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by Adele Patrick

Digging Deep: Leadership, Learning, and Endurance. A Conversation between Nandita Gandhi, Althea Greenan, Merete Ipsen, and Adele Patrick

What is Feminist Leadership? What constitutes a feminist cultural organisation? I have been asking myself these questions over the past three decades as a co-founder of Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) and more recently using them as a focus for research.[1]

Whilst mindful of the complexity, not to say anxiety, around the combined terms “feminist” and “leadership,” I am committed to the ways that dialogistic, creative, intersectional approaches rooted in the core values of feminism (as these have been developed by those most acutely impacted by discrimination and marginalisation) may now provide pathways and blueprints for new and existing cultural institutions. The retraction of support for cultural initiatives and resources, polarisation around issues of access, and the deepening of inequalities and marginalisation have thrown up further urgent questions concerning the fitness of established and emerging organisations to deliver for communities in relevant, impactful, and sustainable ways. I believe that feminism is well placed to build and sustain resources that can ameliorate the impact of Austerity, Covid Times, Climate Emergency, and Globalisation.[2]

Any claims to “Build Back Better” or create a “New Normal” (including in the cultural sector) must involve deep structural changes rooted in equalities and a simultaneous examination of the history of feminist organising in both wider politics and in the creation of cultural organisations rooted in equalities agendas. A reflection on the project of feminist organising and leadership globally is timely in this “resetting” and paradigm-shifting period. This is a critical moment for mainstream and fledgling (counter)cultural and “undercommons” projects to learn from past decades of (successful and failed) feminist organising, especially feminist organisational approaches that demonstrate ways of adapting, innovating, and enduring.[3] As many more cultural institutions face existential challenges, there is an urgency in sharing experiences of forms of organisational sustainability, modes of resilience defined and modelled in the organisational histories, institutional knowledges, and the methods of feminist leaders who have centred inclusivity.[4]

As the cultural sector responds to critiques around ownership, representation, power, and relevance (questions that have been at the forefront of feminist theory and practice) and encounters escalating demands to abolish, “de-tox,” and re-structure around equalities (but where paradoxically “widened access” and human rights-based agendas are increasingly under threat or corporatised), what can be learnt from experiments in feminist organising in global contexts?

As GWL approaches its 30th anniversary in September 2021, I was keen to speak with co-founders and leaders of feminist cultural organisations who had been developing projects for three decades or more.[5] In two interview sessions, I spoke to Nandita Gandhi, co-founder and co-director of Akshara, Mumbai; Merete Ipsen, the former director and co-founder of Kvindemuseet (now Køn), Aarhus; and Althea Greenan, curator of the Women’s Art Library (WAL), London. The following extracts capture thoughts on professionalisation, the weight of feminist leadership, the process of (co)founding and leaving organisations and, critically, notions of endurance. [6]

Characteristics of feminist cultural institutions such as Bildweschel, a multifaceted women’s video collection that was a key model for GWL,[7] or the four organisations that are the focus of this conversation, are how they are unfettered by normative categorisations (Gallery, Museum, Educational Institution, Archive…) being wilfully hybrid in their operations, programming, and modes of “consumption,” “leadership,” and “participation” and where their practices progressively shift over time, principally in response to equalities agendas. A common commitment is to the creation of place in strikingly distinct ways (including re/making space by users/creatives) in resistance to the tendency towards homogeneity and siloed “experiences” in mainstream cultural resources. In the context of GWL, this means that visitors may arrive for literacy or ESOL learning and find themselves encountering contemporary artworks as they pass through a space not designated as a “zone for art” and where artists and visitors have inserted works and objects from their own lives into the fabric of the building over time. The term Library was deliberately chosen in the case of GWL as, arguably, the most accessible of cultural resources. Such a library signposts a safe, free, comfortable, welcoming but challenging space, where art in all forms is made and shared. It offers a locus for chance encounters with others, where friendships are forged in a context replete with inspiring texts, sounds, and visual material (all donated and therefore collectively “curated”) and where duration and frequency of visits can be hugely varied and self-determined. In each of the instances foregrounded here, the idiosyncratic, hybrid and category-defying nature of organisations and their dialogistic cultures illustrate the capacity of feminist organisations to expand the limits of traditional institutions. For example, looking beyond the attention economies associated with curating in the white cube to create environments where the integration of learning and accessible collections are core rather than an ‘add on,’ and outside the hermetic consumption of selected texts in mainstream and academic libraries.

Propagating and Founding Women’s Cultural Resources

Nandita Gandhi: I would describe Akshara as a Social Movement Organisation.[8] As individuals, we were part of the third phase of the Indian Women's Movement.[9]

fig. 1. Nandita Gandhi in Akshara, 1991. Photographer unknown.  Courtesy of Nandita Gandhi.

fig. 1. Nandita Gandhi in Akshara, 1991. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Nandita Gandhi.


In the initial phases of the Movement, we found that there was a dearth of information. In India, women's information was totally side-lined; we didn't even have sex-wise break-up of data emerging from the government. That was an area which we wanted to concentrate on—that was the beginning of Akshara.[10]  At the same time, there was a convergence of the Women's Studies Movement and the Women's Movement. We got a lot of help from our friends abroad, who gave us books of various sorts.[11] That's how we actually picked up feminist theory, from books and chapters that were typed out and circulated, and we had our little study groups for discussion. We were already in collectives, in women’s groups that were taking up political issues, protesting around violence against women, and then dowry, sex selection, and rape in India. We did not set up Akshara as a collective. Collectives existed within the Women's Movement which were autonomous and formed another structure which bound us to follow state rules and regulations. But what we did was, we sort of tweaked. We didn't want Akshara to be a normal [state-sanctioned] organisation, like any other; we wanted it to be a feminist one. We set it up as a formal organisation, but we worked as an informal one.[12]

Adele Patrick: So, a form of activist tweaking took place. This concept is evocative of GWL’s origin story, assessing what is possible to do to survive, and the complexity of the ways that women’s organisations are prevented from enduring, exploring how things need to be structured to thrive now and in the longer term. Nandita, when I first heard you speak about Akshara at the Know How  conference in 1994, it struck me that there were differences (geographic and cultural) but huge similarities in the challenges we were addressing in operations, engagement, and structure.[13] When you showed slides of Akshara’s physical space, it looked so much like GWL, and I remember the powerful impression I gained at that gathering of feminists from around the world, creating new institutions with so much to learn from each other. In the meantime, Althea, in 1994, WASL/WAL was already well established?

