Cooks and Campaigners

Catherine Redfern visits the exhibition in the new Women's Library in London

, 16 May 2002

“Cooks and Campaigners” is the first exhibition to feature in the new Women’s Library (formerly the Fawcett Library), in the newly refurbished Wash Houses near Aldgate East tube station. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the new Library contains all manner of publications relevant to feminism and women’s lives, a fascinating archive of historical and modern documents, a cafe and an exhibition space. The Women’s Library “exists to document and explore women’s lives in Britain, in the past, now and in the future.” The library was established in 1926 and has come through some troubled times before ending up in this swanky new premises, which everyone is obviously extremely proud of.

The inaugural exhibition, Cooks and Campaigners, aims to show a brief cross-section of the collections held by the Library. To do this, around 50 famous people (including Cherie Booth, Janet Street-Porter, Bonnie Greer, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) have chosen “favourite items” for display and have made a few relevant comments which are juxtaposed alongside them. The exhibition, therefore, covers a wide variety of subjects and includes items from the early 20th century to the present day.

The Library is particularly proud of its suffragette collection. One wall is hung with beautiful embroidered banners, held high by women as they marched along the streets. This comes under the heading of “Campaigning” – and amongst other things, this section also includes letters to Millicent Fawcett, a tea-set branded with the logo of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and other ephemera such as a tiny purse belonging to the suffragette who famously threw herself under the horse and died. There are plenty of posters here too, also from the early twentieth century. It’s exciting seeing the originals of images I know so well up on the walls – the horrible image of the suffragette being held down by prison guards and force-fed through a tube, and the poster showing a woman behind bars with the text “Convicts and lunatics have no vote for parliament – should all women be classed with these?” What a rich history we have.

Another theme was the issue of Law – with a major contribution by Cherie Booth – showing details of a prominent early female lawyer, who fought for the right to keep her maiden name. The exhibition also covers the areas of Work (looking mainly at campaigns for equal pay), Fashion & Lifestyle, Cookery, and Health.

Alongside the prominent early material, there are also posters and publications dating from more recent times. I peered through the glass case at a 1972 issue of Spare Rib – I have never seen a ‘real’ copy before (oh hallowed, mystical publication!). There are other magazines on display that I’d also vaguely heard of such as Shocking Pick (a one-time feminist mag for young women, I believe), juxtaposed with mainstream mags like Jackie (open at a particularly cheesy black & white photo-story). The exhibition case for Fashion contained issues of Vogue, Frank, Cosmopolitan, and something very eighties-looking called Bitch.

I particularly loved the display of posters that were sort-of hidden away in an off-shoot ‘contemporary’ room. There were some great things here from more recent history such as a very striking poster advertising Spare Rib – two arms stretching upwards, the hands making the ‘womb’ symbol, black and white, a great image. There were other great posters such as one for the Greenham Common protest, another about abortion rights, and so on. Many of these expressed a great sense of humour. “They say marriage is a bed of roses…” said one. “But – beware of the pricks.”

Alongside the stuff you could class as ‘feminist,’ there are also things from mainstream culture. Some are really odd, such as a copy of Barbara Cartland’s book “Recipies for Lovers,” which contains the vomit-inducing menu for a “Pink Dinner: a lovely way of celebrating the first time you met or the first time you made love.” There are other things like a 1940 issue of “Housewife” magazine.

The exhibition includes a video of a black & white 40s/50s film called “To Be a Woman” (I think that was what it was called) which is definitely worth a watch for its cutting humour and sarcasm, especially coming from the oh-so-Home Counties plummy accent of the female narrator. The film was made to put across the argument for equal pay for women, and presents a crushing defence against some of the possible objections to the idea.

Overall, the exhibition is worth a look. It closes in mid-July so you’ll have to get a move on! But perhaps it will inspire you to take a closer look at the collections held by the Library, and give you a sense of all the amazing history we UK women need to embrace and re-aquaint ourselves with. If you miss it, you can always pick up a book from the Library for “4.00 which contains a compilation of images from the exhibition, or alteranatively, purchase some postcards featuring some of the posters.

Catherine Redfern is editor of The F-Word.

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