In this lively discussion, Inderbir Bhullar, a staff member of the Women’s Library at LSE Archives and Special Collections, spoke with Paroj Banerjee – an LSE PhD researcher in the Department of Geography and Environment and a member of LSE Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team. Inderbir’s discussion with Paroj centres on battling professional gender stereotyping, the nature of the Women’s Library, Indy’s personal experiences of feminism and suggestions to make the campus more diverse.
Paroj Banerjee: We really appreciate you taking time out to speak to us amidst your busy schedule. Few days ago there was a session on Male Feminists, where you were a panel member. It was indeed a very interesting and wide discussion on the history of male feminism. I remember you saying something about “moments and episodes that define male feminism” could you please elaborate on that?
Inderbir Bhullar (Indy) – Yeah so, from my recollections of the discussion, what I was talking about was how defining moments in history tend to fix our understanding of who people were or certainly how we are supposed to think of them. So when you write a biography of someone’s life you have to pick specific events that you want to focus on; which are the most crucial and most important around which you can frame a narrative of a person. I liked the fact that Kaevan had used different ‘moments’ and evidence to present counter-arguments that problematise some of our readings and make us question how we seek to define people as, in this case, pro- or anti-feminist. I think there was a value in showing that lives are more fluid than just black and white. I mean working in archives as well that’s one thing I have been made aware of. Archives are incredibly valuable and important because they provide the main documentary evidence of someone’s life, what they have done and…
Paroj: . …particular episodes?
Indy: Exactly…. Whoever comes to explore an archive, once you open up a box, you look into it and realise well…where’s everything else? This is this, but what about the day before this or what after this? Sometimes you get something like a diary, which has in it the thoughts and processes and everything else, and you wonder how has it all been shaped? But then again a diary can’t be expected to be a transcript of someone’s thought processes…you know? To record such volumes of information you would have to download someone’s brain and go through it (laughs). But in terms of what we have, we tend to make assertions about people and conclude that this person is likely a supporter of feminism or otherwise.
Paroj: Yes, what is the evidence (if one could use that word)?
Indy: Precisely, yes. And the cognition, the conscious and the stuff we don’t see, never gets noted down. So yes, I think that’s what I was referring to.
Paroj: Yes, I thought that your reference to “moments and episodes” was interesting and I picked that up, because I was seeing it more as a personal realisation. We will come back to that question, but to me it was more like a personal experience of moments when you identify yourself as a feminist. One can have more elaborate discussions on this, but the context you provide is really interesting.
So moving on to the next question… You also made some very interesting comments about the Women’s Library, a space where you work now. One of the things you said was how people constantly ask why you (suggesting a male) work in the Women’s Library. Could you tell us more about the nature of the library and perhaps your role there?
Indy: Yes of course. So yeah I joined in 2009 and the comment about the people asking me odd questions. In terms of “what you doing here?” And I hope that wasn’t an assessment as in “why are you working here?!” (laughs). A suggestion that I was bad in my job in particular! But yes,it didn’t happen that often, although it stood out when it did. I remember that when I went for the role a couple of colleagues laughed and said, “oh what are you going to do, go dressed in a skirt?” In my head it was a library of women’s history….so why would that preclude me? And as was proved through the interview process and through actually working there with those people, I saw that it wasn’t a separatist organisation and its never been that…..
Paroj: Quite evidently!
Indy: Yes, I think people were confused and perhaps it was the name or by the idea that there is this so called Women’s Library. But then I don’t think people would get that with something like the British Library (laughs), thinking, “Well I am Indian, can I go in??….is this allowed…??”. Some of the researchers who came to the Women’s library were from a radical feminist tradition. Many of them strongly advocated for women’s only spaces in order to defy a patriarchal world and culture. To them that was a way of having the freedom to think and progress towards their goals ..…by constructing their own space…..whether that’s in Literature, History etc… We have got women’s only publishers for example in our archive.
Paroj: Would you call this a kind of affirmative action?
