Vancouver Women’s Library opens amid anti-feminist backlash

Vancouver Women’s Library/February 4, 2017

During the second wave, there was a bonafide feminist bookstore movement. Women’s spaces, presses, writing, and events were seen as integral to feminism. This meant that women’s bookstores were valued, not only as ways to make women’s writing and work accessible, but as physical spaces within which women could gather, meet other women, and become politicized.

At one time, there were over 150 women’s bookstores across North America. The first one — the Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore — opened on the porch of a commune in 1970, and by 1997 there were 175 of them, mostly run by volunteers and collectives. But just two decades later, almost every single one has closed down.

In Vancouver, Women in Print (which was in business for 12 years, closing in 2005) and the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore (which closed in 1996, after being open for over 20 years) are no longer. But the need has not gone away. In fact, it seems evident these spaces are more essential than ever before, as the feminist movement faces increasingly vicious backlash from the right, the left, and the media.

“Vancouver Women’s Bookstore” opening poster, 1973, designed and printed by Jo Cook. (Image: Simon Fraser University archive, Women’s Bookstore fonds: F-111-1-0-0-4 Flyers [1973-1980]/bothandvancouver.tumblr.com)

The Vancouver Women’s Library launched on Friday night in a small space on the Eastside. Women of all ages and varied backgrounds who came to celebrate and socialize were surprised to be met by protestors, who not only harassed them verbally, but attempted to physically bar them from entering the building.

Local feminist activist Jindi Mehat told me that she arrived at 1670 Franklin Street close to 9 p.m. There were people standing outside holding a banner reading, “Trans Communist Cadre,” and the situation was tense, she said. Mehat and a friend went inside, only to find things were “even worse” in the library.

“I heard a man saying really loudly, ‘I wish they would take all of the SWERF and TERF books off the shelf,'” she said. “I found it really shocking that he was very performatively spewing that kind of language in a feminist space, because those are clearly really misogynistic terms.”

Mehat entered the room where the catalogue of books was and saw two women standing in front of the books with their hands on their hips, physically taking up as much space as they could in order to prevent people from seeing the shelves. “I didn’t realize that’s what they were doing at first,” she told me. “I thought they were maybe just standing there and not being very conscious of how much room they were taking up in that small space.”

“I said, ‘Excuse me,’ very politely to one woman and then sort of tried to slip around behind her to get closer to the books to look at them, and she said to me, under her breath, ‘If you push me one more time you’re going to be sorry.'”

Mehat considered leaving, saying, “I was pretty concerned there was going to be some violence. Some of the protestors had been drinking heavily.”

Jen Kim, a feminist activist, had a similarly intimidating experience. Arriving at about 8:30 p.m., she walked up to the door of the building, where one person holding a sign physically blocked Kim from accessing the door, pushing her aggressively. “They used all of their body force and I almost fell,” Kim told me, but she kept trying to work her way around them. “I managed to inch slowly past them and open the door, fearing they’d push and shut the door on my hand or arm.” During this time, another man stood beside Kim, yelling slurs at her. She managed to get in eventually, struggling past the individual blocking the door.

There were 29 protestors outside at one point, drinking beer. Approximately six to eight protestors came inside, some of whom began smoking in the non-smoking building, which hosts a number of artist studios. One woman shouted, “No SWERFs, no TERFs,” and another accused the library founders of “violence.” An elder feminist asked the protestors to explain the accusation of “violence,” saying:

“I’ve been in feminism for a hell of a long time — longer than most of you, and I’m supporting you and I’m supporting [this space]. I think you need to examine the library and I think you need to talk before you use such words, without really understanding.”

 

None of the protestors qualified their use of the word “violence” to describe the existence of a small, volunteer-run women’s library, and instead launched into various accusations rooted in disingenuous and confused interpretations of feminist analysis.

“To say that women who take a global view of prostitution and see it in a context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny — who aren’t just focused on white Western middle class camgirls — are ‘exclusionary’ makes no sense,” Mehat said. “It doesn’t hold up to any cognitive scrutiny.”

