Visitors to the opening night of exhibition ‘Music and Liberation’ in London (please scroll down for more information) on Friday, 30 November, enjoyed a fascinating talk by Jude Alderson of the Sadista Sisters, a stirring song session with Frankie Armstrong, a spontaneous performance of ‘History Is No Place For A Lady’ by two members of Clapperclaw and a rousing rendition from Lizzie Shirley of the suffragette anthem ‘The March of The Women,’ by composer Ethel Smyth (who, during two month’s imprisonment in Holloway, leaned from her cell window and conducted the suffragettes singing it in the exercise yard below with her toothbrush.)
A speech about the music archive given by Frankie Green is posted here by request:
‘A big thank you to everyone who has come along tonight, and to Debi for inviting me to speak and share some thoughts on the Women’s Liberation Music Archive. Coming to south London tonight, as I thought about how the archive came about, I felt accompanied by many ghosts. There is much feminist and lesbian history around us. For example, in March 1972 women who’d met through Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front women’s group gathered at the council flat of Hazel Twort, a founder of WLM and the Peckham Rye WL group, and began the first feminist band to come out of the movement (to the best of my knowledge): the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band (a catchy little title) [which was shortly followed by the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band.] In the mid-70s I lived myself in Peckham and rehearsed in a shed with women met through a notice in the London Women’s Liberation Workshop newsletter, in a band called Jam Today, whose members continue in musical careers. And at that time, just down the road in Vauxhall two whole terraced streets were women’s squats, a dyke community with one of London’s first feminist discos in a local pub and the first South London Women’s Art Centre in one of the houses in Radnor Terrace. Nearby there is the rich history of Brixton’s squatting, anti-racist, women’s and LGBT activism. And so on …
Patching such pieces together is the kind of work we are doing in the archive, to create a bigger picture of the political context, in which to make real that which may otherwise be fragmented and lost. And some women from that era are no longer with us. I feel passionate also about honouring their memory.
I count myself very lucky to have been involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the late 1960s onwards, and in making feminist music with many great women back then, as groups proliferated all over the place in many musical genres. Over subsequent years when we met we said to one another: we really must collect and document our music from that time, to ensure women’s achievements are not yet again ‘hidden from history’! We began dragging out stuff we had kept in boxes, in attics and under our beds, and, around the turn of the century, sorting it out, digitising some dusty old cassette tapes and talking seriously about what to do with it all.
In 2010 I went to the Women’s Library exhibition marking the fortieth anniversary of our first national WLM conference. It was great to see film of the London Women’s Street Theatre Group on the first International Women’s Day march through London in 1971, and a Spare Rib benefit poster featuring the band Spoilsports. I remarked to my old friend radical feminist Amanda Sebestyen – who I’m delighted is here this evening – that I’d like to see more about political-cultural activism, especially music, and felt an increasing urgency to write about this aspect of our movement which could otherwise could be marginalised or unknown. Amanda put Debi Withers in touch with me, knowing she was keen to research and archive this material. She and I began the work which has born fruit in this exhibition curated by Debi, and the Women’s Liberation Music Archive on which it is based. The online archive has grown since its launch in May 2011, with over fortyone thousand hits to date, and the physical collection of artefacts will be housed by the Feminist Archive South in Bristol.
While spending many months on the computer searching out contacts and networking, tracking down women I’d lost touch with for decades, and uploading masses of stuff to the website, it was moving from the outset to find the generous responses from huge numbers of women contacted by Debi and myself. In a very real sense it’s their archive and I am very glad we were able to facilitate it. They loaned and donated music, films, photos, lyrics, tickets, posters, hand-written set lists and some wrote personal pieces specially for us – women such as Frankie Armstrong, Rix Pyke from Clapperclaw, Paddy Tanton from the Lizzy Smith Band, who it is also wonderful to see here tonight. They made this archive possible through both their support now and (often unpaid) hard work decades ago.
Now, most of what we fought against then continues to rear its ugly head. Domestic and sexual violence; pornography; prostitution; trafficking of women and children; religious fundamentalism; the racist and xenophobic legacy of imperialism; Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation by avaricious capitalism that siphons off wealth away from the common good to the super-rich elite; right-wing attacks on working class and disabled people, savaging the welfare state and NHS, cutting essential benefits and resources with the ensuing deliberate impoverishment affecting our hard-won reproductive rights, incomes, housing, employment, childcare … patriarchy and heterosexism oppressing women in myriad ways around the world, through all the systems that view women as commodities and chattels, manifesting the same misogynist and male supremacist agenda.
Believe it or not, I am actually known as someone who looks on the bright side! Which is that: always and everywhere, women resist! Our resistance to oppression takes many forms. It springs up whenever we are downtrodden, sold, beaten, exploited and denied our human rights. We organise and fight back, we campaign and create solidarity, all over the world. Progressive cultural activism is part of this struggle. Opponents of justice and freedom know this, whether instigating the destruction of arts funding and education here, the Taliban banning music, or the jailing of Pussy Riot. I have always been inspired by political culture, by people like Chilean Victor Jara or Palestinian Reem Kelani, who know the split between political activism and culture is a false one. Nor are the arts an add-on or luxury. ‘Music is the spirit, music is life,’ said jazz legends Mary Maria Parks and Albert Ayler: ‘Music is the healing force of the universe.’
That was why I got involved in music in the 1970s and why I now want to let people know what we were about in Women’s Liberation. We wanted regime change; same as now. Not simply equality within an unjust world. At our most radical we were internationalist, anarchic, wanting revolutionary change. Our music and art and books and pamphlets and films and theatre and photography and poetry and posters and magazines and dancing and events were part of that. The sounds and songs we made voiced our passions and rage, humour and joy, demands and dreams, manifestos and hopes for a transformation of the world.
The Women’s Liberation Music Archive is valued by many people as an idea whose time has come. It will continue to grow and develop and hopefully be a useful resource – a testimony to feminist creativity and autonomy.