Twentysomething still has much to shout about

September 30, 2005

As Feminist Review publishes its 25th anniversary issue, Anna Fazackerley looks back over its fulfilling, dedicated and turbulent past and talks to members of the collective about politics, race, sexuality and home cooking

The group of women who gathered in a London house one cold evening in 1997 was noticeably depleted. It was almost 20 years after the first issue of the groundbreaking journal Feminist Review had been published. That meant two decades of debates, shared dinners, painful clashes and intense closeness. But now only four members of the collective behind the journal were left. It was time to decide whether it was all over.

The faces missing from the room had quit the group for different reasons. Some had gone in response to particular conflicts - with the tangled issue of race at the heart of many departures. Other women were simply exhausted.

The heady communal days of the women's movement in the Seventies and Eighties had been replaced by something quite different, and it was not altogether certain where this political and academic journal fitted into society anymore. "People were saying the moment was over," explains Helen Crowley, a lecturer in women's studies at London Metropolitan University. "They were feeling their way into a different understanding of the contemporary world."

At this point, Crowley had been with the collective for almost ten years. She was worn out by it too. But like her colleagues Dorothy Griffiths, Avtar Brah and Merl Storr, she was determined not to give up.

"In part, I wanted to carry on because I was so shocked by how much the women's liberation movement had been eclipsed by popular culture," she says. "I felt it was really important that the chain should not get broken - that the negotiation of the world from a feminist perspective was kept alive."

For Griffiths, deputy director of the Tanaka Business School at Imperial College London and the sole remaining founding editor of the journal, the desire to carry on was partly pragmatic. She worked in business, rather than women's studies or sociology, and saw the journal as a vital lifeline to a parallel world of feminist politics that she might otherwise be cut off from.

But it was more than that. "We were part of a political process and I think a lot of us still hurt because of that," Griffiths says. "But for me that was also positive. I learnt a lot on all kinds of levels. It was an important product to be involved with and that is why it was worth the time and energy."

Yet determination wasn't enough - the four women knew that they couldn't carry on putting out the journal alone. And this explained the presence of five new figures at the London meeting. Some of them weren't entirely sure what they were there for, or what they were getting into. Others were simply delighted to be included by this rather exclusive group.

Despite the weariness and the bad taste left by all the battles, the four remaining editors must have been persuasive because by the end of the meeting the collective had five new editors. For now at least, crisis had been averted.

When the journal was launched in 1979, such fundamental schisms might have seemed unlikely. There had been talk in academe of setting up a feminist journal that would give women space to write. Publishers had started eyeing up the market and making approaches. When Feminist Review emerged, it was very much an independent non-commercial creature, run by a collective of editors who published it themselves, that was supported by subscriptions and fundraising. It was caught up in the excitement of the women's liberation movement - a movement that dramatically shaped the lives of many of the women who would join the collective later as well as those there at the beginning.

In her third year studying at Essex University, Crowley was introduced to the journal by two lecturers who were founding editors. She remembers a wonderful fundraising event at Islington Town Hall, in London, during which people made badges and a beautiful hand-knitted cardigan was auctioned. And, crucially, she recalls a very particular sort of zeal. "In the Seventies there was something special about our generation that was bound up with the anti-war movement and a sense of political agency about bringing about change," she says. "There was a kind of communalism, even though it was enormously conflict-full at the time. There was a real feeling that we could change things."

Griffiths agrees that belief powered the new journal. "Everyone was totally committed to the project. We thought we were doing something very important," she says. The collective held readers' meetings around the country, and Griffiths explains that right from the beginning the journal became a channel for political debate, with people both within and outside academe contributing material. "The early issues were a who's who of feminist theory," she says proudly. "Maybe there was more passion about politics then."

The early years of the collective were strikingly communal. This was not a standard academic journal with hurried, official meetings around university tables or on the telephone. Instead, the women took it in turns to cook for each other in their own homes - fare that is now legendary and even spawned a Feminist Review cookbook. This was made easier because the collective was heavily London-centric; some members even lived together in a house on the Caledonian Road in the north of the capital. "One week we might have met at my house and the next it would be someone else's," explains Brah, who joined the collective in the mid-Eighties. "It was all very informal. Everybody cooked something. Whenever we had a celebration or a big evening dinner, the food was really excellent. It was all much more relaxed because we knew each other well."

