women’s history

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

I had some unfinished business with “Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights”. I was originally booked in to see it the day before lockdown 2.0, but then I ended up getting married instead, which took priority. So I made sure that Unfinished Business was the first exhibition I visited after lockdown, and as it turns out, it was also the only exhibition I got to see during the brief period museums were allowed to re-open, since I got word the day after my visit that one of my colleagues had tested positive, so I had to leave work and immediately start self-isolating (I wasn’t able to get a test since I fortunately never developed symptoms (and my colleague had a very mild case, also fortunately), so I still don’t know if I’ve actually had Covid or not, or if I was infectious at the time I saw the exhibition, so I guess it’s good I had a mask on the entire time I was in central London, even when I was outside). I was hoping to get in one more museum visit when my self-isolation period ended on Wednesday, but then the government decided to move us into Tier 3 starting Wednesday (instead of just reassessing on Wednesday, which was what I thought they were meant to do), so there goes my one day of freedom!

 

But anyway, back when I was unaware that I was a potential Covid Jessica (I know I’m being a bit flippant, but I would honestly feel awful if I knew I got someone sick), I headed up to the British Library for the first time in well over a year to finally see this exhibition (time flies when you can’t leave your house…at least up to a point if you’re an introvert like me. I enjoyed working from home in my pajamas instead of having to go into the office (and I was only working from an office again for a month before having to self-isolate (and this is at a museum with a very small team), so that went well!), but I do miss visiting exhibitions every week). Tickets are £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass, and you must pre-book, though there were plenty of tickets still available on the day when we visited. It is meant to run until February 2021, though this may be extended now that they’ve had to close again.

  

We were already off to a better start than our recent experience at the British Museum as soon as we entered the exhibition, because it was pretty damn empty. There were maybe only ten visitors in the entirety of the large PACCAR Gallery, and the one way arrow stickers on the floor were huge, so there was absolutely no way you could miss them (and there was really only one natural path around most of the exhibition, so we wouldn’t have run into the same issues that we had at the BM anyway). The BL normally divides the space into a lot of smaller rooms, but in this case they had wisely decided to leave everything open, which made it a lot easier to social distance. No complaints about the appearance or configuration of this exhibition!

 

As for the content…I definitely consider myself a feminist, and am interested in the women’s rights movement, so I was really excited to see this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. Rather than being divided into individual galleries, the exhibition was divided into zones on Body, Mind, and Voice, though there was definitely a bit of overlap between the zones. As always, the BL presented fascinating historical documents alongside contemporary art and artefacts, and I absolutely loved the little cartoons on the side of each large interpretation panel, most of which contained wry observations on being a woman in male-dominated industries (totally my experience when I worked in brewing and people used to assume I was the head brewer’s girlfriend, though definitely not in heritage, which is heavily female-dominated, at least everywhere I’ve worked), though there was also a delightful cartoon about the Bronte sisters that made me laugh out loud (with any laughter particles safely contained within my mask) and a chart mocking the idea of an “ideal” body type with different food-based body shapes (I’m definitely a pierogi, not least because I eat a lot of pierogi when I can be bothered to make them).

 

“Body” contained sections on beauty pageants, cross-dressing female vaudeville entertainers, transwomen, menstruation, and more. I was fascinated to see the correspondence between American suffragist Caroline Kennard and Dahl’s Charwin, as I call him, aka Charles Darwin, about whether women were intellectually inferior to men. Darwin believed they were, and Kennard tried her best to set him straight by pointing out that women didn’t receive equal educational or employment opportunities, but Darwin presumably had none of it because he was kind of a jerk. There was also a small section on family planning, and the exhibition didn’t shy away from pointing out Marie Stopes’s racist views (similar to her American counterpart Margaret Sanger, she was a big believer in eugenics. It’s a shame all these early birth control advocates had such awful beliefs). I was also super interested to read Urania, an early 20th century gender studies publication written by feminist activists (definitely ahead of its time!), and see how badly I fail at dressing professionally for the office according to a 1970s guide for women on “power dressing” (I’ve been known to wear things close to that exact outfit, sans the slouchy hat).

