Blog, Women's History

Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared by Professor Senia Paseta

I have spent a good proportion of the last two years curating Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared. This exhibition in the Weston Library, at the Bodelian, Oxford, highlights items from the Bodleian’s holdings which were made, written, owned or commissioned by women. As the Bodleian holds more than 13 million items from across the ages and the globe, one might think that the chief difficulty in curating such an exhibition would be ruling items out rather than in. In fact, I visited a number of departments which could offer me very few (and even in some cases no) suggestions for inclusion. All could offer me representations of women, but items in whose creation women were active agents proved to be much scarcer than I had imagined. Finding objects created by non-elite women, or by women of colour from any class proved to be close to impossible.

On the other hand, what I did see was often much richer than I could ever have imagined. The Bodleian is not particularly well known, for example, for its women’s suffrage materials. As a suffrage historian myself, I had spent more time researching this field in the LSE’s Women’s Library than I had in Oxford. But, the Bodleian in fact holds a large number of remarkable suffrage-related items relating to most of the important sub genres within the field. I found postcards, petitions, minute books, handbills, posters, journals and much, much more. We managed to fill several cases with a wonderful array of suffrage materials, and what is now on display barely scratches the surface of what is available.

The Bodleian’s suffrage materials have not had the attention they deserve for a number of reasons. As one of the world’s greatest research libraries, the Bodleian holds a range of extraordinary collections in whose shadow most items would struggle to shine. The suffrage items are relatively modern, some of them are printed and therefore available in other libraries, and they are mainly scattered throughout various collections and departments. But, there is more to it than this. These are items fundamentally made by and for women, and there is no central manuscript collection to draw on. The minute book of the Oxford Women’s Suffrage Society is one of the most exciting exhibits, not least because such regional records are rare. It is an extraordinary document which tells the story of a determined movement which incorporated town and gown, women and men and regional and national campaigning. It also reveals a good deal about university culture in the early twentieth century. It is held in the Deneke collection, an uncatalogued set of boxes which hold not only the minute book, but a range of suffrage and more broadly women-centered materials. The Deneke sisters were not Pankhursts or similarly well-known suffragists and their papers have escaped cataloguing. Their collection of Oxford-related suffrage ephemera is invaluable to the suffrage historian, but as the suffrage movement itself has not been afforded the significance it deserves by political historians of modern Britain, it has remained largely unstudied.

The format of many of the suffrage items in the exhibition pose their own challenges. Postcards, for example, are central to the suffrage display, but are not as obviously readable or authoritative as printed sources. Some of the postcards in our display, such as one of Clara Mordan, are exceptionally valuable in their own right as they are so rare, but they also collectively provide invaluable clues about strategy, fund raising, reach, marketing and suffrage tactics. They, like the many handbills and posters held in the John Johnson collection, can tell us about modes of organisation, about political education and about forms of political resistance.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Suffragetto, a board game made in around 1907. Suffragetto is beautiful, it’s fun and it’s quite puzzling. We’re not entirely certain when it was made, how popular it was or why only one complete version of it seems to have survived. Yet, it tells us so much about the suffrage movement, more than any number of written records possibly could. As it was made for sale, we can infer that a market existed for suffrage paraphernalia. As playing it involves moving suffragettes and policemen to and from prison, the House of Commons, Albert Hall and the hospital around the board, we can assume that buyers were aware of suffrage strategies and the London locations which were central to their campaigns. It also reveals a great deal about the business side of suffrage, about the marketing and artistic skill of members, about their sense of humour and about the need to continue to raise cash for the movement. The fact that we know so little about a game which seemed to have run to more than one edition also suggests that there may well have been many other such items which have been lost to us. Made by women to fund a women’s political movement, its playful exterior masks a seriousness of purpose and determination. We are lucky to have it and I am not surprised that it has proved to be such an enormous hit.

There are many other wonderful items in the exhibition, each of which will encourage visitors to think not only about what women have done and achieved over the centuries, but also about how we and how our libraries collect and interpret the products of their labours. While we are of course exceptionally fortunate to have manuscripts by Jane Austen, Christine de Pizan and Mary Shelley, a first edition by Mary Wollstonecraft and a book made by Elizabeth I, we are equally fortunate to have records of pirates, of explorers, of criminals, of scientists and of printers. None of these items could be described as typical, or as having been made by ordinary women, but demonstrating the typicality of the women whose work has survived in the Bodleian is not what this exhibition is about. It is about showing how some women managed, often against enormous odds, to overcome two major barriers: the limitations to women’s freedom to produce and the general reluctance to collect or to preserve items made by women. Almost all of the women represented in the exhibition were white and privileged; such structural advantages are clearly grossly unfair, but also partly account for the production and survival of these items. Acknowledging this does not make up for the deep sense of regret over the lack of diversity in the Treasures Gallery. But, it does encourage us to think about how and why some items survived, and to acknowledge that collecting, preserving and displaying are products of their own social and intellectual contexts, and drivers of them too.


Senia Paseta is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and co-Director of Women in the Humanities:
She is a historian of modern Ireland with a particular interest in the history of women, education, religious identity formation and political movements and ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.