It was Sidney Webb, not Beatrice, who first supported women’s suffrage. Photo: Getty
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The Women’s Library: a treasure house of women’s literature

The LSE recently took over custodianship of the Women’s Library, which houses everything from Emily Wilding to Barbara Cartland and has close links to Beatrice and Sidney Webb. 

On 12 June 1912, Sidney Webb wrote to Ruth Cavendish Bentinck, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, about his own long-standing support for the cause. On the second page he permitted himself a little domestic joke: “My wife bids me add – I have converted her!”

By this point, Beatrice Webb’s supposed opposition to women’s suffrage was well known. In 1889, she put her name to an open letter in the journal the Nineteenth Century titled “An Appeal Against Female Suffrage”. She believed the movement’s focus was too narrow and that true equality could be achieved only through wide-sweeping reform.

Whether Sidney did “convert” her is unclear, but there are distinct signs of a change of heart. Just a few months after they founded the New Statesman in April 1913, the Webbs wrote a joint article stating that “the Socialist takes for granted not only an extension of the suffrage to all adults but also the entire removal of artificial disabilities for duty or office”. Her conversion may not have been absolute, though – in November of that same year, she stressed in the pages of this magazine that “the Awakening of Women” was “not mere feminism”. The vote on suffrage was won decades ago, but the conversation that Beatrice started in the NS continues to this day.

The New Statesman was the less well known of the Webbs’ two “children”, as Beatrice termed them in a 1936 diary entry. The other, the London School of Economics, which they co-founded in 1895, recently took over the custodianship of the Women’s Library – a collection of over 60,000 books and 5,000 museum objects, as well as the personal papers of everyone from Emily Wilding Davison to Barbara Cartland.

Seen in the light of this new home, the connection to the location captured by Sidney Webb’s letter to Bentinck becomes rather symbolic – in 1909, Bentinck put together a subscription library of feminist materials that formed the core of what became the Women’s Library.

Naturally, much of the library’s holdings relates to the women’s suffrage movement, including letters and papers from campaigners such as Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. Katie Gliddon’s prison diary, which she wrote in 1912 in the spaces around the verses in her copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works, is a fascinating artefact, as are the tiny purse and return ticket found in Emily Wilding Davison’s pockets after she jumped in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. The collection isn’t by any means focused exclusively on the early 20th century – other highlights include John Dunton’s Ladies Dictionary, published in 1694, and the first ever issue of Spare Rib magazine from 1972.

It is hoped that the LSE will be a permanent home for the Women’s Library, which has had to move more than once in its history. A petition calling for it to remain at its previous location, a converted wash-house in Aldgate, east London, attracted over 12,000 signatures – but London Metropolitan University could no longer afford to run it, and so invited bids from other institutions. Long after the building work was complete, debate raged on in the letter pages of the Guardian.

Yet the passionate response that the move provoked is only to be expected. From the start, the people who have worked on the collection have fought to keep it safe and accessible to the widest possible audience.

The objects and papers are vital for research, of course, but they have come to symbolise something else, too – a feminist outpost in the male-dominated academic sphere. It’s something worth fighting for.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Via David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog
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The dark, forgotten world of British girls’ comics is about to be resurrected

The UK’s most surreal and innovative comic strips have long been gathering dust. As a publisher acquires the archives, they could be heading for a renaissance.

Comics now exert a massive influence on popular culture, yet those that do are almost exclusively drawn from two American publishers, and mostly exist within one genre: Superheroics.

Comics, though, are a medium, not a genre, and, in acquiring this prominence, American superhero comics have obscured almost everything else done in the medium both in the US and elsewhere.

British comics, from publishers like DC Thomson, IPC and Fleetway, rarely involved superheroes, and were traditionally anthologies, with multiple episodic serials running at all times. They were divided by their publishers into three categories, humour comics aimed at younger children (The Beano and The Dandy remain well-known, although only the former still exists), comics aimed at boys (largely war comics, such as Battle, which also incorporated sports stories and science fiction), and titles specifically targeted at older girls.


All scans courtesy of David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog​.

The girls’ titles, particularly, have largely disappeared from common memory, acknowledged only by a handful of enthusiasts. This is odd, as at their peak, they routinely massively outsold the boys’ titles they shared shelf space with.

Bunty (1958-2001) is one of the few girls’ titles to retain any cache, but it had many stablemates and competitors. Some were devoted to straightforward romantic series, and strips with “improving moral messages” (eg. the girl who gets her dream job after helping a blind man out rather than be on time to her interview; it turns out to have been a test).