 

I’m not sure exactly where “Mind” ended and “Voice” began, but I have to assume the education section was in “Mind”. Throughout the exhibition, there were charts showing the proportion of women represented in various fields, like politics, the workforce, etc. (and a really depressing one on domestic violence, which we all know has gotten worse during the pandemic as more women are trapped at home with their abusers), and the only chart where women were surpassing men was on higher education (though not when it comes to the make up of actual faculty, and the number of BAME female professors is particularly low). I was disturbed by the photograph of the 1897 protest by male students at Cambridge against granting degrees to women, which was full of boorish looking men throwing fireworks and suspending an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a building, and was apparently successful, since the Queen Mother was the first woman to be granted an (honorary) degree at Cambridge, and that wasn’t until 1948!

 

“Voice” focused a lot on the suffragette movement, and made a point to mention the role women of colour played, and how they were basically ignored by white British suffragettes, who showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of women living under colonialism. In fact, during WWI, the Women’s Party put out a really revolting publication called Brittania, full of “patriotic” garbage extolling the “virtues” of Empire. Blech. I found the sections on solidarity movements by BAME women really interesting, and I loved all the protest art. Although much of the focus was still on white women, as that is still what makes up much of the BL’s collection, I do think they really tried to focus on women of colour as well and point out the many inequalities that still exist. This was really driven home in the case of Khadija Saye, one of the artists featured here, who tragically died aged only 24 in the Grenfell fire along with her mother due to the ultimately hideously unsafe conditions they were forced to live in.

 

As the exhibition guide said, although the exhibition tried to represent as many voices as they could, an exhibition of this size covering so much ground could never be comprehensive, and was really more of an overview, though I think it could be a great starting point to encourage visitors to learn more, and there was definitely a lot of interesting looking feminist literature available for purchase in the exhibition shop (along with some cool badges and stickers). The BL generally excels at including a range of interesting primary documents in their exhibits, and this was no exception, with poems written on toilet paper by suffragettes in prison (and my god, does it look like coarse, unpleasant toilet paper), to manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, and even a good range of artefacts from ordinary women, like a housemaid’s recipe for lemon ice cream and a rad uterus quilt.

 

I really liked “Unfinished Business”, and was definitely impressed with the social distancing, easy flow around the exhibition, and friendliness of the staff. 3.5/5. If you have time to walk around the building (which takes a bit longer than it used to due to the one-way system), there is a free display of more of Khadija Saye’s art on the first floor. I’m also including a photo of the small case on the Glasgow Women’s Library because I thought Anabel might like to see it, and you get a bonus photo of the BL’s cat, who we encountered as we left. One of the security guards told us her name was Daisy, and she is very cute!

 

Oxford: “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English” @ Weston Library

We didn’t have any trouble finding our next destination, the Weston Library, as it was across the street from the Museum of the History of Science.  I was planning on going anyway to see “Designing English,” which was a display of some of their collection of medieval manuscripts (I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping for butt trumpet marginalia), and then it turned out that there was a suffragette display there too, so that was a nice surprise.

  

The Weston is a branch of the Bodleian Library, but isn’t actually in the Bodleian, so it is just a nondescript building compared to the magnificence of the Bodleian (or so I imagine, since we didn’t have time to visit the actual Bodleian on this trip), but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I was still eager to see their displays, even though the interior was kind of blah and dominated mostly by a very crowded cafe. The exhibitions were both free to visit, so after taking a moment to admire a large, tapestry-style map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties (being from Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcus was a bit miffed that it wasn’t included (Update: Yes, it is, listed as “Stretford.” He found it on the photo in this post.)), we headed in (fortunately, the Weston is one of those chill libraries that lets you take your bag into the exhibition galleries, unlike the National Archives, who still stick in my craw).

  

We started with “Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared,” which sounded pretty great from the name alone, and I wasn’t disappointed by the choice of artefacts or women featured here. There was a nice mix of stuff from big famous names and also lesser-known but equally interesting women. So of course Jane Austen’s teenage diary was amazing, as was Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein (even though the copy on show was only a facsimile), but I also loved learning about women like Mary Lacy, who was probably the first woman to take an exam as a shipwright and receive a pension from the Royal Admiralty (she served in the navy whilst posing as a man, but applied for a pension in 1771 under her real name, and was granted it!); and Marjory Wardrop, who fell in love with Georgia (the country) after her diplomat brother travelled there, so she learned Georgian and eventually translated the most famous Georgian epic poem, though sadly didn’t think it was fit for publication, so it wasn’t published until after her death (it totally was fit for publication, by the way, and has become the standard by which Georgian to English translations are measured).

