Since 1975, the Feminist Library has been a pillar of London’s cultural scene, preserving an accumulation of feminist literature from around the world. With over 7,000 books and 1,500 periodicals occupying 85 meters of shelf space, it offers the public a collection of work that is difficult to rival and an inclusive environment. Now, however, the town this feminist haven has called home for more than 30 years wants them out—and soon.
In December of 2015, the Southwark Council—an elected group of officials who preside over London’s Southwark district—increased rent for the library from £12,000 to a staggering £30,000 per year. The decision was an effective eviction notice for the space, which is volunteer-run and incapable of covering the increase.
The library is no stranger to adversity, of course. In 1985, the Thatcher administration implemented a series of cuts on programs that promoted and preserved the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Greater London Council (GLC) Women’s Committee, the largest of these programs, inevitably met the ax, derailing many of the projects it actively funded. Miraculously, the Feminist Library managed to survive the onslaught of fiscal cut backs, but many of its allied organizations were not as lucky. Though the Thatcher era was not kind to the feminist movement, it served as a sobering reminder of the fragility of non-profit funding and the austerity of government.
Decades later, the library is once again at odds with the willful ignorance of local government. Like Thatcher, the Council’s actions are probably motivated by the possibility of economic gain. South East London is known for its “rough” reputation, so politicians may see the appeal in making space for residents and businesses that could raise property values—even if that means ignoring the library’s social and intellectual significance.
Southwark residents, of course, disagree. Recently, the library teamed up with FocusE15, a coalition dedicated to combating London’s pro-gentrification efforts, to create an “Anti-Gentrification Month” every July. Instead of building luxury condos and fancy restaurants in the hope of attracting wealthier residents, protesters argue, city officials should protect community organizations that allow for low-income families to thrive.
These days, women activists can head to the library not just for literature but also to access the library’s impressive feminist network. “The Feminist Library is about preserving and promoting women’s history but not in just a static, passive way,” says Zaimal Azad, the library’s Publicity and Communications Officer, “It’s a feminist space for women to come together and to organize from.” The library has not only become a landmark in its community, but a pivotal space for change-making.
The position of the library as not only a literary space, but an activist space, is precisely why activists refused to let it fall to the wayside. The library’s staff and community, faced with eviction and lacking the funds needed to delay the Council’s decision, decided to take action. A petition calling for the library’s stay earned over 16,000 signatures from allies and sympathizers, revealing how much impact it has on its community. 100 supporters took their cause to the streets, reading passages from feminist works out loud at a protest outside of Southwark Council offices.
The feminist activists doing this work didn’t get the complete victory they were hoping for. (The council only allowed them to stay in the building for an additional six months.) What they did win, however, was more time for the library team to think about its future and refocus on relocation.
In the hopes of pacifying angry residents, the Council promised to assist the library in finding a new venue—but, as expected, they have yet to comply. Though the library is still on the hunt for a new space, volunteers are looking into a project that, according to its fundraising page, hopes to turn some unoccupied garages into a badly needed community center in South East London. Volunteers find this option to be “promising,” but know nothing is set in stone yet.
Now, what lies in the Feminist Library’s future? Continual longevity, obviously, if its decades of adversity and resilience are any indications. However, Azad and her colleagues hope to use the library’s recent momentum as a stepping stone towards greater aspirations. “We want to encourage women, all women,” she said, “to record their own histories, to take ownership of them and value them as worthy of being kept—countering traditional ideas of what ‘deserves’ to be preserved and what doesn’t.”
Admittedly, the library’s problems can’t be fixed overnight. Once its finds itself settled into a new home, its fight for equality—whether it be based on gender or socioeconomic status—will be far from over. But until then, the library can seek solace in the incredible and passionate community it has helped create.
The Feminist Library wholeheartedly welcomes the additional support. If volunteering isn’t possible, other options include becoming a “Friend of the Feminist Library.” For as little as £3 a month, members will be offered discounts on books and merchandise, e-bulletins, and invites to future events. There is also an emergency fund for those who wish to make an immediate or sizable donation to the library.
Nicole Pina is an editorial intern at Ms. and a rising junior pursuing an English degree at Yale University. She spends most of her time either reading medieval poetry or editing other people’s essays on medieval poetry. When not subjecting her friends to a rant about the lyrical virtuosity of Kate Bush’s >Hounds of Love, she works as an editor at her college’s multilingual magazine and helps host a feminist radio show.