“And these are the same people that trumpet that they are being silenced? Well, what were they doing here? They were trying to silence and intimidate and bully feminists,” she added.

A male protestor proceeded to rip a S.C.U.M Manifesto poster off the wall. Apparently confused about the content of the book and who the author was, he defended this act by claiming the S.C.U.M Manifesto was written by a woman “who was beating up transwomen.” (Valerie Solonas did no such thing. Of course, no feminist in history has ever done such a thing.)

Near the end of the night, the protestors poured red wine on the bookshelves and books, stole alcohol, and pulled the fire alarm, resulting in a charge of up to $500 to the volunteers who run the library. The library’s hand-painted sandwich board was stolen the following day.

One of the books protestors threw red wine on at the launch of the Vancouver Women’s Library, Feb 3, 2017.

“Absolutely, we were frightened,” said Keira Smith-Tague, a member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter collective who attended the event. “Especially when there were men in there intimidating us physically.”

Jeannine Mitchell, an original founder of the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore, attended the launch, but arrived after the police had been called and the protestors had left the building.

“The last thing I expected was pickets outside,” Mitchell told me. “When we started the [Vancouver Women’s Bookstore], people had different views on feminism, but everyone was glad that we were opening — it was a resource for the community.”

Mitchell told me there were nearly 30 people outside when she arrived, “a number of whom were men.” She was shocked at the extremity of the signs, some of which claimed the library founders hated women and were fascists. “It just seemed over-the-top,” Mitchell said.

“Greeting somebody else’s community project with such an overkill of anger and hatred seems like an odd way to be using resources to help women,” she added.

A pamphlet handed out to women by protestors at the launch of the Vancouver Women’s Library.

While the list of demands from the protestors was shared online by a group called Gays Against Gentrification (GAG), the group denies involvement in the protest. The note itself, passed along to women at the launch in the form of a pink pamphlet, rattles off a number of misrepresentions and outright lies about feminist politics and the aims of the library, and goes on to libel one of the founders, em laurent, demanding she step down.

Co-founder, Bec Wonders, told me that, counter to the claims of the protestors, the catalogue is very diverse in terms of authors and perspectives. But even if what the protestors said was true, banning books is a dangerous thing to advocate for. In Nazi Germany, books that represented dissenting views or ideology were targeted for burning. The Christian right continues to work to ban “blasphemous works” today. These protestors, ever-fond of loosely throwing around the term, “fascism,” seem unaware of how fine a line they walk when fighting to ban and censor work that challenges their preferred discourse and mantras.

In this case, the list of books the group demanded be banned seemed cobbled together, based on little more than a scan of titles.

Among the 20 titles the protestors have demanded be banned from the library were: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, a book that teaches healing through Buddhism and meditation; First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott; and The Female Man, a science fiction novel by Joanna Russ. The list also includes books that are critical of men’s exploitation, abuse, and commodification of women, including: Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women; Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade by Janice Raymond; and Kathleen Barry’s Female Sexual Slavery (inexplicably spelled “Sl*v*ry” in the pamphlet).

Wonders found the list inconsistent. “It’s not a real conversation or critique.” Laurent agrees:

“You can definitely tell that this list is born out of a vacuous approach. Anything that signified an association with the second wave — even if the content had nothing to do with second wave politics — was put on the list. It’s hard to take it seriously…”

Despite claims that the library is “trans- and sex worker exclusionary,” the space is neither. It is open to everyone (though memberships are for women only), and the website states: “We welcome all women, regardless of creed/class/gender/race/sexuality.”

The catalogue itself features a diverse selection of texts, from various political perspectives — many not political at all.

“We have texts by Leslie Feinberg, we have texts by Amber Dawn, we have books on global sex work,” Wonders tells me. The catalogue also includes fiction, poetry, mysteries, multilingual books, and Wonders says they want to expand their children’s section. Their library is still small (though it’s growing very quickly as donations pour in) — started from the founders’ own personal collections and the collections of other women.