Althea Greenan: Yes, my personal introduction to the collection and working in what was then The Women Artists Slide Library was only a few years earlier, in 1989, and it was already an independent educational charity. It felt like an established project by the time I got there.[14] I came in as a volunteer and was very much in awe of the others there and of the whole set-up. I was learning everything, including what feminist work looks like. I don't feel like I've shifted all that much from that position since then. Even though I have become identified with the WASL in a certain way, I'm simply the last pair of hands that was holding what might have been considered the original project before the collection was gifted to Goldsmiths. So, I feel as if I'm maintaining that original raison d'être of promoting women's art practice by negotiating being in an academic library. I always describe arriving in a library as a culture shock because I am still finding myself in a formal structure, but wanting to maintain that informal feminist way of working. The initial group of women who founded the WASL shifted from being a collective to formalise the organisation in order to access funding, although artists wanted to maintain that ideal of collective thinking and working. So, there's a tension that underpins the history of the organisation that gets played out in the magazine published by the Library.[15] In retrospect, I wish that there had been an earlier recognition—as in your organisation Nandita—of the benefit of maintaining some kind of informality and resist that mindset of “we can't survive unless” we became kind of brutal with our expectations from people. There was this incredible anxiety about being professional, and I think that wasn't a pleasant experience for some who worked in the library.[16]

Merete Ipsen: For me, the foundation of and ongoing relationship with Kvindemuseet was very personal. When we started the Women's Museum, it was like a grassroots movement. We had had the women's movement in the ‘70s. I was really young then, I was not an activist, but I was interested to witness it.[17] The idea of creating a women's museum grew from this thinking, amongst a group of around twelve or fifteen women. We talked about how we could create it as a meeting place for women, a place where we could share and show research through artefacts, through documentation, and in exhibitions, to create a new scene. Subsequently, we made a Women's Museum Association. Around 100 women and one man who said yes to making an association with two propositions: one was to create a women's museum, a professional women's museum. The second, to create jobs for women. We initiated projects using oral history, which was a perfect way to collect information about women's lives.[18] As a psychology student, it was very important for me to look at everyday life from a sort of Freudian-Marxist perspective—where a Freudian interpretation of people's feelings was merged with a material approach in studying a range of ways of living and of thinking. Then we created the first jobs. We hired some of ourselves, to conduct research, alongside other leading professionals, and we employed young women who had never been to university. Some had never had more than ordinary elementary school education. We asked them to be part of a project where we, together, went out and did interviews and used oral history methodologies. We worked together and trained unemployed women, and they taught us to ask questions about the “dark side of life,” which we, as employed and successful students, hadn’t experienced. This, working across class and educational experience, was one of the very important things about creating the Women's Museum. Over the years when it was developing, all levels of women were active in the Museum. Working in a non-hierarchical way was also important, it was also a challenge.

Collectives and Hierarchies, Pragmatism and Idealism in the Forging of Feminist Institutions

NG: Collectives were looked at in quite an idealistic way—a group of people all equal working together; these were very utopian ideas. But how much can you really implement these ideals? In my view, a collective survives when people have a very similar nature, education, age, similar characteristics, ways of thinking, and ideological leanings. But if there are differences, like a huge age difference, for example, or experiential differences, then that collective becomes shaky, and internal hierarchy surfaces. So, it is better to be upfront and say, “Okay, we're going to have a hierarchy. And we're going to have it be as democratic as possible.” And that’s what we did at Akshara.

AP: This tension, of holding both idealism and pragmatism, is something I have been actively researching over the last couple of years.[19] I am more sanguine now about the limits of utopian thinking. Feminist leadership seems more often about the weight of trying to keep organisations going that are under financial and other pressures whilst simultaneously trying to address massive structural inequalities.[20]

You used the term “professionalism” earlier, Merete, and it strikes me that there is tension still in feminist politics around the institutions that we build as feminists, whether they are at risk from professionalisation, institutionalisation, or academisation.[21] I wondered what you felt about this term, “institution,” to describe the work that you were doing at Kvindemuseet?

MI: I think it is very, very important to have feminist institutions, to have places where culture is turned upside down. Ordinary museums and institutions are still men's museums and male-dominated institutions, even if they have a female director. It is a question about cultural history. It is a form of social radicality, which shows the context, examines gender and suppression, which looks at history from a women-centred perspective.

AP: The work of feminist institutions’ (co)founders such as yourselves indubitably reflects endurance. The continuum of our collective history of work addressing intersectional and structural inequalities, whether the impact of colonial rule, advocating for human rights, addressing sexism in all its forms, or how things like Dewey[22] have determined our world, all constitute a critical counterculture. We’ve also been experimenting with feminist operations, organisational structures, and systems of working.[23] Happily, we are witnessing an efflorescence of feminism enabling us, through our own reflections as we hit milestones and through the eyes of young people, to measure the impact we have had. Picking up on your question of institutionalisation, Nandita, a topic we have been reflecting on at GWL is: should we embrace the idea of being an institution? Should we not claim our being that, for Glasgow, for Scotland? I have shifted my thinking of GWL as a form of “feminist undercommons” to feeling more assertive about positing GWL as a significant cultural organisation, worthy of the levels of support and recognition accessed by mainstream organisations. We are an independent body with our own ethos and values, exploring aspects of feminist professionalism and activism. I am confident we are not acculturated into the mainstream; we retain the power to shift the dial on injustice and inequality.