  

There were many more wonderful artefacts, like a drawing by Ada Lovelace, the only surviving copy of a board game called Suffragetto, as seen above (a game of suffragettes vs police where suffragettes try to occupy the House of Commons whilst also defending Albert Hall against the police, while the police try to defend the House of Commons whilst occupying Albert Hall), a scrap of one of Sappho’s poems, and lots of books and illustrations by various female pioneers in medicine, botany, photography, etc. etc. (I wish I had more pictures to share, but the lighting was poor and we didn’t know we were allowed to take them til the end.) How rad is that Oxford Women Suffrage poster though?!

  

We finished looking around the exhibition just in time, as a large group of students (ironically all male, though I suppose they were high school age rather than from the university) filed in just as we were about to leave.  Fortunately, “Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page” only had a handful of people inside. This was also a really amazing exhibition, filled with lots of beautiful manuscripts; though sadly, almost none of the marginalia I was hoping for (one of the books had a little monster in the margins, and I’ll certainly take it, but of course I wanted to see a butt trumpet or at least an aggressive snail).

  

However, what the exhibition lacked in hilarious marginalia, it made up for with the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, as well as the accompanying text, which was both interesting and informative. There was even a giant piece of vellum stretched across a hoop so we could see exactly how it was made in the display about book production.

  

My favourite book was probably one where one monk had started to lay down the notes for a religious song (a “nowell” which had me singing “The First Noel” in my head (for an atheist, I do really love Christmas carols) though of course this song would have pre-dated that by centuries), for which he promised the lyrics would follow, but then another monk stepped in and wrote down the lyrics to a drinking song instead. But so much of this was deeply fascinating, like a book with a poem that had every rhyming couplet written in a different colour ink, so the reader would understand that it was supposed to rhyme (which shows how poetry has evolved); and a fold-up vellum manuscript for an astrologer or doctor (really, there wasn’t much difference back then) to carry around and diagnose various ailments based on the astrological sign active at the time.

  

I suppose the exhibition was meant to be showing the evolution of graphic design, but I found the evolution of English itself much more interesting, both in the aforementioned poetry book, and in prayerbooks that show the transition from Latin into the vernacular.  For example, there was a book that quoted a poem by Caedmon, the earliest English poet, who was a possibly illiterate animal husbandman who had songs appear to him in dreams – the book was in Latin, but when it got to Caedmon’s poem, it switched to English that was slightly set-off from the rest of the text. They explained the reasons for this in a more detailed way that I can’t remember, but take my word for it, it was neat.

  

It was awesome getting to see all these beautifully preserved books and manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and I learned a lot too (though have clearly forgotten some of it – I should have written this post first thing!). I think these two exhibitions were probably the best things we saw in Oxford (Pitt Rivers is amazing, as you’ll see it in the next post, but I had seen it before, so it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring this time around), and I recommend seeing them both, if you can (“Designing English” is only on til 22 April, but “Sappho to Suffragette” will be there until 2019). 4.5/5 for “Designing English” and 4/5 for “Sappho to Suffragette.”

London: Fatberg + Votes for Women @ the Museum of London

During the week of the so-called “beast from the east” (I know other places in the UK had actual dangerous levels of snow, but we only got what I would consider a dusting in London, and everyone was still treating it like such a big deal), instead of only working three days a week, per usual, and having some time off to enjoy the rare snow sighting (there wasn’t really enough to make a snowman or anything, but all I mean by enjoy the snow is that I would have cozily wrapped myself up in blankets in my flat and drank hot chocolate), I had to actually work a full week, which included a training course at the Museum of London. While I didn’t really want to have to bundle up and fight my way across the city (in a place where “leaves on the track” are enough to shut the trains down, you can probably guess how well they cope with snow), on the plus side, I was excited to go check out the infamous fatberg.

