Coming to have a public life/Working things out together

Lambeth Women’s Project
Lambeth Women’s Project was established in 1981, initially it was for young women, more recently it has become a centre for women of all ages. The centre provides a safe place for women to meet and socialise, no men are allowed, only boys up until the age of 8 years. The building has three floors and includes computer equipment, arts, craft and maintenance materials, a kitchen, administration offices, crèche and a lounge, with a television and audio equipment. Lambeth Council own the building, but do not charge any rent, and they do provide some maintenance work. Several groups use the centre on a regular basis, including ‘Stockwell, Portuguese Women’s Group’, ‘Eritrea Community Club’ and permanently renting one office is a group for ‘French speaking African Women’. Until December 2000 there was one paid worker for one day a week, now everybody is a volunteer. Decisions are made by a Management Committee, who meet each month and are ultimately responsible for dealing with all of the finances regarding the Centre.

The Project was one of many, born out of initiatives established by the Women’s Committee of Lambeth Council. At that time supported by the Greater London Council, which came under Labour’s control in 1981, led by Ken Livingstone. The Women’s Committee of the GLC emerged later in 1982. It’s purposed to provide political and financial support to Women’s organisations and issues. It drew on the political experience of the community struggles which had developed since the 1970’s, and aimed to unify and co-ordinate the knowledge which existed already, among women from those communities.

Over 70 Women worked for the Women’s Committee Support Unit, at the GLC. The unit issued grants to Women’s groups and organisations throughout London. Grants were available for projects including Women’s 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 women’s 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 Women’s Project, and its support workers. Women’s 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 Women’s Project, we tried to establish a way of tackling the issue of why the Women’s 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 Women’s 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 Women’s project, my involvement with the project has been many years. As a person, my interest is women’s issues. I wanted to see different Women’s 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 don’t 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 men’s 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 Women’s 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 Women’s unit, but because those were seen to be expensive, even though the issues didn’t 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, they’re 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 Women’s 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 don’t 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 don’t value it, and society doesn’t value the informality and the necessity for people to get together in groups. It’s 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 don’t 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 women’s issues, and for women who want to learn English or other languages.

Dara: It was Women’s 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 it’s going to be open and if you can make it at that time. It’s interesting, a nice mixture of older and younger women. Lot’s 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 that’s 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 don’t have control of, we don’t 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 Women’s Network said, we can’t 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 Women’s issues in the process of consultation, if so why hadn’t we been contacted?

We were told that the Lambeth Women’s 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 Women’s Project we passed the site which used to be the Black Women’s Centre, in it’s 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 Women’s Centre. They used to hang out on the site of the Black Women’s Centre before construction began. We ask them to not use this as an access point, because it is a women’s 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 don’t know. It’s dereliction affects the Women’s Project enormously, the building that used to be there was the supporting external wall for the Women’s Project building. Since that has gone, now the building is subsiding, and this alone threatens the Women’s 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 Women’s 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.

The Feminist Library
The Feminist Library is in a ‘multi-purpose building’ near the Elephant and Castle roundabout in South London. When you go in, there is a long corridor that used to be covered in posters for different activities aimed at women, such as self defence classes, aerobics, poetry readings etc. The administration offices are at the end of the corridor and there are two other rooms off to the left and right, with books and magazines on free standing shelf units. There is a group of women sitting around the table in the magazine room, all reading. Into the other room, where some books are scattered on the floor. There is one woman standing reading a leaflet from a magazine holder, marked ‘radical, lesbian, feminist’, she holds the leaflet up to me, open at a page that shows six women lying on a zebra crossing in the early 80’s, as part of a peace protest in Central London.

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 o’clock, 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 Women’s Library in London, the Feminist Library as a collection is more radical and concerned with a ‘Practice of Feminism’ than the record of Women’s histories, as is the Fawcett Library. Men are allowed to use the library, but only women can work there.

“They’re asking ‘Why do we need two Women’s Distributors’, but the question should be reformulated as ‘Why don’t we need more?’” Jenny Holland one of Circles workers.
During the Seventies and Eighties in the UK, the task of distributing women’s film and video work was taken by two organisations: Circles and Cinema of Women. Through the promotion of a feminist distribution practice which ensured, firstly that distribution opportunities existed for films and videos directed by women, which spoke from and about the position of women, and secondly that such films were not misrepresented, or presented in a manner contrary to the film-maker’s wishes.

Circles began in 1979, and produced it’s first catalogue of about 30 films early in 1980. It emerged as part of, and drew many of it’s practices from, the Women’s 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-maker’s, such as Alice Guy and Maya Deren, later became the initial acquisitions in the Circles distribution catalogue.

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 women’s 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 women’s distributor in the 90’s became more difficult. Circles and Cinema of Women joined hands to form Cinenova.
Launched in 1991, Cinenova became the only UK based, non-profit making distribution company, specialising in independent films and videos directed by women. The collection of films spans 90 years of film-making, with over 400 titles ranging from documentaries to feature films, and including animation, and experimental work (see and left: The contents page for Cinenova women’s film and video distribution in London).
I was working at Cinenova in 1994, for a few months, in the distribution department. I was conducting research into educational institutions who ran women’s studies courses that we could contact, with regard to representing some of Cinenova’s titles in their libraries. At that time we were also aware of the impact that video installation in galleries was having on video in distribution and began to engage in discussions with artists and gallery owners about this trend.

I was able to watch a lot of Cinenova’s collection during that time. When you look through the catalogue it is impressive to see the diversity of women’s experience represented, and how for example there are many political works alongside established artists and film-maker’s 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 it’s 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 Women’s 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 this possibility.

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 don’t 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 Women’s 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 wouldn’t 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 it is possible to see other women’s 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, let’s try and do something similar here”.

Emma Hedditch, Copenhagen May 2001