Unfinished Business, British Library, review: highlighting the humour, wit and tenacity of the feminist movement

Lucy Davies
·3 min read
 Caroline Lucas in the Houses of Parliament, 2013
Caroline Lucas in the Houses of Parliament, 2013

When I think of feminism, it is usually of its razzle dazzle chapters – the bloody battle for the vote in Edwardian Britain, for instance, or the great wave of optimism that untied apron strings in suburban Seventies America.

Pivotal moments, yes, when the movement gathered pace and progress seemed a given, but in point of fact merely two flashpoints in what is a much wider, longer and – crucially – still very much unfolding story.

How could the curators of Unfinished Business have known when they began planning this absorbing and adept little exhibition three years ago, the extent to which their theme would meet the moment? Both pandemic and Black Lives Matter have thrown the structural inequalities of society – particularly where women are concerned – into newly sharp relief.

The exhibition is precisely designed to connect present-day debate with the rich history of women’s campaigning, and cleverly laid out so that one moves with ease back and forward in time, as the matter at hand requires.

A costume inspired by the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (used on a recent women’s march) gains serious voltage in proximity to Dr Isaac Baker Brown’s 1866 treatise detailing the clitoridectomies he performed on women to cure them of insanity (without patient consent, though their husbands were all for it), and an 1881 letter from Charles Darwin in which the Victorian naturalist asserts that women had evolved to be the intellectual inferiors of men.

A Southall Black Sisters banner designed by Shakila Taranum Maan - Southall Black Sisters
A Southall Black Sisters banner designed by Shakila Taranum Maan - Southall Black Sisters

The oldest objects on display date from the 1700s (a surgeon’s drawing of a woman’s skeleton with a tiny skull and vast, come-hither hips) and a beautifully foxed first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

It’s been several decades since I last read Wollstonecraft, and I had forgotten her now problematic analogies to slavery. Abolitionism was at the forefront of public debate at the time, which is some sort of defence, but, as is made carefully clear here, feminist rhetoric of a certain time is riddled with racialised language.

Indeed, the exhibition pays acute attention to the fact that, while for some women feminism has been a buoyant sanctuary, for women of colour and working-class women, it was hierarchical and patronising. Christabel Pankhurst’s newspaper Britannia, for instance, explicitly aligns women with the imperial project. And the American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton openly expressed concerns about enfranchising African-Americans. Rights for women, then, but only if you were white and British.

It’s not all grim. There is much to be charmed by too. The women’s self-defence guide from the Forties, for instance (includes “the cinema hold” to repel wandering hands), and I loved the diary kept by domestic servant Grace Higgins, who cooked, cleaned, washed, sewed and helped host parties for the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant for half a century. 

Fence wire from Greenham Common - The British Library Board
Fence wire from Greenham Common - The British Library Board

I was also moved by the clever placing of newsreel footage from the Seventies showing British school girls at play. “Women’s Lib” might have been in full swing then, but the lag between it and the world these girls were destined to encounter remained huge. Just look at the photograph of a contemporaneous ad for Fiat nearby: “If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched”. Such joy to see the retort graffitied underneath: “If this lady was a car she’d run you down”. 

Which brings me to the heart of the matter. This show could so easily have ended up a dutiful, weary-making dredge of the innumerable and heinous injustices done to women over the centuries. Instead, though – and all praise to the curators for it – the display foregrounds the humour, wit and tenacity with which women have fought back against those injustices; each generation, group or figurehead a touch-paper for the next. 

Until Feb 21. Tickets: 01937 546546; bl.uk