By Rosa Campbell
In the oral history interviews I have recorded with those involved in the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement, The Feminist Bookshop, Sydney, comes up again and again. Jane Bullen, active in Canberra Women’s Liberation, spoke of coming to Sydney for a weekend “part of what you did was go to The Feminist Bookshop and pick up a little pile of books which were not available anywhere else.” Gail Shelston, the first Women’s Officer for The Teacher’s Federation – the NSW teaching union- remarked that this bookshop “was there for me at every stage of my life. It was there for me, you know.”
I do know because this bookshop was the place where I first discovered bell hooks after buying her book with a voucher given to me by my Mum for my 16th birthday. I was blown away by bell hooks’ feminism is for everyone, both in terms of the challenge to feminists who centre white women’s experience, as well as the generous way hooks expressed this. I was also staggered at my Mum’s generosity: the voucher was for $100 (£50) which, at the time, seemed an enormous sum of money.
It was such a pleasure to speak with Gabrielle (Gail) Hewison, who, along with her sisters, Libby and Jane, owned and ran this important Sydney feminist institution for thirty years. It began in 1974 and they took it over in 1982 and ran it until 2011.
When Gail and her sisters took over The Feminist Bookshop in 1982, “none of us had any experience in running bookshops whatsoever.” Gail had, however, significant managerial experience in other organisations and businesses. Before being heavily involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, she managed a photographic studio for her then partner, who was one of Australia’s leading photographers.
In the mid 70s Gail came out as a lesbian and a feminist and immediately became an activist. She worked in management roles at a private abortion clinic, after abortion was decriminalised in New South Wales. This service prioritised profit and speed over the needs of women having abortions. This was ‘chalk and cheese’ when compared to the Bessie Smythe Clinic, a service started by feminists in the 70s. At the Bessie Clinic, Gail was part of a flat-structure feminist collective where decision making, administration duties, cleaning, and abortion counselling, were everyone’s responsibility. “We trained ourselves up to do everything” she said. Gail suggested, that the Bessie Smythe Clinic and other feminist services began to set the standard for abortion provision, thus changing the experience of abortion for women.
When speaking about The Feminist Bookshop, Gail claimed that it was so successful because she, Jane and Libby, were intimately and enthusiastically involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. “Because we were all active feminists, we knew what the issues were for women at the time.” A very big focus of the bookshop was lesbian visibility and creating a safe space for lesbians. The bookshop catered to women both inside and outside of the Movement. “We had a circle of absolutely devoted supporters who would not shop anywhere else”. But, it was also the place where feminist services, such as rape crisis centres, health centres and women’s refuges would go to stock their libraries with good resources.
The Feminist Bookshop was also recommended as a resource by those working in feminist services to their clients. Gail is clear that “if we had only relied on feminists who just liked a good read then we would have gone broke. We had to reach beyond the women’s movement.”
I was struck in the interview by the continual refreshing of bookshop stock by the owners, in line with feminism’s own transformations. “We survived for so long, because we knew that feminism was more than just nice women’s novels, it was about so many practical things…and there kept on being new issues.” As feminists became interested in for example, addiction or Indigenous issues or non-sexist children’s books they would find them at the bookshop. As demand arose, transgender people found their way to The Feminist Bookshop for the new books stocked, and transgender people knew they would be welcomed by Gail, Jane, Libby and their staff. The bookshop was open and welcoming to people of all genders from the very beginning, a decision that was both sensitive and made good business sense. Many men even declared it their favourite bookshop.
Toward the end of our interview, Gail reflected broadly on the project of the bookshop, and I want to give her the last word: “We were pretty tired by the end, it was challenging and stressful sometimes trying to keep a feminist business going, as feminism became more mainstream. But it was so rewarding, to be at the centre of a vital part of the Women’s Movement, to be doing something that was really changing lives. We knew most definitely that books can change lives. Over 30 years, we saw it happen!”
Rosa Campbell is completing a PhD in the global history of Australian Women’s Liberation at the University of Cambridge. Recently, she has written for the Independent, Overland and Novara media. She has just finished a children’s book about the history of international women’s day. Say hello on twitter @rrrosavalerie
With many thanks to Gail Hewison.