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Library work for housewives - or the liberated librarian?:
Exploring feminist thinking in
British and American librarianship in the 1970s.

Rosie Ilett

This paper will explore differences in feminist awareness amongst women librarians in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. Drawing on library journals, and interviews with key activists of the time, difficulties experienced by librarians in generating feminist approaches within a highly gendered profession will be explored. Evidence will indicate the inhibition experienced by British women librarians in developing and progressing a clear feminist movement, which was not the case for their American counterparts.

In Britain in the 1970s, within librarianship, official support was given to promotional activities like Miss Book World; discriminatory pay and conditions were rife; and the letters page of the Library Association Record recorded the frustrations of 'married lady librarians' with a profession regarded as inflexible. Challenging this inequality became a long-running battle, but one influenced by a less radical feminism than in the United States. It took until the start of the 1980s for women librarians in Britain to establish a feminist group, but even then, never achieving official status within professional librarianship structures.

The existence within the United States of a more liberal professional association, more open and progressive library journals, and the opportunity for 'library feminists', within academia particularly, to advocate women's studies approaches linked to librarianship, allowed feminist action to explicitly develop from 1970 onwards. This was partly through the auspices of a Women's Liberation Task Force officially allied to the American Library Association.

Comparing these circumstances will allow conclusions to be made about the conditions in which feminism could develop in the 1970s within a feminised profession which, by its very nature is devalued externally and internally. The profound inequalities in the profession prevented the growth of a systematic feminist response, with the potential outcomes of a radical feminist librarianship, certainly in Britain, never being achieved, or recognised by the mainstream.

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