Once a year the group went away to the countryside, often to a conference centre called Bore Place in Kent. Some members now privately admit that these were often chilly weekends in rather bleak youth hostel-type accommodation. But they became a much-loved tradition that served to bond the editing team. There were walks and more cooking and wine, interwoven with debates and brainstorming sessions.

Yet not everyone felt a part of this. Several members talk of how intimidated they felt when they first joined this close-knit group. "It was a big collective when I joined," Brah now recalls. "That was quite unnerving at first. If you were a newcomer it was much more difficult as everyone had already bonded."

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, now professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, admits that until three other women from ethnic minorities joined the group she dreaded these social events and would often duck out of them. "They were all palsy-walsy," she says. "I came from Cambridge and lived in the North a lot. I was a broke student driving 20-year-old cars. It was close, but not for me."

And all this social interaction had other consequences. Everyone involved in the collective had strongly held political beliefs, but they did not necessarily coincide. Dinners and weekends away offered an opportunity for these differences to surface.

Crowley explains that part of the special energy of feminism in the Seventies came from a feeling of certainty that feminists were united, that they were a coherent force battling for the same things. As the Eighties wore on, this certainty began to ebb away and, accordingly, divisions started appearing in the Feminist Review collective. She recalls a Friday night dinner at someone's house when the cracks showed over the issue of sexuality. It was one of their usual communal-spirited dinners, with women chopping up vegetables together and chatting with glasses of wine. Then one of the group announced that she was getting married. "It was one of those significant moments," Crowley says. "Someone said, 'Well you can because you are heterosexual and you are allowed, but some of us can't.' It was a shock to think that. It was an emotionally framed moment."

It was not that the journal had ignored sexuality as an academic debate. Over the years, the collective published a number of articles on the subject. Two years before, a groundbreaking article called "Upsetting an applecart" had sparked much controversy by tackling lesbian desire, including the taboo of lesbian sadomasochism. But members of the collective admit that they still assumed a straight world (as well as a white one). Crowley adds: "Even though people were committed to fight for lesbian rights, the reality was that some of us were marginalised. We realised that not everyone could take part in this celebration."

This moment of conflict did not ever truly escalate, and no one left because of it, as they would do later. But it was a striking example of how personal these political debates could become.

The divisions over race - which had a much more profound impact - began in a similar way a year later, with rumblings of difference finally erupting during a weekend gathering.

Again racism was not a political debate that the journal had shied away from. In 1984, the collective devoted an entire issue to black feminist perspectives, with the optimistic title Many Voices, One Chant . Two years later, Bhavnani wrote an incendiary piece for the journal attacking the lack of consideration given to questions of racism in socialist feminist accounts of the family and the state. This was prickly stuff - not least because it responded to an article by Mary McIntosh and Michele Barrett, both founding editors of Feminist Review . It sparked a major debate and is now regarded as one of the most important articles the journal has published.

For Bhavnani, the storm that developed over race within the collective was painful, but not altogether unexpected. In 1977, as a young "heavy-duty" feminist based in Leeds, she had written an article warning that feminism needed to take account of race and sent it into the journal Spare Rib . They turned it down flat. "Since then I've always called myself a feminist but distanced myself from what people call mainstream feminism," she says.

Her discomfort about being different was eased when the collective gained a "critical mass" of four non-white women towards the end of the Eighties. But trouble was clearly brewing.

"There was one issue about an article and I couldn't believe they wouldn't publish it," she recalls. "I was asked by one woman, 'Why are you making such a fuss?' She had status on the collective and that turned everyone," she says. The paper was published elsewhere and, Bhavnani notes, is now regarded as "a classic".

She also points to a tense meeting in London in 1989. "We were getting irritated. One of us said, 'Every time I speak I get this vibe in the room - watch out, the black girls are coming!' We all said something similar."

