Oral histories of the history of women

'A Labour of Love'. Image courtesy of the Hulton Deutch collection

We hold oral history collections relating to women’s lives including home and working life, political activism and protest, feminism and gender.

About the collection

The British Library holds several collections relating to the women’s lives including home and working life, political activism and protest, feminism and gender, health and sexuality. Women’s lives and experiences feature in many of the life story recordings made by National Life Stories and in collections which offer a survey of British life such as the Millennium Memory Bank and Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918.

What is available online?

Women’s experiences of working in traditionally male industries features in a number of National Life Stories projects that are available on British Library Sounds including City Lives, ScienceFood, Theatre and Industry.  Women’s involvement in craft, art and design is reflected Artists’ Lives, An Oral History of British Photography and Crafts Lives

Observing the 1980s brings together, for the first time, 'voices' from both the Mass Observation Archive and the British Library's Oral History collections. This material offers a unique and inspiring insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 1980s. The interviews from which the clips were selected for the 'Observing the 1980s' Open Education Resource are derived from collaborative oral history projects and include recordings with those involved in key events, such as the Falklands War, the Miners' Strike and the Brixton riots, as well as those reflecting on industry in the 1980s, unemployment and redundancy, and HIV and Aids. The interviews in their entirety are made available on British Library Sounds.

The Listening Project is an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC. People are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and curated and archived in full by the British Library. These one-to-one conversations, lasting up to an hour and taking a topic of the speakers' choice, collectively form a picture of our lives and relationships today - some of these topics include health, sexuality, religion and belief. Edited excerpts from the collection are broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 4 and on local radio stations across the UK and Northern Ireland. 

The Fawcett collection, a National Life Stories collection of recordings funded by the Fawcett Society and the Friends of the Fawcett Library, which focuses on the lives of pioneering career women, each of whom made their mark in traditionally male-dominated areas such as politics, the law and medicine. All of these recordings are available in the Pioneering Women section of BL Sounds.

The History of Parliament's Oral History project, a project run by the History of Parliament Trust  (in partnership with the British Library) from 2011 onwards. Fifteen interviews with women former MPs are available online.

An interview with Dame Josephine Barnes, the first female consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Charing Cross Hospital and the first female President of the British Medical Association, can be accessed on British Library Sounds.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Kay Foster Gulf War recordings are the audio diaries of a major in the Royal Army Nursing Corps serving in the Gulf War 1990-91.

Women’s roles in the workplace are also explored in the National Life Stories projects An Oral History of the Wine Trade and Lives in the Oil Industry .

The Women and the English Country House collection comprises interviews with staff and owners from a selection of stately homes in Britain, which were conducted as part of research for ‘Woman's Domain: Women and the English Country House' by Trevor Lummis and Jan Marsh, published by Viking in conjunction with The National Trust.

Politics, protest and social movements

The Sound Archive contains many recordings relating to the suffrage movement, including: ‘The Blaze of the Day: The Suffragette Movement’, a published CD compilation of oral history, speeches, and songs; recorded speeches by Margaret Grace Bondfield and  Christabel Pankhurst; recorded reminiscences such as those from Ada Flatman; and radio programmes, such as Woman’s Hour: Memories of the Suffragette Movement

‘Daughters of Radical Suffragists’: BBC Radio 4 broadcast is a copy of a 2002 radio broadcast made by Pennine Productions, compiled from oral history interviews recorded in the 1970s and 1980s.

 The Jean Taylor Interviews comprises location recordings with women protesters at Greenham Common nuclear base.

'Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project'  is a partnership project between the University of Sussex, The British Library and the Women’s Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which aims to use oral history interviews to capture and analyse the memories of those women who powered the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The project comprises 60 oral history recordings with feminist activists throughout Britain who were involved in a range of women’s liberation campaigns, including women’s aid and the National Abortion Campaign. Also created were 10 short documentary films which are available for viewing on the project website. Further information is available on the University of Sussex project webpage and the detailed project description.

