Exploring the Archives: Sheffield Women’s Lib Movement in the 1970s

MA students in the School of English are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme. In Semester 2 this year, Mollie Littlewood worked at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library as a social media assistant. She wrote a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures. This post first appeared on Sheffield Libraries’ blog on 6 March 2017.

Content note: discussion of rape and violence.

The Sheffield Women’s Newsletter was produced by the Sheffield Women’s Liberation Movement which appears to have been established in the late 1960s. It was a group that criticised the male dominated society and condemned sexism. The group campaigned on issues such as equal pay, violence against women, rape, pornography and ‘cultural sexist attitudes’. The newsletter was a space for women in Sheffield to communicate with one another and form a support network as they campaigned for women’s rights.

The first Sheffield Women’s Newsletter was published in May 1971 and took the form of a two-side typescript page outlining the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement. By 1979 the newsletter had become a stapled booklet with hand drawn illustrations, personal articles and poetry from women in the movement. The women in the movement produced the newsletters themselves. All of the material in the newsletters was composed, typed and drawn by them including the illustrations that appear in the issues at the latter end of the decade. In 1976 they began to draw front covers for the newsletters and illustrations for the articles and poems. These are all hand drawn in felt tip pen. This DIY ethic makes the newsletters feel more personal – they remind the reader that local women were making them with limited resources. The illustrations give the newsletter greater appeal than plain text, but they are cleverly used to help present the points made in the written pieces.

The group later learnt how to print the newsletters themselves. An article written by Jos Kingston in the springtime 1978 issue discusses the printing group and her experience of teaching herself how to print with a machine and platemaker that was now in use at the Polytechnic Student’s Union (now Sheffield Hallam University). She writes that ‘the “man from Roneo” gave two 20-minute trainings in what knobs to turn, and the rest of my learning was trial and error’. She basically taught herself how to print and although she admits to wasting almost £20 worth of materials in the process, in the end she finds a great satisfaction in the skill she has gained: ‘It’s such an advantage if you’re participating in the whole process of communicating what matters to you, from start to finish’. These newsletters were a space for women to voice their opinions and any outside help they would have had or asked for would have most likely been from men. I feel a sense of pride when I read these newsletters because these women were breaking gender stereotypes and revealing their own capabilities. Jos discusses in her article the desires of herself and others in the printing group to try and make a living out of printing. They enjoyed learning a skill that would not have been taught to them otherwise and sought the feeling of independence that comes with earning money.

Although the newsletter in itself is an exhibition of these women’s talents, the issues discussed within it are incredibly sobering. In the July 1975 issue, Shirley Field writes an article entitled ‘Some Notes on Rape’. She discusses a ruling by the House of Lords that a defendant in a rape case could escape conviction if he believed the woman consented. She writes ‘the defendant’s belief does not even have to be a reasonable one’. In 1975 the charge of rape could be dismissed if the man stated that he believed the women enjoyed it. Shirley Field discusses the views of a Sir Harold Cassel whose opinion was that ‘a resisting woman could well be giving the man the additional thrill of a struggle’. The use of the word ‘could’ in his statement highlights the ludicrousness of the situation. The judges in the courts were relying on their own personal viewpoint rather than fact. Field highlights the impossible situation this placed women in: ‘the procedure of going through the courts to prosecute a rapist is already severe how many women will run the gauntlet of sneers and jokes to be told that she got what she asked for and enjoyed it!’ This level of sexism shocked me – this was happening only 40 years ago when my parents were teenagers!

Some of the articles written in the newsletters take a more comic and light-hearted approach although they are still discussing serious issues. There is an article in the Jan/Feb 1978 issue written by Sue Pethen who discusses her experience of pregnancy. Whilst reading her article I had to constantly remind myself that it was written in the late 1970s and not much earlier in the century. She discusses the booklet produced by the British Medical Association that she received at her first antenatal visit to the hospital. It emphasised the need for sleep: ‘if you are working, when you get home, before starting any of the household work, put your feet up for an hour, and try to doze off’. Of course the housework was a must and pregnancy did not exempt women from this task. The booklet tentatively suggested that the husband might help out with cleaning the bath as this was seen as a danger, however all other housework was perfectly acceptable for a pregnant woman to do. The booklet gave suggestions as to how to cope with backache. Women were advised to ‘carry two shopping bags, one in each hand, rather than only one heavy one; do tasks like ironing, washing up, peeling vegetables sitting down’. The illustration that accompanies this article comically depicts a heavily pregnant woman sat down with an ironing board over her knee looking tired and angry whilst her husband stands in front of her smiling handing her flowers. The illustration captures the essence of the article perfectly and I suspect that male input into the newsletter would have altered its look and tone significantly. It made me realise the importance of the fact that these women produced these newsletters by themselves as it enabled them to completely critique and expose the reality of their situation without censorship.

Finally, the contributions to these newsletters that have struck me the most are the poems. They are few and far between but they give an insight into the true inner emotions of a woman living through a time of fighting for equality. In the Feb/March 1979 issue of the newsletter there is a poem by Judy Tyrrell about her not feeling at home in her own home. She feels suffocated and trapped at home: ‘Like feeding with a jumper/ Pulled over your head.’ She compares her home to her experience of being in the Women’s Movement. As part of the Women’s Movement she writes ‘My own eyes have seen/My lips shared thoughts/Closeness and warmth’. In the movement she has the freedom to speak and she feels part of a community, ‘But they find no room’ in her home with her husband. She writes ‘I carry my space inside me’. She cannot share her feeling of freedom with her husband; she has to keep it private. The poem also describes the patriarchal home she lives in; ‘I am neatly hemmed in/With unspoken expectations/ All framework and fodder’. At home she is trapped by the masculine ideal of women, an ideal that does not have to be spoken but is simply known. She writes that in the Women’s Movement ‘We choose to live differently’, whereas her compliant behaviour at home is ‘an empty gesture –/ A failure to say no.’ This poem gives a moving insight into the double lives some of the women in the movement were living. They were fighting for equal rights but these had not yet been granted and so they were also still living in the world of gender inequality. Many women will have been both a woman of the movement and a wife.

— Mollie Littlewood

Records relating to the Sheffield Women’s Liberation Movement, c.1971-1980 (Sheffield City Archives MD7966; X695); Images © Sheffield Women’s Newsletter.

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