My job as Managing Director of a company that serves libraries has provided me with the opportunity to visit libraries and attend conferences, both in the UK and internationally. Inevitably, as I look around, I reflect on the role that women play in the profession. Female librarians, cataloguers, assistants, managers, volunteers, directors and heads of service help sustain our libraries. But enabling women over the past 100 years to adopt such a prominent role in librarianship and, increasingly, in other professions, is due to the efforts of women, some famous, some infamous and many unknown, to whom we owe a huge debt.
I was reminded of this during my recent visit to The Women’s Library collection and its associated exhibition, “The Sacred Year 1919, Women and Professions”. While the collection documents women’s suffrage and subsequent fight for equality with men, the exhibition highlighted the fact that merely a century ago women were barred from professions and needed an Act of Parliament to allow them to participate fully in society. Voting is the first step; being able to work and rise through work is a more significant leap.The Women’s Library is a collection forming part of the London School of Economics Library. It is the UK’s main library and museum resource on women and the Women's Movement, concentrating on Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, a remarkable and invaluable resource, a resource with its own history of advances and setbacks that mirror the struggles to which it bears witness.
Originally housed in a converted public house in Marsham Street, Westminster, The Library of the London Society for Women’s Service was built around a library founded in 1909 by Ruth Cavendish Bentinck and incorporated a café and a lecture theatre. The inaugural librarian, Vera Douie, who remained in post for 41 years from 1926, turned the library into a major resource with an international reputation. "I think it is almost the only satisfactory deposit for stray guineas," wrote Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, suggesting not only the estimation in which the author held the library but also its ongoing need for funding.
Douie found innovative and sometimes cheeky ways to expand the collection. She wrote to authors requesting copies of books, including Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. When GBS refused, Douie auctioned his letter of refusal and purchased Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with the proceeds. On 26 March 1941, Douie wrote Woolf a letter in praise of her biography of Roger Fry and requested two more books for the library collection. This time, tragically, Douie’s oft used strategy failed; Woolf, one of the library’s greatest supporters, had drowned herself in the river Ouse before the letter was delivered to Monk’s House.
During World War Two the library suffered bomb damage, and it had no permanent home until 1957, when it moved to a site near Victoria Railway Station. Renamed The Fawcett Library, it was taken over by the City of London Polytechnic, later London Guildhall University. The library spent nearly 25 years in a cramped basement liable to flooding yet increased its stock, users and connections.
A Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £4.2 million in 1998 enabled the University to move the Library into a renovated wash house, a former place of women's labour, in Old Castle Street, Aldgate, in the East End of London. It opened to the public in 2002. Ten years later, despite its great popularity and successful programme of events and guided tours, offering public talks, film showings, reading groups, short courses, and working with schools and community groups, the University attempted to find a new home for the library's holdings.
Bids were invited from interested institutions, with the proposal of the London School of Economics accepted and the transfer completed by 2013. Today, The Women’s Library @ LSE, as it is now known, seems secure; it has been kept whole, enjoys a dedicated reading room and archival space and has UNESCO Memory of the World recognition. It is the guardian of personal archives of figures such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Cartland, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Claire Rayner, and it houses the archives of organisations and campaigns such as the Fawcett Society, the Artists' Suffrage League, Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, the International Alliance of Women, and Gingerbread, to name but a few that have shaped the role and perception of women over the past 100 years.
Some of the fascinating items that form the collection have been laid out for me to see first-hand by Dr Gillian Murphy. Books, papers and artefacts, brooches, sashes and badges, letters, posters associated with famous and infamous events lie before me. It is moving to be confronted by the shocking realities surrounding one’s own sex in recent history, a history much of which my colleagues at BDS and I have lived through. We are accustomed to making decisions about our own destiny, but others paid a higher price for that privilege. I am looking at the purse of Emily Wilding Davison who died by diving under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, 8th June 1913, in the cause for women’s suffrage.
Accompanied by Gillian, I move from early protest towards the present day. Colour-coded suffragette scarves and brooches enabled women to surreptitiously declare their allegiance to the cause; playing cards, sold to raise money, remind gamers of more lofty goals on the reverse side of the Knave or the King; minutes from a meeting of the Women’s Liberation Workshop, 2nd May, 1969 asks: “Will anyone with contacts with other women’s groups please let them know about 11 May meeting? LSE already contacted. Who volunteered to reach Essex?”
A medal from the early days of the struggle resembles the medals bestowed upon men to honour valour in the First World War and the work in the sashes is careful, studied, what one might expect from a liberally educated woman from a well-to-do background; more recent items from the 60s and 80s have a radical, underground slant – type written notes, line drawings of protest, black and white photographs. The changes in style bear witness to societal and political changes within which the struggle was couched but the message remains.
There are hand-written notes planning the flour-bomb demonstration at Miss World in 1970. I am sure many readers will remember that televised event from the Royal Albert Hall. Another letter from 1992 discusses the forthcoming General Synod vote on the ordination of women and there are posters and notices from the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. The effect, across just a few tables of displayed items, is to see women’s history as not a series of random demonstrations or protests but as a struggle, a continuing effort to this day, for equality between the sexes.
Before I set off to visit the stacks, reading room and finally the exhibition space, Gillian has one last book to show me, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. The remarkably well-preserved pages seem like an enlightened point of departure for women’s struggles, disappointments and victories that have since followed.
The Women’s Library @ LSE and its associated exhibition space at the entrance of the LSE Library gives this struggle recognition and cogency while bearing witness to its remarkable passion, or, as Mary Wollstonecraft herself put it, women’s struggle “not to have power over men, but over themselves.”
The Library is open 8 a.m. until midnight; to check current opening hours visit www.lse.ac.uk/library
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Find out more about The Women’s Library at www.lse.ac.uk/library/collections/collection-highlights/the-womens-library