   

I was originally supposed to have an hour break for lunch, but in light of the snow we all agreed to only take half an hour so we could leave earlier, which meant my time looking around the museum was going to be somewhat rushed. Fortunately, the fatberg takes pride of place right by the museum’s entrance. For those who may not know (probably most people outside of London), the fatberg was a huge disgusting sewer blockage discovered in Whitechapel last September, which was ultimately found to weigh 130 tonnes, and was over 250 metres long (still haven’t completely wrapped my head around the metric system, but I get that that’s big). So naturally, the Museum of London was keen to get their hands on a chunk (who wouldn’t be?) and following a rather delightful social media campaign that was an homage to The Blob, it is now on display.
  
The exhibit contained some information about the fatberg, its removal, and what we can do to prevent future fatbergs (basically, don’t flush things down the toilet other than toilet paper and actual bodily waste), but of course the highlight was the fatberg itself, which they keep segregated in its own dark mysterious room bedecked with warning signs like “enter if you dare!” Given all the hype, the fatberg is admittedly underwhelming, but still pretty gross, and if you take all the fatberg promotion in the roadside attraction spirit in which it was probably intended, then the underwhelmingness is in keeping with that (and it’s nice to see a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously!). They actually have two small lumps: one that has started to break apart, and another that is still largely intact (rumour has it that sometimes flies and maggots emerge from it, though there were none in evidence at the time of my visit). I’m not sure what else I can really say about it – it is just a big fatty lump with some wrappers sticking up out of it, and I think this exhibit could have really been enhanced with some authentic smells; obviously it would be a public health hazard if they let people smell the actual fatberg, but I’m sure they could have piped in some imitation rotting meat combined with stinky toilet smells (paraphrasing from a man quoted in the exhibit who had to remove the damn thing).
  
I also had time to pop down and see some of the suffragette stuff they’ve got on display to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and though this too was smaller than I was hoping, they did have a few interesting pieces. I liked seeing the grille Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons (both to draw attention to the issue of female suffrage, and to remove the grille itself, which blocked women’s view of Parliamentary proceedings), as well as the body belt they used to do it. I also loved Kitty Marshall’s silver necklace which commemorated her three terms of imprisonment (she was initially imprisoned for throwing a potato at Churchill, which I think is amazing. Potatoes are a hilarious thing to throw at someone, plus Churchill needed to be taken down a peg or two).
  
The pendant given to Louise Eates of the Kensington branch of the WSPU was really interesting too, as was Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal, and the letters from Winefride Rix to her daughter written whilst she was in prison were quite sad. I especially liked that the caption mentioned how Winefride did not go on hunger strike with the other suffragettes, and her husband even sent her a box of apples whilst she was in prison. I can appreciate this, because I think it makes Winefride very relatable.  Sure, I can say I would have been right up there with the suffragettes, but in reality, I don’t think I’m brave enough to endure force-feeding. I’d like to think I would at least have participated in marches and things that I could have been arrested for; but to go on a hunger strike on top of it?! I think I would have chickened out big time once they brought out the tubes. So I liked that this exhibition showed that there were a range of women out there fighting the good fight to the best of their abilities, and not just the diehards, commendably brave though they were, which I think is an important lesson, because it shows that everyone can contribute to social change in some small way, and not just those at the more extreme ends of the spectrum.
  

I also of course had a wander through the shop (since I love to torture myself by looking at all the amazing stuff museum shops can buy when they have a decent budget and the visitor numbers to back it up), and they had a lot of great suffragette stuff (sadly no sash, but I was tempted by the “Votes for Women” umbrella) and even better fatberg souvenirs, so I succumbed and bought a badge and a totebag (and a t-shirt for Marcus) reading “Don’t Feed the Fatberg” which I suppose is an environmental message, but thanks to the campiness of the design, feels more like merchandise for a B-movie, which is honestly why I was drawn to it in the first place. I don’t know if I can rate these exhibitions because they’re both very small, but they are free (as is the rest of the Museum of London), and though the fatberg is not all that impressive, I’m still glad I saw it. Not as glad as I would have been to have the day off, but it was better than actually being at work.

Manchester: The Pankhurst Centre

It’d been a few years since Marcus and I had managed to go somewhere on our anniversary, so I thought it would be nice if we could swing a short break somewhere this year. I initially wanted to go somewhere picturesque, but then thought about the reality of England in late November: terrible weather + loads of places that close for the season, and decided it would be best to do a city break instead. Manchester seemed a likely candidate, since I’d never been, and in addition to Christmas markets (which I can often be Grinchy about, but I secretly enjoy them if they’re not too crowded), it also had a lot of museums that sounded really interesting. Inspired by Joy’s post, one of the museums I wanted to make sure to visit was the Pankhurst Centre, which I thought might be tricky due to their limited opening hours, but fortunately, they are open from 1-4 on the fourth Sunday of each month, which just happened to be when we’d arrive, so we were able to head straight there on our way into Manchester, and arrived just as they were opening.

