Since beginning to work with the volunteer-run Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA) through the School of English MA work placement module and the Careers Service AHEAD scheme, I’ve learned more about Sheffield feminist history than I ever thought possible. Having access to documents and oral histories relating to women in Sheffield has given me access to voices that may otherwise be buried in dominant narratives of the past. In this blog, I would like to introduce you to our latest campaign, #ShefFemStories, which brings an online dimension to the SFA, beyond our physical archive and oral histories collection.
Before working with the SFA I had no idea that suffragette Adela Pankhurst had made Sheffield her home for a time, and crashed the Town Hall Cutlers’ Feast in protest in 1908. Nor did I know much about the Women of Steel, who are commemorated by a community-funded statue in Sheffield town centre. (Documents, artefacts and information regarding this and much more can be found in SFA’s special collection in the Sheffield Archives, or on our Timeline of Sheffield Feminism, which I helped to develop.)
Although I have learned a lot from our physical archive, one of the most vibrant and fascinating parts of the collective’s work is the Oral History project. This is an ongoing effort to capture the experiences and memories of those involved in feminist activism in Sheffield, past and present, for future generations in the city to access.
Women’s experiences are often the parts of our collective history that are ignored, brushed aside or simply not documented in the first place; documenting oral testimony is an excellent way for to combat this absence of voice and experience, before these stories are lost to us forever.
Preserving women’s oral history is an important endeavour, but traditional methods of doing so may fail to capture shorter or more nuanced forms of testimony that, when accumulated, are equally important. I began to wonder, is there a more effective way of gathering feminist testimony for an archival project in this online age?
I realised that many people may not feel as though they have enough to talk about to warrant an oral history interview, or that their experiences aren’t “important” enough to be documented in full. In fact, this is a trend we’ve seen with many people (especially those who identify as women) approached to do an oral history interview. However, at our stall for The Woodland Heritage Festival, people were very keen to fill out “I am a feminist because…” cards (now accessible in our archive):
It seems that people who do not want to do an interview may feel willing to share smaller snippets of their lives, or specific moments or experiences relating to feminism. Projects such as Everyday Sexism or Humans of New York demonstrate the impact opening a small window into someone’s life can have. These projects also show how effective online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram can be in sharing and documenting personal stories. The positive response to our previous Twitter campaign #ShefFemFacts, where we shared a fact about Sheffield feminism every day of Women’s History Month, shows an online community with interest and knowledge can be built quickly.
The 1st female 'officer' @SheffieldSU on record was Margaret M Surtees, role of General Secretary in 1915! #WomensHistoryMonth #ShefFemFacts
— ShefFeministArchive (@ShefFemArchive) March 21, 2017
The #ShefFemStories campaign will offer an opportunity for people to share their experiences and stories of feminist and gender equality activism online. We think these tweets will be diverse, with stories of triumph, adversity, moments of reflection, and big and small events from the past and present.
These short contributions might typically go unreported and undocumented—but, it’s important to highlight the wealth of feminist moments, ideas and acts of protest that have happened here in Sheffield so that no-one thinks they are alone in the ongoing fight for gender equality.
You can read a previous post on the Sheffield Feminist Archive here.
Annie Wainwright is a MA student with the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Annie has carried out a 100-hour placement for the Sheffield Feminist Archive, along with Hattie Foreman, and continued on to a second 100-hour placement through the University Career’s Service AHEAD scheme.
If you would like to contribute to #ShefFemStories or see some examples, please use the hashtag on Twitter. You can find out more about the Sheffield Feminist Archive project by visiting their website or following them on Twitter. If you’d like to speak to someone about being interviewed, or enquiring about a donation please email email@example.com.
Images: All images owned by The Sheffield Feminist Archive.