NG: So, you're asking, is it wise or is it inherent for small organisations to then institutionalise and/or become part of institutions, or become an institution? Or do we stay separate and do our own little thing all the time? That’s a very easy way of looking at it. Usually what happens is that you are up against an institution, you try to impact it; in our case, we were developing and sharing alternative women’s or feminist information. But as and when the mainstream accepts that, then what do we do? Then it is our responsibility to shift. We allow our radical thinking to be institutionalised, and we shift to other areas which need attention. Akshara had the first collection of feminist books, theoretical books, in the city. Even the libraries hadn't got them, and the Women's Studies Movement hadn't got them. We had sort of trained ourselves; we sat and read day in and day out. We trained ourselves into basic feminist theory. What is patriarchy? Is it a problem using that term? We read French Feminism, British Feminism, and whatever was available in English. There was a lot of fantastic literature coming out in Latin America, but we could not access it as there were no translations. Once the academic libraries got feminist literature and books, we were irrelevant, right? Students went to their college libraries and stopped coming to Akshara. The Internet came, and suddenly everything was on the Net. Why should they come to our little room and use us as a reference library? That was the time when we had to shift. We were happy that feminist literature and teaching were institutionalised and that way they would reach generations of learners. Our role now was to be a watchdog. We shifted to taking feminist theory to groups of young people through workshops and programmes and public campaigns.

Making, Maintaining and Modifying Spaces and Places, in Real Life and Online

AP: Althea, could you talk about the WAL collection’s value for younger people hungry for a better understanding of what histories are, its significance to material culture linked to notions of embodiment?

AG: For students of feminism, there are many more readings available including access to journals if you are part of an institution; it's fantastic what an electronic/digital library can present.[24] Nandita spoke earlier about how Akshara had asked themselves at a critical moment of self-reflection, when the internet shifted thinking about how information might be accessed , “ I'm thinking, I can see that room, and I certainly want to go in because I have a longing to handle stuff. I think, in fact the Internet has enhanced this desire because it's made people more aware of this early material’s existence and contributes to the “feminist turn” or interest in archival histories and archive theory. Physical collections bear witness to community projects of self-identification and the critical importance of self-archiving.[25] I could do a mass digitisation project of the WAL slide collection, for example, but to merely digitize slides is to really strip the image away from the unique bearing of the artist’s slide. These objects show how feminist work was sustained—by identifying yourself as an artist, for example, and not waiting to be acknowledged by a gallery or an outside institution. Material speaks back to us in that powerful way. Not only for the younger generation, but also the original artists, who submitted the material years ago and who, in the ‘90s and later, might have cringed and said, “Oh, God, not the slides, that stuff is out of date. Why don't you just get rid of them and go digital?” Even they are coming back to these files and finding, “Oh, my goodness, this to me was lost material that I found again.” I realise now that hanging on, despite the trough of interest in the 1990s to the term feminism, is informing how we think about the future. The “little room” and this “space” are absolutely paramount. I don't think I can hang on to the WAL forever, and in terms of my institution, well, there are many ways to fail to recognise the WAL collection that could make it disappear the minute I go out the door.[26]

AP: A critical point, Althea, this tension or paradox around longevity, sustaining and developing. We’re getting to be relatively influential institutions but at the same time remaining precarious because of the volatility of globalisation and paradigm shifts such as digitalisation. The pressure to change means there is often jeopardy for feminist organisations, their collections and approaches. Nandita, you are working in a very different context to the one I'm working in. How critical is it in Mumbai to still have feminist spaces?

NG: Space is a rare commodity in Mumbai; we’re living on top of each other. We're an island, space is limited, so you just keep [building] upwards. So, it's not very easy for small organisations to have space. They're all rentals, and rental costs are high. We were fortunate because we were linked with another organisation which had a small space.[27] And then the funding started drying up, the Internet took over and usage was diminishing, and we had to move the library. We thought, what was our purpose, the essence in having the library? The essence was to disseminate feminist theory and practice. If the medium of the library is not there or not being used, how can we do it? We would take that knowledge to women, rather than them coming to us. For example, by disseminating feminist information, literature within the colleges. In the meantime, what happened to the library? We turned it into a reading room. Now a reading room, what does that mean? During the colonial period, we had all these reading rooms which were meant for reading newspapers and books. Now you're reading news on your tablet, right? So, reading rooms are relevant to people living in the poorest areas, where on average families of four or five were living in 10[ft] by 10[ft] and where girls had no place to study.[28] All the books are there, and the reading room is doing very well because all the girls… We kept it for girls and women; they come from the neighbouring impoverished areas. They have cool drinking water. They have a fan above their heads. They're comfortable and they read.

AP: Radically overhauling former colonial reading rooms is a brilliant and urgent global project. GWL has developed a relationship of mutual support with a sister organisation in Kenya, called Book Bunk.[29] Their leadership is by phenomenal younger women who are developing these redundant, former colonial libraries, historically white-only reading rooms, and transforming them into relevant, brilliant, local resources that are, as you say, Nandita, thinking about the wider community's needs for space. In Book Bunk’s case, the need for Wi-Fi access, toilets, beautiful spaces that people can encounter texts and exhibitions by and for them, and now a publishing arm. It's going to have a profound impact on people’s capacity to survive and thrive in Nairobi. They are answering the sorts of questions you have raised in the development of Akshara. What can we do now? How can we use space? How can we make the information that we've got work for the people who need to see change in their lives? I recognise in Book Bunk, Bildweschel, WAL, Akshara, Kvindemuseet, and GWL aligned approaches in terms of resilience and pragmatism, enterprising ways of working, fuelled by an understanding about international feminist praxis and thinking.

Institutional Knowledge, “Resilience” and Blueprints for Durable Feminist Institutions

AP: I wondered what you've each been doing about your accumulated institutional knowledge over and above the critical writing you are generating. Nandita, are you archiving and collecting, consciously, the records of Akshara?

