21 Revolutions: New Writing and Prints inspired by the Collection at Glasgow Women’s Library, edited by Adele Patrick (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014)

by Amy Bromley

In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ Walter Benjamin writes:

The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar [1]

His concept of history, and of historiography, presents the possibility of seeing historical events not as part of a causal linearity or teleological progression, but rather as points which can be immobilised and placed in “constellation” with the present (Benjamin uses the term Jetztzeit, which has mystical connotations of eternity, an ”eternal now”). The juxtaposition of past and present moments has the potential to immobilise the continuum of history, to break the traditional linearity of our thought about time, and to present an image of revolutionary possibility in a flash of illumination.

165 Stars found in GWL Lending Library by Shauna McMullan Glasgow Women's Librar
165 Stars found in GWL Lending Library by Shauna McMullan
Glasgow Women’s Librar

Glasgow Women’s Library’s 21 Revolutions project, commissioned to celebrate their 21st birthday, asked 21 writers and artists to respond to items in the library’s collection and archives. While looking to objects of the past, bringing them into contact with contemporary feminist concerns, this is also a book (springing from an exhibition and events) which looks to the future. In its form, however, it does not suggest a merely linear movement in the mode of progress. The front cover places an anti-suffrage pocket watch (with VOTE FOR WOMEN written in inverse type around the face) beside a badge proclaiming ‘I’m Making History with Glasgow Women’s Library’. As this suggests, 21 Revolutions is a book engaged with the necessity of thinking and writing women’s history differently – as something which ruptures patriarchal, linear history, which is necessarily a project of re-writing and of ‘making’ history. It acknowledges that the historical narrative (especially as a succession of the deeds of Great Men) is a man-made construct, and presents creative ways of reclaiming and attempting to preserve an ephemeral past. At the same time it encourages questions about the legitimacy of speaking for those lost voices of the past.

Taking inspiration from the library’s archive, the work of the artists and writers in this volume ignite the layers of history contained in the object (suggesting both creative and destructive energy, it must be noted). This is a project of “making” history, of a particular type of materialist historiography, which critiques linearity and objective truth through the object itself. In marking 21 revolutions of the calendar since the Women’s Library was founded by Adele Patrick, its own history is placed both within and as a correlative to the history of the women’s movement more broadly. The pieces within the book are placed in dialogue with each other as well as with the archive, the words and images interspersed (though not systematically). There are numbers at the bottom of each work relating to the particular archival object(s) that the artist/writer has taken inspiration from, which are catalogued at the back, after the artists and writers’ profiles.

The responses to the items held in the library’s archive are not all straightforwardly appreciative. Janice Galloway’s piece is critical of the women’s and teens’ magazines in the library that she remembered from her youth, and places them in relation to those on the market now. There is a consistent narrative of desired lifestyle aspirations, but where it used to be ideologically bound to the family (and by extension to nation and compulsory heterosexuality), it is now imbricated in the discourse of class, capitalism, and a reactionary idea of, as Galloway says “’liberation’ we used to call it…I don’t know what they call it now.” She writes that:

women’s deepest fulfilment [has] notched up a gear from domestic bliss and hard-won home-making to orgasmic bliss and a fat wallet, which could be used for buying piles of high-status stuff, a super loft-space to put it in and some other, less fortunate woman to clean it (“Women’s Realm,” p.131).


I met Janice Galloway to talk about feminism and her contribution to the book. Galloway’s work with artist and sculptor Anne Bevan explores a consistent concern with the relationship between words and material art(efacts). Their collaboration on works such as Rosengarten, which uses and responds to the obstetrical instruments kept in the Hunterian Museum, is also about interaction and conversation with other writers and artists:

if you talk to someone about your ideas, they’ll tell you when they’re daft, in no uncertain terms!

21 Revolutions in its multi-vocality and multi-temporality also testifies to this type of dialogue between artist and writer, object and word. Collaboration leads to increased possibilities and an alternative to to what Galloway identifies as a “compartmentalisation” that she takes issue with, especially in universities:

There’s this idea that you can’t be a musician unless you train under a musician, you can’t be a painter unless you train under a painter…for a writer, it’s not so clear.

Her experience of working with artists is not only an important creative conversation, but is directly related to the status and fixity of the written word, which is restricted when forced to obey the borders of the book and the demands of editors (and their presumed “reader” = “customer” who wants professionalism). Galloway is enthused by the possibility that collaboration with artists means that “books can look different.”  We talk about the fact that in her 1989 novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, she tried to foreground the materiality of the words on the page; most of her experiments with drawings, poems and typography were ripped out by editors who were afraid that readers would think of them as “mistakes.” Her work with Bevan allowed her to move out of those confines, and to think about the “placing” of her literary career:

Most of my work doesn’t exist in books – it exists up trees, underground, carved into stone…I have no idea who my readers are. Public art fascinates me for that reason – you don’t know whose day that is…who you’re making smile, or irritating.

