Rigiberto Menchu and the Feminist Library

2014 is The Year of Reading Women and there is no better way of celebrating this than hearing how Lorraine Meads, a Principal Librarian for Children, Families & Schools in Northamptonshire, helped create the first Feminist Library in Nottingham. This would have a profound effect on both her career and in shaping her outlook. The Library is also featured in our Ms. Hood chapter, out on 8 December. 

I went to volunteer at the Women’s Centre in Nottingham when they moved to their new premises on Chaucer Street.  I was asked by the management committee to volunteer in the Library which was very therapeutic and helped me through some very difficult times that eventually led me on a journey back into education, studying for a Masters in Women’s Studies at Loughborough University in the early 1990s. Not bad for a council estate girl who left school with no qualifications, and a struggling single parent!

The proposed Library was on the top floor of a building in a cold dark room. It was filled with boxes of books that needed sorting and cataloguing, and the need to extend the collections by writing begging letters to publishing houses for free copies of books that were not in the mainstream libraries at that time.  The only other access to a number of Feminist and alternative books was a lovely little shop in Hockley which has since closed down.

I suppose I was an angry young woman who had survived an abusive relationship, unhelpful police and public services, and felt release by volunteering and enjoying the camaraderie of women who had had similar experiences. My friend and niece Ebru Ince (Turkish) helped put the library in order and opened the library in the afternoons talking and supporting women who came in to find what they wanted in terms of extending their knowledge on aspects that affected their lives. There was always a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on, and a helping hand to turn the sadness into something productive.

Members of the NFAN Reading Group. See 'related reading' to get involved.

Members of the NFAN Reading Group. See ‘related reading’ to get involved.

Public reaction was that we were all man hating lesbians! Who were radical and could not be taken seriously. I fondly remember ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches as women tried to reclaim the spaces that were denied them because of fear of assault. The attitude at the time was women deserved abuse for wearing provocative clothing.

At the same time I took into my home two young Iranian women who had fled Iran via the Red Cross, they lived as my lodgers for a number of years and have both gone on to live very successful and productive lives. I felt that women needed a safe place to come and research/learn about their rights to work together to publicise injustices against women

Life takes many twists and turns and I vividly remember being incensed at the Stepford Wives film, in which a young mother begins to suspect that the frighteningly submissive housewives in her new neighbourhood may be robots created by their husbands. I then discovered Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique at the library, a book which is widely seen as creating the second-wave of feminism. In it, Friedan conducted surveys with suburban housewives and, surprise surprise, discovered that many of them were very unhappy. It really made me want to connect on a deeper level with other women.

I then became interested in global injustice and read Rigiberto Menchu’s Crossing Borders, a harrowing book about how she fled her homeland. Menchu has dedicated her life towards publicizing the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996) and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. I got the opportunity to actually meet her at a Liverpool University event which was profoundly moving.

These books, issues and people have shaped my career for the past twenty years which has been concentrated on children and family services. I have become interested in how young people today are being fed gender loaded images which both create and maintain gender imbalances. Now, as a librarian, I see books and education as a means of fighting against these prejudices and inspiring people to make a difference. My new battle is fighting to make libraries a valuable tool of the community before they face extinction.

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