To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, we pay tribute to the Edinburgh District Council’s Women’s Committee (1984-1996) and feminist photographer Franki Raffles (1955-1994). To begin with, we embark on a visual journey back in time and revisit a series of IWD celebrations in Edinburgh between 1988 and 1994 through the Raffles’ photographs.
Captured in the photographs are a wide spectrum of activities, ranging from lively performances, participatory workshops and dance sessions to information fairs packed with women’s organisations from the local community. Feminist values of collective and non-hierarchical relationships can be discerned from the attendance of women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and their active participation in the activities.
Fully supported by the then Edinburgh District Council’s Women’s Committee and engaging local women’s groups and women from culturally diverse backgrounds, high-profile International Women’s Day celebrations are emblematic of the distinctively vibrant feminist landscape in Edinburgh between the mid-1980s and early 1990s. That was a period marked by the productive partnership between self-consciously defined autonomous feminist organisations and a local authority.[i]
In May 1984, the second Women’s Committee in Scotland was established by the Labour administration of Edinburgh District Council, marking the beginning of a decade-long alliance between feminist actors inside and outside policy-making authorities in Edinburgh.
Commonly recognised as one of the most innovative and proactive women’s committees in Scotland, Edinburgh District Council’s Women’s Committee launched a series of campaigns and projects to promote women’s empowerment.
The Women’s Directory for Edinburgh, published in 1987 by the Women’s Committee and featuring photographs by Franki Raffles, gives a sense of the vast range of activities and organisations dedicated to promoting the welfare and interests of women in Edinburgh.
Other efforts to promote and improve the welfare of women in Edinburgh included providing opportunities and information concerning women’s employment and training, encouraging women to make use of recreational facilities, setting up of a sub-committee of Housing Committee to tackle issues such as homelessness and domestic violence and funding the first black/Asian women’s refuge in the East of Scotland. Working closely with the Women’s Committee, Franki Raffles produced a body of photographs documenting a variety of women’s activities ranging from informal get-togethers to conferences and meetings within local government, many of which remain unidentified.
Between September 1987 and April 1988, the Women’s Committee commissioned Raffles to photograph women’s working lives in Edinburgh. The resultant exhibition and booklets, incorporating quotes from the photographed women and relevant statistical information, offer a critical representation of women workers in Edinburgh and the social reality in which they were embedded.
The epitome of the Women’s Committee’s contribution to women’s empowerment is the monumental Zero Tolerance campaign, a ground-breaking initiative launched in 1992 to raise public awareness about domestic violence against women and children. Raffles created a set of galvanising posters in which she juxtaposed texts informed by statistical research with her photographs of women and children in domestic settings.
The Women’s Committee was dissolved in 1996 due to reorganisation of local authorities. High-profile International Women’s Day celebrations in central Edinburgh have since come to enjoy less currency and become almost non-existent. As a former employee of the Scottish Women’s Aid remarked, ‘in Edinburgh there was the Women’s Committee which was very active for a few years so when that closed down we noticed a significant change, certainly, in the climate in Edinburgh.’[ii]
Photography served as a powerful tool of empowerment for many of the campaigns and projects mentioned above. Working as a freelance photographer who was actively engaged in local feminist activities and frequently commissioned by the Council’s Women’s Committee, Franki Raffles produced substantial photographic work whose significance lies not only in its documentation of the transitory feminist landscape from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s in the context of changing of social-political climate, but also in the productive and innovative ways in which feminist consciousness is coupled with socially-engaged photographic practices.
The photographs included here have been recently catalogued and digitised as part of the cataloguing project of the The Franki Raffles Photography Collection. The substantial collection, consisting of around 50,000 images in various formats with accompanying documentation, is going be fully catalogued and available to browse in our online catalogue at the end of April 2020.
MPhil History of Photography Student
[i] Esther Breitenbach and Fiona Mackay, ‘Introduction: Women and Contemporary Scottish Politics’, in Women and Contemporary Scottish Politics: An Anthology, Edited by Esther Breitenbach and Fiona Mackay, pp. 1-24. Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
[ii] The interview conducted by Aoife Keenan is part of the project Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland. Transcript of the interview is available from the Archive Collection at Glasgow Women’s Library. https://collections.womenslibrary.org.uk/archive/atom240/uploads/r/glasgow-women-s-library/1/1/11209/SWA-4-1_Anonymous1_Transcript.pdf
Photographs © Franki Raffles Estate, all rights reserved.