Coming to have a public life/Working things out together
The Project was one
of many, born out of initiatives established by the Womens Committee
of Lambeth Council. At that time supported by the Greater London Council,
which came under Labours control in 1981, led by Ken Livingstone.
The Womens Committee of the GLC emerged later in 1982. Its
purposed to provide political and financial support to Womens organisations
and issues. It drew on the political experience of the community struggles
which had developed since the 1970s, and aimed to unify and co-ordinate
the knowledge which existed already, among women from those communities.
Over 70 Women worked
for the Womens Committee Support Unit, at the GLC. The unit issued
grants to Womens groups and organisations throughout London. Grants
were available for projects including Womens Centres, infant day-care,
safe transportation and health campaigns. It was involved in the promotion
of equality for all women, including black and ethnic minorities, lesbians,
women with disabilities, older women and girls. It was an information
and campaigning resource, and it worked with other GLC committees and
departments - housing, transport, planning, arts, recreation and employment
- to ensure that womens needs were recognised in all aspects of
the councils work. The GLC was abolished in 1985, although many local
councils were still run by a Labour Councillor, the Conservative government
under Margaret Thatcher began withdrawing funds and support for this kind
of community based project.
In 1997 Lambeth Council
withdrew almost all funding for the Lambeth Womens Project, and
its support workers. Womens Network took over the running of the
building, on a voluntary basis. In the next three years, one worker was
employed for a contract of 6 months for one day a week. Her contract ran
out in December of last year and it was announced that the building would
have to close, due to a lack of funds and support from the local community.
Meanwhile, 16 million pounds had been granted to the Stockwell Regeneration
Committee to improve facilities, infrastructure, housing and establish
initiatives for young people and the unemployed in the area. In the following
discussion at the Lambeth Womens Project, we tried to establish
a way of tackling the issue of why the Womens project had not been
considered an important community facility, and had not been offered funds
from the Stockwell Regeneration Committee. This we hoped would help prepare
us for a meeting, taking place between the representatives from the Stockwell
Regeneration Committee and the local people in Stockwell, that evening.
Maureen: I think this
area is under-funded, and in particular there is no money being put into
Womens issues. You can see here that a lot of things need to be
done because it is in your face. People talk about it, and well, I can
see it. Its just a facelift as it were, looking good, but the deeper
issues are how we live every day. There needs to be a lot more information,
visual, I mean I know Lambeth council, they have a web site, but how many
people have access to a web site. It needs to be well circulated, because
I dont really know much about what is going on in the community,
apart from what I hear from other people, like some of the things that
I have heard from the women here today. Now I am taking things back, I
realise there is not a lot, and things are closing down and there is not
enough funding to do it up, so perhaps there is not that much being done.
Abda: My name is Abda,
I am a member of the management committee of the Lambeth Womens
project, my involvement with the project has been many years. As a person,
my interest is womens issues. I wanted to see different Womens
projects within this centre, where women can meet together, socialise.
At the same time there are different needs for women, as mothers, workers
and part of the society. This is the only project for women in Lambeth.
I am a community worker, I also work for the Horn of Africa Refugee Parents
Association, where we only work for the needs of refugee women. If funding
is given to this centre, a lot of activities can be provided that will
impact positively on the rest of the community. At the moment, the changes
I see are in terms of cleaning, the area seems much cleaner, but in terms
of meeting the needs of the population, I dont think a change has
really been shown. If you see in society, many women are at home doing
everything, women are under pressure. In order for women to come together,
in order to get time for themselves, to look at themselves and to develop
themselves they really need to meet with each other, it is very important
to meet within their own space and their own organisation.
Christine: In other
projects, where men are involved, they quite quickly become dominated
by men and mens issues. I think men see these projects as much for
their own personal gain and advancement, and women, well I do think it
is important to try and maintain it as a Womens project. In a way
the issues were more separated 20 years ago in terms of equalities for
example and it was very clearly recognised that there were inequalities.
There were very specific political ideas to deal with those separately.
For example, there was a race unit, and a Womens unit, but because
those were seen to be expensive, even though the issues didnt go
away, there was a lot of rationalisation for doing away with those units.
It has gone with really, very, little protest. Now again the government
is talking about equality, and for example Lambeth has done a big report
on race and all the same things have come up that came up ten or twenty
years ago. But are they prepared to put the resources into it? and my
guess is no, theyre not. We have got a real struggle now, when there
seemed like there were open ended resources, now those are the things
that are going to suffer.
Abda: I really agree
with what Christine is saying. In terms of this, things like child-care,
there is still not enough child-care provision in this country, and support
for women in the family. The government is really not funding Womens
projects. I mean if we really have to follow what is the politics of today
the needs of the people who are on low incomes or poor or working class
families will not be met. Really at the end of the day, it is working
class women who really need the centre, those women need to come together
and resolve the issues that really concern them.
Ego: But women dont
realise that they have that right to space and time, to decide what they
want to do, or understand more about themselves and the value of that.
