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