“We don’t censor any text as long as its written by a woman, so any donation that comes our way, we’ll put it on the shelves,” Wonders tells me.

“We also have a ‘wish list’ feature on our website, so you can suggest texts if you feel like something’s missing or you want to read something… We’re trying to be as varied as possible, with as many genres as possible. When it comes to the overtly political texts, we do want to carry opposing views, but it’s important to us not to censor anything.”

While many are baffled as to why protestors would focus their energy on shutting down a library, Smith-Tague says the protest was rooted in “anti-woman attitudes,” aimed at silencing feminist voices and history:

“Women’s resistance and the women’s liberation movement has, as long as it’s existed, been willfully written out of history. It’s clear that in this day and age there are still misogynist attitudes towards promoting women’s liberation and the books that contain some of that history. This attempt to shut this project down was just another example of that.”

It’s difficult to know who was behind the protest or what the group represents. One protestor told Smith-Tague they were not an organized group or collective, and another note published by GAG states the protestors are “a decentralized group of individuals.” Though chatter online about the library spread far and wide, in terms of official organizing, I found only one Instagram post* on the account of a man named Jason Riach (who witnesses identify as the same person who ripped down the S.C.U.M. Manifesto poster, and who was among those verbally harassing women in front of the building):

Regardless of what the protestors hoped to convey, the hostility towards women’s history and contribution to the canon of political thought was palpable. One protestor even held a sign announcing, “The Second Wave Is Over.” While theorists like Marx have yet to be deemed irrelevant to today’s leftists, women whose writing is only 40 or 50 years old are already being erased, characterized as out-of-date and insignificant.

“It’s so much harder for women to hold social currency,” laurent told me. “I read Aristotle and Plato, but am told Andrea Dworkin is ‘no longer relevant?’ I don’t buy that.”

Indeed, the existence of a women’s library seeks to counter the notion that men’s work, history, and ideas are intrinsically of more value than women’s.

Wonders points out that, beyond the sexism inherent to efforts to erase and dismiss an entire generation of women’s writing, “To generalize about a whole array of literature that was produced by women is ahistorical.”

“It’s really important to have an archive that reveals the fullness of women’s history,” laurent says. “A lot of contemporary feminist book sections are missing key historical texts — with the library, we’re able to reveal and demonstrate the fullness of women’s literature.”

In general, the protestors seemed to lack any interest in productive engagement with either the library or the women. Rather, they repeated various claims rooted in nothing of substance, made numerous assumptions that turned out to be untrue, and advocated the arbitrary censorship of women’s work.

Based on the shock and confusion expressed by feminist elders who attended the launch, it’s fair to say this particular backlash is one we have never seen before. Isolated and emboldened in online communities, young leftists have become comfortable attacking without asking, silencing without thinking — knee-jerking their way towards a doctrine that vilifies anyone who doesn’t join their church.

“We are living in a seriously politically divisive and dangerous time, globally,” Smith-Tague told me.

“There are people who have an incredible amount of power to oppress people in North America right now. Last month, women came together at the global Women’s March, and even though we didn’t all agree on every issue, we could at least understand that the stakes are very high right now and that alliances are necessary. To me, that is exactly the attitude that people who want to organize for social change need to be taking on.”

Smith-Tague questioned the decision to put one’s efforts towards “destroying a small grassroots women’s library,” adding, “They clearly don’t have an analysis of the reality we live in and of what’s important right now.”

While this protest and these demands for censorship will have no impact on the survival of the library (indeed, in light of the protest, the founders tell me they have been inundated with support and donations, countering the attack), it is distressing to see these tactics used against a systemically marginalized group. Patriarchal society has long determined women’s culture and words to be dangerous — systemically squashing and undermining any attempts to escape our subordinate status, dividing us to prevent solidarity among sisters. No matter what you put on your banner, no matter what you chant in defense, joining those efforts puts you firmly on the side of the oppressor.

*EDITOR’S NOTE, 02/08/2017: The Instagram page and post featured was public at the time of publication. The account was set to private after the publication of this story.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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