Handan Çağlayan 


KESK women oral history project and the exhibition 

We were, We are, We will be! – Struggling for gender equality in trade unions 


This is a project about the collective history of KESK (The Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions) women. Its most important feature is that it was carried out collectively by the women who participated in it. In the beginning, the idea came from one woman, then there were two.  At first, my idea was to carry out a modest oral history study with 20 women who were involved in the work of KESK from its beginning till today or only in certain periods. When I shared the idea with Gülistan (Atasoy), she suggested that this work be carried out in close cooperation with KESK. This was a very good suggestion. 

And it resulted in an expansion of the project: We started to share our idea with as many KESK women as possible. We began to organise the first consultation meetings. By discussing the project with our women colleagues from KESK we saw its potential – and the many questions involved: What should be the framework of this project? How could we carry it out? Who should be our interview partners? Such questions were important because the topic was a 30-year struggle process in a trade union which is present all over Turkey and has more than a hundred thousand members. We compiled a list of names with women who were or are active in various years or in certain periods of the unions’ struggle, involved in various political directions within KESK. We found it necessary to form a pool of oral history interview partners that reflects the diversity and the historical processes within KESK. We held meetings to determine the interview questions.

With each consultation meeting we held the number of women participating in the oral history project increased. This commitment showed us how important our project was. The women interviewed also became coordinators of the study. The number of the women attending increased with each meeting.  In the meetings we studied written sources such as the women’s congress books and the lists of the participants in relevant congresses throughout the history of KESK to find all the names of women who participated. Our aim was to represent the diversity within KESK. So we also looked for women whose names were found in written sources and also for women whose names are not mentioned in any source, but who we knew to have been actively working in a KESK office or in another union’s representative office countrywide. After determining the framework of our interviews and the whole project, the field work began. 

First we tried to find out the contact information of the women we wanted to speak to. 

The women working in the oral history project group had the basic qualifications to carry out such a survey: They were highly conscious of women’s perspectives because they had participated in the women training courses in their unions affiliated with KESK in the past. 

The most important thing was that they knew how to listen to each other.  What was needed was to add technical skills on how to do an oral history interview. We organized a workshop with a one-day training session on this topic. We gathered a group of volunteer women from all parts of Turkey in Ankara. They were active members in unions affiliated with KESK, and they had trained on gender equality and one had a master’s degree in women’s studies.

In the workshop we discussed the content of our oral history study and did training interviews.  The participants of this group returned to their own regions, and they started to hold oral history interviews with women in their vicinity using the list of names we had collected together.

The good thing was that the number of the women involved in our project again increased, as the first interviews started. The women we interviewed embraced our project so much that they started to work with us, and conducted interviews with other women in the regions where they live.

While we were doing oral history interviews, KESK women thought about their own history, about their own labour, and wrote their own personal history within the trade union struggle. There was so much experience that women had gained during the past.  It was so good for all women to talk about it. I had the same experience. Sometimes while working in the union things happen, for example, in gender training courses, that tend to render the training worthless. Such as joking or something like that. 

It is tiring to realize that such reactions may not just be a joke, but that there is a strategy behind them. Such things happen too often. Sometimes I’m getting the feeling as if everything I’ve done was for nothing! But while doing this project I felt extremely good. I understood it was not in vain. 

So much has been done, so much we have done! We have accomplished really great things together. Not only me but all women who participated in this oral history project had the same feeling during the work.

Reflecting on our own efforts, recognizing the value of our own efforts… We realized that we had needed this. The intense involvement in our work kept the project getting bigger and it became richer in content, so we had to continue longer than we had planned. The collective aspect of the project is very important. Especially this I want to underline.

The women did not remain “the people who were interviewed”. They also conducted interviews. Our oral history project was also an archival work. While we were reaching out to women all over Turkey and compiling their stories, we also started to collect materials related to union work in the regions, such as documents from private archives, or objects produced by women such as paintings, scarves and cockades. 

We’ve collected an incredible number of photos and lots of other material. Thus, a modest study that had started with only one or two people turned into a truly collective history study, in which hundreds of women participated, because the project met a need. The work we did also had the effect of empowering each of us.

Sometimes we have a feeling of emptiness and sometimes a sense of meaninglessness. 

A long struggle process and the feeling that some things have to be done over and over again can be tiring and wearisome. Sometimes I have the feeling that we haven’t reached anything at all! This oral history project has made all of us feel that it is not so. I hope and wish that all women and friends who visit this exhibition will feel the same. The exhibition shows that what has been done does not remain like writings on the water, it was not in vain, it has not disappeared. This history is our history. It is our personal history, the history of each of us.  It is our common history that we created by struggling together. There was tiring work and it was not in vain.

I believe that this work will also have an impact on new generations: KESK continues to exist -at the moment-. Tomorrow, maybe it will not be called KESK, the organisation may have a different name, but women will continue to be in working life, they will continue to be in the struggle for labour and they need to know that they are not starting from scratch.

This experience needs to be passed on. Therefore, we hope that our work, presented in the exhibition will also lead to an intergenerational transfer of knowledge and experience. I hope that many more studies of this sort will emerge. 

The works by other colleagues mustn’t necessarily have the form of a huge oral history survey. Autobiographical writings, memories or articles may appear. Let them be heard and read, more and more. Such writings should have a motivating and encouraging effect for women to say their words about the history they made. We would love this. Apart from that, this project is not only about the history of women. We are aware that women have been excluded from history, but the re-inclusion of women in history does not mean that this inclusion follows the existing mainstream historical narrative. A history created by exclusion is already a distorted and incomplete history. Therefore, adding women to this history means rewriting that history. It means first dismantling the existing history, then knitting the history together – anew. Therefore, this oral history study of KESK women is actually both a contribution to and an intervention in the existing studies on the history of KESK. There are dozens of books published about KESK. Some of them are academic writings, some semi-autobiographical.  There are no women in these studies. Okay, the writers may not be women. But it is striking that women have never been involved in writings on a trade union tradition despite, when not only half of the members of KESK are women, and when they were actively involved in every struggle including the Kizilay Square occupation in Ankara. 

Therefore, I do not want to say that women should intervene and “demand” history to be rewritten.

They are – already – saying “We were and we are!” and write the history together. When we listen to the life stories of KESK women, when we listen to the stories about their union struggles, we listen – at the same time – to the history of the union.  This gives us the opportunity to rethink and reconstruct history. This is a radical, democratising intervention. 

Finally, I want to add that this history is full of struggle. It is a history of sacrifice. 

This oral history project is not a romantic success story where all goes well. There are achievements: Women have changed their own lives. They interfered with the family environment in which they lived. They transformed their workplaces. They transformed the unions they were in. But it was at the same time a very tense and troublesome process within families, with the husbands, with the partners. 

However, the women succeeded. And their success goes beyond that. The KESK struggle is a contribution to the trade union struggle tradition in Turkey. It is a contribution to the history of democratisation in Turkey. The participation of women in this history is a very serious and important contribution to this process. This should be noted. This oral history project of the KESK women is a proof of this. Also, because it has been realised collectively. This is also worth dwelling on.