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Women’s libraries and bookstores deal with historic but problematic second-wave feminism

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MayFrontmatter_News_CR-Miori

Montreal’s L’Euguélionne opened in February (Miori)

The Vancouver Women’s Library, while not a bookseller, was founded to fill a gap left more than a decade ago by the closure of Women in Print and the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore. On Feb. 3, protestors representing trans women and sex workers, as well as indigenous, black, and other marginalized groups, disrupted the opening-night party for the volunteer-run space. Among the issues listed on a pamphlet distributed to those in attendance was the need for the library to include more titles representing a greater diversity of women’s experiences. The protestors also called for the removal of 21 titles in the collection that were “written by non-trans women and non-sex workers that dehumanize, speak over, and advocate harm.”

Women’s bookstores first started popping up across North America during the 1970s and the rise of second-wave feminism. Many of their shelves would have been stocked with at least some radical feminist texts promoting trans-exclusionary philosophies. Today’s more progressive intersectional feminism recognizes the identity, rights, and needs of trans women, but there are still fissures within the movement, which became evident by the protestors, who believe a women’s library should represent a safe space for those who have been traditionally marginalized. Most of the library’s books were donations from private collections and the University of British Columbia Women’s Centre. Bec Wonders, one of the three original VWL co-founders, admits there were gaps in the initial offerings, but worries about the slippery slope of censorship, and about being inclusive to generations of older feminists who were patrons of the closed bookstores.

“There are things I disagree with in the books, but I believe they are relevant and that they should be accessible,” says Wonders, who ultimately wants the library to encourage critical readership. “One passage that we don’t agree with today doesn’t negate the importance of these texts.”

Brenna Bezanson, communications coordinator for the Vancouver sex-worker advocacy organization Pace, was not involved in the protests, but says she intimately understands the issues and the desire for safe spaces. Bezanson witnessed the fallout from the protests, as Facebook comment threads from library defenders as far away as New York filled with vitriol toward trans women and supporters who wanted accountability from the library. While Bezanson doesn’t necessarily agree with removing books, she does believe a curated collection requires care. “It’s important to have context for more controversial literature if you are intending on having literature that represents a philosophy,” she says. “There are some books in that collection, without context, that could be dangerous to already marginalized people.”

Bezanson suggests a section for second-wave feminist history could be identified with signage. “I don’t believe acknowledging that something is controversial is a statement of support or disdain of those ideals,” she says. “It’s simply saying that a person who may not have a background on that conversation could possibly want to look into things a little further.”

L’Euguélionne, Montreal’s new feminist bookstore, took another approach when it opened in February. The store, run as a non-profit by a collective of six people with backgrounds in literature and women’s studies, carries new and used titles on consignment. Instead of separating controversial books, the collective saw an opportunity to open dialogue. One shelf carries texts that argue the sex industry should be abolished alongside back issues of the defunct magazine Spread, which advocated for sex workers. “If there’s a book whose authors claim is feminist, and for some reason we don’t agree with that form [of feminism], we still think it’s interesting to have it here so that some debate or discussion can happen around those ideas,” says co-founder Stéphanie Dufresne.

When a box of donations included copies of a 1970s lesbian magazine with transphobic writing, L’Euguélionne added page markers identifying the content and their reasons for having it on display. “We decided to keep it … because it was a magazine that was important to lesbian culture at the time,” says Dufresne. “It’s not available anymore and so it has some historical value.”

After the Vancouver Women’s Library protests, a petition circulated with more than 2,700 signatures asking that the Progressive Librarians Guild stand behind the group’s right to keep controversial books on its shelves. Publicity from the petition spread, while book and financial donations increased. The library has since moved into a larger space, and purchased more trans-centred books and titles offering varying points of view on the sex trade. Wonders says they are investigating ways to create dialogue, such as online forums or notebooks tucked in the back of volumes, but still do not believe that books can create unsafe spaces.

“Women authors from 50 years ago who wrote about rape and male violence are now described by our peers as ‘outdated’ and ‘irrelevant’ to contemporary feminism,” says Wonders. “But classics such as Freud, Aristotle, Foucault are never criticized with the same language or vigour. This is where our focus on critical readership comes in, encouraging women to take what is valuable and having the space to unpack what is troubling.”