Women’s Centres and their Newsletters: Feminist Spaces and Print Cultures in Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom

In April confusion reigned due to the last issue of Sisterhood thinking that the first Wednesday in April fell on the 8th rather than the 1st (Tut tut sack the proof readers I say). In the end we had two meetings but the discussion on Sexism and Education remained on the 8th. As a result of the confusion only 7 women attended.1

Taking place at the Cleveland women’s centre in Yorkshire, this seemingly benign communication mishap among the group producing the centre’s newsletter, Sisterhood, managed to leave the centre in disarray. In the end, the programme announced in the newsletter prevailed despite the organizers’ initial plans, illustrating just how central a role local newsletters could play in the basic functioning of key structures of local feminist scenes.

From about 1969 onwards, women’s centres had proliferated in towns and cities of various sizes—first in the United States, then across the globe, including in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France.2 Also called ‘women’s houses’ outside of English-speaking regions, they were places of feminist activism and sociability, aiming to provide services to local women and to participate in the growth of the women’s movement. Usually women-only, they regularly became focal points of local feminist scenes.3 Among myriad other activities, many women’s centre members devoted time and energy to producing their own newsletters, thereby participating in the transformations of Western European women’s print cultures of the 1970s and 1980s.4 With this blog post, I wish to explore some of the ways these spaces of women’s activism both shaped and were shaped by these publications.

In their pioneering work on women in the print industries in Britain, Eileen Cadman, Gail Chester, and Agnes Pivot provided a directory of local newsletters which they deemed ‘the most typical women’s liberation publications’.5 Half of the twenty-two newsletters recorded were based at women’s centres.6 Feminists in Belgium also invested considerable effort into creating and maintaining women’s centres all over the country, and published sometimes long-running feminist newsletters.7 While French women’s centres were fewer in number, they still contributed widely to French feminist print culture in the 1970s and 1980s, being linked, for example, to the first national lesbian newsletter.8

As highlighted in Cleveland, the relationship between women’s centres and newsletters was informed by practical necessities: women needed to know when to attend meetings and which activities were on offer. As ‘feminist technologies’,9 these newsletters aimed to create links between women, to bring them out of potential isolation, and to build a local feminist scene. According to Agatha Beins, feminist newsletters located, materialized, and spatialized the women’s movement, creating ‘space in which feminism’s existence could be imagined across different locales’.10 By regularly publishing calendars of events at the centre and in the local area, the newsletter literally served as the centre’s noticeboard, disseminating outside its walls local feminist information which had previously been centralized on a corkboard or on the pages of a calendar held at the centre. In June 1975, Femmes Infos, the monthly newsletter of a Parisian women’s centre called the GLIFE, told its readers: ‘do not hesitate to use this newsletter and the GLIFE’s noticeboards. It’s free . . . and efficient.’ Along with an events calendar, each issue of Femmes Infos featured a description of the amenities offered by the centre, including the meeting room noticeboard, a mimeograph, and an offset press.11

The mimeograph machine of a women’s centre has been described by Beins as ‘part of the center’s heart’. Indeed, the acquisition and maintenance of a duplicator had a crucial influence on the aesthetics and materiality of women’s centre newsletters, and it was a prized possession, as highlighted by the Glasgow Women’s Liberation Newsletter in 1978: ‘Good news . . . The Women’s Centre now possesses a DUPLICATOR which is available for anyone to use. It is being kept in the Women’s Centre at all times. Many thanks to Eve for the time and effort she put in to get us one’.12 The same was true through the next decade for Paris Féministe, the newsletter published by the Paris women’s centre, whose editorial collective often mentioned the state of disrepair of their ‘ronéo’. Yet after launching the newsletter in 1983, they chose to have the covers printed by feminist printers Voix Off and to mimeograph the inside pages at the centre instead of using the services of Rotographie, the printing press of the Trotskyite Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire – a choice which was not without its critics.13 The centre had been founded by feminists from both the materialist and the class struggle tendencies of the seventies women’s liberation movement in an attempt to bridge their differences, especially with regards to their relationship with left-wing organizations. Despite their alliance being cemented in the women’s centre, the newsletter’s production process still sparked debates over political independence, although those discussions perhaps reflected differing activist habits and typical modes of organizing more than deep ideological differences. In any case, the choice of printing method could be a loaded one, and depended on local activist networks.

