In this post, Dr. Jo Stanley reflects on the growing visibility of women’s history in bookshops around the globe.
This post celebrates the moment when I realised there was going to be a genre of books called ‘women’s history’ – and that it was going to be incisive, fascinating, written with gravitas and offer me/us all sorts of unexpended gendered insights. The date must have been autumn 1978. I’d gone into Sisterwite, London’s new first women’s bookshop, to see if there was anything about the history of women’s work and industrial relations.
This was my maiden visit, although I’d been in progressive niche bookstores before like City Lights in San Francisco, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and all the London alternative retailers such as Collets, and Compendium.
Browsing, I found the shop’s shelf of women’s history. It wasn’t labelled, but there were seven books there. Seven! So many! Almost a third of a shelf-full, with much space for more!
I was so excited. There they were: in a rather dark space; thigh-height, tucked to the left (well, where else!); rather American; coherently together; and path-breaking. My feeling was of collective victory. We explorers of women’s value were breaking through, at last.
Seeing these physical samples there, grouped together, made me realise ‘So there is a thing, “women’s history” !’ A category. A proof that our past is getting the attention it deserves. From that evidence I discerned that, ‘women’s historiography ‘was feminist accounts of women’s pasts, especially of working women. These days were the early, ultra-confident ‘We can change EVERYTHING! Today!’ moments of the women’s liberation movement. So I took for granted that these seven books were just the start – that there would be more.
I didn’t think ‘And my own books may even be among them, one day’ because, as a mature ex-access student I could barely discern what future was possible.
I was funding my BA by working at the Muswell Hill Bookshop . Although conscientiously trend it didn’t have any kind of women’s section. Had I’d asked Mike, the boss, if I could make such a space he’d have said, sympathetically, ‘But there aren’t enough titles’ and ‘The sales wouldn’t justify the room on the shelves the books would take up.’
Since that Sisterwrite moment of realising that the dark ages were past there may been many happy bibliophile moments, in Silver Moon, Blackwell’s, Central Books, News from Nowhere, New Beacon, Centerprise, Lavender Menace, and Foyles when Silver Moon moved there, for example.
So often I’ve stood back and wondered: ‘Ah, so “women’s historiography” is this, and this, and this, now!’
Four decades on
But in February 2019, two weeks ago, I was very strongly hit by a reminder of how far women’s historiography had come – in terms of volume of populist publications alone.
It was in the National Archives Bookshop at Kew, which you could call a general history bookstore. Looking at the two full bays in the women’s history section I realised I was looking at a major portion of the stock.
Floor to ceiling, very visible, and with such very lively book covers. So many. So varied. (in fact there are currently 448 books labelled women’s history there, plus many more in other sections such as ‘Monarchs’. Works on Elizabeth I take up a whole shelf).
I told the young assistant at the till about that jubilant Sisterwrite moment 41 years earlier. She was bemused: ‘Seven?’ So, this is one of the grounds we have for celebrating Women’s History Month: full shelves.
Pic A. Jo in 1978, permed and hennaed.
Pic B. Jo today, in front of some of her shelves. Picture by Jean Bashford.
Pic C: The TNA Bookshop women’s history shelves, March 2019. Image courtesy of TNA.
Dr Jo Stanley FRSA, FRHistS, is an early member of the WHN. She writes about women’s work at sea. Website: www.jostanley.biz. Blog: http://genderedseas.blogspot.com