True tales from a revolution: The non-fiction classics now hidden from feminist history

Marilyn French's 'The Women's Room' was not the only literary landmark to transform lives.

It was about the lives of women who were supposed to live the lives of their husbands, to marry an identity rather than become one themselves, to live secondary lives." So said Gloria Steinem of The Women's Room, Marilyn French's extraordinary and courageous novel published in l977. The obituaries of French, who died last week, remind us that the book sold 20 million copies worldwide, changed lives, and became a kind of monument to the intellectual energy and political ferment that was the second wave of the women's movement.

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the first meeting, at Ruskin College, Oxford, of that women's liberation movement in Britain. Historically, movements for women's rights have had a tendency to wax and wane. Women have at regular intervals rediscovered themselves – their strengths and capabilities, their political will - but they have not always found it easy to communicate these efforts. Each generation seems to need to reinvent its rebellion. The Women's Room certainly did that: here were lives being lived that had been invisible and sentiments expressed that had been unthinkable. Its influence was huge, and crossed generations.

There were other lives, "hidden from history", being discovered and recovered at that time, in books that changed things in different ways. Two years before The Women's Room, Virago published its first list, and perhaps the most important issue in our early publications was the absence of women's voices and experiences in the culture.

The wish to write marks every feminist movement. Certainly, the 1970s women's movement was to an extraordinary extent a writers' movement. Writing and politics became inextricably connected. In l975, at the press conference to launch the first Virago list of 11 books, a journalist asked how we were going to find enough for a second list. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly the gap between those who felt great excitement at the possibility of change, and those who were baffled or unaware of what was going on. Women were changing. And women were writing. The least of our problems at Virago was finding books.

Women's talent in fiction was undisputed, although there was a vast treasure trove of out-of-print novels, many by living authors. Much has been written about the Virago Modern Classics, those reprinted women's novels which enlightened a whole generation. But there's a missing story, a whole other facet of the Virago list. These are the books which transformed the intellectual and cultural landscape - autobiography, biography, oral testimonies, sociology, art, history and philosophy.

The first book Virago published in l975 was Fenwomen, in which Mary Chamberlain records the lives of women in an English village. Finding a Voice, Amrit Wilson's groundbreaking book revealing the cultural conflicts for Asian girls in Britain, and Cathy Porter's Fathers and Daughters, an account of women's political activities in 19th-century Russia, followed. This was just the beginning. Surprising though it may now seem, lives such as these had simply not been visible before.

There were areas where no one expected women to be heard. Ideas were not seen as women's realm. Assisted by an advisory group of writers, teachers, journalists and academics, I found young authors, many of them now distinguished professors but then not even on the lowest rungs of the academic ladder, who were writing books of great originality. This year is the 25th anniversary of three of them. Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman, War in the Nursery by Denise Riley and Eve and the New Jerusalem by Barbara Taylor were not the only books to challenge and in some cases dismantle established ideas. But they were striking in their boldness, they won prestigious prizes, and they continue to influence today's generation.

The context in which these books were written is worth explaining to this new generation. Until the late 1960s, women's territory was still fundamentally seen to be confined to the domestic – birth, death, marriage, motherhood, children – and the emotional – love, friendship, nurturing, caring, with most of the feminine stereotypes still firmly in place: passivity, irrationality, compliancy, formlessness. Indeed, it is hard to convey to young women today how marginal women felt in that world.

In l949, Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, had demolished the notion that a women's biology determines her way of thinking. "One is not born a woman, but becomes one", she famously wrote. But her remarkable insights turned out not to be enough. Women were put back in their biological cage.

Juliet Mitchell reports that when in the l950s she tried to buy The Second Sex, she was asked to leave the bookshop because it was thought to be pornography. When Jane Miller, in Seductions, brought to life the excitement arising from the intellectual ideas of the l950s, she pointed out that these ideas were almost exclusively male.

These were the formative years of British cultural studies, with iconic presences such as Raymond Williams, EP Thompson and Richard Hoggart occupied with questions of class, education and powerlessness. It was also the world of the Angry Young Men - John Osborne, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe. But it was not a female world.

In the l960s, women became politically engaged, fighting for equal pay, affordable nurseries, rights in the workplace. And there were the beginnings of a women's movement. A few books paved the way for feminist thought and scholarship - Sheila Rowbotham's Hidden from History and Juliet Mitchell's Women: The Longest Revolution, the more polemical The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, or Doris Lessing's remarkable fiction. But these were still exceptions.

By the mid-1970s, new debates around women's lives, histories and choices were beginning to filter into the educational world. Our series of oral and social histories of working-class women, classics of their kind, had an immediate and lasting impact on the teaching of history and humanities. Life As We Have Known It and Maternity, both by the Women's Cooperative Guild, found a large audience immediately, and Round About Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves touched an instant nerve in the economic circumstances of the late l970s.

Virago's early autobiographies and diaries drew in a wide readership and became essential texts for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences. Beatrice Webb's brilliant diaries, Mary Stott, the first Women's Editor of the Guardian, Dora Russell's educational radicalism, Storm Jameson with her passionate internationalism, and, later on, Kathleen Dayus's inside view of life in dire poverty - all demonstrated the scale of women's contribution to understanding social and political life, war and peace, poverty and education.

These writers did not attempt to carry the weight of that authoritative first-person plural often found in writing by men of the same period. While speaking in the first-person singular, they brought to light experience of whole social groups. and classes The autobiographical element brought new dimensions of experience - accounts of friendship, birth and death, children, work, abortion, loving wrong men and right men (these women were particularly good at examining love). The personal in their hands informed the political culture – one of the most important ideas of the second-wave women's movement.

In a post-l968 world of demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, workshops, questioning of authority, the enormously active liberation movement challenged the received view of women's place, and made it possible for women to test their own capacities in work and personal life – to make their stories central, not marginal.

Written at a time of significant rethinking, the books by Steedman, Riley and Taylor were published to acclaim and excitement. They are still read and debated by students all over the English-speaking world. With Landscape for A Good Woman we finally, after all the accounts of scholarship boys, had the scholarship girl's story - angry young women catching up with Angry Young Men. It casts fascinating light on the mother/daughter relationship, on class and the politics of envy.

War in the Nursery also returns to the l940s and 1950s – a postwar world where working women went back into the home, and feminism went back into the closet. Denise Riley, looking at the relationship between psychology and politics, challenged simple orthodoxies. The book opened debate about the determining factors in historical change and redefined notions of the "biological" and the "social".

Eve and the New Jerusalem measures the scale of women's participation in early-19th century utopian communities. Their vision of a "new moral world" – free love, birth control, co-operation and communal property - would, they hoped, lead to the possibility of changing all social relationships. Barbara Taylor's perspective radically altered the view of this period.

Of course, it was not only individual books that changed things, but the cumulative effect of many books in many genres which encouraged a rethinking and rewriting of the culture and women's part in it. Our readers, who were central to our enterprise and had continuing conversations with us, told us all about that. In its turn, the next generation has already begun to deconstruct and reconstruct these ideas.

Knowing how much we have all gained from the work and writings of women whose lives, aspirations and ideas became part of the public record, often against the odds, a group of us - supported by the British Library's Sound Archive and the Women's Library - are now developing a project to collect through oral histories some of the intellectual ideas of the women's movement of the l970s. In this way, perhaps, those ideas will have a firmer place in the culture, with an archive of memories for future generations to use as they please.

Ursula Owen was a founder director and editorial director of Virago for its first 17 years

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