The Feminist Art of Self-Education

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Literary scholar Elizabeth Long has charted the emergence of women’s reading groups in nineteenth-century America. ‘The women who founded literary clubs’, Long (2004, 337) tells us, ‘were aflame with the then revolutionary desire for education and self-development, which they called “self-culture”.’ Similar desires continued to fuel a drive amongst women to organise together around reading and publishing groups, usually outside of official institutions, well into the twentieth century. Indeed, a recent special issue of this journal (Vol.27, No.4) addressed the articulation of activist ideas via a rich periodical culture during first- and second-wave feminist organising. This ‘revolutionary desire’ for self-education has also been evident in the UK women’s art and art history movement; although, it has not been addressed in any great detail. This article therefore seeks to situate an overlooked history of artistic reading and publishing communities in relation to an established body of theory in literary and cultural studies. These theoretical materials will illuminate the importance that reading and self-education (either in person or as part of a periodical network) had in establishing solidarity, and generating debate, within a flourishing art and art history movement. The second half of this article will focus on a case study. FAN: Feminist Art News (1980-93) was an independent, grassroots publication that grew out of the Women Artists’ Newsletter in London. Invited editorial groups published themed issues on a quarterly basis. The first issue was dedicated to the topic of ‘Education’, as was a later issue. This article contends that it is no coincidence ‘education’ both formed the focus of the first issue and was the only subject addressed twice in the periodical’s print run. This indicates the centrality of debates about auto-didacticism to second-wave feminism, as well as gesturing towards the long history of ‘education and self-improvement’ that has fuelled women’s reading groups since the nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages23
Specialist publicationWomen: A Cultural Review
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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