Indy: Yeah, I mean (long pause). It’s an action regardless and while some people will see it as a positive and empowering thing, others won’t. But I think it’s affirmative in the sense that if you believe fundamentally that people should be able to do things for themselves without causing harm to others and discuss things on their own terms then that’s the definition of affirmative isn’t it?
The negative occasions were very few. One occasion I do remember is when an academic had come a long way from Australia. When she walked into the reading room, I was staffing the library’s main desk and she was definitely kind of “woah” to see me there. And then when she came to talk to me about how to use the library she said that she was quite surprised by the fact that I was there. And she wasn’t happy with that and enquired if there was some way she could communicate that. It was quite a bizarre scenario because I was like “Yes okay I understand that, let me help you complain about me!” I handed her a feedback form for her to write her grievance even though I hadn’t done anything ‘wrong’. However, it wasn’t that she perceived me individually to be an awful man or this terrible figure or anything negative. But it was based more on her expectations being confounded. And actually at that instance it was fine because we chatted and we discussed it and it was very civil. I could understand where she was coming from and I was able to explain that The Women’s Library had never been a separatist organisation and we used to call it the Fawcett Library….
On occasions I’d hear that people said “God, there is a bloke upstairs and blah and blah”. They might have been joking and making a comment or whatever but I found that more difficult and that’s a shame. But I’d say, for instance if I worked there a 1000 days, those kinds of things I heard or faced directly only 10 days. So it wasn’t a regular occurrence. And I took far more inspiration from working there and learning in that environment.
Paroj: Yes, and it’s also interesting what you shared through your experiences of how such moments become a part of a larger narrative. It is in these instances that people start talking about exclusivity, access to spaces and I appreciate you bringing this up. Also could you talk a bit about the kind of materials that have been archived there?
Indy: Yeah of course! We have got a large collection. It’s the second oldest existent archive and collection of Women’s History in the world. So it initially began in 1926, during the suffrage period, making its history really long. At that point the government had already passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act [enabling women over 30 with property to vote] and then in 1928 the Second Act gave all women the right to vote regardless of property qualifications and brought the age to par with men. So figures like Vera Douie, Phillipa Strachey and Jane Norton were those involved in the organisation at that time and were aware of the immense struggle that ensued to achieve what seems now, a completely normalised or regular thing – Votes for Women. And because it took a long time, there is a long history.
So they wanted to collect some of those stories, so a large part of it is related to suffrage. You have got pamphlets, original books, first edition signed by people. There is a rare book collection as well created and collected by a suffragist called Ruth Cavendish Bentinck. She was a suffragist at that time and was very supportive of the rights for women to vote. But she also was interested in the past. She collected these books and pamphlets and magazines from their forerunners. So for example a first edition copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and numerous other rare books and collections, to give a sense that Women’s equality is not a new argument but we have been pushing for this for 100s of years and been campaigning in different ways. Over the years various men and women have recognised those inequalities and they wanted to address them if not completely redress them.
So yes, the materials span over a long time. The oldest item we have was published in 1575, and it’s a book of poetry dedicated to Elizabeth I. That’s what we call the Printed Collection, the bit of the library which consists of books, pamphlets and magazines. The archives are arranged in themes and strands. So you have got suffrage as a strand, women’s emigration societies as another strand, personal papers, organisations that work for women etc. We have these materials kept in the archive and they are fantastic sources for primary research because they show how decisions were made and lives lived. Then there is a museum collection with posters, badges, banners and other great visual materials; all the things that made campaigns come to life.
Going back to the beginning, the Library always had one eye on the past in terms of collecting older materials but they also realised that women were now taking part in civil life, political life and in different forms of employment. So they needed to keep it up to date and relevant suggesting that “This collection needs to be relevant to women who are going out into the world”. Vera Douie was the librarian who held the position for that entire early period of time. She was the first librarian in 1926 and retired in 1967, making that 40 odd years of work that she put into that collection. She left an indelible mark. The Library’s mostly focussed on the United Kindgom, but there is a lot from the Commonwealth as well. There is a large collection, for example, from the archive of the Association of Moral and Social Hygiene, which campaigned against soldiers using brothels in India.
