For Alice Wroe, women today should not just be empowered by their contemporaries. For the past few years, she has been unearthing amazing women from the past who have been largely concealed by patriarchal historical narratives. She aims to share these discoveries through her project in order to make the participants feel ‘bigger and taller’; empowered by the women of the past. From her research, she provides an alternative herstory, which acknowledges, respects, and then stretches beyond the school syllabus’ Suffragette-centric version of women’s history. Instead, she unearths the women within and beyond England who broke down boundaries and then built up supportive communities.
Herstory is a participatory project that uses feminist art to engage people of all genders with the women’s history that has been systematically left out. It straddles art, education and activism, and is guided by the principle that if you can’t see it, how can you be it? Based on Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’, in the Herstory workshops, each individual is assigned a shero from the past who they will then be able to creatively introduce to the rest of the group; collectively, an alternative women’s history begins to emerge, with everyone enacting the past instead of passively hearing about it.
Alice explains the project’s trajectory and describes the events and women she has plucked from the past in order to create and shape a new herstory.
When did you first have the idea for Herstory, and how has it evolved over the past few years?
I was completely taken aback listening to a radio programme on women’s history. I realised that my life was only possible because of the radical actions of women who had lived before and carved space for us, women like Begum Rokeya, Moms Mabley and Muriel Matters. I started researching feverishly and the impact was profound; I felt bigger and taller, like I could take up more space in the world, simply for knowing they had lived. I then felt utterly let down by my education, that had swelled with the same type of person again and again in each subject; if you can’t see it, how can you be it? I started Herstory, initially in schools and now for people of all ages in all sorts of settings, in response to this fury. Four years on, as well as running workshops, I collaborate with organisations to find creative ways to share the research that should inspire us all, regardless of our gender.
I read that the project is about ‘doing’ feminism, rather than just learning about it. What activities are included in the workshops and how do they help the participants enact feminism?
Herstory sessions follow a feminist methodology. It seems counterproductive to celebrate the feminism of women from history and not engender it ourselves in the way the sessions are designed and how we relate to each other. For example, the session disrupts the hierarchies present in the way history is conventionally shared; with one person as teacher, custodian of a truth to be imparted passively onto a student. In the sessions participants are given all they need to share the story of a historical woman whilst imbuing their own life into the narrative. The sessions not only celebrate historical women but empower participants to use women’s history to celebrate themselves.
Considering that these are women who have been left out of history, how do you unearth their stories, and where would you recommend others may look to make discoveries of their own?
History is largely written by those in power who often have a vested interest in how the story operates politically. With that in mind, letters, diaries and aural histories are invaluable for Herstory research – enabling us to zoom past the interpreters and connect with the women themselves. Seek out aural histories, listen to voices crack or shift with pride, watch videos (where possible) of your sheros, recognise what their faces are saying. I love following threads that herstorical women have left for us. Contrary to what we are taught, women rarely existed in isolation, they build communities like the Where We At? Women’s Art Collective and The Blue Stockings. If you come across one exceptional woman in your research, find her friends, her contemporaries, wonder who she was in dialogue with when she wrote that text, composed that music, organised that protest; there will be more, make it your business to know about them all.
Could you share the story of a recently discovered wonderful woman?
I am interested in groups of women. The way we are educated in history is obsessed with the individual. We hang our past on its so called ‘leaders’, that way its neat and digestible, but completely limiting and misrepresentative. Women’s history is made up of women working together, standing in solidarity, taking it in turns, holding firm hands and changing the world. Junko Tabei is a wonderful woman to know about, she was the first woman to climb mount Everest. The whole ‘first woman to X’ doesn’t always resonate with me, but I love that she formed an all woman climbing group with a motto that coils into me and makes me smile each time I think of Junko – “Lets go on an overseas adventure by ourselves”.
The project is based on Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’. Are there any other women who have used art and creativity for political action, as individuals and as part of movements, who have inspired you and influenced the methodology of Herstory?
‘The Dinner Party’ is a productive central core for Herstory. The project embraces and simultaneously problematizes the work. Whereas Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ is fixed in time and of a very particular feminist moment, Herstory workshops are able to give it movement, pull at it, fray its edges, make it messier and relevant to our contemporary feminism. Together, we populate it and bring it into line with the feminism of those who create it in the session. I see Herstory in some ways as an ongoing feminist conversation between all the people who take part, each a co-author and contributor.
So many women artists inspire the project, women who’ve used art to open up conversations and change the world. Suzanne Lacey’s Crystal Quilt feels important, as well as the Hackney Flashers exhibition ‘Whose Holding the Baby?’. The writer bell hooks is a huge influence on the way the workshops are designed, her book Teaching to Transgress is very important to me.
The Herstory zine reads: ‘There is a profound link between looking back in history, seeing yourself somewhere, finding empowerment and looking forward and becoming your best self.’ In the same way learning about the hidden women of the past can empower us today, what other inspiring feminist organisations, events, or people would you recommend learning about, or getting involved in?
There is a strong feminist history of self-publishing; Sophia Duleep Singh used to stand outside Hampton court distributing the suffragette newspaper. During the Women’s Liberation Movement, it was the magazine Spare Rib that circulated the UK, linking feminists from far flung corners. I am interested in the publications that connect our contemporary feminist movement.
OOMK Zine- https://oomkzine.bigcartel.com/oomk-zine
Born n Bread- https://www.born-n-bread.co.uk/
Ladybeard – http://www.ladybeardmagazine.co.uk/
gal dem- http://www.gal-dem.com/
What are you most proud to have achieved through this project?
Sometimes a friend will greet me not with a hello but with a woman’s name thrust into my ear, that they feel an urgent need to share with me – I love that. I receive emails from strangers telling me about their incredible great grandmother, or someone they heard about on the radio. Herstory research is treasure time to me, I adore the bits of paper with names scribbled on that inevitably line my bags and text messages I send myself in the middle of doing something else saying ‘Look up Nampeyo’ – or ‘a woman invented Kevlar’. To carve space in my life to follow these threads and share them in creative and empowering ways is something I am elated to do. I am proud of the comprehensiveness of the project, and that the research is democratic, ambitious and rigorous. It is vital that women’s history is getting bigger, we all deserve more than wheeling Florence Nightingale and Emmeline Pankhurst out every Women’s History Month.
And finally, what Herstory events are coming up in 2018?
My 2018 is about collaborating; working with partners to create platforms for Herstory to share it with new audiences. I have a public workshop at The Book Club in London on the 20th August- join us! Tickets from the Book Club website. I am also delighted to have written about Herstory in an upcoming Penguin feminist anthology, ‘Feminist Don’t Wear Pink’.
@herstory_uk (Twitter and Instagram)