Because the Pankhurst Centre is right next to a hospital, we were able to find parking in their car park and headed swiftly over to the museum in the midst of horrible windy sleety weather (that would plague us throughout our stay, but I’ve come to understand that that’s just what Manchester weather is like). We were the first people to arrive that day, so the woman working there gave us a nice little introduction to the house, and turned on the film for us in the middle room of the museum (the whole thing is only three rooms, but it is free). This was a 13 minute film about the suffragette movement, including an initially rather amusing anti-suffragette filmstrip from the 1910s about all the evils of the suffragette movement and the kinds of punishments that the husband of a suffragette thought they deserved.  However, it did get a lot less hilarious when the film moved on to the perils that befell the actual suffragette movement, including force-feeding, because of course the “punishments” in the amusing filmstrip weren’t so amusing when you consider that even worse punishments than the ones depicted in the propaganda filmstrip happened in real life (the ones in the anti-suffragette film were mostly about public shaming, rather than torture, because including the ways that suffragettes were actually treated might have generated public sympathy for them).

This room also contained a lot of signage about the history of women’s suffrage, and though it was pretty wordy, I stuck with it, because it was interesting stuff. I learned a lot about the Pankhurst family (maybe I’m just being dumb, but for some reason I always thought that Emmeline and Christabel were sisters, and Sylvia was Emmeline’s daughter. So it was nice to finally get the relationships straight – Emmeline was the mother, and Christabel, Sylvia, and the lesser known Adela were all her children, as well as two boys that died fairly young), and the history of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU (from putting together an audio tour of Wimbledon, I knew that we had a WSPU shop, and that during WWI, they decided to focus on the war effort and temporarily put suffrage on the back burner, but I didn’t know much else about it. Turns out that they sold all manner of amazing suffragette merchandise including a board game, these rad Christmas cards, and of course those “Votes for Women” sashes, plus other goods, like soap, to finance their activities).  There was a whole informational poster devoted just to Sylvia, and her typewriter was there too.

Emmeline and her family lived in the house in the early 1900s, and in 1903, the WSPU was founded here. The house was nearly demolished in 1979, but was fortunately saved by protests from women’s groups, and turned into a museum and women’s centre. The back room of the museum is the only one decorated to look as it would have when the Pankhursts lived here – this is meant to be the parlour where the WSPU began (though there was a women’s suffrage movement active in Manchester since 1867 (supported by Emmeline’s husband, Richard) and suffrage groups active nationwide, most groups were more concerned with getting the vote for working class men. It was the WSPU that turned the focus exclusively to women, and started using more radical tactics, such as destruction of property, arson, and hunger strikes).

I was so charmed by this suffragette doll when I saw her in Joy’s post that I had to be sure to grab a photo of her when I was there, and I can report that she is just as delightful in person. The parlour also contains a really neat suffragette handkerchief, and a sign explaining that they have traditionally been able to pay rent on the house using a suffragette sash, so there were a few handmade examples of those in here too.

Naturally, I was hoping there’d be a “Votes for Women” sash available for purchase, because I’d love to have one to wear around the house so I can occasionally break into a Mary Poppins-inspired “Votes for Women, Step in Time” song and dance routine (plus who wouldn’t want a sash? Sashes are great!), but though they had a range of “Votes for Women” merchandise, including aprons and tea towels, alas, there was no sash, so I settled for an enamel pin, which I look forward to wearing. This house, though small, was really nice and informative, and I’m so glad it’s here, both for its history as the birthplace of the WSPU, and the work it does for modern women by serving as a women’s centre. It’s only open for a few hours on Thursdays, and the second and fourth Sundays of each month, but I would definitely recommend stopping by if you can, because I learned a lot about the Pankhursts and the WSPU, and the museum is clearly run by lovely people. I hope they eventually have the resources to expand it a bit, and perhaps acquire more modern signage, but it’s still a delight as is. 3.5/5.