To celebrate International Women’s Day, researcher and artist Dr Elizabeth Dearnley explores the ideas behind the Bloomsbury Festival’s ‘Senate Women’ audio installation. It tells the stories of ten women working in Senate House.
In a series of interviews recorded over the summer of 2018, theatre director Patrick Sandford spoke to ten women working in Senate House. He asked each of them the following question: “Has there been a moment when you took the plunge, and did something on your own behalf that changed your life?”
Their answers reflected a range of experiences, from professional risks to childhood memories: taking part in triathlons, being a feminist in the heavy metal scene, quitting jobs without a firm plan, and playing a stork in a school play.
Edited down to seven-minute audio tracks, each ‘Senate Women’ interview played in a loop from one of the ten windows at the top of Senate House’s stately ceremonial stairs, alongside a large acetate photograph of the speaker displayed stained-glass style. While sitting in the window bays, visitors to this iconic building, the administrative centre of the University of London, could listen to the stories of each woman, while hearing echoes of the others whispering around them.
The force behind Senate Women was Bloomsbury Festival director Kate Anderson. She wanted to create a piece in keeping with the Festival’s 2018 theme – Activists and Architects of Change – that would highlight the ways in which women have been forces for change in their own lives.
“When we first had the idea of the project, we didn’t realise how motivating and entertaining it would turn out to be, thanks to the amazing women who shared their fascinating stories with us. From the Festival’s perspective this was a perfect way to highlight the real people who live and work here, the ‘everyday activists’ alongside the world-leading artists, academics and scientists.”
Supported by the university’s Leading Women campaign, the installation celebrated the energy and determination of women from across the Senate House community.
‘I don’t separate activism from my everyday life’
Kate, Patrick and I wanted to include as wide a variety as possible of women’s voices and stories. The ten women who took part in the project worked in many different roles throughout Senate House, ranging from librarians, programmers and catering staff to academics, cleaners and students.
Participants included SOAS director Baroness Valerie Amos, who recalled how she had left her job as chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission without having a new post to go to. “The hardest thing for me,” she said, “was working out what I was going to tell my mother!” And reflecting on what advice she would pass onto the next generation she said:
“I tell them to have courage, and that it’s important to embrace risk, and to make mistakes. Although I’ll fess up that I hate making mistakes! But I know that I grow from them… And I tell them to be good to themselves. And to understand that asking for support is not a weakness.”
Catering supervisor Linda Wotodjo-Uwoloh remembered the elation she felt on getting her first paycheck:
“This job changed my life – because when I started here, I got a sense of freedom, when I got my first salary… I started understanding that… I could wake up in the morning and start doing something for myself, without asking anyone else for any financial help.”
Meanwhile, Amanda DiGioia, a PhD student from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies researching feminism in heavy metal, discussed acts of everyday activism:
“Through activism and through feminism, through being loud and vocal, I’ve had men on the internet tell me that I can find the poison in anything… Well, there’s lots of poison in patriarchy, and if it takes me to point it out, I don’t mind being loud and outspoken… I don’t separate activism from my everyday life because I think living not in adherence to patriarchal standards is an act of activism every day.”
‘Senate Women’ at the Bloomsbury Festival
Installed within Senate House in October during the Bloomsbury Festival, Senate Women attracted some 800 listeners over the five days of the festival. It served as a sideways contribution to the University of London’s Leading Women campaign – all the women featured were very much leading women, and it was a real privilege to share their stories.
Reflecting on the project, Patrick Sandford remarked: “These women were extraordinarily honest in their interviews. Each of them in her own way showed very clearly that while professional achievements are important and sometimes impressive, it is the personal, human challenges in our lives that make us the people we are. This was always inspiring, and in some cases very moving. “
Senate Women will be up in Senate House for a week following International Women’s Day, and the interviews are also online as a virtual audio installation. You can listen to their stories via SoundCloud or by downloading the app (available for iOS or Android). Whether describing changes great or small, the women of Senate House suggest how moments of everyday activism can have lasting effects.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley is a producer, researcher and artist. You can find her on Twitter@eliza_dearnley.
The Bloomsbury Festival is an annual celebration of the area’s pioneering creativity. It features an inspiring programme of arts, science, literature, performance, discussion and reflection. Follow them on Twitter @bloomsburyfest.