Part of the charm of this kind of creativity is the line that it balances upon, between solidity and ephemerality: “one day [these works] will be smashed, or they’ll fall off the trees.”

The archive that these writers and artists responded to for 21 Revolutions can be thought of as both an act of collection, or preservation, and of editing: it is not a neutral collection, it is narrativized by the people who choose what goes in and what is left out. Although even that is beyond their control at a certain point: there are things which will always be lost to “official history,” the archive can never be complete.

Of course there is so much there that is not in the books – the histories that are not written down. What about the ‘good girl’?

Galloway asks.

I was once thrown out of a feminist conference for ‘not being feminist enough’ – not being feminist enough, it’s like not being Scottish enough, it’s ridiculous – anyway, I was thrown out because I wanted to talk about the women who stayed at home and raised their children. Is that not a legitimate form of feminist action? I don’t know if that attitude is changing now… but the good girl has never interested anyone.

Inevitably, there are lost voices. One of the major questions that 21 Revolutions tries to tackle is whether they can be recovered, or whether we should recover them for the future? Galloway quotes James Baldwin’s introduction to a History of Scotland:

“if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t know where you’re going.” It’s the classic sat-nav analogy – you can’t just pick a destination.

The uneasiness of the relationship between preservation and what cannot be kept, what necessarily cannot be archived in an official place is one that always haunts the archivist. We are running out of time. It is important not to lose history, but, as Galloway points out, the archive itself can even act like a place where history is in fact locked away, concealed and ultimately invisible:

What’s the use if no-one knows it’s there?

Who are the guardians of the information and documents of the past? Jacques Derrida writes:

[T]he meaning of ‘archive,’ its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded […] The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited […]. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives. [2]

With 21 Revolutions, Glasgow Women’s Library not only draws attention to the existence of their archive, but opens the door for potential creative responses to it. They release the authority of interpretation and add another layer to the GWL archive: looking back and taking stock, but also looking to the future and “making”’ history in a democratic way.

My original intention to record my talk with Janice, or at the very least take notes, was quickly abandoned. The conversation was so free and easy that I decided just to enjoy it and be in the moment. At the same time, I was aware of the recollections I would have to make afterwards; that I would have to write this piece, and that inevitably things would be lost. It couldn’t be a straightforward transcription of something that existed on record. It would be more precarious and ephemeral, but the conversation itself, and the experience of it was important. As Janice leaves, she wishes me good luck “making something out of it.”


In a sense, the stories contained in 21 Revolutions were already written for us: we can never access the history of these objects and these women “as they were,” we can only respond to them as something part of an archive, as artefacts and all that that implies. The narrative that we can make from them is limited, and also potentially one steeped in violence, as the fiction in the book foregrounds. Benjamin writes:

There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself [sic] from it as far as possible. He [sic] regards it as his [sic] task to brush history against the grain. [3]

Cheiron in Type by Lucy Skaer Glasgow Women's Library
Cheiron in Type by Lucy Skaer
Glasgow Women’s Library

Some of the creative responses commissioned for 21 Revolutions can be read as doing just that: for example, Lucy Skaer’s Cheiron in Type is a damaged copy of the Hogarth Press edition of R. C. Trevelyan’s Cheiron, poured over with melted down tin type. She says there is “an animosity […] to the written, to text, and to reading. My book is kept as an object with its content withheld.”

Shauna McMullan’s 165 Stars found in GWL Lending Library is a print which collects the asterisks people have drawn in the margins of the books as they were reading. I asked her about the space left in the bottom right-hand corner of the print:

I structured the stars in such a way so that there was space for more.  The box or grid isn’t complete; there is still room for others to be added.  Because there are always books on loan or in the process of being shelved, or new books being added to the collection I knew that the work couldn’t ever contain every star in the library, even though that’s the task I set myself. So the space at the end is in part to recognise the limitations of my search but also to acknowledge that these moments of revelation marked by the asterisks will continue to be made.  The collection can’t ever be complete and that’s good.  And so by extension the archive and the feminist project in general are always evolving and being added to.

21 Revolutions in a sense creates another archive between its covers book, as the record of an exhibition, a conversation between multiple contributors (past and present). It has something interesting to say about its own history, its processes, and those of Glasgow Women’s Library – but, crucially, it also makes a point of being resolutely unfinished.


[1] Selected Writings, Vol IV 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006) p.395

[2] ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,’ trans. Eric Prenowitz Diacritics 25.2 (Summer 1995), p.10.

[3] Selected Writings, p.392.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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