The Women Conscientious Objectors  collection comprises life story interviews with British women conscientious objectors from the Second World War, recorded by Rena Feld in 1997-8, in association with Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Interviews with Animal Welfare activists is a collection of oral history interviews with people active in the animal welfare and animal rights movement in Britain, including the Hunt Saboteurs Association, Chickens Lib, RSPCA Reform Group, League Against Cruel Sports, Animal Liberation Front, Compassion in World Farming and other organisations campaigning against animal experimentation and maltreatment.

The Harman-Shephard collection of interviews with women Members of Parliament comprises interviews with 83 female and 3 male Members of Parliament, most of whom entered the House of Commons at the 1997 general election.

Lifetimes of Commitment: interviews with British socialists is a collection of sixteen interviews with British socialists, including Eileen Daffern and Frida Knight, carried out between 1986 and 1988 for a book entitled 'Lifetimes of commitment: aging, politics and psychology' (CUP 1991).

An interview with Betty Boothroyd (the first female speaker of the House of Commons) and with Edwina Coven, first woman Chief Commoner of City of London are included in the Leaders of National Life collection.

Religion and ethnicity

The Pascall Theatre Company: Mothers and Daughters - A Jewish Archive collection comprises 50 interviews with Jewish women of various ages and cultural backgrounds recorded by the Pascal Theatre Company in collaboration with the London Jewish Cultural Centre. The recordings were made as part of a film and exhibition entitled 'Jewish mothers and daughters: a personal history of the 20th century through 50 Jewish women's lives'.

The Irish Women Travellers is a collection of life story interviews with women from the Irish Traveller community. The recordings are part of an oral history research project undertaken by Sue Beck for an MSc in Public Health and Health Promotion at South Bank University, which explores the health of these women across generations and across the life span.

Nuns' Lives features interviews with three retired teaching nuns, conducted in 1998 as part of a research project.

The Wesleyan Deaconesses Interviews collection comprises six interviews with members of the Wesleyan Deaconess Order who had trained or served during the 1930s and 1940s.

The Mothers Union Recordings comprises recordings made between the 1962 and 1998, and includes recordings of overseas conferences of the Mothers’ Union and teaching resources to promote discussion on issues such as teenagers and prayer.

Sexuality, reproductive health and prostitution

QMWC: Changes in childbirth is a series of recordings conducted by students at Queen Mary Westfield College during 1991-1992. The purpose of the project was to investigate changes in childbirth in East London from the late 19th century to the late 20th century.

QMWC: Changes in birth control  is a collection of interviews conducted by a group of women medical students from Queen Mary Westfield College in 1993. The study investigated changing attitudes to contraception in the light of the introduction of the contraceptive pill; the impact the Pill had on women's health and life; and changes in attitudes within the medical profession to contraception.

The Lara Marks contraceptive pill interviews is a collection of 53 recordings of interviews with (or talks by) scientists, medical practitioners and lay test participants involved in the development of the contraceptive pill, and two off-air recordings of  radio broadcasts, recorded by Dr Lara Marks and her research assistants between 1994 and 1997.

An interview with Lady Helen Brook, advocate of birth control and founder of the Brook Organisation for sexual health advice and services to the under 25's, is included in the National Life Stories project Leaders of National Life.

‘Invisible Women’: Positively Women Oral History Project is a collection of 16 oral history interviews with women living with HIV; the interviews reveal how HIV has affected them  socially, at work and in their family lives. The project was carried out by Positively UK as part of an HLF funded project in 2007 and 2008.

There are a number of collections relating to sexuality including: ‘Before Stonewall: a lesbian, gay and transgender oral history’The Rainbow Television Collection of Gay/Lesbian Videos and The Hall-Carpenter Oral History archive. Further information can be found on the collections page Oral History: sexuality, reproductive health and prostitution.

An Oral History of Prostitution is a series of interviews with sex workers and others involved in the sex industry.


Further information

See the collection guide to Oral History and webpages for National Life Stories: the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library.

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  For more information on how to search the catalogue and listen to oral history recordings see our 'How to' guide. 

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

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