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Her Mind's Eye, ed. Rachel Lever

Her Mind's Eye, edited by Rachel Lever.

Writing, activism, feminism: then and now.

Local artist, film-maker, all-purpose scribe and social agitator Rachel Lever talks to HOT’s Xaverine Bates  about her upcoming talk, the second in riart Grrrls’ female author series, during which she will discuss her work as editor of the Her Eye series in the 1990s, working at Spare Rib and other feminist publications, as well as her take on the resurgent wave of global feminism.

How did you get involved in the Her Eye series?

I ran a women’s residential hangout called the Hen House, and put on a steady stream of writing courses with tutors including Zoe Fairbairns, Helen Dunmore, Sara Maitland and Liz Lochhead. When the Hen House was winding down, I thought of gathering some of the work done there, but that was quite patchy and a bit limiting, and it seemed a logical progression to open it up. I advertised for entries in writing magazines and got a huge response.

Had you edited any books before this series? If so, which ones?

I’ve always been around fringe journalism, including loads of editing and arranging and presenting of other people’s work, and editing creative writing just seemed to follow naturally. Not having any aspirations of my own in that direction gave me a useful distance.

How did you identify writers and contributors to the books & how did you manage the selection process?

In a word, I think, it was just done by instinct. And long tables are always useful, so the Hen House dining tables were invaluable for grouping poems together into heaps where they felt comfortable with each other. What became apparent was that so much of the work reflected the writers’ experience of going through life as a woman, and so the poems fell into chapters that divided into phases of that experience.

Did you include any of your own work? Why / why not?

I think there’s enough of my own work in there as an editor and arranger, and in the later books I included some drawings. But the thing I think that was unique about these books was the part that the writers played in their distribution, it was a sort of collective organism like an ant colony: everyone was promoting each other’s work all over the country and even worldwide. One woman ordered 70 copies and donated the proceeds to Amnesty, another raised funds for her school library, and a woman who was dying of cancer bought 50 copies to leave to her friends. Readings were organised at bookshops and writers’ festivals and on their local radio. This wouldn’t happen today: it would just have a Facebook page.

Spare Rib is about to be relaunched by journalist Charlotte Raven. Tell us a bit about your time working at Spare Rib and writing for Women’s Fightback.

When I got to Spare Rib it was past its best, and not a very happy place to be: its main strength was a very participative readership, so issues, news stories, fiction and poetry and letters just flooded in all the time, and this material was often a lot fresher and stronger and more in touch than any content we could initiate ourselves in the course of interminable discussions. And we had some good routines: we each ‘owned’ all the unsolicited material that came in on our particular duty day: we could make our own selection to bring to the next meeting, and if it was agreed, we would then take it through the editing process with the person that had sent it in. That was very satisfying.

Women’s Fightback was very different: it started by calling a conference in March 1981, that was endorsed by dozens of women’s rights groups, in response to the election of Margaret Thatcher, but it was in fact more orientated to the labour and trade union movement and the position of women within it. The biggest impact was on the Labour Party where it launched a really successful campaign that put an end to all-male parliamentary shortlists and the solid ranks of grey suits on the green benches. The rest, as they say, is history.

Can you remember the key moment when you realised you were a feminist?

I’d been a socialist activist for years, and the attitude was that women were simply victims of capitalism, “the slaves of the slaves” as Marx put it. We would only be liberated when the working class men that we serviced were free from capitalist exploitation, so that was our main priority. We were a sort of geological sub-layer. To move from that kind of thinking to feminism meant moving into a different dimension, so instead of horizontal layers with the women at the bottom, you had a vertical, gender, division running like a fault line from the top of society all the way down. It had been impossible, before, for me to conceive of a rich woman being oppressed. For me, the eureka moment came when the richest, most privileged woman in the land, the Queen herself, woke up to find a strange man in her bedroom, and, being a woman, had to use her wits to keep him talking until help arrived.

What were the highlights of your time as a feminist activist?

I think because of where I was coming from, I couldn’t say I was ever a ‘feminist activist’, I wasn’t in any consciousness-raising group, never burned my bra or marched to reclaim the night. The biggest buzz and the most fun I had was organising a couple of women’s benefit concerts together with Women Against Pit Closures, which was a mass movement where women found their voice and their strength, and it was a very powerful experience being around them, and also we worked with some top theatre directors and an all-star cast. We filled a West End theatre, with people queueing round the block for tickets, and I think it was the highest-grossing benefit in the whole of the miners’ strike.

What do you think of the resurgence of global feminism today? What lessons can we learn from the second wave to move things forward?

It does seem that women in Europe and America are not leading this time, I think the most impressive developments have been in India, and in Pakistan, and maybe some of that energy is fuelling a revival here. You can’t call it a second wave, I think it’s more like a fourth or fifth wave, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Rachel Lever will be talking to riart Grrrls about her work as part of the rG female author series. Readings from the ‘Her Eye’ series will be performed by Val Lee, a notable novelist, who wrote some of the fantastic poems in the series and who is known on the Comedy scene for her monologues. Thursday 30 May at 7.30pm at Claremont Studios (previously King’s Rd Stationers), 48 King’s Rd, St Leonards.£2.50 entry – all welcome! For more information, click here

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Posted 12:54 Wednesday, May 22, 2013 In: Literature

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