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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. 

It was Sidney Webb, not Beatrice, who first supported women’s suffrage. Photo: Getty
It was Sidney Webb, not Beatrice, who first supported women’s suffrage. Photo: Getty

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.