NG: For a documentation centre, a resource centre, we are pretty bad at documenting our own history. [acknowledgement and laughter…] We were documenting the Indian Women's Movement but not our own. Yeah, that's a project I want to take up as soon as I leave the organisation.[30]

AP: Merete, I really want to ask you more about the development of the working framework, the structure of Kvindemuseet, and how it was forged because at the outset you were experimenting with something new in Denmark?

MI: Yes, we were experimenting with creating an institution where only women were employed. Many people thought at that time that it would be very boring, to be in an institution where only women were engaged. But it was very interesting. It was an experiment, because some of the boundaries, some of the expectations, and the structuring of gender roles, were called into question. There were no men involved in the finance, or the labouring work, or building tasks—so-called “blue collar” work. We had to do everything. We had to be technical, clever, and we had to be financially competent. We had to be good at management and create new forms of human resources. The diversity amongst women was fantastic. Friendships developed across borders; former industrial workers were connected with women who liked to be in the kitchen creating food for the cafe, together with women who were hardcore separatists, very politically active on the left wing, and amongst them many women who were unsafe. Many women were engaged [in work] for six to nine months.[31] We welcomed new women who could be part of the museum for this period and said goodbye to women who had been engaged for less than one year. Most of the women who said goodbye left with more self-confidence and were happier with themselves than they were when they had arrived. Our commitment was to the development of communities of “ordinary women.” This was a very important way of running the museum from the start in the incubation period, and establishing the rationale as the museum was coming together.

AP: I am interested in how feminist organisations are refiguring their institutions’ “organograms.”[32] Can I ask, Nandita, do you have one?

NG: Yeah, we do. I think it represents or gives us a picture of what the organisation is today, but behind it (that is, your legal representation) we still ask, how do you function? Is your functioning really democratic? Is it really a listening and a learning organisation? We try to keep that culture alive.


fig. 2. Merete Ipsen, Kvindemuseet, May 2017.  Photograph by: Adele Patrick.

fig. 2. Merete Ipsen, Kvindemuseet, May 2017. Photograph by: Adele Patrick.


AP: When I visited Kvindemuseet, there seemed to be both an intention and apparent realisation of the diversity you are speaking about. I encountered new citizens or women who had experience as refugees or asylum seekers, working, developing their ownership of the museum, and people with different backgrounds as researchers, curators, and so on working in collaboration, with a range of people feeling at home in the museum.

MI: When we started, we had an open institution where all voices were equal and decisions were made through discussion and consensus. And that was all sorts of decisions; about whether we should go for state recognition, about which exhibitions we should make, about which building we should be in. When we were state-recognised, we were allowed to continue to have shared leadership, and that prevailed until I left. From the outset, we had a collective leadership; you talked with Jette Sandhal,[33] she was also part of it. We had been subject to ongoing criticism, amounting to “Stop the Women's Museum,” but by around 2020 that was old news. It was now a different voice, “Oh, you are old-fashioned. It is something from the ‘70s/’80s, it is something left-wing, it is not official enough. Why don't you make a professional board?” We agreed to explore this, and we had two or three years of discussion in our community. “What would be the positive things and what would be the negative things by changing?” We decided to change because we thought it could be easier for us to get money for developing the museum. So, we changed in 2015 and adopted a professional board—they were responsible for recruiting people, but not all of them were actual feminists. They thought that questions about women were important, but there's a sort of difference, when you have it in your heart or you have it in your mind.[34]

AP: I am interested in the ways that a rhetoric of resilience has come into play in contemporary social and political contexts. Having started this research with the working title of Radical Resilience, I became disillusioned with the weaponisation of the term in contexts where, for example, women, marginalised people, and feminist workers who might be carrying inordinate “weight” in both mainstream and countercultural organisations were being asked to “suck up” poor pay and conditions, being challenged in a somewhat Trumpian way to be resilient. I am now exploring the idea of endurance” with all its nuance, as a preferred term to discuss why some feminist projects and leadership have been sustained. Can you speak to this from your own perspective?

NG: At the moment, the word “resilience” in our context politically and socially is just connected with COVID. How are you being resilient in the pandemic, right? For me, resilience is weathering all the storms that come, all the changes that need to be made. Being resilient should be connected in some way with innovation and with flexibility. Because if you lose those two things, you're not going to be resilient, you're going to tear yourself apart. We know of other centres and similar projects that were very puritanical, in the sense that they kept to what they were doing, shifted a little bit here and there but, finally, in the case of some information-sharing organisations who didn’t adapt, the Internet consumed them. “Resilience” is when you intuit that something needs to change, you start making your own…you start moulding your own change.

AP: This is really interesting in relation to what you said earlier about active listening. There’s listening as well as leading, there's an inherent dialogue there, sense checking, what's happening in the world and what is happening in your locale.

NG: That listening was part of the democratic functioning of the organisation.

AP: Merete, from the origin of Kvindemuseet you have been involved in a complex dance with the local and national government. Can you discuss the ways you have negotiated this in order to sustain and grow the museum?

MI: It was interesting to have that sort of connection between our grassroots movement and the National Parliament. We had for years a very open dialogue with the National Parliament and City Council. It was very important for us not to be put in a political position, but to work in a broad way. But, nevertheless, people in conservative parts of the Ministry or the Parliament said that we were left-wing. Our response?  “Maybe! No! Yes!” We have had periods where some people from the Conservative Party have said, “We had this experiment with the Women’s Museum. We will take this model and develop it in other settings, embedding aspects of the learning into existing resources, so we can close it down.” We then needed to remobilise and invite politicians from all sides of the parties to the Museum and remind them what we were doing. So, several times, we had to struggle for survival.

AP: I feel that these moments of jeopardy, where the risk of survival or closure are very strong, are important to note as they underscore the need for continual vigilance and preparedness to address lobbying to dismantle our work, and the effort required in pushing back. Now with many new alliances demanding institutional change, for example, nascent Abolitionist Feminism developing endurance to survive crisis points, learning how organisations can and do survive seems to me vitally important knowledge to share.[35] Discovering how continuity, shifts, change, and adaptations can be managed in order to continue to work is a key aspect of our institutional knowledge. I think it's going to be important as we face the challenges, and threats to equality, to develop a sense of meaningful sustainability. When I use these terms “resilience” and “endurance,” how do they sit with you, Althea?

