Sap­pho to Suf­frage

The Trea­sury, We­ston Li­brary, Bodleian Li­brary, Ox­ford Show­ing un­til: 3 Fe­bru­ary 2019

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - Re­view by Theresa Thomp­son

Women who dared is the strap line of the Bodleian Li­braries’ ex­hi­bi­tion at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford that runs through­out 2018 – and what a lot those three words con­vey. Show­ing more than 80 items, Sap­pho

to Suf­frage: Women who dared is a com­pelling ex­hi­bi­tion that show­cases the ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries, in­sights and achieve­ments of ‘women who dared’ across the mil­len­nia and across dis­ci­plines.

The ex­hi­bi­tion marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Peo­ple Act in 1918, which en­abled all men over the age of 21 and some women aged over 30 to vote for the first time.

From the arts to sciences to po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ers, from fe­male sci­en­tists to au­thors, from ac­tivists to com­posers to pho­tog­ra­phers, and even a pi­rate, the range of in­cred­i­ble women cel­e­brated here is so great that it’s hard to know where to be­gin.

So, for now let’s just bow to a few of those names, some il­lus­tri­ous and some not as much. Lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies such as Mary Shel­ley and Jane Austen, ground-break­ing sci­en­tists such as the nat­u­ral­ist artist Maria Sibylla Me­rian and French royal mid­wife Louise Bour­geois, pho­to­graphic pi­o­neer Ju­lia Mar­garet Cameron, and po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ers like Emily Hob­house and Mary Woll­stonecraft – to name but a few...

And then take a look at some of what’s on show. Im­pos­si­ble choices, of course, choos­ing be­tween things like Ada Lovelace’s 19th-cen­tury notes on math­e­mat­ics, Florence Nightin­gale’s let­ter es­pous­ing ‘char­ac­ter’ as a pre­req­ui­site for any nurse, Mary Shel­ley’s hand­writ­ten first draft of Franken­stein, and the hand­i­work of the eleven-year-old Princess (later Queen) El­iz­a­beth, a New Year’s gift to her step­mother, Kather­ine Parr, on 31 De­cem­ber 1544.

Among the ban­ners, texts, me­dieval book bind­ings, pho­to­graphs, posters, let­ters, mu­si­cal scores on dis­play there is a board game that will prob­a­bly be new to most vis­i­tors: it’s the only known sur­viv­ing ver­sion of Suf­fragetto, pro­duced by the mil­i­tant Bri­tish Women’s So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Union (WSPU) to raise money for the suf­fragette cam­paign. To play the game, play­ers vie to get their pieces into squares rep­re­sent­ing the Al­bert Hall and the House of Com­mons.

There are also frag­ments of Sap­pho’s po­etry on dis­play, writ­ten on pa­pyrus in the 2nd cen­tury BCE and to­day cel­e­brat­ing one of the ear­li­est per­sonal voices of world lit­er­a­ture. In her poems – known only through frag­ments; th­ese were found in ex­ca­va­tions of the rub­bish dumps at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in around 1896 – Sap­pho cel­e­brates love and beauty as greater than all the armies of Homer.

An ad­vo­cate of women’s ed­u­ca­tion, philoso­pher Mary Astell (1666–1731) is rep­re­sented here by her most cel­e­brated work, A Se­ri­ous Pro­posal to the Ladies in which she urges women to as­pire to the life of the mind.

And among the sto­ries of lesser-known fe­male pi­o­neers told in this ex­hi­bi­tion, I warmed to that of two 19th-cen­tury women whose ex­cep­tional lives took them to far off places.

Mar­jorie Scott Wardrop (1869–1909) was a pi­o­neer­ing scholar and trans­la­tor of Ge­or­gian. But hers was a ca­reer ini­ti­ated by pique. While her Bri­tish diplo­mat brother en­joyed a ful­fill­ing ca­reer, study­ing at Ox­ford, and liv­ing in Ge­or­gia, she had no such op­por­tu­ni­ties, lament­ing in a let­ter

...from fe­male sci­en­tists to au­thors, from ac­tivists to com­posers to pho­tog­ra­phers, and even a pi­rate, the range of in­cred­i­ble women cel­e­brated here is so great that it’s hard to know where to be­gin

to him in 1894: ‘I have got to stay home just do­ing noth­ing when I ought to be liv­ing, learn­ing and work­ing’. Un­de­terred, she taught her­self Ge­or­gian and trav­elled to the coun­try, even­tu­ally be­com­ing revered there for her schol­ar­ship and cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal work. A trans­la­tor of epic Ge­or­gian texts into English, her favourite verse held that: ‘the lion’s cubs are equal, whether male or fe­male’.

Suf­frag­ist and so­cial re­former Emily Hob­house is best known for her work in South Africa. Like many lib­er­als she was op­posed to the An­glo-Boer War, and hear­ing re­ports that Boer women and chil­dren were be­ing forced by Bri­tish pol­icy into refugee camps (in ef­fect, con­cen­tra­tion camps), in late 1900 she trav­elled to South Africa to dis­cover the facts for her­self. She worked with lo­cal women, recorded and pho­tographed the squalid con­di­tions, and wrote a re­port that led to a storm of in­dig­na­tion in Eng­land and ame­lio­ra­tion of some of the de­pri­va­tions. She is still revered in South Africa for her hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tiv­i­ties.

Some women who dared lived deeply un­con­ven­tional lives. Like the 18th- cen­tury mav­er­icks Anne Bonny and Mary Read, fa­mous for be­com­ing pi­rates and for be­ing ‘very prof­li­gate... and ready and will­ing to do any­thing on board’, and Mary Lacy who, aged 18, stole a set of men’s clothes and ran away to sea. Tak­ing the name Wil­liam Chan­dler and serv­ing a ship­wright’s ap­pren­tice­ship (in 1763), when fi­nally forced by rheuma­tism to re­tire, she was awarded a pen­sion, re­vealed her sex, and pub­lished the ex­tra­or­di­nary au­to­bi­og­ra­phy on show. She was prob­a­bly the first woman to have been given a pen­sion for her ser­vice to the Bri­tish Ad­mi­ralty.

But above all, as you would ex­pect, the ex­hi­bi­tion pays trib­ute to the cam­paign for fe­male suf­frage. Ex­plor­ing events at both na­tional and lo­cal level, it in­cludes for in­stance ban­ners and no­tices from the Ox­ford branch of the Na­tional Union of Women’s Suf­frage So­ci­eties (the NUWSS, also known as suf­frag­ists, were com­mit­ted to cam­paign­ing us­ing peace­ful means), a pe­ti­tion by the Birken­head and Dis­trict Women’s Suf­frage So­ci­ety, and an edi­tion of Votes for Women, the Women So­cial & Po­lit­i­cal Union (WSPU)’s news­pa­per. First pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 1907, it ran monthly then weekly un­til ceas­ing pub­li­ca­tion fol­low­ing the 1918 Qual­i­fi­ca­tion of Women Act.

Far left: Ju­lia Mar­garet Cameron, por­trait of a girl Left: The Suf­fragetto board game was pro­duced by the WSPU to raise money for their cam­paign. The Bodleian holds the only known sur­viv­ing copy of this game, do­nated by Richard Bal­lam in 2016 Below: A photo post­card show­ing Mrs Drum­mond, a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the WSPU, in a boat out­side the House of Com­mons invit­ing MPs to at­tend the 1908 Hyde Park demon­stra­tion All images © Bodleian Li­brary, Ox­ford

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