The financial health of a centre also directly influenced the materials and printing process of its newsletter. In 1988, when the Leeds women’s centre downsized from three to two rooms in the city’s Voluntary Services building for lack of funds, its newsletter could no longer be outsourced to the print shop and had to be ‘photocopied cheaply’ instead.14 Period-specific tastes and modes of organizing also influenced a newsletter’s look: the 1990s newsletters of Dutch-speaking Belgian women’s centres were a lot more polished than those from the late 1970s, reflecting both the relative institutionalization of feminism at the local level and the fact that the surviving centres probably had slightly more stable finances than their predecessors.

One of the main reasons why feminists opened women’s centres was to have a room of their own: they needed space to hold women-only meetings, whether they were organizing a demonstration or discussing the next issue of their newsletter. Women’s centres also provided a contact address – an easy-to-publicize way to get in touch with local feminists – and newsletter collectives, who often asked for readers to contribute articles or donate money, were often happy to have a stable address at the local centre.

Moreover, women’s centres were places where readers could, or sometimes had to, come to pick up their copies: ‘Please collect your next newsletter from the centre – we can’t afford to post them’, urged the Merseyside Women’s Liberation Newsletter in an issue whose cover included a grim report on the group’s finances.15 Newsletters from further afield could also be read in some centres: in 1985, the Exeter Women’s Centre Newsletter could be found at a local bookshop, at the centre itself, and in women’s centres in Plymouth, Bristol, and Totnes, thereby playing its part in strengthening regional links and circulating local information between feminists in south-western England.16 Conversely, readers did not necessarily live within easy reach of a centre. To a questionnaire asking readers of the Brussels-based Bulletin de la maison des femmes about solidarity with Chile, one woman, explaining why she would not be able to help with paperwork, answered, slightly tetchily: ‘My interest in the “women’s centre” does not prevent me from living in Namur’.17 Paris Féministe even boasted about being sent to Tokyo, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Chile, and Australia.18

Cover of the newsletter of Amien’s women’s centre, Bulletin de la Maison des Femmes d’Amiens, 2, Spring 1980. Raymonde Gérard Collection. Photograph copyright of Archives du féminisme, held at the Centre des archives du féminisme, University of Angers.

Women living far from a centre might have subscribed to newsletters because they often provided an outlet for feminist debates, helping disseminate feminist ideas and encouraging women’s interest in writing. In 1980, the women’s centre of Amiens, a mid-sized northern French city, reproduced an article about a local trial in its newsletter that had originally been written by a member for the Courrier Picard, the main local newspaper, where it was published in truncated form. However, the newsletter reprinted it in full, taking care to indicate clearly which parts had been deleted.19 In this instance, the newsletter became a counter-medium providing uncensored, unedited space for women to make their voices heard, though this meant choosing a more welcoming and open publication process over circulation outside the small circle of feminists in Amiens.

Despite their strong relationships with their local areas, women’s centres were transnational projects shaped by circulations, borrowings, exchanges of ideas, people, organizational models, and sometimes print media. Newsletters can be understood as the interface between a women’s centre’s roots in a specific geographical area and the women’s movement’s internationalist perspectives and ambitions. Some women’s centre newsletters, in Brussels and Paris in particular, at times displayed ambitions of transforming into far-reaching feminist newspapers. In March 1976, the Brussels editorial collective announced that its Bulletin was transitioning to a new approach, with a new layout, reader contributions, and ‘news of feminist groups in Belgium and abroad’.20 Like Paris Féministe later on, the Bulletin repeatedly covered news from abroad by reproducing and translating leaflets from international organizations or having members report back on their trips.21

In other cases, newsletters reproduced articles from the mainstream media, a practice which complicates our understanding of feminist newsletters’ oppositional relationship with the mainstream. The examples are numerous, and newsletter editors were often spurred on by a desire to report on women in other countries. Turning to these articles was perhaps a way to counteract the lack of direct links with these women – a way to talk of places and events that women’s centre members had no other way of reaching.22 Always anchored in the local, women’s centre newsletters relied on the women’s movement’s print culture of reuse and reproduction to recontextualize news reports, compiling them in order to demonstrate both the extent of women’s oppression and the vitality of women’s movements across the world, in a solution that befitted their recurrent lack of funds.

As key elements in the construction of local feminist scenes, women’s centres and their numerous newsletters therefore also looked towards mainstream media – a world in need of feminist intervention which could still provide small ways to create a global women’s movement and to bring it to life on the pages of newsletters, if not always in actual encounters.