AG: We had wrangled with the term “resilience” while formulating a theme for the WAL/Feminist Review Art in the Archive bursary call for projects in 2018. It seemed inappropriate to use the word “resilience” to question how artists sustain their practice. Ultimately, we shifted away from the idea of surviving or enduring to thriving through everyday acts of resistance. The WAL’s resilience actually comes from allowing itself to be redefined by other disciplines or other ways feminists are challenging the status quo. I describe the collection as being defined by every research question that people bring to me. It sounds passive, but it's not. It's a process of constantly troubling institutional knowledge, and my relationship with this material. It's all about animating and activating the stuff in order to react to all the different issues that are coming through and being experienced. I guess, part of being enduring or resilient is to not have any borders or protective walls and feeling under siege, but staying permeable and open to discovery.


fig. 3. Ann Coltart, Adele Patrick (left) in an article “Balancing the books without a penny spared” about Glasgow Women’s Library,  Glasgow Herald, 29 October 1991. Courtesy of Glasgow Women’s Library Archive and Special Collections.

fig. 3. Ann Coltart, Adele Patrick (left) in an article “Balancing the books without a penny spared” about Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow Herald, 29 October 1991. Courtesy of Glasgow Women’s Library Archive and Special Collections.


AP: I have been reflecting on how frequent it is for the founders of women's cultural resources, in particular from our generation founded in the late 20th century, to stay for a long time, to endure.[36] In contrast, leaders starting out, such those at Book Bunk, are wary of Founder Syndrome.[37] Feminist colleagues in the cultural sector are noting they have either come under criticism or feared that they are “boomers” who are “bed blocking” younger leaders. I’m interested if you had any thoughts about “elders” being seen as carrying a lot of institutional knowledge and having a role to play as figureheads and, also, sense this urgency to make space for young leaders?

MI: Yes, I think that women founders of institutions, they take care of the institution, they take care of our “children.” But, as you said, people working with collections often stay in place for a long period; you see it in the National Museum, and in the national libraries. If you are close to a collection, then you stay a very long time. Maybe these are feministic traits, skills shared also by men who work with collections.  I think it's because we take care.[38]

AP: How you might describe your own personal ethical approach to feminist leadership? You spoke a little bit there about “taking care.”

MI: Yes, taking care, and being aware that you face dilemmas. You have to think and rethink and revitalise what you're doing almost every day, every week, because you will always meet the question about being old-fashioned or “too much.” And so, female leadership and being in female leadership, you need to be flexible. Even if you have to be very hardcore on your own proposals, you need flexibility and a goal-orientated approach.

AP: Why do you think Kvindemuseet has survived and endured?

MI: I think it was because we remained relevant as a museum for society. We invited new groups to be part of the museum to organise meetings in our house. And then being careful that we gained respect for what we’re doing, we sought respect; we would also sell out of some of our radicality from time to time, as a sort of a compromise to society.

Succession Planning, Transitioning From, and Embodying Collections

AP: Merete, you embody a feminist founder and leader who has successfully made the transition. Althea, what work are you doing about succession planning?

AG: It's non-existent. They don't want me to retire. They say “You can't retire!” I am caught up by this idea that you need to protect the organisation beyond your custodianship. Adele, at the beginning you identified one of the things that makes an organisation work or thrive—maybe thrive is a word we should hang on to—is to enable people to know exactly where they are in relation to the organisation. I worry about the perception that I know so much, and no one else could take over my role and work with this collection in the same way I do. I have become this person who seems to embody it. That was partly why I produced my PhD to redefine my relationship with the WAL collection as a separate body.[39] I don't want to reduce my hours working with the collection, but I want to draw back from being identified with the collection’s endurance so deeply.[40]



fig. 4. 3 Althea Greenan the Shadow Costume is comprised of two parts, firstly the tonal cubic coat and secondly the suspended frame. Together these two components come together to reflect a shadow presence of the Woman’s Art Library and the role of Althea Greenan as its custodian.”​​ Costumes for Curators #3​, Amelia Beavis-Harrison, 2013​, ​Photo: Julian Hughes

Nandita earlier used that idea of “women embodying the collections,” and you have raised it, too. That seems to be a profoundly ambivalent relationship that I know has made some transitioning for founders out of the institutions they have co/created deeply complex, not to say traumatic. I have been interrogating this in my research and thinking about the necessary work to be done to dissociate, in a way that's productive, like for you, Althea, doing a PhD. I am acutely conscious of this as I shift more deeply into the succession planning process, of being discretely myself, of being autonomous. I have noted how we are perceived as being sutured to the institution, whereas I favour the idea that GWL is a composite of everyone who's ever given time to it, and its chemistry is an amalgam of who is keeping it “live” now. There have been millions of instances of kindness that have brought that thing, that feminist institution, together. It’s evolving every single day; the chemistry changes because different people are accessing it and developing it, and asking questions of it, finding themselves in it, and determining it. Nandita, how is your succession planning process going?

NG: We have two co-directors [both co-founders], I'm the older one. For me to go, it's easy, it's in safe hands. But then for her to go, it's going to be difficult. Also, we are a small organisation, and the young people now are looking at this as a profession, they want to earn a living wage. We could be idealists, but in this new atmosphere of more professionalism and less idealism, how will another person take on a small organisation? A large organisation is fine, you know, it's structured, it has funds, it has salaries, which are equivalent to market value, but a small one doesn't. It really requires a more dedicated, more idealistic person to look after it. To find such a person is going to be difficult, but we have to do it.

