Chandan Fraser was 20 years old when she attended the UK’s first Women’s Liberation Conference at Oxford in February-March 1970. This was a landmark event in the genesis of second wave feminism in Britain. 600 women and a few men – a much greater attendance than expected – crowded into Ruskin College at Oxford for three days of debate and discussion. For many of those who attended, it was an exhilarating, indeed a life-changing, moment.
Chandan, then known as Sally, brought her camera with her to the conference – and her photographs are now, for the first time, being exhibited at the venue of that pioneering feminist gathering. Many of the images have never before been exhibited or published. Also on display are her photos of another era-defining moment – the first ever national demonstration for equal rights and pay for women on a snowy International Women’s Day in March 1971. Chandan Fraser has been sharing her memories of those events with History Workshop’s Andrew Whitehead:
I was the only photographer allowed in to the plenary sessions of first Women’s Liberation Conference. It was so exciting. All the photographs I took at that time were as a participant rather than an observer. I was a supporter first and a photographer second.
I spent 6 months in Caracas, Venezuela, as my father was posted there. That’s when I started taking photographs – I’ve got lots of pictures of the barrios in Caracas.
In 1967, when I was 17, I returned from there to London to study photography at the London College of Printing. I lived for three years in London with Mica and Pepe Nava – I had met them in Spain the summer before. And they, if you like, radicalised me.
I went on all the anti-Vietnam War marches – I got some photos of those. I remember being charged by police horses at Grosvenor Square where the US embassy was. The police were incredibly aggressive. One of my photos of those demos was published as the front cover of Black Dwarf.
The summer of ’68 was very, very exciting. My way of being involved was by going to the Hornsey College of Art sit-in. I always had my camera round my neck. All the time. It was a wonderful atmosphere at Hornsey. It was full of energy and excitement and forward looking. We really thought we were making the revolution.
I got involved in the women’s movement through Ruth Elias, an American friend at the London College of Printing. She knew Karen Slaney in whose house the Tufnell Park women’s group met. Mica and I went along together.
The women’s groups in Peckham Rye and in Tufnell Park were the first in London. We called ourselves a consciousness raising group. The whole idea was that people shared about their lives and it was a safe place to talk. And that there was no leader. The no leadership thing was very important, and that everybody could get the space to talk and not be interrupted and not be dominated by anybody.
In the Tufnell Park group they were all about ten years older than me. I was fine with them. They are all people I have a deep respect for and who I’ve kept in touch with ever since. Lovely people. And very much into listening and sharing and making people feel OK about who they are. It was a very fantastic experience for me.
The only thing was I was gay and I hadn’t dared tell anybody yet. It was before gay liberation and I was still very shy about it.
The Oxford conference grew out of a History Workshop event the previous year where feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham’s comment on the need for a focus on women’s history drew a dismissive response from a few of the men present. Women decided to organise their own women’s history event which became this much wider conference, publicised at the time as the ‘Women’s Weekend’.
The venue was Ruskin College, an adult education college with strong links to the trade union movement. Several hundred women, and a few men, attended – many more than the organisers expected. To cope with the numbers, some of the key sessions were hastily moved to the Oxford Union debating society nearby.
When Sally Alexander and others organised the Oxford conference, we just all went. It wasn’t any question. Every single one of us went. It was wonderful. I have been trying to remember where we stayed – I can’t remember at all.
I was actually busier taking photographs than talking, or even listening to what people were saying. The thing about taking photographs is you’re busy doing just that – which makes you an observer but it doesn’t necessarily make you observant.
There were the big meetings in the hall with speakers. And then there were meetings in smaller rooms, because it was a very important part of the women’s movement that people should meet in small groups so that everybody gets to talk. I’ve got photographs of those smaller meetings too.
Most of the men running the crèche were husbands of women in the Tufnell Park and Peckham Rye groups. I remember thinking: poor guys! But they were all very enthusiastic and willing. They were very supportive of their women. The feeling in the whole of the conference, including the crèche, was incredibly heartfelt. Very warm.
I didn’t go to the protest at the Miss World contest a few months later – I wish I had because I would have taken photographs. I was part of the meetings where we planned the slogans. I went to the trial [of Miss World protestors] at Bow Street and photographed those protesting outside the court.
In 1971, the year after the Oxford conference, I gave up photography. I wanted to be part of it and not to be continuously in the observer role. And anyway the police kept grabbing my camera and the photographs that were in it, which discouraged me.
I was known as Sally Fraser then. I’ve been called Chandan since 1976 – but as a photographer and in this context I’m still Sally.
Chandan Fraser lives in France. She has resumed photography, and when she attended the fiftieth anniversary reunion at Ruskin early last year, she brought her camera with her. An exhibition of Chandan’s photographs, Images of Liberation: Sally Fraser’s photography of women’s protest runs as part of Photo Oxford 2021 (15 October – 15 November). Bringing together never-before-seen images of the first Women’s Liberation Conference, it will be shown at the site of Ruskin College (the building is now part of Exeter College), where the conference took place just over 50 years ago. An online events programme accompanies the exhibition. The exhibition is produced by Four Corners in collaboration with Chandan Fraser and historian Andrew Whitehead. It is generously supported by the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust and the Lipman-Miliband Trust. Four Corners is a centre for film and photographic arts, based in East London for nearly 50 years. Our exhibitions explore hidden histories of community action and protest, and share stories from the margins that might not otherwise be told.