Christine: We dont
value it, and society doesnt value the informality and the necessity
for people to get together in groups. Its no good having a consultation
and expecting people to come if they have not already developed their
voice from any kind of perspective, as an individual. Why would I go?
Emma: I dont
see why we should have to try and develop more vocational or training
activities here, to get women back into work, in order to get funding
or stay open. The centre should stay as it is, an informal meeting place
for all women to use. I think the language issue is important, if we can
regularly meet to develop good arguments and ways of discussing womens
issues, and for women who want to learn English or other languages.
Dara: It was Womens
Network that was connected to the project, at that time they had full
time staff, the place used to be open then so you could always drop in.
Now you are usually having to find out when its going to be open
and if you can make it at that time. Its interesting, a nice mixture
of older and younger women. Lots of people are interested in things,
but not necessarily to start them themselves, but if something is happening
they will come, but everybody is waiting for somebody else to start something.
Christine: The money
thats left will cover the bills up until the end of September, but
we have to prepare for that, because if we go beyond that we will be liable
for whatever money we incur after that. We have got a few people who are
using and paying a bit towards the upkeep of the building. We are dependant
on a lot of things that we dont have control of, we dont know
what is going on. There was a long period where the council did support
work with young women, this is a council building and it was more than
a 50% council run project. When the council withdrew funds, we were put
in a position where we said, the Womens Network said, we cant
let this building close, when it looked like the council was just going
to board it up, that was more than three years ago.
We did go to the meeting,
it was obvious that the consultation process was not really a consultation,
more of a platform for the Stockwell Regeneration Committee to tell local
people what they were doing in the area, and how things were going to
improve for them. The next day one of the women, Ego from the project
and I decided to go to the offices of the Stockwell Regeneration Committee
and speak to a representative directly. We wanted to find out how the
consultation had taken place, what part of the scheme was funded by private
investment, and was there any attempt to address Womens issues in
the process of consultation, if so why hadnt we been contacted?
We were told that
the Lambeth Womens Project fell outside of the area that the Stockwell
Regeneration Committee was dealing with, despite the fact that nearly
all the women that use the centre are from within the area. When we pointed
this out somebody decided to meet us. Consultation had been in the form
of a mail out to all the residents and business in the area. It was not
clear how many people responded and how much work was put into encouraging
responses. Half of the money for redevelopment has been given by private
investors, whether in kind or in cash. This is particularly daunting,
the effects can already be seen in a number of sites which have been dedicated
to private housing. The existing shopping centre, occupied by a number
of small independent shops and services, seems destined to become a more
generic centre, for modern chain store outlets, despite claims to the
local business forum that this would not happen. Women were seen to have
been key players in the consultation process, particularly in the structure
of the new community centre, local crèche facilities, safety on
the streets and tenants associations. We asked why had we not been consulted,
when we were going to be affected by these changes, and already had been
to some extent. He said he would look into it.
On the way back to
the Womens Project we passed the site which used to be the Black
Womens Centre, in its place Luxury apartments are under construction,
they will have a gymnasium in there. When we get back to the Centre, some
junkies have constructed a ladder to get over the wall, into the derelict
land beside the Womens Centre. They used to hang out on the site
of the Black Womens Centre before construction began. We ask them
to not use this as an access point, because it is a womens centre,
they agree to go in from the other side in future. This piece of land
has been derelict for about 5 years, we tried to find out who owns it,
but all we know is that a government grant was given to it, but where
the money went, we dont know. Its dereliction affects the
Womens Project enormously, the building that used to be there was
the supporting external wall for the Womens Project building. Since
that has gone, now the building is subsiding, and this alone threatens
the Womens Project with closure. In addition the junkies that hang
out there now, although they do not really impose on the space, make some
women feel uneasy about coming in and out of the building.
We decide and realise
that if we are going to keep the centre going it has to be by ourselves
and with our own initiatives. In the next meeting with the Management
Committee of the Lambeth Womens Project, everybody agrees that we
will try and develop independent ways to fund the building and maintain
it. Some groups that already use the building agree to pay something towards
renting some of the spaces, and other women decide to hold an open day,
to celebrate the activities of the Centre.
I am overwhelmed by the amount of information, leaflets, documents and literature housed in the Feminist Library. There is so much to do in terms of the archive and new volunteers are needed all the time. The space rental is subsidised by Southwark Council, but there are many threats to withdraw this subsidy, that is why the shelf units are free standing. The Library is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12 noon until 8 oclock, and staffed only by volunteers. It operates as a collective, and members meet once a month to discuss coming activities and business. To become a member of the Library you must pay £5 but as a volunteer it is free and if you have children, child-care is paid for. The Feminist Library chooses to distinguish from the Fawcett Library, which is another Womens Library in London, the Feminist Library as a collection is more radical and concerned with a Practice of Feminism than the record of Womens histories, as is the Fawcett Library. Men are allowed to use the library, but only women can work there.
Circles began in 1979,
and produced its first catalogue of about 30 films early in 1980.
It emerged as part of, and drew many of its practices from, the
Womens Liberation Movement.
