(Originally posted to the History Matters blog on May 25th.)
Three years ago when my parents were sorting through my grandmother’s things, they came across a file. When they opened it they thought, “Hattie studies English Literature; I wonder what she’d make of this”. And into my arms fell a lifetime of poetry and testimony from a shy and very modest woman. A woman who I came to realise I never really knew.
“I’m trying to find out about women poets and women editors and writers and intellectuals in Leeds and Nigeria during the 50s and 60s… it was harder for women to publish then, but also [there is little to] reflect the fact that they were doing it… So, um, I think it’s really important that we start standing up and telling our stories and pushing against that feeling of ‘oooh, I don’t think that my story is worth telling’”.
When I think about my grandmother’s words in an unopened box in a cupboard at home, never spoken and never shared, my belief in the importance of recording feminist oral histories is made even stronger.
Oral history is about recording memories and experiences, this is why it is a fantastic way of capturing personal stories which are often silenced in dominant narratives of the past. In feminist terms, it is about digging our heels in when the approved femininity of socialised modesty rears its head, and fighting the compulsion that induces us to be so self-critical that we silence ourselves, putting our words into boxes that we keep in a cupboard at home.
Telling my grandmother’s story is how I came to undertake a work placement for the Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA). The SFA is a grassroots volunteer-led (and expressly political) history project which recognises the importance of recording women’s histories. This is done by encouraging donations of physical artefacts and documents to a collection housed as Sheffield Archives, as well as creating content by carrying out oral history interviews. The SFA are speaking to people of all ages, genders and ethnicities in an attempt to capture Sheffield’s history of women’s liberation.
This is not merely in an effort to compete with the grand andocentric narrative; it also validates the experiences of the small people like my grandmother and I, by giving us the opportunity to say, “I was there. I bore witness. I have something to say”. And even if our own histories don’t get recorded, we can still hear them in the narratives and cadences of the self-identifying female voices that did – just as I heard my grandmother’s story in Rachel Bower’s testimony.
As many women share common experiences, it can be very powerful to share these experiences out loud. Kristina Minster said “[w]omen speaking together encounter one another for the purpose of searching for and collaboratively constructing both personal and female cultural identity”; this was something I witnessed at the SFA project update meeting to celebrate Women’s History Month.
As we played snippets from our oral history interviews, I saw heads nodding in understanding, and knowing smiles from women in the audience who could clearly identify with the experiences of the women they were listening to. In these moments we see part of ourselves, but we also see the patriarchal meta-narratives that have influenced that piece of us, and by exposing this we can resist it. This is why I believe that recording feminist oral histories is not only historically important, but a powerful and empowering form of activism and resistance.
Thanks for reading,
Kristina Minster, ‘A Feminist Frame for the Oral History Interview’ in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (London: Routledge, 1991) pp.27-42 (p.34).