Paroj: Right! All this sounds very interesting. Its important people know what kind of space the library is and how it has grown over the years. Like you said naming or tagging has it own politics and so the nature of the space also evolves with the tag it has got.
So coming to the next question on male feminism and equality if I could say? Do you think that if more men identified themselves as feminists, we would strive closer towards gender equality? Also is there a need for adding the tag “male” to feminism?
Indy: There are men who might shy away from saying that they are feminists but rather call themselves pro-feminists. They support the movement or the ideas behind them. So yes, I think if you are feminist, you are a feminist. I don’t necessarily see the use of the tag “male”. Some men might like it, they might find it better to say “well I’m a feminist, but I am still a man” in case they forget (laughs). And if they are supporting feminist policies and supporting the idea that we are all equal, hopefully they will come to the conclusion themselves. Initially they might be insecure and feel hesitant to call themselves feminists. So I don’t know if they are talking for other people and I don’t know if there is an element of a comfort blanket thing there. May be to an extent.
There was an argument at the talk where people debated whether we should call ourselves humanists. For some that is seen as more equalising. Alice Walker for instance rejected the feminist label because she felt it was shaped by a very Anglo-centric, white perspective of defining feminism. She called herself a womanist. I just think feminism is very clear and I think it’s because of the first three letters that has some kind of effect on lots of people. But I have got absolutely no problem with this identity. If you recognise that there is inequality in the world based on people’s gender and you realise that things are not fair and it shouldn’t be like this and then you define yourself as feminist.
Paroj: So now coming back to your personal experiences of everyday feminism: On an everyday basis how would you identify yourself as a feminist?
Indy: I remember university is where I shaped my understanding on feminism. I encountered it growing up at home as a Sikh. We’d get books about the Gurus and their teachings where one of the core messages was that men and women are equal before God. The strong part of the narrative is that everybody is equal. Although the religious text preached equality growing up you realise that it doesn’t get translated necessarily into reality. It was at university when we started reading and talking about literary theories in English class. One of the theories that we were using was feminist perspective on Literature. I remember that in one of our seminars, our tutor asked us to raise our hands if we thought we were feminists. This was after reading the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I put my hand straight up and my best friend did the same. So it was us two blokes (laughs) and the rest of the class was silent. And we were like “why would you not?” It’s an amazing book about the debilitating effects of racial and sexual oppression and how that gets internalised and manifests itself externally. It is extraordinarily powerful. And I know you are going to ask about role models later on, but she is definitely one.
So after university I got the opportunity to work at the TUC library (Trades Union Congress). Some of the work centred on aspects of equal pay and those battles fought by the Ford machinists in 1968. And then the Women’s Library role came up. I therefore can say that I have been feminist for a long time and happy to be. But it was really during my time at the Women’s Library that raised my consciousness or made me aware of issues. Actually seeing all this stuff, the huge documentary evidence of just how society can put pressures on and denigrate people for no other reason than they are born into a particular gender or race or whatever it might be, is unacceptable!
I guess out of that there is so much that goes on that a person can’t do anything about. So for me it’s more about face-to-face and personal interactions, treating people with respect. Again during the talk I think I mentioned something about attitudinal change being important and to be aware of not acting in a patronising way towards others based on certain preconceived notions. Also it’s being aware of the fact I am a man and I frequently live in, what I view as, a patriarchal culture so don’t want to come across as domineering in a conversation or sound patronising. So it’s that awareness I guess and how it presents itself in my actions. And I have been on demonstrations and that kind of outward thing, i.e. the action is important too. It’s more how we square ourselves with the world. And if we can do this holistically, read all this stuff and not just put it to one side but actually live it and internalise it and make it a powerful experience then it’s a big part of the way. And so that’s how I identify myself with values of feminism.
