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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition