Dreams & Dangerous Ideas
Two decades of the Women's Liberation Movement in Aberdeen
Dreams & Dangerous Ideas is an exhibition that documents the activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Aberdeen through remembered stories, memories, and materials gathered from personal attics and archives. Like most radical histories, material relating to the movement is not held in a discrete container, but rather dispersed within larger archives and collections, yet collectively remembered. Gathering the material that forms part of this exhibition involved looking through larger archives, such as the Aberdeen People’s Press Archive, held at the University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections, and the WEA Archive at Glasgow Caledonian University, to source the items scattered through, not holding a place of their own. And like other histories of radical, grassroots movements, a large part of the documentation is constituted by the memories, testimonies and recollections of those that were there, a vast oral archive.
Holding this exhibition now, over fifty years from the rise of the movement, and looking at the world around us, it becomes painfully evident how much, yet how little has changed. The achievements of the movement in the 70s rested on its success in gathering people together, into the empowering strength of a collective, of union and sisterhood. As battles against inequality, violence, discrimination, and austerity are still being fought every day all around us and by most of us, histories of coming together and of collective action are as important as ever.
The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s and 80s was a UK-wide feminist movement that saw the involvement of women across the country in an organised battle against inequality. With its roots in the suffragette movement of the early 1900s, the WLM takes place in the climate of protests and uprisings that characterised most of Europe in the 1960s and 70s. The beginning of the movement is widely ascribed to 1970, with the first Women’s Liberation conference, held in Oxford, attended by over 600 women from across the country. The conference crystalised the struggles of women across the country into four demands: equal pay; the right to equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries. These were later expanded into seven through successive conferences, to include: legal and financial independence for all women; the right to a self-defined sexuality, an end to discrimination against lesbians; and freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women. The conference provided one of the most visible points of the movement, which then proliferated in smaller centres as well as other nation-wide campaigns.
By forming alliances and acting together, the movement allowed women to gain power through a collective voice. This induced changes in policies and legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, which, while still flawed, represented important steps forward. But most of the change was made on a smaller scale, city by city, as local consciousness-raising groups, women’s studies groups and educational courses for women, community theatre groups, women’s centres and aid centres allowed women to come together, become conscious of their identity and learn to fight for their rights.
The exhibition charts the path of the movement in Aberdeen in these key decades. It explores first activities rooted in the community: the formation of women’s studies and wider access courses for women, feminist youth work, crèche provision, support for women’s health and safe places for women at risk from domestic violence or victims of rape. These decades also see the rise of feminist music, notably the bands the Screaming Harpies and The Fabulamas, and that of community theatre groups, such as the Monstrous Regiment, 7:84 and Gay Sweatshop.
Protests and marches were another important part of how the movement organised and mobilised public consciousnesses, becoming visible in the public sphere. Some of these had a local focus, such as the Grill Bar protest and the Music Hall protest, and some were part of a larger, nation-wide effort, such as the National Abortion Campaign and the, still ongoing, Reclaim the Night marches.
The movement was linked to other activist groups, such as those fighting for gay rights and lesbian rights, and workers’ associations. The movement was also closely linked with the activities of other activist, radical centres in Aberdeen, such as the Aberdeen People’s Press, Boomtown Books and Jaws Cafe.
For the largest part, the exhibition relates its stories through printed matters of various kinds, from pamphlets and newsletters to posters and flyers. In themselves, with their copy-and-paste, collaged appearance, and their ephemeral nature, they tell a story of DIY politics that put the means of communication within easy reach of those who needed their message to be passed around. This is the landscape in which Peacock, established in 1974, has its origins; being reminded of it adds another layer to our understanding of the city’s cultural history.
By making visible these materials, stored in attics and basements, half-forgotten, the exhibition wants to highlight the importance of preserving the memory of radical movements, which do not find a place for posterity in institutional archives and structures. It is significant that a vast portion of the items in the exhibition comes from the personal collection of one of the activists involved in the movement at the time, Chris Aldred. Comprising over 400 items, from screenprinted posters to pamphlets, from letters to bus tickets, the collection was catalogued and indexed for the first time by Rosie Barron for the occasion of the exhibition, becoming itself an impressive, rich archive. By unveiling, selecting and arranging these memories and materials together, the exhibition itself creates an archive – or rather, makes archives visible, dusting off boxes, opening them up, bringing their contents to light and organising them so that the stories they tell can be heard and understood.
Selection and arrangement, however, imply discretionary power, leaving someone or something out. While this exhibition was developed and curated in a collective way, what is presented is inevitably reliant on the specificity of the resources and the individuality of the activists involved, the context of the city we are based in, and even the wall space, time and resources available. It does not, and it cannot, claim to be representative of all the voices and struggles of feminism, neither from then nor of now, but it can be a starting point from which to deepen and expand our understanding further.
Looking back at these stories inserts the loud, dissonant presence of radical, activist movements and activities squarely in the city’s past, which may help rewrite the common narratives around Aberdeen that conflate the city with oil extraction alone. Looking back at these stories also gives a measure of how much has changed, in terms of feminism, and of how many of the struggles faced by women fifty years ago are still active battlefields now. Today, women around the world fight for their reproductive rights and agency over their bodies, as so many countries move to rescind or curtail abortion rights; today, women march for safer streets, for the end of male violence over women’s bodies and minds. Reclaim the Night marches, which were initiated in the 1970s to protest against the rape and murder of women assaulted while returning home alone at night, are still ongoing today, as women are persistently the victims of abuse and violence, including by the forces that are supposed to protect them. So many of the rights that women have gained today, such as free contraception, better access to women-specific healthcare, laws and policies to protect against discrimination on the basis of sex, a wider access to education, are direct results of the battles of those years. A large part of what feminism and activism is today, the way it moves and organises, is rooted in these early movements and is only possible because women before us took to the streets, rallied, organised and stood next to each other back then.
This exhibition has been collectively curated by WLM activists Margaret Lochrie, Chris Aldred, Cath McKay, Sandie Wyles, Louise Irvine, peacock & the worm staff Nuno Sacramento and Enxhi Mandija, and Andrew MacGregor at the University of Aberdeen. Peacock & the worm would like to extend a warm thanks to all the external collaborators who have been involved, lending materials and memories, in the making of this exhibition:
Carole MacCallum (Glasgow Caledonian University), Nicola Maksymuik (Glasgow Women’s Library), Clare Thomson (Mitchell Library, Glasgow), Fiona-Jane Brown, Bev A’ Court, Connie Hadden, Maggie Havergal (now Cuddihy), Dizo Christie, Lynn Sangster, Mo Rollo, Elizabeth Shiach, Paula Smith, Jeanette Wiseman, Mary McCusker (Monstrous Regiment), Fiona Harris (Lunney) (The Fabulamas), and Rosie Barron ‘The Tidy Coo’ for her meticulous, impeccable work in photographing and cataloguing Chris Aldred’s personal collection.
Dreams & Dangerous Ideas is accompanied by a series of webinars led by Chris Aldred, Louise Irvine, Margaret Lochrie and Sandie Wyles – details of these can be seen below.