THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

28 March 2017

Report on Rebels

Polly Russell, Lead Curator for Politics and Public Life, reports on our event to mark International Women's Day 2017: 'Rebels in the Archives'.

Earlier this month, to mark International Women’s Day, the British Library hosted ‘Rebels in the Archives’, a sell-out panel discussion with four women who, in different ways, have uncovered the hidden histories of women’s lives in Britain’s past.

The evening kicked off with Heidi Safia Mirza, Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmith’s College and author of Young Female and Black. Heidi discussed how Women of Colour have been rendered invisible by the absences and omissions which characterise most representations of the past. Attend to the archive, look beyond the obvious and take responsibility for finding and accounting for Women of Colour when researching women’s lives was her message.

Next up was Abi Morgan, BAFTA and Emmy Award winning writer and producer whose film Suffragette introduced cinema audiences around the world to the story of how working class women fought to get the vote in the UK. Abi described the process of writing the film’s script, how libraries and archives held the key to the narrative and character and of the totemic importance of archival objects – she described the tiny purse Emily Wilding Davison was holding when she fatefully stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby on the 4th June 1913 and how this brought to life the fragility and courage of ‘extraordinary sacrifice made by the ordinary’.

  Rebels in the Archives_ WEB

From left to right the 'Rebels in the Archives' Panel: Heidi Mirza; Abi Morgan; Margaretta Jolly; Debi Withers; Jill Liddington. Image courtesy of Polly Russell.

Writer and historian Jill Liddington followed Abi and heroically compressed a life’s work into a splendid 15 minute presentation. Jill, the author of a seminal account of northern working-class women’s contribution to the Suffragist movement, One Hand Tied Behind Us, detailed how archives and libraries held the key to a history of women which had previously been omitted from historical record.

The final speaker of the evening, curator, researcher and digital expert Debi Withers, brought us bang up to date with a discussion of how digital archives and catalogues have the potential, if opened up to tagging and searching, to widen access to and enable links between feminist archives.

The evening’s discussions were expertly chaired by Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex and someone directly responsible for increasing the number of women rebels in the British Library archives – Margaretta contributed 60 Women’s Liberation Movement oral histories to the British Library as part of the Sisterhood & After project she led in 2013.

After audience questions Margaretta concluded the evening by noting that though the panel employed diverse approaches to understanding the past, worked across different formats and spoke to different audiences, their work was evidence that archives and libraries are places where the rebels of the past could b e uncovered so th at rebels of the future may thrive.

You can see a short video of the evening’s highlights and a podcast of the evening is also available on the British Library's SoundCloud channel.

The event was developed in association with the University of Sussex and was supported by the Living Knowledge Network.

01 March 2017

Women’s Marches Echo Suffragette Struggles: Campaigns, Cats and Collections

By Rachel Tavernor, PhD Researcher, University of Sussex.

On 21 January 2017, millions of people across the world marched for gender, racial and economic equality. The recent Women’s Marches are the latest chapter in a long fight against misogyny and national and international patriarchy. The heritage of these struggles was echoed by the campaigners who dressed as suffragettes, and carried placards that reminded us that these struggles have been fought before:

“I will not go quietly back to the 1950s!”

“My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1970s”

Women's March London 2017 WEB
Women's March on London, 2017.

Recent events have brought the inequality women experience on a daily basis to the fore. Whilst reflecting on, and reacting to these political changes, I was completing a PhD Placement at the British Library which included researching stories of the suffragette movement. For me, the resistances, rebels and revolutions archived in the Library’s collections became a source of hope. At a time of political uncertainty, my time spent reading suffragette letters, news reports and protest ephemera, were a reminder to me that histories are made by both politicians and protests.

