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Preface: I the 1970s


I the 1970s.

Over the last few years, nostalgia has been sweeping the UK or, at least, BBC 2's Saturday night schedules. In the type of programmes which have 'I ' in the title, 'the seventies' is conjured up through bright images of Abba, purple flares over dangerously high platform shoes and by prompting childhood memories of space hoppers and Grange Hill. Those were the days, the audience sigh.

Of course, even today in a time of twenty-first century nostalgia 'the seventies' connotes much more than this. And for the purposes of these books, not least, 'women's liberation'. If 'I 1970s' boils down to flare-wearing Abba - what simple shorthand might apply to British women's liberation in the seventies? Dungarees perhaps? Burning bras? Placards? Consciousness raising? Cue, the nostalgia programming guide to feminism: remember the flour bombs, the protests, the poetry readings…

I the feminist seventies?

Certainly the dangers of forgetting feminism's past has caused concern for a number of writers. Jill Radford, in her article 'History of Women's Liberation Movements in Britain: A Reflexive Personal History', attempts to 'look back at threads from our past, in order to re-view, re-vise, re-new, re-connect and where necessary reject them, to ensure that in plotting the voyage forward we are at least informed by our history' (1994:41). By explaining the significance of the past to feminism's future Radford argues that women who were there have a responsibility 'to reflect on our memories to enable the next generation of feminists to build on our strengths and learn from our mistakes' (1995:40). The importance of experience is also a theme of Sheila Rowbotham's work. Warning future feminism against needless repetition, Rowbotham suggests that 'by mining our memories we might save someone time in the future' (1989:299) and she evokes the image of the past as a map which lays open and makes visible the political landscape (eg 1979:54) offering us, she hopes, a 'sense of direction' (1989:301).

Forgetting is, however, the least of feminism's problems. It is when the seventies are remembered that the real problems start. Unlike viewers of its schedule filler counterpart, remembering feminism in the seventies is by no means confined to a depressing Saturday night in - it has become an academic pursuit for any day of the week. As Jackie Stacey has suggested, the game of 'I remember', if not 'I ', 'seventies feminism' most often falls into two camps. On one side nostalgia rules. The seventies are remembered as 'the Golden Age' of activism, the 'Real Thing' (Stacey: 1997:59) - a wonderful time of active politics now lost to institutionalisation and apathy. The other side is anything but nostalgic. This position characterises 'seventies feminism' in terms of the 'bad ... object against which the subjects of the present measure themselves' (Stacey: 1997:59). At this point in its trajectory, the argument goes, feminism was essentialist and exclusionary of Black and Lesbian women's experiences and needs. This, as Clare Hemmings and Jo Brain show in their article in the print book, is often represented as having been challenged by Black and Lesbian feminists in the eighties and ultimately as giving way in the nineties to post-modern 'difference'. Both these competing representations manage to co-exist in the media, classroom and in academic journals. No simple love: but 'I '/ 'I hate' double-think.

Such an atmosphere leaves this Feminist Seventies project with a bit of a challenge: to write about feminism in 'the seventies' while destabilizing some of the dichotomous and divisive thinking about 'seventies feminism'. This was our aim at the Feminist Seventies Conference which took place at the University of York on 27 April 2002. The title of the conference, now the title of a print and web book, enables this process, we hope, through the slight of hand of the grammatical shift: from 'seventies feminism' to 'feminist seventies'.

As we have shown above, 'seventies feminism', in both its positive and negative incarnations, has become understood as a type of feminism. In this context, the 'seventies' develops into an adjective whose descriptive function serves to limit understandings of feminism. By altering the relationship between the two terms, 'seventies' stops being a description of a type of feminism by allowing 'feminist' itself to describe the seventies. The effect of this is not only to point towards feminism as something that was happening in the seventies but to explicitly refer to the range of ideas, experiences and politics which happened outside of the now tightly defined myth of 'seventies feminism'. Our hope is that by swapping the terms we will enable ways of thinking about 'the seventies' which can not only avoid but also take on the grand narratives of 'seventies feminism's' successes and failures.

Rachel DuPlessis and Ann Snitow argue that 'amnesia about political movements is not only an innocent effect of general forgetfulness, it is socially produced, packaged, promulgated and perpetuated' (1998:23). You could say the same for remembering as well. So, here are our packages - all bound or wired up and ready for 'promulgation'. The packages are different in form as well as content. Here in the web book we have included audio files from the conference plenary papers and articles whose potential was opened by the flexibility of a web format. In the non-virtual Feminist Seventies book we offer short think-pieces, personal reflections and polemics, as well as longer in-depth articles. These packages - the articles in both 'books' - are, then, by no means all uniform in shape and size, and they serve the 'memory' of UK feminism in different ways. Collectively, these pieces do not simply challenge amnesia by re-inserting 'the feminist seventies' into our twenty-first century political imaginary but, we hope, also suggest what is at stake in remembering.

The Feminist Seventies print book: details (opens in new browser)