Part of the initial
reason for establishing an alternative distribution network for women,
came from the experience suffered in 1979 by film-makers Lis Rhodes and
Felicity Sparrow, when they were enlisted to contribute to an Arts Council
of England exhibition on experimental film at the Hayward
Gallery in London. These women saw this as turning into an inherently
anti-feminist event, and they responded by withdrawing their painstakingly
researched work altogether, and leaving the gallery space blank. The research
into forgotten and neglected film-makers, such as Alice Guy and
Maya Deren, later became the initial acquisitions in the Circles distribution
When Circles began
it was run on an entirely voluntary basis. In 1980, Circles received some
grant aid from Tower Hamlets, the local council then under the guidance
of the Greater London Council. However, seven years later all funds were
withdrawn. Following a number of fight back campaigns eventually the British
Film Institute agreed to take up the funding of the organisation. It is
unlikely that a large scale income would ever be generated by the kind
of film and video work they were distributing, it would have to remain
as a non-commercial organisation.
Cinema of Women began
largely as an outlet for campaigning films, on womens work, later
expanding to take in full-length features, narrative and non-narrative,
on film, and on tape. Perhaps most importantly, Cinema of Women acknowledged
the way in which their feminist distribution strategies directly affected
who made up the audience for a particular film. They sought ways to make
the work more accessible, through the introduction of compilation video
tapes with particular themes, such as Sexuality, Work
and Race which allowed for low cost hire.
By the late Eighties
an increasing number of women began to resist the category Feminist
film-maker, and turned for acceptance to alternative distributors, such
as London Video Access, known at that time, internationally as the video
art distributor in the UK. As a result, finding a strong, clearly defined
identity for a womens distributor in the 90s became more difficult.
Circles and Cinema of Women joined hands to form Cinenova.
I was able to watch
a lot of Cinenovas collection during that time. When you look through
the catalogue it is impressive to see the diversity of womens experience
represented, and how for example there are many political works alongside
established artists and film-makers in the same collection. I had
always found the structure of the organisation somewhat confusing, there
is a Management Committee and a Board of Directors. The organisation is
a charity, so these kind of bureaucratic structures need to be in place.
There were two full time employees, and several volunteers.
I had not worked at
Cinenova again until this year, but had been in close contact with its
activities. The organisation had always been threatened with closure,
but in March of this year it had become clear that a decision had to be
made about the future of Cinenova. The London, Film and Video Development
Agency who were now funding Cinenova seemed unlikely to continue supporting
the organisation as they had been, and the money being generated from
distribution was not enough to support other administration costs. All
distribution was suspended, and the Board of Directors began seeking new
offices to house the collection as an archive. Glasgow Womens Library
agreed to take the collection, and a letter was sent to all artists with
work in the collection, stating that they must withdraw their work by
the 11th of May this year, if they did not want their work to go to the
archive in Glasgow. For me the distribution of the work has always been
the most important struggle, so I have started seeking ways of extending
We are sitting in
the tiny office, the heating is on full blast, I end up sitting on the
floor. Suddenly I find myself involved in an impromptu meeting, between
two women who are administrators for Cinenova, and two women film-makers,
Lis Rhodes and Sandra Lahire. One woman is trying to explain that without
more support they dont feel that the organisation can continue.
Sandra and Lis are saying how they would be willing to offer that support,
and try and enlist the support of other women academics. Sandra expresses
how important the collection is to her research for a Ph.D. Lis emphasises
the historical significance of the organisation, what if it were to disappear?
The other woman begins to describe the options which are currently available
to them, which include moving the collection to Glasgow Womens Library,
or the Fawcett Library in London. This would end all distribution but
maintain the collection as an archive. Slowly Lis turns to me and asks
what do you think? I blush with anxiety (and the heat). I
had promised myself that I wouldnt interfere. I think we should
write how the collection and the organisation as a feminist ideal is culturally
significant now, in relation to other film and video distributors.
They say it is a good idea but how would it help things? I suppose I am
thinking about how it would help me, to understand how I feel about the
situation. I can in a practical way continue to promote Cinenova, answer
requests for video and film work and organise tape dubs for screening.
When I was at Cinenova in 1994, I remembered picking up a flyer which said Big Miss Moviola a video distribution/chain letter from Miranda July in Portland Oregon. I wrote to Miranda at that time and received one of the Chain letters, and the suggestion from Miranda that I start something similar here in the UK. During March of this year Miranda visited London to premiere her new video and performance work, as part of the Pandaemonium Festival at the Lux Centre. I was co-curating a programme for the festival which featured works from Cinenova, in an attempt to highlight the fact that distribution was going to stop at Cinenova, and probably most of the collection dispersed. We began a conversation about how to still get to see the work we want to here in London. Through Joanie4jackie in the US (this was Big Miss Moviola, now go to www.joanie4jackie.com) it is possible to see other womens video work at a relatively low cost (by mail order) and in easy to screen formats, on VHS video compilation tapes. So I answered, Yes, lets try and do something similar here.
Emma Hedditch, Copenhagen May 2001