Adele Patrick Director, Creative Development, Delivery and Engagement, Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) (www.womenslibrary.org.uk), has been developing innovative cultural projects rooted in equalities and academic research and community learning and teaching for over thirty years. Adele co-founded GWL in 1991 and has had a key leadership role helping grow the orgnaisation from a grassroots project led by volunteers into a Recognised Collection of National Significance. GWL is widely regarded as change making organisation in the museums, library and wider cultural sectors, and in 2018 GWL was shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year Award. Trained as a designer at Glasgow School of Art (where she subsequently taught Gender, Art and Culture), Adele has been active in many feminist cultural projects, including a series of alternative housing projects including, currently, Raising the Roof. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=ZopyBg-Zmds&feature=emb_logo A collaborator with writers, visual artists, filmmakers, and performers, Adele was awarded an Engage Scholarship for Excellence in Gallery Education in 2016. Having completed her doctoral research on class, fashioning, and taste in 2004, Adele subsequently received Honorary DLitts from both Glasgow School of Art and University of Strathclyde. Adele publishes widely, (for example, a recent chapter in Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum (Routledge, 2021)), and following a Clore Leadership Fellowship in 2018/2019, her post-fellowship research has focussed on feminist leadership. Some of her findings are accessible here: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/2020/03/02/moving-mountains-visioning-intersectional-feminist-leadership/

Kvindemuseet (Women’s Museum) changed its name to Køn – Gender Museum Denmark over the course of these discussions. Founded in 1982, the museum is located in the former Town Hall of Aarhus and houses a collection of national significance reflecting histories of women including motherhood and housework, feminist activism and politics. Kvindemuseet/Køn works with students and schools, delivers sex education classes, undertakes research—for example, currently into images of girls in contemporary arts and visual culture—and works continually with visual artists, curating four to six exhibitions a year.

Akshara is a Mumbai-based resource, also founded in 1982, that has “ripples of development”: promoting gender awareness and equality advocacy with individuals, groups, members of the public, and the state. Akshara work directly with girls and women, offering scholarships and a raft of learning opportunities. They have published germinal texts and online resources. Initially a library and reading room designed for activists and students of women’s studies, Akshara developed an influential feminist library classification system that has been widely adopted and adapted.

Women’s Art Library (WAL), formerly Women Artists’ Slide Library (WASL), was founded in 1976. It began as a depositary for women artists that grew into a collection documenting in slide and other forms the work of thousands of international women artists. WASL published books, catalogues, and a long-running magazine (1983-2002). The collection is now part of the Library Special Collections, Goldsmiths, University of London, where it continues to support artist commissions and research.

Glasgow Women’s Library grew from a grassroots project (Women in Profile) initiated in mid-1984 to ensure that women were represented during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, 1990. Following the delivery of a groundbreaking pan-arts festival, GWL was founded in 1991. After a decade working as a volunteer-run project, GWL has grown steadily into the sole Accredited Museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK. It has continually worked with creatives, commissioning, curating, and collaborating with artists, and is currently developing projects with Ingrid Pollard and Olivia Plender.


[1] Having been involved in feminist (leadership) endeavours straddling the Voluntary, Library, Archive, Arts, Alternative Housing, Museums and Academic sectors, I undertook a Clore Leadership Fellowship in 2018 and subsequently two pieces of Post-Fellowship Research on Feminist Leadership. During the Fellowship and research periods, I hosted and collaborated with colleagues internationally, exploring ways that feminists have created organisations and evolved countercultural approaches to working. Facets of the first stage of the research, Moving Mountains, can be found here: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/2020/03/02/moving-mountains-visioning-intersectional-feminist-leadership/.

As I embarked on the Fellowship, public debates on leadership in the cultural sectors and wider politics were a lightning rod for “culture wars,” rising populism and radicalism. I began writing this contribution in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s second impeachment following his catalysing a White Supremacist seditious assault on the Capitol building, an attempt to retain power through force. Hyper-masculinisation and the reification of forms of command and control are evident in global leadership in the form of Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Lukashenko, Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, Museveni, and Modi…threatening progressive equalities campaigns.

[2] During the research process, it was evident that the most effective defining and testing of feminist leadership has been developed in the Global South and by Women of Colour. See, for example, African Feminist Forum, “Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists,” Proceedings of the African Feminist Forum, Accra, Ghana, 15-19 November 2006 (Ghana: African Women’s Development Fun, 2007), http://awdflibrary.org/bitstream/handle/123456789/119/AFF%20Feminist%20Charter%20Digital%20%E2%80%93%20English.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.

I have been inspired by discussions with feminist leaders in Brazil, Kenya, London, India, USA, Bologna, Denmark, and Glasgow. The term “intersectional” was first theorised by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw attests that all aspects of a person’s lived experiences can impact on the ways in which discrimination impacts, a theory explored in—Kimberlé Crenshaw, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. (New York: The New Press, 2017).

[3] Harney and Moten defined the term “undercommons” to describe the ways that Black people who experience marginalisation (for example, exclusion from access to cultural assets) forge communities and resources based on belonging. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[4] Addressing the array of ways organisations are responding to lack of relevance and the imperative to change is the focus of a programme of work developed with former GWL colleague Rachel Thain-Gray, Equality in Progress. Through work with external institutions, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the progress (or otherwise) of UK cultural organisations in relation to (feminist) ethical leadership and governance, inclusion, and access. Rachel Thain-Gray and Adele Patrick, “Research from a Grassroots Museum” Equality in Progress, Glasgow Women’s Library, 2018, https://womenslibrary.org.uk/gwl_wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/EiP-Report-Research-from-a-Grassroots-Museum-180615.pdf.

[[5] I have written extensively about the GWL origin story, for example, Adele Patrick, “Claiming Space and Being Brave: Activism, Agency and Art in the Making of a Women’s Museum,” in Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption and Change, ed. J.C. Ashton (Edinburgh and Boston: MuseumsEtc, 2017), 184-215; Adele Patrick, “How Art, Activism and Feminist Agency Shaped a Ground-breaking Museum” Museum ID, 2017, https://museum-id.com/art-activism-feminist-agency-shaped-ground-breaking-museum/; Adele Patrick, “March of Women and the Dynamism of Equality at Glasgow Women’s Library,” in Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum, eds. Adele Chynoweth, Bernadette Lynch, Klaus Petersen, Sarah Smed (Oxford: Routledge, 2020), Part 1.3.

