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Sappho to Suffrage: Women who dared

This latest exhibition at The University of Oxford not only marks the centenary of British women gaining the right to vote, but also celebrates the achievements of many extraordinary ‘women who dared’ from around the world, and over the centuries. And, what a lot those three words, 'women who dared', convey ...

Mrs Drummond, a prominent member of the WSPU, takes to the river to invite MPs to attend the 1908 Hyde Park demonstration. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Showing more than 80 items, Sappho to Suffrage: Women who dared is a compelling exhibition that showcases extraordinary stories, insights and achievements. 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 pirates, 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.

The Suffragetto board game was produced by the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) to raise money for their campaign.Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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.

Fragments of poems by Sappho, who celebrated love and beauty as greater than all the armies of Homer. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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 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.

Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were convicted in 1720. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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 any thing 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 as 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 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.

Finally, while visiting the Bodleian’s exhibition, you may like to look out for the ‘Shout Out For Women’ trail in Oxford city centre, which highlights women represented within the collections of Oxford University’s gardens, libraries and museums.

For example, the Museum of the History of Science has on show Mary Senex’s Celestial Globe (1738), an astrolabe similar to the one made by astrolabe-maker, Mariam al-Asturlabi, in 9th century Syria, and Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin’s model for the structure of penicillin (1945). While at the Ashmolean Museum you can see a ceremonial flint knife from c.3200-3300 BCE discovered at excavations at Hierakonpolis in Egypt where Annie Abernethie Quibell’s artistic skills were put to good use documenting the many finds; Quibell (née Pirie) (1862-1927) had studied at UCL under the famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie. And across at the Pitt Rivers Museum is a Lower Palaeolithic stone hand axe tip excavated in Palestine by a team of mostly women, including women from local villages, led by anthropologist Dorothy Garrod; Garrod studied anthropology at the University of Oxford in 1921 at a time when there were only a few women students; and she was the first person to use aerial photography as an archaeological tool.


Sappho to Suffrage: Women who dared

The Treasury, Weston Library, Bodlieian Library, Oxford

Showing until 3 February 2019

For more information CLICK HERE


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