magazines and she’s like “I didn’t have time to read magazines”, that was not possible “I was too busy”. She was working but also bringing up kids and there just wasn’t the space, there wasn’t the opportunity, the possibility of doing that sort of thing, getting involved in any kind of activism either.

She was part of a church group called Young Wives, and she went to that once a week, I think. Goodness knows what they talked about. I never asked but I should think there was a lot of feminist thinking going on in that group.

Yeah. And again, that raises some interesting questions doesn’t it? Because we talk about the second wave but actually it’s not that women were suddenly no longer interested in feminism at certain points in the 20th century, they’ve always been talking about these issues. We just aren’t necessarily aware of them, or they’re kind of hidden; within the context of the church for instance or those sorts of meetings. Do you think that feminist magazines that you were reading when you were younger, like Spare Rib, do you think they continue to influence your life?

I suppose so, I mean I’d forgotten when it stopped publishing but you know, it was a lot of years. It was 20 years or something?

Yeah it was a 21-year run. The first issue is July 72 and then it finishes in 93. So really an exceptionally long run for a magazine whose finances was so precarious. It was always on the brink of collapse.

Yeah, yeah. So it was a lot of years that I was reading it.  And it was like a foundation, having that to reflect on, all those years, to feel that I wasn’t out on a limb. I was part of a broader experience of women, I mean, going to women’s movement conferences or marches or whatever, it was just extraordinary. You look around you and think “no, we’re not a wee ‘Fringe’ because there’s thousands of us here”; it was a wonderful experience.

Do you remember any particular marches or particular conferences that you attended just to so we can kind of get our bearings in terms of our history of the women’s movement?

Well, I went to the women against violence against women conference in Leeds in 1980 that the media picked up on because at the end we went on a Reclaim the Night march. I don’t know if you remember, the reason it hit the media was that some women went into a cinema and splashed red paint on the screen because that particular cinema was showing soft porn movies. But we also did things like corral individual men – I remember being part of a group that had this man backed up against a lamppost and we were just, you know, reversing the process. The poor man. I mean you know he might have been a feminist thinker, who knows; but anyway we were sort of saying “oh you look lovely darling” and all this kind of stuff.  About eight women around this lamppost. That sort of thing hit the media, and there was a lot of “oh dear these women behaving like this, how terrible!” and you think, Jesus, all the things that women put up with all the time – this is absolutely nothing. “Destruction of property”; my goodness all the things. I mean, it was very memorable and it was a very well organized conference that one.  [It was] while I was part of the Rape Crisis Line in Manchester, part of the group that set it up, so that was why I went to a number of things to do with Rape Crisis lines or meetings about violence against women.

That is absolutely brilliant thank you Helen. Have you got anything else you wanted to add is there something we’ve not touched on that you wanted to?

So when we were talking about [online] media, I suddenly thought about one thing I also read now. I have a good friend from University called Jo Clifford who’s a playwright and she’s a trans woman. She writes a weekly blog and then adds in other things as well, and I find her thought process really interesting. She’s a very strong feminist and I’ve known her a very long time, and used to know her daughters when they were children and her one of her daughters writes for Cosmopolitan and also has a blog. I wonder if that’s also happening, whether other people are finding individuals that they find interesting who write things, and they read them rather than a magazine as it were, which is collectively produced or and has to meet commercial goals.

Yes, yes that’s true isn’t it? The internet sort of holds all these blogs. So the internet in a way is a sort of giant magazine isn’t it that you can just pull things out of it if you can find them I suppose. You open up the fields with something like blogs, you can seek out whatever tickles your fancy. And I suppose I suppose the key difference is that in a magazine you’re often forced to confront content that you might not otherwise encounter because all of these different opinions and different features and items all kind of rubbing up against each other and sometimes in quite awkward ways.

Yeah, yeah I suppose I get that from the Guardian. I read the Guardian every day, it’s not a magazine, but I encounter things that I don’t necessarily agree with or think, and look below or beyond, as you’ve just suggested.

Thank you so much it’s really, really interesting to hear your thoughts on Spare Rib and your memory of reading Spare Rib and your memories of activism as well. It’s been incredibly helpful to us. So thanks for taking the time to do this.

It was a pleasure. It was an opportunity for me.


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