Suffragette Struggles

Suffragettes, like many campaigners, marched to demonstrate the strength of their movement and to pressure the government for political action. The demonstrations were also used as a space to mobilise the public. Many marched with striking and bold banners to communicate their campaign. In June 1908, some 40,000 women marched in London to pressure Herbert Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, to support the women’s suffrage bills in parliament. However, Asquith maintained an aggressive anti-suffragist position. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) retaliated by adopting “more violent, law-breaking deeds” (Purvis 2016). In the following years, the suffragettes’ militant approach was met with police brutality and frequent arrests were made. Yet, the women were not treated as political prisoners, which ensured better conditions and would have acknowledged that their acts were political, but as ordinary criminals. Incarcerated suffragettes surreptitiously produced letters detailing their lives on toilet tissue. In the British Library collections, you can read some of the letters that have been preserved (2 files).

In 1909, imprisoned Marion Dunlop, a member of the WSPU, began a hunger strike with the motto ‘Release or Death’. Several days into her hunger strike, Dunlop was released from prison, as authorities feared that she may die and become a martyr. Many suffragettes went on hunger strike. However, authorities soon decided that imprisoned suffragettes, when necessary, would now be force fed. This was a practice that was previously only used on clinically insane patients in asylums (Williams 2008). Suffragettes’ communicated their accounts of force feeding to the public, which shamed the government. 

“The pain was so horrible I felt as if my nose was being pulled off, and I struggled violently”

Quoted from an account of force feeding (The Suffragette 1913)

On 25 April 1913, the authorities stopped force feeding and introduced the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act). Once suffragettes reached a level of extreme weakness, they were released from prison, watched by authorities and re-arrested as soon as they had recovered from their hunger strike. The authorities positioned themselves as the watchful cat that was ready to pounce on the suffragette mouse.

Pussycat Power

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Poster, Made by the Women’s Social and Political Union (1914)

In posters, produced by the WSPU, the Cat and Mouse Act (1913) was used to further the suffragettes fight for equality. The poster represented the male Liberal government as a savage cat, which the public needed to ‘keep out’. Suffragettes represented themselves as vulnerable women at the mouth of an aggressive and abusive government. The posters were popular and “[p]art of the reason for the lasting power and fame of the image may be the ways it overturns long-established associations between women and cats” (Amato 2015: 102).

We demand the vote WEB 

I want my vote WEB

Anti-Suffragette Postcards (circa 1908)

Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA.

Prior to the Cat and Mouse Act (1913), postcard publishers that opposed gender equality, represented suffragettes as irrational cats. The gendered representation of cats, and their association to the domestic sphere, was used to “portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement” (Wrenn 2013). The relative cheapness of the postcard, and the humour used, ensured that the images widely circulated (similar to internet memes).

Humour was also used by the suffragettes to subvert gendered prejudices. Suffragette Annie Kenney recalls that they were taught “always to get the best of a joke, and to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against us” (in Cowman 2007: 278). Campaigners’ ability to deploy humour, to subvert messages and to undermine politicians are tactics that are still used today.

Respect placard WEB

Women's March London 2017 2 WEB
Top: Dale Cruse, January 21, 2017, Women’s March San Francisco, Creative Commons 2.0

Bottom: January 21, 2017, Women’s March London

The placards, hats and costumes produced for the Women’s Marches show how people can creatively fight prejudices. Like the suffragettes, pussycats prominently featured in the visual representations of the campaign, in response to comments that Donald Trump made about women. Campaigners crafted ‘pussyhats’ and placards to fight back against this dehumanising and sexually oppressive view of women.

Archiving Activism

Unlike large NGO organised demonstrations that distribute branded placards, the Women’s Marches represented a range of grassroots protest voices. In the UK, the Bishopsgate Institute recognised the importance of archiving these placards: “people took to the streets to highlight the particular issues they were passionate about… In years to come, the placards and messages from this March will be essential in understanding the concerns of large sections of the UK population at the beginning of 2017” (Dickers 2017). Not only are the subjects of the placards of interest but also how they are made. The time campaigners spent knitting hats, painting signs and sewing costumes, contribute to understanding the craft of the protest.

