Placards loaned by Bishopsgate Institute for Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library (credit Bishopsgate Institute)
Artillery Row

Unfinished Business at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition on feminism is like being hit with a rolled-up copy of Spare Rib

When you first go into Unfinished Business, the British Library’s new exhibition on feminism, you find placards and posters; a picture of a Dump Trump march; a handmade placard saying “Grab ‘Em by the Patriarchy”; a wordier contemporary version runs, “Privilege is When You think something is not a Problem, Because It’s not a Problem to You Personally”.

Banners loaned from Southall Black Sisters, Bishopsgate Institute, People’s History Museum, Sisters Uncut, Feminist Archive South

You get the picture: protest and activism are what this is about. And what’s Unfinished about the Business? The introductory panel tells us, “not all women enjoy the same rights, depending on their race, class, ability, sexuality or the way they express their identity. The fight for a better world is unfinished business”.

So, there you go. This exhibition isn’t just about women’s rights: throw in trans, black, lesbian and class issues too. Which means that the show is a bit of a hotch-potch. There’s a lot of campaign literature and seventies feminist periodicals. There are posters of Southall Black Sisters next to the uniform of a Caribbean nurse and, just below, the memoirs of Mary Anne Seacole. I am not entirely sure how the latter would have regarded the Southall collective, but I’m pretty sure that she’d have taken a dim view.

Modified dress c.1880s on loan from the Janie Lightfoot Textile Archive for Unfinished Business exhibition (credit Janie Lightfoot Textile Archive)

Some items are recent: the section on body consciousness includes a Daily Mail headline that “The Legs Won It” over a commentary by Sarah Vine about a picture of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May with their legs on display, and there’s the latest Vogue cover, showing a chunky Serena Williams.

There isn’t enough space allocated to the women who weren’t feminist

Two thirds of the exhibits are from the Library’s own extraordinary holdings. As ever the problem is to make letters, small books and handwritten material look visually exciting. The brilliant little Hebrew manuscripts exhibition (worth a visit) in the room next to Unfinished Business shows how to do that well. This show struggles with its material in the enormous space it occupies, especially since some of it handmade (some periodicals, plus a nice little stamp section). The problem of filling the space is partly met with banners and textile work: there’s a patchwork of vulvas in a range of exciting colours that visitors will struggle to forget, and a large ceramic dildo and a big sparkly tampon. Then there’s a symbolic shawl – spiderwebs crocheted by women at Greenham Common.

Replica of a 19th‑century dildo on loan from Sammy Roddick (photo credit David Jensen)

But, if you persist, there are some interesting pieces. There’s a beautifully handwritten letter to Marie Stopes from a young mother who wants to prevent another pregnancy to avoid getting beaten by her jealous husband – next to it there are various scary-looking contraceptive devices that Marie Stopes promoted. There’s a letter from Charles Darwin to an American lady who took exception to his views on women’s intelligence, and her reply. There’s a poem by Sylvia Pankhurst written on prison loo paper. There’s a diary of an anti-suffragist describing how the meeting she attended was disrupted by the suffragettes – the exhibition doesn’t quite point out that the women opposed to female suffrage probably outnumbered the radicals.

My daughter (who is 13 and terrifically woke) really liked the exhibition

In fact, there isn’t enough space allocated to the women who weren’t feminist; you’d think, looking at the section on abortion (it’s pegged to a group who campaigned for extending abortion to Northern Ireland) that all women are, were, in favour; not so). Mind you, the show doesn’t gloss over problematic aspects of early pioneers. We are reminded that Marie Stopes was an enthusiast for eugenics and under a lovely picture of Sylvia Pankhurst with her illegitimate baby the curators note that her suffragette mother never spoke to her after his birth.

Nurse’s uniform, belt buckle and pin‑badges (1960) on loan from Beverley Chapman (photo credit David Jensen)

As the curator, Polly Russell, points out, each of the sub-sections could have been expanded to an entire exhibition. I liked the pretty dress that an Edwardian girl improvised to enable her to ride her bicycle safely – the bicycle did much to promote the independence of young females – though the rational dress movement did include men too (think George Bernard Shaw in Jaeger underclothing).

Inevitably, how you react to this exhibition depends on how you feel about feminism. My daughter – who is 13 and terrifically woke – really liked it; I, on the other hand, felt sometimes as if I were being hit with a rolled-up copy of Spare Rib.

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, British Library Fri 23 Oct 2020 – Wed 24 Feb 2021, £15.

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