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Unfinished Business is the appropriate title of a new exhibition at the British Library about women’s rights

29 October, 2020 — By Jane Clinton

Southall Black Sisters banner

IN 1811 a novel was anonymously published, the title page stating simply that it was written “By a Lady”. That author would go on to inspire and delight the world over.

It was Jane Austen and the book was Sense and Sensibility (her debut), a first edition of which is part of a new British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights.

Mary Ann Evans goes a step further in her bid for anonymity by taking on the name of a man, and a handwritten draft of Middlemarch (1871-72) by her using her pseudonym, George Eliot, is also on display.

Among the other influential books exhibited is one of the founding works of feminist philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.

Alongside these titles are personal diaries, banners, protest fashion, subversive literature, film, music and art.

There is a piece of Greenham Common wire fence that was cut by writer Angela Carter’s friends and sent to her as a present.

There are protest poems written by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst on toilet paper from Holloway Prison where she was imprisoned for seditious activity in January 1921.

The wire from Greenham Common

There is also the “No More Page Three” T-shirt worn by the Green MP Caroline Lucas in a 2013 debate in the Houses of Parliament.

While the fight for women’s rights and voices to be heard continues to be arduous, in the BAME community this is particularly so and is reflected in some of the items in the exhibition.

There is a copy of The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, which was the first account of the life of a black woman published in Britain. It was related by herself and transcribed and edited by white abolitionists and appeared in 1831.

Surveillance records on Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, one of Queen Victoria’s goddaughters who used her status to support campaigns for women’s suffrage in the UK, as well as her handwritten diary from 1907, are a fascinating insight into the life of an activist.

In the 1934 edition of the Women’s Who’s Who, Princess Sophia described her life’s purpose as “the advancement of women”.
Her achievements were undeniable, yet few today would know her name.

A copy of Beryl Gilroy’s book, A Visitor from Home, from 1973 is on display. Gilroy was one of the first black headteachers in the UK – she was headteacher at Beckford School in West Hampstead in 1969 – and this book is an example of her stories that black, Asian and minority ethnic children in Britain could relate to. A novelist and poet, she was also a co-founder in 1979 of Camden Black Sisters.

Caroline Lucas MP in the Commons. Photo: BBC

In 1988 Camden Black Sisters published a booklet on another prominent Camden figure, Claudia Jones, and this is included in the exhibition. Jones was instrumental in the civil rights struggle in the UK and in 1958 founded Britain’s first major black newspaper, West Indian Gazette. She also established the Caribbean Carnival.

This exhibition is divided into three parts: Body, Mind and Voice.

Each themed section starts with a contemporary activist organisation then explores the history behind the issues their campaigns tackle.

Campaigns featured include those by gal-dem, Bloody Good Period, Now for Northern Ireland, STEMettes, United Voices of the World, the Fawcett Society, Women for Refugee Women, Glasgow Women’s Library and LDComics.

Banners from the Southall Black Sisters designed by Shakila Taranum Maan are deeply affecting. One from 2018 has the words: “HATE is your weapon, COURAGE is ours.”

Another from 2008 by the same designer brings home the struggle with the words: “Let’s put race back into equality”.

In addition to the exhibition, there are a number of supplementary events including digital events, book and pop-up panels in a selection of UK libraries as well as a 10-part podcast series. There is an accompanying book with newly commissioned essays that explore topics such as gender fluidity, the right to sexual pleasure, and black women’s access to education.

In the free exhibition gallery, nine self-portraits created by Gambian-British artist Khadija Saye, who tragically died in the Grenfell fire, are also on display.

Dr Polly Russell, lead curator of the exhibition, believes the pandemic has made the fight for women’s rights as necessary as ever.

“While never far from the headlines, women’s rights have taken centre stage over recent months with coronavirus throwing issues such as reproductive rights and domestic violence into sharp relief,” she says. “This moment reminds us that women’s rights are, indeed, unfinished business.”

  • Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB until February 21, 2021. Tickets must be booked online in advance at www.bl.uk/events/unfinished-business

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