Tales from the Scottish Women’s Aid Archive

In today’s post we hear from project volunteer Caroline Darke, who is assisting in cataloguing the Scottish Women’s Aid archive at Glasgow Women’s Library. Below, Caroline shares some of the shocking and somewhat strange stories she’s come across while organising the collection of newspaper clippings which forms a significant portion of the archive.

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Hi, I’m Caroline. I joined the Speaking Out project in October 2016 as I was interested in becoming more involved with Glasgow Women’s Library and in finding out about archival and collection processes.

I help out with the project as and when I can fit it around my day job. Usually this means coming into the library one day a week to assist with cataloguing the collection of news clippings gathered by Women’s Aid workers and volunteers from the late 1970s through to the mid 1990s. This is a fascinating and varied archive that invites us to celebrate the many successes made by women’s rights campaigners throughout the late 20th century, but it also serves as a stark reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

The collection covers many different aspects of womanhood, from harrowing cases of domestic violence and abuse through to issues of discrimination, housing, welfare, work, marriage and divorce, arts and culture. Luckily for me, most of the files I have been working on have been at the ‘lighter’ end of the spectrum, though they still address the serious inequalities and hypocrisies women have faced in our very recent history – many of which we are still facing even 40 years on.

Every time I go through a set of cuttings, I find some incredible new story or fact that I had no idea about. For example, did you know that:

  • In 1986, Southern Ireland held a referendum on whether to legalise divorce. Abandoned wives and charities in support of the vote came out in the droves but the ‘no’ camp still won with 63% of the vote. Divorce was only eventually realised as law in Eire in 1996 – THAT’S 1996, people! (1)
  • Jenners, the ‘high-end’ department store on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, thought it was ok to still be selling gollywog dolls in 1994. According to the store: “Golly dollies are based on a nursery rhyme and children have grown up with them for generations. If we took these off the shelves we would also have to withdraw white dolls, our beautiful black dolls and the disabled dolls we have for sale. Where do you draw the line?” (2)
  • Half a century after emancipation, a small pocket of Switzerland voted in 1990 to reject a motion granting women the right to vote on local issues. “I think it’s great” said Marta Neubauer. “What would be the point in giving women the vote?” (3)                   
  • As a woman, you could get sacked for not wearing make-up to work (4), or for wearing trousers (5), or for being pregnant (6), or too old (7)! The courts upheld most of these rulings throughout the 1980s and 1990s as being legitimate reasons for dismissal.
Newspaper clipping from the Glasgow Herald, 21 March 1990, about a group of Belgian nuns who sold their convent to move to the south of France.

 

As well as these alarming, politically focused articles, the collection also contains many bizarre tales:

  • A Swedish ‘bachelor week’ in 1987 where the arctic town of Pajala invited a host of single women from across Europe to visit the town (where male inhabitants outnumbered women by 2:1) as some kind of organised mass-dating set-up.
  • A group of Belgian nuns who sold up their 14th century convent in 1990 and ran off to the South of France to retire with the proceeds before the Church stepped in, seized their assets and more or less forced them to return to Bruges, even though they had not broken any recognised law.
  • An American toy manufacturer who designed and produced a $500 ‘bag-lady’ doll for exclusive designer stores with the excuse that “Bag ladies are part of America. We make joggers, ballerinas, baseball players, golfers. It’s a piece of America”.

There are many more such stories and articles in the Scottish Women’s Aid collection held at Glasgow Women’s Library, as well as some really disturbing accounts which highlight the continued need and importance of organisations like Women’s Aid. So, come and have a dig around, you’ll be amazed at what you find!

 

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(1) Sandra Woolridge, ‘Unhappy ever after’, The Guardian, 22/07/1986.

(2) Vivienne Nicoll, ‘Good golly! You must ban this dolly!’, Daily Record, 10/12/1994.

(3) ‘Swiss hold out against votes for women’, Glasgow Herald, 30/04/1990.

(4) Alan Dow, ‘Sacked for not wearing make-up’, Daily Record, 05/09/1994.

(5) No author, ‘Trouser-clad woman loses unfair-dismissal plea’, The Scotsman, 09/08/1983.

(6) Gordon Anderson, ‘Sick mum-to-be in job battle’, Daily Record 16/08/1983, John Robertson, ‘Woman loses her appeal over sacking in pregnancy’, The Scotsman, 19/01/1995.

(7) ‘Too old TV woman wins’, The Scotsman, 10/08/1983.

(8) AP, ‘Arctic date gives girls cold feet’, The Guardian, 30/09/1987.

(9) John Fraser, ‘Nuns sell up and move out’, The Glasgow Herald, 21/03/1990, followed by ‘Nuns who sold convent for £1m to return home’, The Guardian, 12/11/1990.

(10) Alex Brummer, ‘Homeless enraged by rag doll for the rich’, The Guardian, 17/04/1987.

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