Shortly after that there was a real showdown. The collective had gone away for their annual Kent retreat. The issue of race was brought up and the four women who saw themselves as marginalised did not mince their words. No one is keen to talk about the details now - it remains a painful memory for women on both sides of the dispute. But one member says that non-white women ended up in one room, with white women in another, and some trying unsuccessfully to open communication between the two. Following this, three of the non-white women, including Brah and Bhavnani, left the collective.

"It all fell apart because we didn't want to be the tokens for race. We wanted the white women to take the issue seriously," Brah explains. "You can address a topic as an add-on but to integrate it into everything you do is much more difficult."

For a left-wing group that considered itself to be politically aware this was a tremendous blow. Many of the white women still feel some degree of guilt. Griffiths says: "For me this was the hardest issue. As a white woman you have thought about your own position but no one realised we had been reproducing for black women the very things we'd been fighting to release ourselves from. I don't know if I felt guilt. I certainly felt uncomfortable and very humble."

But Bhavnani stresses: "No one was racist - not at all. We knew people could move on, which was why we kept on with it. The (white) women really freaked when we said something. They thought they had it right. And also subconsciously I think they felt they were losing control."

The collective did move on. The matter was debated and discussed, and a year later, after a somewhat confessional editorial, the rebels returned.

Bhavnani, who moved to the US and became a contributing editor in 1991, maintains that this conflict was a good thing. "I think the strength of Feminist Review was that it was a collective and everything could be discussed. Feminism says that experience matters, not just the idea. We are human beings - we are not only intellects."

"How can you not have conflicts? We live in a world full of conflict!" Crowley insists. Nonetheless, the women who subsequently joined the group are relieved that they missed out on these upsetting clashes. At a recent round table meeting reflecting on this history, Lyn Thomas, a lecturer in French literature, media and culture at London Metropolitan University, who joined at the critical meeting in 1997, told the collective: "Whenever I hear you talk about it I think 'Thank God, I wasn't in it'. I would have fallen to pieces; I would have been terrified."

For Thomas, the journal has always been a thing of tremendous significance. She discovered it after leaving her marriage and joining women's groups in the 1970s. "I was working as a teacher and I had a great hunger for an intellectual life. Feminism became this vehicle to my aspiration for an intellectual life," she explains. "I'd met Alison Light at Sussex University and she told me about these meetings in London and I was hanging on her every word, to be honest. It was a world I wasn't part of but which seemed so exciting."

The day she had her first article published in the journal was a major turning point - something she had felt that a young working-class woman from Wolverhampton who had not fitted in at Oxford University could never achieve. "It was a bliss I couldn't have imagined," she says.

But the collective that Thomas belongs to now is a very different beast - and perhaps the reality no longer fits the dream.

The home cooking has been replaced by meals in restaurants and there are no chilly weekends away. The collective, which now has to worry about sales figures and the look of the journal because it is in partnership with a commercial publisher, has become more slick and business-like.

Crowley, who is taking a six-month break from the journal to recover from the pressure of being in the collective, concedes: "We do sometimes feel like we are doing a chore, like washing- up, all the time." But she adds: "Even though we don't do it as often as we'd like, it is still a place where we can exchange ideas and come together. It is a deeply affectionate group."

Nirmal Puwar, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who joined the group in 2000, points out that running a journal through a collective has become extremely rare, and that keeping it going in today's academic climate will be a challenge. "If people are committed it will keep going," she says. "But there is an individualistic trend in academia now - we are ranked on our individual contributions."

And without the political drive and unity of the early days, holding such a group together becomes tougher. "I was very engaged in feminism but now I don't feel engaged at almost any level. I can ask questions now but I can't give answers," Griffiths admits starkly. "I suppose we had a clearer sense of what we were, rightly or wrongly, when we started in 1979."

The big conflicts may have died down, but perhaps this sort of exhaustion - both political and personal - poses an even greater threat to Feminist Review . As one member asked the group recently, if something split the collective in future, would anyone have the energy to start it up again? Yet members past and present refuse to contemplate its end. "It has to be here in ten years," Bhavnani says firmly. "I want to hark back to the Seventies and say how great things were, but things change. Of course the journal has to change or it will die. If I were still a hippy now, it wouldn't make sense in this world."

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