[6] I have been inspired by many international feminist co-founders of cultural resources. For this article, I sought perspectives from contrasting contexts on founding and nurturing spaces and collections. Nandita’s work at Akshara had a profound impact on GWL, not least, as providing the template for a feminist classification system for our library resource. Having visited Kvindemuseet in 2017, I was interested to reconnect with Merete who had subsequently retired from the organisation she had co-founded in the 1980s. Althea Greenan has been involved with the development of WAL from the early 1980s and has experienced being a volunteer and a paid worker, working with it as both an independent collection and after its transition to a special collection within an academic institution.

The filmed recordings of these discussions will appear on the GWL website as part of a year-long GWL programme of shared thinking, conversations and reflections 2021/2022.

[7] bildwechsel is “an umbrella organisation for women, and their communities, who are involved in media, culture and art.” https://www.bildwechsel.org/info/en/index.html.

[8] The term Social Movement Organisations (SMO) was developed by Mayer and Ash in the 1960s. Mayer N. Zald and Roberta Ash, “Social Movement Organizations: Growth, Decay and Change,” Social Forces 44, no. 3 (1966): 327-341. SMOs carry out tasks necessary for any social movement to survive and to be successful. An example of a social movement supported by SMOs is the US Black Civil Rights Movement composed of specific SMOs including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP.

[9] Following the Reform Movement and then the Independence Movement against the British, Nandita co-authored The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1992). Around that time, Nandita and co-author Nandita Shah were co-founding Akshara.

[10] Akshara means the word or an alphabet.

[11] Nandita: “This was the time when there were no... the computers were very... [Microsoft] Word had just come to India. We were struggling with it, and we actually used to type out stuff on stencils.” GWL’s history also maps the period of the development of the Internet, the first web page was served on the open Internet, in 1991, the year GWL launched.

[12] My research with feminist organisation founders has revealed the serendipitous ways that many feminist organisations crystallised. Nandita discusses Akshara’s initiation as part of a zeitgeist; she had written her book, there was a growing political demand for gender disaggregated information, something needed to be done. I have written about this moment of coalescing circumstances in relation to GWL, for example, Adele Patrick, “Making Space: Glasgow Women’s Library,” Medium 4 May 2020, https://medium.com/making-space/making-space-glasgow-womens-library-41f12eb6fec9.

Once forged organisations that endure appear to be mobilised by what adrienne maree brown in her book Emergent Strategy has called the “North Star.” adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy (California: AK Press, 2017).

[13] In 1994, I attended the Know How conference in Amsterdam hosted by the Dutch women’s library Atria. The gatherings took place every four years, connecting hundreds of representatives from women’s libraries, archives, and information centres globally. These were not UK or American dominated feminist gatherings. There was a conscious intention to centre Women of Colour, women in the Global South, and Indigenous women.

[14] Women Artists Slide Library was first founded in 1983.

[15] Women Artists Slide Library Journal and its subsequent incarnations can be accessed at “Collections,” Goldsmiths, https://www.gold.ac.uk/make/collection/.

[16] In her fascinating dialogue with colleague Catherine Grant, AG charts an array of topics from endurance, the hurt that archives can engender, and the complexity of the relationship between an “undercommons” resource and its incorporation into an academic space. Catherine Grant and Althea Greenan, “Lost and Found: Feminism, archives and the university under lockdown,” GoldsmithPress, Goldsmiths, https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-press/features/lost-and-found/

[17] MI was involved in emergent Women's Studies, and as a young psychologist, with other feminists, she organised colloquia and seminars. She noted that, At that time the only ones reading the ground-breaking research we were developing were ourselves.”

[18] There was a very high level of unemployment in Denmark in 1982 at the time MI co-founded the Women's Museums Association. She remembered, “We used several funding bodies to create jobs for unemployed women.” Later in the 1980s, Women in Profile, the group out of which GWL sprang, also “tweaked” a range of employment schemes to sustain the project.

[19] I have discovered that feminist institutions are idiosyncratic and do not readily conform to “patriarchal” command and control structure, neither do they conform to models of either “essential” collectivity or “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” The Second Wave, 1972, https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm.

[20] In her classic text, Issues at Stake (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1992), on the theory and practice of the India Women’s Movement, NG discusses how feminist friendship networks or people who share ideological standpoints come together continually and forge organisations (usually because the status quo is intolerable). In discussions with NG, AG, MI and others, I have been keen to ask how we can better support feminist organisations to acquire or have access to deep knowledge about group dynamics, ways of “managing” each other (since these are complex), and critical aspects that lead to the sustainability (or not) of feminist projects. What might feminist leadership mean? How might we best nurture each other in taking on and sharing leadership responsibilities?

[21] Distinguishing lesbian and feminist organisations from academic and mainstream institutions is an ongoing concern for some enduring resources such as Lesbian Herstory Archives, launched in New York in 1974. Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, “Getting from then to now: Sustaining the Lesbian Herstory Archives as a Lesbian Organization,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, 20, no. 2 (2016): 213-33, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10894160.2015.1083827.

[22] Feminist librarians have long critiqued the patriarchal, misogynistic structuring of classifications systems such as the Dewey Decimal model. Akshara coined a feminist classification system which influenced the development of the system used at GWL. For a wider survey of this topic, see Rosemary Catherine Ilett, “Outstanding Issues: Gender, Feminisms and Librarianship” (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2003).

[23] A characteristic of the work of feminist cultural organisations from the 1980s, such as bildweschel, Hamburg (a hugely influential model for GWL), Akshara and WAL, is their geographic specificity (they are reflective of their locale) but also thoroughly internationally connected.