They also ran features that reflected then contemporary assumptions as to what all girls would/must like (Bunty often had a “cut-out wardrobe” clothes section as its back page), but there was also more variety in tone and content than you might expect.

The Seventies saw the creation of Tammy (1971-84), Jinty (1974-81) and Misty (1978-80). Tammy’s stories were often bleak, and many were variations on the darkest aspects of Cinderella (“Alison All Alone” saw a contemporary girl locked up by step-parents for reasons that are never really articulated).

Jinty ran some relatively normal contemporary school stories, eschewing a jolly hockey sticks angle and pushing something closer to kitchen sink drama (eg. “Pam of Pond Hill”, a Grange Hill-like series set in a comprehensive). But, as time went on, it became darker and odder, running series like John Wagner’s “The Blind Ballerina” (which has been described by acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore as “cynical and possibly actually evil”).

The lack of credits in most comics in this era meant the audience would’ve been largely unaware that their favourite stories, with their almost exclusively female casts were, like “The Blind Ballerina”, largely written and drawn by men.

Misty creator Pat Mills’ recollection is that while the publishers of the time had many women on staff, most of them saw magazines for older girls and women as the more worthwhile publications than comics.


Women who left a significant mark on these male-dominated titles include Jinty editor Mavis Miller, writer Benita Brown (later an author of historical family sagas set in the northeast which could rival Catherine Cookson when it came to being borrowed from public libraries), and Shirley Bellwood whose consistently magnificent covers for Misty – reputedly largely portraits of her own younger self – were responsible for establishing its aesthetic.

Pat Mills intended that Misty would do to, and for, girls’ comics what his own 2000AD had done with boys’ comics. Whereas 2000AD was, and indeed is, the ultimate science fiction anthology book, Misty would be – as its logo of a bat silhouetted against the moon suggested – unapologetically a horror comic.

Typical Misty serials include “The Loving Cup” (a cursed goblet vessel causes women who drink from it to be possessed by Lucrezia Borgia), and “Winner Loses All” (in which a girl sells her soul to Satan to both save her alcoholic father and become a champion showjumper – the horse is cursed, of course).

Then there’s “Screaming Point”, about a hangman who dabbles in diabolic resurrection of his own clients, or Misty’s longest running single story, “Paint it Black”, in which cursed paints cause a girl quite a lot of trouble. More sci-fi than supernatural – but still within the horror remit – was “The Sentinels”, a serial about two tower blocks in contemporary Britain, which simultaneously exist in the real 1970s and in an alternative timeline where the country has been occupied by the Nazis since the 1940s.

If you’re now wondering why these amazing-sounding stories are no longer available to read, here’s the good news: you may very soon be able to. In August, Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD, bought a vast archive of old classic British comics from Egmont UK (the Fleetway and IPC Youth Group archives), which includes all the above material and more.

Rebellion, initially a computer games company known for the Sniper Elite series, bought 2000AD from Fleetway in, well, 2000AD. Fleetway was also the original publisher of Misty, and so on, although they’ve passed through other hands since.

This is oddly reminiscent of the “hatch, match and despatch” process, where a publisher would “merge” a cancelled comic into another they owned, incorporating the most popular characters and strips into the new composite title. This was the process whereby Tammy absorbed both Misty and Jinty as their sales declined. Mills has suggested that, had he had more direct control, Misty would, like 2000AD, still be running today.

Rebellion has already published a single slim volume of two Misty serials (containing the very odd, and very Seventies, reincarnation drama “Moonchild”, and the genuinely horrifying “The Four Faces of Eve”) and more are planned, but may depend on sales of this volume. If I could take this opportunity to call for a public vote in favour of reprinting Tammy’s startling “Karen, the Loneliest Girl in the World” here, I’d be grateful.


Reprints though, should really only be the beginning. With Rebellion having access to the Egmont archive and its intellectual property, could we see films or television series of some of Misty or Jinty’s best series?

With their female leads, strong emotional content, science fiction and horror aspects and political and social angles, it’s hard to deny that much of the content of Misty or a Jinty has a similar appeal to the kind YA books that become billion-dollar film franchises these days, in the exact same way American boys’ comics do.

It is startlingly easy to imagine opening an issue of Misty and finding a forgotten 1970s strip version of Twilight, or seeing The Hunger Games on the centre pages of Jinty. The main difference would be that they’d both be set in Slough.

With a bit of luck, some of the most peculiar, imaginative and challenging work in British comics could soon be raised from the dead in a new century and in a different form entirely, and then go on to dominate the world. Which, rather appropriately, sounds like something out of Misty.