A room of their own

Does Posh Spice deserve a place in an archive of female suffrage alongside Mary Wollstonecraft? Rich

"Is there a sense in which you can say a library . . . has gender?" Antonia Byatt, director of the new Women's Library, looked at me steadily. "It's a building," she replied. "Buildings don't have a gender."

I pressed her. "But do you think there might be something in the way . . . experience . . . is captured . . . enfolded here . . . as if memory itself has the properties of fabric . . . like linens?"

Antonia demurred. She had rather a lot to do in the week before opening, so she left me in the elegant reading room, beneath an enormous and silent clock, to reflect on the building's former function as a laundry.

The Whitechapel Public Baths and Wash Houses was where working-class women did a lot more than mangle their smalls from the middle years of the 19th century until social housing and the twin tub returned them to purdah in the 1950s. At its height, it was one of the busiest amenities in the East End, a place where women could meet neighbours, friends and enemies, and talk, gossip and intrigue in a way only faintly recalled in Dot and Pauline's daily discourses at the Albert Square launderette. The Wash House, then, was more than a building, it was a space where women could reflect on their own experience. So where better to accommodate the country's most important collection of literary material and artefacts on the same subject, from 17th-century tips on how to launder your stockings to a Janet Street-Porter travelogue?

I took the stairs down to the ground floor, fragrant today not with the scent of carbolic but cappuccino. The accommodation, much extended and improved thanks to a multimillion-pound Lottery grant, now includes all the usual Lottery-funded extras - a cafe, conference facilities, education space - and a remarkable exhibition hall. The architects, Wright and Wright, have housed a conference room in a monolithic stone block and sited it obliquely within a central space; it's a bit like the Kaaba at Mecca. Light cascades from a skylight to dramatise an exhibition of the library's holdings, displayed in cases and around the interior walls. In a nod to its origins, the most prominent display is of banners (ah, textiles, you see - protest as a rippling, satiny, worked sort of thing) associated with the suffragettes and their successors. Florence Nightingale, women teachers, Joan of Arc and the call for rights are among the appliqued themes, chosen by notable women of today such as Edwina Currie, Marina Warner, Barbara Castle and, bizarrely, Carol Vorderman. I suppose in a broad church such as the women's movement, there is always room, alongside the political and literary high achievers, for someone who can do sums picturesquely on daytime television. Indeed, some of the women celebrated in the library seem to contain that breadth within their own careers. There is a display of material, chosen by Ms Booth QC, about one of the first women to be called to the Bar, Helena Normanton. She's the one who stands on conference platforms, loyally hand-in-hand with her hubby, when she's being not Ms Booth but Mrs Blair.

A less comfortable account of women's experience in a man's world can be redacted from other parts of the collection. There's a framed print on a wall, like a Wanted Dead or Alive poster, advertising a public meeting to protest the notorious Contagious Diseases Acts of the 19th century, which persecuted women suspected of infection with venereal disease. Stand on a street corner with a cold sore and a wonky bonnet and you could be arrested, detained and forcibly "treated", while syphilitic men, unmolested, were free to spread infection wherever the fancy took them (to Whitechapel, mostly). Josephine Butler took to the soapbox in the 1880s to protest against that monstrous legislation, and the example of her bravery and single-mindedness animated the suffragette movement of the early years of the 20th century. Sometimes bravery and single-mindedness could have dreadful consequences; also in the library's archive are the papers of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was fatally injured under the hooves of the king's horse on Derby Day 1913 (and left one particularly sad little document behind her - the return half of her ticket to Epsom).

There are photographs, too, from that famous campaign, including the shot of Emmeline Pankhurst being less than gallantly handled by Superintendent Rolfe. From the end of the same century comes a photograph of a group of women, looking like an SAS company undercover in Kandahar, protesting the presence of Cruise missiles at Greenham Common; another, looking like transvestite Trollopian Tractarians, protesting Canterbury's insistence on the sacramental necessity of penises for priests.

What would the library's founder, Dame Millicent Fawcett, have made of them, I wonder, when she founded the Library of the London Society for Women's Suffrage in 1926 (before her admirers wisely renamed it in her honour)? Surely she would have applauded a fight for equality, even if recognising a coherent principle of egalitarianism in careers as different as those of Margaret Thatcher and Dawn French calls for an epistemological effort of Vordermanian push. I'm not so sure what she would have made of the display cases of material from women's magazines, full of suburban Aphrodites making impeccable pastry, raising adorable children, hosting brilliant parties and balancing the household books, all without removing their gloves. I suppose it shows that the women's movement cuts across the traditional structures of protest, that gender and class are not the same thing, that liberation for women releases energies on the right as well as the left.

Upstairs, I ran into Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton. As an energetic, lefty research student in the Seventies, she followed the trail of Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain to the Fawcett Library, housed by then in a cramped basement in Victoria. She recalls looking in the signing book and seeing there, with great excitement, a list of the most illustrious names in the women's movement; before long she was bunking off with them at lunchtime for chips at the Golden Egg. Thus are revolutions (and careers) made.

I wondered what Showalter made of "celebrating" Esther Rantzen alongside Rosa Luxemburg. She gave me a steady look. "I hope one day researchers here will be able to look at Posh Spice's archive. What's wrong with that?"

Can Prada receipts be said to constitute an archive, I mused. But Showalter insists it's what she wants - Posh is just as notable, if not more notable, than Mary Wollstonecraft.

Is that what it's all about, being notable? Does the women's movement equal the Spice Girls, in the way that the labour movement equals PFI? I was going to put this to Showalter, and ask, perhaps, about the unnoted lives of the Whitechapel washerwomen and the unnoted lives of their successors, the new East Enders, Bangladeshi and Bosnian.

But I found myself asking her if she'd ever read the Chalet School novels of Elinor Brent-Dyer instead.

The Women's Library is at Calcutta House, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT (020 7320 1189)