The Women’s Library, Newtown

An overview of the library and the project’s process

The Women’s Library (TWL) in Newtown is a special place home to feminist literature, dedicated volunteers, and a supportive community. The founding committee, led by Vicki Harding, wanted to provide access to a wide range of material, without limiting the support of a feminist community from people in lower socio-economic groups. The library does not espouse one particular brand of feminism but welcomes and includes as many areas of interest as possible.

Over the years at The Women’s Library, low funding and engagement have meant that the volunteers have had to work tirelessly, often alongside fulltime jobs and other commitments, to protect this safe haven for many women in the area. From conversations with volunteers, I discovered that one of the key challenges that the library faces is letting people know about its existence.

For this project, I have studied reports, minutes, newsletters, constitutions, and published materials from the library which were all filed away at TWL. I also sorted through newspaper articles, reviews, and advertisements about the library, some were held at the site, others were found online and at the City of Sydney Archives. I have spoken to volunteers and library members, and I have found that The Women’s Library is not just about the books on its shelves, but the people in its community. The emergence of The Women’s Library reveals a supportive network of feminist activism and a reclaiming of space in Sydney in the 1990s.

From my research, I pieced together a history of the library and told the story through Instagram posts for The Women’s Library Instagram page. Combining narrative, analysis, and description is at the heart of History, and it is one of its biggest challenges. Below are some of the stories I put together for my project and some of the Instagram tiles I created which I hope the library will use as they wish.

A snippet of my project – the history of The Women’s Library

Vicki Harding had a feeling that The Women’s Library already existed on women’s bookshelves all over Australia. So, inspired by overseas libraries dedicated to women’s studies, Vicki decided to publicise her idea in 1991 and received much support and encouragement, creating a committee to grow the library. They set about creating a space by women, for women.

In 1993 South Sydney Council provided the library’s venue in Alexandria Town Hall which opened to the public on 21 July 1994. Run entirely on donations and membership fees, it was the first of its kind in Australia and grew to house 9,000 books donated by members, authors, and publishing companies.

The library is so connected to the physical place that it inhabits and the books on its shelves, that the TWL community acts as a connection between the lasting 1990s feminism, and the quiet space provided just off King Street. Sorting through the filing room at TWL, I found a collection of posters from 1980s and 1990s feminist rallies, in particular a number of International Women’s Day posters. Below are some of the posters I had scanned and then designed to create Instagram tiles.

International Women’s Day posters held at The Women’s Library

I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time at The Women’s Library and learning about its history and people. It is a rare time capsule of the feminist activism of 1990s Sydney and is the legacy of hard-working women. So, next time you’re looking for a good book or interesting conversation, stop by The Women’s Library, just behind Newtown Library on Brown Street, and say “hello!”

The Women’s Library, Newtown

– A place of books, tea, and feminism.

I never liked the colour pink. As a kid, I thought it was babyish and I wanted to be a cool, strong, smart, grown-up girl. I have since learnt the phrase ‘pink shaming’ which describes the anti-feminist act of shaming girls or women for liking traditionally feminine things, like the colour pink. More recent feminist activism, like the ‘pussyhats’ movement, are embracing tropes such as pink, and turning the feminine into the feminist. The Women’s Library in Newtown beautifully continues this idea of reclaiming space and ideas for women. When I first visited The Women’s Library, I was told they had recently repainted the space. I looked around, and sure enough, I was surrounded by walls of pink and purple.

A comfortable space of purple couches, and walls that are now painted pink. The Women’s Library, 2016.

The Women’s Library is an inviting place, a sanctuary for local women. Unlike your typical library, this library, by and for women, has soft music playing, constant offers of tea and Tim Tams, and a strong feminist mission. All the books in the collection are written by women or about women and range from health, biographies, fiction, poetry, feminist literature, lesbian texts, science, to history, and beyond. Since building its collection in 1991, and opening in 1994, the library has run on donations and volunteers, creating a truly community space. To establish the collection, the library set up red tea chests as collection boxes around Sydney and asked people to donate books by or about women with the aim of creating a 4,000 strong collection. Watch this short clip from the library about its founding.

I first came across The Women’s Library when I was walking down King Street in Newtown. As I was crossing Brown Street, I saw a sign pointing to The Women’s Library. I was intrigued and for the next year, every time I walked past that sign, The Women’s Library lodged itself further into my mind. When I started to think about community organisations in my local area for this History Beyond the Classroom project, I remembered that blue street sign and decided to finally follow it. I got in touch with the library and received a response immediately. It was a sign in my inbox that I had to now visit this illusive place behind Newtown Library. I visited one day and met a lovely volunteer who welcomed me to this place of pink walls, floating music, and shelves and shelves of books.

The Women’s Library Street sign at the corner of Brown Street and King Street. Google Maps, 2022.

At this stage, my time at the library involves me sorting through boxes of annual reports, minutes, financial reports, letters, essays, and office documents, a History student’s dream! And I’m not being sarcastic. I’m looking through these boxes and labelling files. As I do this, and chat with the library volunteers and members, I feel as though I am getting closer to the library, its history, and community. The Women’s Library has an incredible ‘Herstory’ that I have enjoyed reading through. It details the continuous hard work of the library volunteers over the years to fight for this special place which acts as a safe haven for many women in the area. Hosting concerts, exhibitions, group meetings, children’s story time, and even blind dates with a book, The Women’s Library has a lot to say for itself, and I hope I can do justice to its voice.