Women Who Dared: From Sappho to Suffrage at the Bodleian through February
- by Susan Halas
LADY PIRATES: Antique print of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, a pair of 18th century female pirates.
On the heels of its blockbuster Tolkien, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England hosts another important exhibit titled WOMEN WHO DARED: FROM SAPPHO TO SUFFRAGE. The show runs through February 2019 in the Weston Library. Pirates and poets; suffragettes and explorers – this exhibition celebrates the achievements of women who dared to do the unexpected and showcases some of the Bodleian’s most remarkable and treasured items. Though your travels may not take you to the UK anytime soon, the highlights of this exhibit in digital display can be found at
It’s really quite an impressive assortment of uppity women from many periods and all walks of life. Each one has an interesting visual or series of visuals and brief commentary. Given the #metoo era and the increasingly fierce gender wars in the US, this exhibit serves as a reminder that strong willed women have historically been a force to be reckoned with.
One of the most interesting items in the literary genre relates to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), creator of Frankenstein. “The inspiration for the story came to Mary in a ‘waking dream’ in 1816, leading to the creation of an immensely influential novel and enduring metaphor. Many critics believed Frankenstein had been written by a man, possibly her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his involvement in her work has been debated since, often to the detriment of her own literary standing. This has undergone considerable reassessment in recent decades, and Mary Shelley has been recognized as a visionary and intellectually complex writer and thinker in her own right.”
This link will take you to an excerpt from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, read by Christopher Adams and a short video introduction to a handwritten draft of Frankenstein with commentary by curator Stephen Hebron. Also featured are some of the manuscript pages in close up.
In the pushing the envelope department it’s hard to beat Mary Read and Anne Bonny, a pair of 18th century female pirates who lived deeply unconventional lives. According to the notes accompanying the exhibit, “Both were brought up as boys, married as women, dressed again in men’s clothing and ultimately became pirates. Extraordinarily, they met on board John Rackam’s pirate ship in the Bahamas in 1720 and soon became close friends. They were described by colleagues as ‘very profligate, cursing and swearing much and ready and willing to do anything on board’. Rackam and crew were imprisoned and hanged for robbery and piracy, but the women’s lives were spared because they were both found to be pregnant.” treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/mary-read-anne-bonny/
Though there are many other individual women featured in the exhibit, the heart of the show displays a substantial number of items related to late 19th and early 20th century political action by women in England, specifically the right to vote..
The library notes: “Suffrage resistance took a variety of forms from tax refusal and boycotting the 1911 census to window breaking and arson. The Home Office recorded more than 1,300 arrests for suffrage activity between 1906 and 1914, with activists drawn from suffrage organizations including the Women’s Freedom League, the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the East London Federation of Suffragettes as well as the Women’s Social and Political Union.
“From 1909 suffragettes began to resist from within prison by hunger striking in protest against the government’s refusal to recognise them as political prisoners. The government responded by beginning to force feed prisoners, a brutal and life threatening procedure. It became especially dangerous after 1913 when the notorious Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act or Cat and Mouse Act allowed ill hunger-striking suffragettes to be released in order to recover, before being re-arrested when they were well enough to complete their sentence.”
There are multiple other aspects of the suffrage movement on view including
Votes for women: treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/votes-for-women/
Annual reports of the women’s suffrage movement: treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/suffrage-annual-reports/
After a long and bitter struggle Parliament passed an act granting the vote to English women in 1918. In America a constitutional amendment was passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. The 19th amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote.
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years; as well as 30 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries and faculty, department and institute libraries. Together, the Libraries hold more than 13 million printed items, over 80,000 e-journals and outstanding special collections including rare books and manuscripts, classical papyri, maps, music, art and printed ephemera.
The Weston Library, where this exhibit is on view, provides a new home for the Bodleian’s special collections. Members of the public can explore the collections via an online image portal at digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk or by visiting the exhibition galleries in the Bodleian’s Weston Library. For more information, visit www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
To see other online exhibits from the Bodleian collection go to the home page, click the What’s On? tab and select Exhibitions Online from the pull down menu.
A few of the many prior exhibits include:
The Romance of the Middle Ages: medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/romance-explore
Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the image of a literary family: shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Citizen Milton: www.cems.ox.ac.uk/citizenmilton/
Manifold Greatness: The Creation of the King James Bible (with Folger library): folgerpedia.folger.edu/Manifold_Greatness:_The_Creation_and_Afterlife_of_the_King_James_Bible
Makers of Middle Earth - some original drawings from the Tolkien exhibit just completed: tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about-the-exhibition/