Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

It used to be that we attended exhibitions and treated ourselves to the catalogue in the shop on the way out. Now, it’s more a case of getting hold of the catalogues of shows we’ve not been able to get to and supporting the exhibitors by doing so. This substantial book is a treat in its own right, and while it would have been great to see the pieces in question in real life, there are so many fascinating illustrations, it really is almost like having been there.

The introduction explains the origin of the exhibition in a 1990 project to produce a Women’s Studies guide to the British Library’s collections, which inspired new collections being acquired by the BL, including Virago Books’ archive and the Women’s Liberation Oral History Project. Their Votes for Women archive for example has a much-visited website, so the exhibition gathered together materials they already had. Then, the centenary of the first women gaining the vote in 2018 provided the context for a major exhibition – although the editors remind us in the preface that the fight for women’s rights is far from over.

The book is divided into three sections: Body, Mind and Voice, with deep essays on various topics from a wide range of writers (one man writes about “Men in Feminism?” in the Voice section). I was pleased to find the veteran writer on feminist history, Sheila Rowbotham, as a contributor, but there are also younger, less well-known writers including women and a non-binary writer of different backgrounds and ethnicities. Polly Russell in the introduction explains why this structure was chosen:

The Body, Mind Voice structure recognises that to live a fully realised life, people must be able to choose how to use, experience and express their bodies, minds and voices. This choice, for many women today and in the past, has been denied.

I don’t have space to discuss every essay but will pull out a few to discuss. Looking at the Body section first, Professor Anita Biressi’s piece on “Framing Women” looks at images of women, especially feminists and activists, including stories of suffragettes with disabilities and their portrayal and contrasting women’s strong and subversive images of themselves with medial images from the other side. Angela Saini and Dr Juliet Jacques write powerfully in this section about gender roles and identities.

In the Mind section, Dr Laura Carter writes about the fight for access to equal education from the 18th century onwards. Professor Ann Phoenix discusses in “Reimagining Education” the moves towards feminism and intersectionality in books, highlighting the Nippers series of children’s books from New Beacon Books and other contributions by Black women activists in inclusive work – also talking about boys’ and men’s exclusionary experiences – up to the foundation and continuation of the Black Cultural Archives in London. Professor Pamela Cox’s piece on women’s rights at work has some fantastic images from unions and demonstrations to accompany her history of women in work in the 20th century. Dr Sumita Mukherjee’s essay “Race, Publicness and Imperial Feminism” explores women of colour’s political activism in empire.

Moving to the final, Voice, section, there’s a wonderful essay by Professor Sasha Roseneil tracing women’s protest over the past 150 years, with brilliant images from Greenham Common, for example, set in the context of women’s organisation and activism. Dr D-M Withers writes in “Recovering Traditions, Inspiring Action” about the way women have “politicised the act of recovering and documenting their histories, connecting generations and celebrating foremothers”. They show how modern organisations draw on such foremothers, like pan-Africanist Claudia Jones who died in 1964 and was celebrated by the Camden Black Sisters Group, among others, who produced a leaflet and held an exhibition, as well as describing the groundswell of often community activist events around the suffrage centenary in 2018. Dr Mercedes Aguirre covers the topic of recovering women’s writing succinctly, too.

Scattered among the essays are pages celebrating organisations the editors have chosen to highlight, from the gal-dem collective of young women and non-binary people of colour through Bloody Good Period to Women for Refugee Women – so there’s lots to explore further and the book acts as a stepping-off point towards those people doing good and important work now.

The wealth of illustrations is superb and the ephemera and grey literature that have been saved, archived and presented are marvellous. On one page spread you might find the front cover of the journal Reproductive Health Matters, the 1980s Lesbian Custody Charter on a typewritten page and a reproduction of an 1857 painting by Emily Mary Osborn; on another, there is an image of a 1978 Wages for Housework Campaign publication, a 1982 photograph of the English Collective of Prostitutes with an MP, and a modern T-shirt from the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement.

As befits a solid, substantial book like this, as well as the marvellous essays and illustrations and comprehensive index, we have a preface by the editors, notes on the contributors, a map of listings and letters in Spare Rib (with an illustrative example of two towns and a website to visit for the full experience), and an afterword by Margaretta Jolly noting that most of the fights are not completed, calling for practical action, discussing literature that looked or looks into women’s futures and finally mulling over what a similar exhibition held in 100 years’ time would look like. In a hugely deep and wide book like this, there was obviously an intention to include as much material as humanly possible. In carrying out this intention, the only criticism I have at all of the book is of the book as an object: the font is really small and quite difficult on the Older Eye (even with its varifocals; a large-print guide is provided digitally at the exhibition but there’s no e-book of the book at the moment).

The Unfinished Business exhibition was originally planned to run until 21 February 2021. The BL are planning to extend it until August, lockdown permitting, and there are some online spaces and events to visit – information at https://www.bl.uk/events/unfinished-business.

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Liz Dexter misses going to exhibitions, the British Library and, in fact, London! She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly (eds.), Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (British Library, 2020). 978-0712353953, 238 pp., ill., hardback.

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