The featured image shows an extract of a cover of Brussel’s Bulletin de la Maison des Femmes. Photograph courtesy of Carhif-AVG, Brussels, reproduced with permission.

Cite this blog post
Marie Cabadi (2022, May 5). Women’s Centres and their Newsletters: Feminist Spaces and Print Cultures in Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1qp

  1. Sisterhood: Cleveland Womens Centre Newsletter, 3 (May 1981). []
  2. This blog post draws on my ongoing PhD research on women’s centres in Belgium, Britain, and France, and is therefore very much a work in progress. I currently know of at least fifty UK cities and towns that have had a women’s centre, and I have counted thirty such localities in Belgium and a similar number in France, though these numbers are only provisional and indicative. []
  3. On the concept of scenes, see Liz Millward, Making a Scene: Lesbians and Community across Canada, 1964–84 (Vancouver, 2015). []
  4. Lucy Delap and Zoe Strimpel, ‘Spare Rib and the Print Culture of Women’s Liberation’, in Joanne Hollows, Laurel Forster (eds.), Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1940s–2000s: The Postwar and Contemporary Period (Edinburgh, 2020), 46–66; Laurel Forster, ‘Spreading the Word: Feminist Print Cultures and the Women’s Liberation Movement’, Women’s History Review, 25/5 (2016): 812–31; Martine Laroche and Michèle Larrouy, Mouvements de presse: Années 1970 à nos jours, luttes féministes et lesbiennes (Paris, 2009). See other posts from the ISWG on the GHIL blog. []
  5. Eileen Cadman, Gail Chester, and Agnes Pivot, Rolling Our Own: Women as Printers, Publishers and Distributors (London, 1981), 72. []
  6. Ibid., 109–10. []
  7. The Kortrijk women’s centre newsletter ‘t Fameke (1986–98), for instance, has more than 130 issues. []
  8. Quand les femmes s’aiment (1978–80) stemmed from the lesbian group of the Lyon women’s centre, which then collaborated with a Parisian lesbian group meeting at the women’s centre of the thirteenth arrondissement. []
  9. Marama Whyte, ‘The “Old Girls’ Network”: Media Newsletters as Feminist Technologies in 1970s America’, Women’s History Review, forthcoming issue. []
  10. Agatha Beins, Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity (Athens, GA, 2017), 45. []
  11. Femmes Infos, 5 (June 1975). []
  12. ‘Good News . . .’, Glasgow Women’s Liberation Newsletter (Nov.–Dec. 1978), 3.. []
  13. Interview with a co-founder of Paris Féministe (25 Nov. 2021). []
  14. ‘Women’s Centre News’, Leeds Women’s Centre Newsletter, 16 (Spring 1988), 3. []
  15. Merseyside Women’s Liberation Newsletter (Feb. 1976). []
  16. Exeter Women’s Centre Newsletter, 3 (June–July 1985). []
  17. Questionnaire (Summer 1975), File 5, Edith Rubinstein Collection, Carhif-AVG. []
  18. ‘Chez nous ça bout!!’, Paris Féministe, 1 (15 Jan.–1 Feb. 1985), 1. []
  19. ‘Violences et mépris’, Le Bulletin de la maison des femmes d’Amiens, 2 (Spring 1980). []
  20. ‘C’est un début’, Bulletin mensuel de la maison des femmes, (Mar. 1976), 1. []
  21. Marie, ‘Aller à Paris’, Bulletin de la maison des femmes (May 1978), 7–11. The rue du Méridien centre even had a travel group that organized annual trips to discover what feminism and left-wing politics looked like in Portugal (1976), Bologne and Roma (1977), Barcelona (1978), New York (1979), Berlin (1980), Warsaw and Gdańsk (1981), and Quebec (1982), with each trip being subsequently described in the women’s centre newsletter: Voyages féministes, File  5, Ghislaine Verlaeckt Collection, Carhif-AVG. []
  22. For instance, reprinted from Le Monde, ‘Dix mille Italiennes dans les rues de Rome pour protester contre “la violence masculine”’, Bulletin de la maison des femmes (Jan. 1977) 22; ‘Mouvements féministes en Espagne’, ibid. []

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Marie Cabadi

Marie Cabadi is a PhD student in History at the University of Angers, working in the TEMOS Research Unit. Her thesis, drawing on archival and oral sources, explores the histories of women's centres founded in the wake of the 1970s renewal of women's movements, with a focus on Belgium, France and Great-Britain.

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