City of Football and Literature?

10 December 2015

As Nottingham is pronounced a UNESCO City of Literature, bid director James Walker explains how literature led him to a story about a woman determined to play football...

Nottingham City of Literature

Apparently 150,000 more women participated in sport this year. That’s an impressive rate of growth and largely due to government initiative like City of Football and This Girl Can, education and greater visibility in the media. We’ve come a long way from young women having to lie about their gender in order to play Sunday league football for their local team. But before I tell you about one woman’s incredible determination to play the sport she loves, let me explain how I met her.

I’m an avid bookreader and a director of Nottingham’s bid to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve spent the last ten years or so promoting local literature in various forms. In 2014 I started an online graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread which brought back to life literary figures from Nottingham’s past. As I began researching, it quickly became clear that our literary history is dominated by white male authors. Women are conspicuous by their absence. As for Black female writers, forget it.

During my research I discovered an awareness campaign by Joanna Walsh called the Year of Reading Women. Drawing on research from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the campaign highlighted the lack of attention given to female authors and reviewers in the press. This discrepancy is odd, particularly given that women consistently perform better than men in literacy tests, as well as read more.

I decided to promote this campaign through Dawn of the Unread and commissioned the LeftLion poetry editor Aly Stoneman to retell the Robin Hood legend through a modern day Maid Marian. This paid homage to Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a poetry collection told from the perspective of wives of famous men. Aly’s story sees Ms.Hood self-educate at a local library and so I began researching feminist libraries. 

Feminist libraries really began to take shape in the 1970s when identity politics began to emerge. One opened in London in 1975 and a Feminist Archive quickly followed in Bristol in 1978. During this period one was opened in Nottingham thanks to Sheelagh Gallagher, Lorraine Meads and other members of the Nottingham Women’s Centre. It is the only one of its kind in the East Midlands.

The Library is still going today and has an incredible archive of zines and books aimed at self-education and empowerment. It recently gained prominence thanks to the WoLAN Project (Women’s Liberation and After in Nottingham). When I visited the centre and talked to people involved with WoLAN I was shocked, amazed and inspired to discover the story of a female football fanatic who was so desperate to play football for her local team that she stopped shaving her legs, cut her hair short, and selotaped her breasts tightly to her chest to conceal her gender. It worked for a while. But as she matured her body shape became more difficult to conceal and she was rumbled. Her football career was brought to a sharp end.

As a ‘privileged’ white male I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for this woman to be denied playing the sport she loved on account of her gender. As a writer and reader I can’t imagine what it must be like to not have your words taken seriously on account of having the wrong chromosomes. But as a working class kid from a mining community, I do know what it means to fight.

Today, I am fighting for Nottingham to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. I joined the Board because I’m determined to help poets like Aly Stoneman and organisations like the Women’s Centre have a voice. It’s not breasts that need selotaping down in 2015, it’s our mouths. This is so that the ears, the only part of our anatomy that keeps growing, can listen to these incredible stories from women in culture, sports and the arts.  

The Feminist Library is located in the Nottingham Women’s Centre on Chaucer Street, NG1 5LP.

Nottingham City of Literature website 

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