[24] AG noted: Ironically, for the WAL, we produced a publication from 1983 to 2002, and the electronic version of that publication has generated more income than the physical one ever did with the surge of interest in feminist studies, we get around 2000 pounds a year that I use, I ring fence to commission art, new artwork and interventions, creative work with the WAL collections, so that maintains the WAL collection, as a creative space.

[25] AG acknowledged the importance of being in a productive dialogue with projects like the Black Cultural Archives and for the collections within WAL such as the Women of Colour index, built up in the 80s and up until 1994, to be made accessible.

[26] For AG some of the vulnerability facing WAL was “because the collection is part of 'special collections.'” GWL is the sole women’s resource of its kind in the UK with core funding and a significant staff cohort (currently twenty-seven). Most feminist cultural spaces, collections, or cultural organisations are part of an academic collection or are working as a volunteer-led, grassroots projects (there are some exceptions, such as the East End Women’s Museum, a Community Interest Company): https://eastendwomensmuseum.org. My meetings with feminist leaders of cultural organisations have highlighted the precarity of both these modes of working.

[27] A space of 20 feet by 20 feet. Nandita remembers: “When we had students coming in for reference, we could not give them any tables and chairs because that would have occupied everything. So, they sat on the floor, with little, tables where they sat and wrote, and of course, everybody was used to it. For you, it is a very different thing, but we sit on the floor all the time.

[28] The Indian government had, after independence, set up a huge network of educational institutions, and there was an aspiration for people to be educated. Nandita spoke about how Akshara responded to this new context: “Now, if you want to educate yourself, you need to work and you need to refer to texts and you need to be somewhere quiet where you can think. So, we turned the library into that; the collection is there, intact, we have a beautiful classification system, which we've also digitised.

[29] Since 2018, GWL has been learning from and sharing skills with a sister organisation in Nairobi, Book Bunk. https://www.bookbunk.org.

[30] This paradoxical neglect of their own organisational records and institutional knowledge by feminist collections whilst they strive to uncover and safeguard the hidden histories and documenting of others is widespread, including at GWL. AG has done much to ensure this is not the case at WAL.

[31] This was due to the conditions of funding.

[32] Organograms or organisational structural diagrams are largely viewed as the preserve of HR, as a functional schematic. They frequently illustrate the “stuck” nature and outmoded thinking around management and leadership. I have been exploring feminist refiguring of organograms. If organograms describe power, what does this say in specific feminist/non-feminist organisations? What could it say? How could it be used as a catalyst for visioning change?

[33] Jette Sandhal was a co-founder of Kvindemuseet.  She was until recently the chair of the International Council of Museums Standing Committee for Museum Definition, Prospects, and Potentials and involved in febrile discussions over the meaning of the museum. Jonathan Knott, “Icom in turmoil after resignations,” Museums Association, 17 July 2020, https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/07/icom-museum-definition-row-rumbles-on/#.

[34] MI raised the issue of a defaulting to single leadership model after she and the other co-directors left Kvindemuseet. “When I and the two other leaders left the museum, the board decided there should be one director, a sign of the times. I could not knock on the door and say, ‘Oh, I don't understand why you’ve done that.’ Today, it is not common or agreed that shared leadership is good. I think it will come again.” Akshara and GWL also have co-directors. Shared leadership is a characteristic of feminist organisations that is rarely found in the mainstream. A welcome departure (and a possible sign of a shift in sectoral thinking?) was the appointment of joint heads Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah for Birmingham Museums in 2020.  Geraldine Kendall Adams, “Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah to share CEO role at Birmingham Museums Trust,” Museums Association, 14 September 2020, https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/09/sara-wajid-and-zak-mensah-to-share-ceo-role-at-birmingham-museums-trust/.

[35] One definition of Abolitionist Feminism suggests that it “invites us to consider the world we want, and how to organise to build it. Seeking a world beyond prisons, Abolitionist Feminism focusses our attention on developing stronger communities and bringing about gender, race, and economic justice. It encourages us to consider our approach to problems from a social justice rather than criminal justice perspective; systemically rather than individually.” https://www.ippr.org/juncture-item/what-is-abolitionist-feminism-and-why-does-it-matter.

[36] Durbahn, the founder of bildweschel in Hamburg, has been running the organisation since 1979, and she's still at the helm. Marianne Pitzen founded the FrauenMuseum in Bonn in 1981 and remains its director; Maxine Wolfe is part of the volunteer collective that has run the Lesbian Herstories Archives in New York for decades.

[37] Book Bunk was founded in 2017.

[38] I am reminded here of the etymological link between care and curation. In Latin the past participle of curate is "to take care of."

[39] Althea Greenan, “Feminist Net-work:Digitization and Performances of the Women's Art Library Slide Collection” (PhD diss, University of Brighton, 2018), https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.754023.

[40] AG discusses a strategy for disavowing the perceived power of the archivist in a recent project. “One of the themes of the bursary was 'kill the archivist'; what would happen if you didn't have this person who becomes the kind of mediator, the facilitator. So, here we are in the pandemic where people have to work virtually with this material if they get to work at all. So already we're being displaced by technology. So, it's looking at that in a way where it's not a straightforward displacement. There's a critical way of working with that, and with those dynamics that I think is interesting.

Go back

Issue 52

Instituting Feminism


by Helena Reckitt and Dorothee Richter

by Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps (SKGAL)

Emelie Chhangur interviewed by Jennifer Fisher

by Husseina Hamza, Joyce Jacca, Tracey Jarrett, and Janna Graham

by la Sala (Alba Colomo & Lucy Lopez)

by Alex Martinis Roe and Helena Reckitt

by Romane Bernard, Sofia Cecere, Thelma Gaster, Jeanne Guillou, Barbara Lefebvre, Séraphine Le Maire, Oksana Luyssen, Rose Moreau, Jeanne Porte, Laurence Rassel, and Miska Tokarek

by Ann Sutherland Harris, Daria Khan, Rosa Martínez, Camille Morineau, Maura Reilly, and Catherine de Zegher

by Ève Chabanon, Anna Colin, and Madeleine Planeix-Crocker