Paroj: Thanks for sharing your personal experience and making the conversation so meaningful. Do you have a role-model feminist? Why?
Indy: There are lots of people I really adore. Sylvia Pankhurst is a heroine or hero (whatever you’d like to call it) of mine. She was just relentless, indefatigable and global as well. She was that kind of a person who was empathetic. It’s easy to say but it’s very difficult to be empathetic. We can all be guilty of seeing the world solely from our individual perspective. But I think she used her anger and the recognition of her privilege to try and do something that was hard. For instance splitting from her mother and sister and ending up leaving the WSPU, the renowned ‘brand’ of feminist action. She raised her voice against the undemocratic nature of the organisation and those feminist projects. And so she did her own thing by splitting up from them and started the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. She started actively working with people, men and women, in East London and some of its poorer parts. And then there is Toni Morrison, who I think is amazing.
But I also think that anyone can be a role model depending on how you see it. For instance when I was at university a friend started her own female-led club night and she played women artists and all that kind of stuff, which was great. She was very inspirational in many ways. That opened my eyes a little bit on what we can do and what we can achieve if we get the opportunity to and we have the confidence in ourselves. And it’s easy to be all grumpy and criticise everything and expect the role model to be perfect. I think role models are important but it’s also important to see them as people. They are going to be days when they are not able to be ‘that person’ and be that role model all the time.
Paroj: Considering you have been at the LSE for a while now how diverse, particularly in relation to gender and race, do you think this institution is?
Indy: Umm… I think student body wise, its more diverse than other Russell Group universities. But I think there is an issue as an institution. When I came here in 2013 I came from a very different kind of institution with a less traditional campus. When I started, it surprised me. Some of the rooms felt like boardrooms from the 50s, with stuffy air…. However I do think that as an institution the LSE is very well aware of itself and…
Paroj: Would you say self reflective in a way?
Indy: Yes, one could say that. But too much internal focus may not be too productive. By this I don’t mean to say that the LSE just looks in on itself, but it tends to view other Russell Group institutions from a competitive perspective. I think institutions could do more to work together. I also think institutions should be careful to draw the line in the marketisation of higher education. I think it’s a diverse institution, but within that there also needs to be a diversity of thought. And thus such institutions should move away from just tick box exercises. But it’s difficult to challenge such things and also difficult to be willing to challenged. There needs to be diversity in teaching and curriculum. Even though it’s difficult for organisations, but I think it’s imperative especially for Higher Education organisations to be brave enough to say “okay we are going to allow several ideas to flourish.” That’s the whole point of universities. It is important to be able to argue one’s perspective and one can be quite confident to do that if there is an environment of ideas. If this can be achieved then that would be a positive outcome. I think it’s also important for managers to allow staff to have those thoughts and trust their staff essentially. I think there can be fear, paranoia and worry because you’ve got to answer to your boss and they have got to answer to their boss. But as I said I think it’s more helpful if we work as an institution of ideas where the system is more bottom up rather than top down.
Paroj: Thanks for this comprehensive answer. It also covers my final question of how do you think LSE can strive towards becoming a more inclusive institution?
Indy: Well, I think that the role that you guys play, the EDI, is really important by making us think about all this stuff, by acting as a mirror for the institution. I know that our Director for instance has established working groups to look at EDI issues in the library to push us to think how diverse we are and how the wider institution is operating which is important and a good thing. So we have got different groups thinking about various aspects of operation. Your initiative to collaborate with us is really great. That might not have happened if Joy Whyte from EDI hadn’t come to talk to us and get us involved as staff and give us the idea.
Paroj: Inter-departmental collaboration is very important I guess. And so are face-to-face conversations and interactions amongst colleagues of different units.
Indy: Yes, idea exchange happens more viscerally with face-to-face interactions.
Paroj: Fantastic! It was indeed an incredible exchange. Thank you so much for coming all the way for the conversation.
Indy: It has been a pleasure.