The Women’s Marches across the world were primarily organised and promoted online. They were also documented on websites and social networks: on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and blogs. The way in which activism is organised, and represented, further contribute to understanding the politics and practices of a movement. Civil rights campaigner Angela Davis, in her Women’s March speech in Washington, said “history cannot be deleted like web pages” (Davis 2017). Davis’ speech was a call for people, as agents of history, to resist the Trump administration. For me, it was also a reminder that the preservation of our protests are also vulnerable.

Webpages are constantly changing and can be deleted but they can also be preserved in archives. Since 2013, the British Library archive the entire UK domain every year (websites that end with .uk), which can be accessed via the reading room computers at the Library. The Library also has permission, under the terms of the Non-Print Legal Deposit Regulations (2013), to archive websites published in the UK (which do not end with ‘.uk’, for example, the Women’s March on London website). However, this is a manual process and the UK Web Archive invite YOU to nominate websites that are published in the UK but are not part of the UK domain. In doing so, you can contribute to preserving the webpages that document stories of sisterhood, struggle and solidarity, in the hope that these archives will inspire people who could be part of the next chapter of the movement.

International Women’s Day 2017

On 8 March 2017, the British Library is hosting a conversation on the power and potential of archiving feminist movements with Jill Liddington, Abi Morgan, Heidi Safia Mirza and Deborah Withers. Margaretta Jolly, project director of Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement, will chair this panel of influential feminists as they debate questions of politics, representation and preservation.

The Living Knowledge Network are hosting live-streams of this event at libraries in Middlesbrough and Exeter.

Rebels in the Archives is part of a series of events to celebrate International Women’s Day.

 

20 January 2017

Archive of Joan Bakewell joins the British Library’s Contemporary Archives Collections

Joan bakewell 2

Image: Joan Bakewell  © Sukey Parnell

Chris Beckett, Cataloguer in Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library, writes:

Joan Bakewell’s autobiography, The Centre of the Bed (2003), begins in a white room – a room as white as ‘a fresh sheet of paper’ – at the top of the house in which she has lived for many years. Boxes and packets of papers long-forgotten have been retrieved from cupboards and shelves. They hold evidence of the past, prompts for the play of memory. Can memory sew the fragments together, make good the gaps in the physical record? But Bakewell is conscious that memory is a construction of the present – a reverie of now – that that can deceive as well as illuminate:

‘Stacks of little diaries, a scattering of entries, a few oblique clues. School reports, a clutch of Cambridge bric-a-brac, invitations to sherry parties, a few enigmatic letters – who was Jonathan, who was Ben? And some from people I still know – Karl, Peter, Freddie. Serious boxes house the weightier matters – though just as transient – of a career in journalism and television.’

Those same boxes – the Cambridge ephemera and the ‘weightier matters’ (‘just as transient’) – have now made their way to the British Library, and their contents will soon be available to readers in another room, the Manuscripts Reading Room. ‘Karl’ is Karl Miller, ‘Peter’ is Sir Peter Hall, and ‘Freddie’ is Frederic Raphael (‘with whom I played tennis on long sunny, Cambridge afternoons’), three university contemporaries among many who quickly rose to become, like Bakewell herself, familiar figures in the British cultural landscape.

Joan Bakewell has been an enduring presence on British television for some fifty years, from the trail-blazing topical discussion programme ‘Late Night Line-Up’ (BBC2, 1964-72), which tumbled through the 1960s embracing the excitement and the risks of live transmission, to the retrospective and reflective interviews in ‘My Generation’ (BBC2, 2000).

