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“She blinded me with library science”: why the Feminist Library is more vital than ever

Despite scant funding and resources, London’s Feminist Library is turning their 40th year into a celebration of storytelling, history – and, hopefully, sofas.

It’s a cold afternoon in Elephant and Castle, but the meeting room at the Feminist Library is packed with women. The range of ages is startling: as young children are led in by their father, an older woman is buying the donated Chelsea buns someone has brought along. Inside the library's meeting room, people are beginning to gather around tables laid out with paper and pens.

There's a good reason for braving the cold, for today the Feminist Library is hosting “Knowledge is our Superpower”, the first in a series of salons celebrating the library’s 40th anniversary. Featuring a comic drawing workshop, a lecture on Batgirl and a panel discussion, the day is themed around a question whose answer is probably, in this setting, an inevitable conclusion: “does feminism need a library?”

Libraries have long been part of the feminist movement. When Sylvia Pankhurst opened her East London Federation of the Suffragettes shop in 1913, she included a lending library so that local women could educate themselves. Today, women’s archives endure across the UK and overseas – from the award-winning Glasgow Women’s Library to Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. They keep vital records on the women's movement, domestic history and the lives of people otherwise misaligned from the exclusive formal remit of traditional collections.

Badges and zines for sale at the library.

To the volunteers at London’s Feminist Library, though, the space is more than just an archive: it’s also a centre of community. For lottie moon and Cristina Rios, the Library is a place where exciting new dialogues have become possible. When they were young, they tell me, you didn’t really talk much about feminism. “It was the dirty word”, says lottie.

Working at the Feminist Library allows them to constantly think and challenge their ideas. Indeed, the physical form of the Library itself forces discussion. Organising the archive necessitates confronting the most pressing issues in feminist thought – even if it’s just a matter of deciding where to shelve a book. The library uses a radical classification system with categories for lifestyle, the arts and sexuality, but conflict still sometimes arises: two volunteers, for instance, recently argued over what the library’s stance on sex work should be, moving books on the subject between the “work” section and “crimes against women”.

It seems a funny story, but it's also good reminder of the library’s relevance at a time when feminism is undergoing a mainstream renaissance. The Feminist Library's rich archive includes material from worldwide, and from women of all class backgrounds and ethnicities. The range of zines and books available prove that the struggle for women’s rights has always been intersectional – a fact certain voices in the contemporary feminist sphere would do well to remember. This year’s salon series is themed around “Activating the Archives” and is designed to bring their largely second-wave collection to life. After all the same issues, lottie and Cristina tell me, keep coming up. When the first box I look in contains a 1989 “Rebel Girls’ Rag” with the headline “Bearing the brunt of the Tory budget”, I see their point.

The salon series isn’t just about sharing ideas, however; it’s also about raising awareness of the library’s work and, crucially, funds. Christina and lottie laugh when they explain their current funding situation: with austerity hitting women hardest and arts funding cut, it’s no surprise the Feminist Library is struggling. “We’re women, and we’re a library – of course we don’t have money!” This year, they’ll be campaigning to leave their run down second-story rooms and find a new building to house the collection.

Rebel Girls' Rag: "Bearing the brunt of the Tory Budget"

Meanwhile, they continue to grow in strength. The Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival has invited them to host a stall, for which they plan to make a giant birthday cake, and they’re increasingly forging links with women’s archives elsewhere.

It’s vital, however, that they are able to expand further. Even in the left, the volunteers tell me, so many spaces are still male-dominated. Here, there is a sense of relief “the minute you step through the door”. As we stand in the library’s fiction archives discussing Sylvia Townsend Warner and children’s books, I feel it myself. Here is a space where you don’t have to start from first principles – is feminism legitimate; why do women need to be able to tell their stories – but can speak freely. At “Knowledge is our Superpower”, a midwife in her late 50s expresses surprise she’s not heard of the library before, but says it feels “like coming home”.

And more and more women are coming: now with 50 people on the books, the week I visit ten new volunteers came through the door. lottie wants to fill the new building with armchairs, build a space where “you can just come, on a shitty afternoon, and sit back”. To make a place for respite, discussion, community events and a historical archive: it’s an ambitious plan, but the women are confident they can build on recent momentum. Feminism is enjoying a resurgence; “now”, they say, “is the moment”.

The Feminist Library's second 40th anniversary salon, “Feminism in Fairy Tales”, will be held on 28 February.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.