Written by Irena, with an introduction by Louise
Back in the day – for me the early 1980s – when I became an active feminist, we were very engaged with an analysis of the power of male language, particularly that women’s lives, experiences and history could not be described in female terms and thus we were invisible. Our naive, passionate and enthusiastic analysis included the idea that the word history meant his-story. Whilst that is not actually the linguistic root of the word, it nevertheless expressed an undeniable truth: that most of history is about men. We, therefore, think it is really important to recall our own history and are inviting women to submit their memories of the OFN – particularly from the early days. We’d love to hear your recollections of meetings, events, women you met and how OFN played a part in your own feminist history. I am delighted to introduce the first of these pieces, written by Irena.
June A. had been on at me for some time, I should come to OFN meetings, they meet every second Saturday of the month and there is a shared lunch. So what? I thought. In the end Annette and I went along to a meeting at Millman Street Community Centre, it was hard to find, hidden at the back of flats. Only Pat H. and Marj were there, facilitating. We were early. One by one others arrived. The morning was for campaigning — letter writing, as Marj insisted. We wrote whatever letter collectively. The letters were usually protest letters, but in 2012 we congratulated Theresa May, then Home Secretary for initiating the review of alleged police corruption during the original Stephen Lawrence murder investigation. We are rather left wing, but only a bit and praise where praise is due. Then the famous shared lunch, followed by the ‘business meeting’, speaker, or workshop on a subject. First I went along when I could, but then it became a priority. Many, but not all, OFNers were seasoned feminists, they had been active in the women’s liberation movement before 1982, others had made the peace movement or left-wing choirs their priority.
It was a great bunch of women, they had all had careers, many had brought up children but their brains hadn’t been dulled, they were razor-sharp, cutting through arguments with machetes. They were versed in literature, many active musicians, political, and didn’t stand any nonsense. A bloke in a frock attended for a while, he was interested in the sexual torture of women, at one meeting Beryl said, ‘We know all this’ and walked out. At another meeting Janice from Object regaled us with details from Gail Dines’ book on pornography, Molly said ‘I don’t want to know this’. I think we all felt uncomfortable, we’d been trying all our lives to get these images out of our heads. We knew where we stood.
Many women from the early days are no longer with us. We have always remembered ‘absent friends’ at each December meeting, difficult to do on Zoom. Luckily, not every newsletter has to include an obituary. Some have had their lives changed by dementia or lack of mobility. As Josephine, now in a care home, used to say, ‘What you need when you’re old is marbles and mobility.’
I think of Nadia, who can now join us on Zoom, and Marion, who preferred the OFN to the OLN (Older Lesbian Network), who met at Millman Street on the third Saturday of the month. There was Beryl, a decisive thinker and singer, Sheila, steeped in literature, Elcena, a tireless campaigner, and Patricia, now in Edinburgh and attending Zoom meetings, still entertaining us with Gaelic songs and Maggie who is shielding. We haven’t heard from Paula or Elena or Sue, refuseniks for one reason or another as far as the Internet is concerned. There is always the telephone, and it’s good to be welcomed when we ring JuneB ., Paula, or Nancy in Glasgow. Ann has joined us for a Zoom meeting, Jan hasn’t – well, it’s not for everyone.
Astra, a woman of many talents, invited me to join the newsletter collective, so I joined her, Josephine and Pat H. No long articles, any mistakes corrected by hand, any additions hand-written. If it didn’t fit portrait style, it was put landscape. And it stayed more or less that way until Louise redesigned it.
We did start to use the computer, but not Pat H. who had been an early computer expert and vowed never to touch the thing again when she retired and she didn’t. It may have been an old-fashioned newsletter but it also had artistic merits. One of the title pages was reproduced in an art book.
The website was started by Sue, a radical secularist, then taken on by Rina after she finished her MA in the portrayal of old women in film, now run by Louise.
We had and have some academics, Joan an expert on attachment theory and twin studies, Jay, a gerontologist who has addressed the group on pensions and writes for the newsletter, Miriam who specialises on women’s education, Gill, who taught Violence Against Women Studies; I wish could remember more, probably will as soon as this piece goes off to the newsletter.
Eli, who came to Britain in 1937 as one of the children rescued from the Spanish Civil War. She made wonderful and very special embroidered books for her grandchildren.
There was Ninette, her husband used to bring her in her wheelchair, Dorothy, a pianist and trade unionist, Chanie, the political activist now in a care home, and Pat W. from Brighton. I admired her hairdo once and she said it was a wig. A few months later she died of cancer.
We had workshops where we discussed many subjects, the menopause, death and dying, housing, pensions, sexuality. Pat H. talked about her life as a GI bride. Dot Gibson from the National Pensioners Convention addressed us, so did Kate Hudson from CND, Shirley Murgraff on the fight to keep the NHS as it was intended. Millman Street was packed when Sheila Rowbotham came, and Sue Bourne, a courageous documentary film maker, showed us her film Fabulous Fashionistas.
We had a speaker from Disabled People Against Cuts, speakers from the Women’s Library, Fawcett Society and the Women’s Resource Centre, an Iranian women’s organisation, not to forget a taster session on sign language. We also campaigned on international issues, female genital cutting and infibulation which can lead to debilitating physical and social consequences, rape, water security in Uganda. And many, many more. We always had a collection for the cause we were championing.
I remember the meeting on the day Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, we listened to it on Louise’s phone and cheered, and another meeting some time later, when Ruth A. caused a rumpus with her unflinching loyalty to Corbyn.
The OFN has a past and a history but is very much alive. We have what I call our youth group, the WASPI Women, still freelancing or employed. There is Ruth W. Hilary, Jan, Fiona, Josepha, and the indefatigable Marika (and Louise, Irena and Molly eds). They carry the OFN forward, working on our Fighting Fit and other projects, somewhat curtailed by the lockdowns, but that will change and we can go forward with renewed energy and commitment. They are clever, that lot.
And holding it all together is Molly, without whom …