Her television break began in a predictable place, in the limited daytime slots scheduled for housewives in the early 1960s, in programmes like ‘Table Talk’ and ‘Home at Four Thirty’. However, the conversation was not always about housework and babies: ‘one afternoon it fell to me to interview an eager young doctor with a shock of unruly black hair [….] In three minutes on air he outlined his theory that a dysfunctional family might be a prime cause of schizophrenia.’ The young doctor was R. D. Laing, author of The Divided Self. In the autumn of 1964, two evening appearances as chair of the BBC2 discussion programme ‘The Second Sex’ provided Bakewell with a further opportunity to demonstrate her range, and presaged an invitation to join the (otherwise all-male) ‘Late Night Line-Up’ team.

Since most of ‘Late Night Line-Up’ was transmitted live, few recordings have survived. Occasionally, items were pre-recorded, but even those have generally not been saved. In January 1969, Bakewell and camera crew spent a week in Lausanne, filming a series of interviews with Georges Simenon. Although the programme is lost, we have, in some small compensation, Bakewell’s Simenon notepads which provide a glimpse of the (fastidious and orderly) author of ‘Maigret’ at his Swiss home.

 Blog 1 Simenon notebook cover 2

Image above: Red note book cover

Blog 2 Simenon notes 2

Image above: Simenon notes, reproduced with the kind permission of Joan Bakewell.

At Cambridge (1951-54), Joan Rowlands, as she was then called, was heavily involved in the theatrical productions of the Cambridge Mummers. The archive includes posters, programmes and photographs from several plays, including (1952) The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Miss Rowlands played Cecily Cardew.

It was at Cambridge that Joan Rowlands met her first husband, Michael Bakewell, who preceded her at the BBC, quickly establishing himself a highly-regarded radio and television drama producer, champion of the new theatre of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, John Hopkins and David Mercer. Although acting was not to be Bakewell’s profession, certainly the art of performance – and the construction of a robust public persona – have been integral to her remarkable television career.

Bakewell’s autobiography is keyed to a larger narrative, to events and trends in the social and cultural history of her time. Her diaries include a number of yellow ‘post-it’ notes, marking where her memory has been prompted. The pocket diary for 1960, for example, includes the following highlighted entries: 18 April (Aldermaston Protest, Trafalgar Square); 27 April (Arts Theatre, Pinter, The Caretaker); 28 June (Wesker, Roots); 1 August (opening in Stratford of Michael Bakewell's production of Faustus).

Blog 4 Bakewell Aldermaston 1960 2

Image: Aldermaston diary entry

Bakewell later recalled: ‘The Easter I was pregnant with Harriet we joined the Aldermaston marchers as they came into Trafalgar Square. Our near neighbour, the American poet W. S. Merwin, had walked all the way. His plimsolls were frayed and his feet blistered, but his wife, Dido, offered us supper that night with another young couple who’d recently moved into the area, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.’

In recent years, Bakewell has taken to writing fiction as another way of re-imagining the past, weaving new narratives from her archive. All the Nice Girls (2009) takes it cue from a World War II initiative (unimaginable today) that encouraged schools to ‘adopt’ a merchant navy ship and their pupils to exchange letters with sailors, raising pupil awareness and sailor morale. The Ship Adoption Scheme, as it was known, is recorded in the magazines of Stockport High School for Girls, which played an active part; there is a set of school magazines in Bakewell’s papers (again with ‘post-it’ notes attached). All the Nice Girls is – like the novel that followed, She’s Leaving Home (2011) – a story of love and changing sexual mores. CND marches feature in She’s Leaving Home, and so does the vividly remembered detail of Bill Merwin’s frayed plimsolls. A potent emblem from the past that has clearly lodged in Bakewell’s memory, the worn shoes make an anonymous but recognizable reappearance in a brief snatch of dialogue (p. 130): ‘I saw one bloke whose plimsolls had shredded by the time we got to Trafalgar Square’.

The comprehensive archive of Joan Bakewell at the British Library testifies to a pioneering career in television journalism and records a remarkable personal and professional journey, from pre-war Stockport to the post-millennial corridors of the House of Lords.