Stiletto heels, a baby’s dummy, Spice Girls ephemera and glittering embroidery — the predictable paraphernalia of womanhood is all on show in What Women Want. But the latest exhibition at the enterprising Women’s Library in the East End of London is underpinned by some surprising revelations. So we have a 1972 edition of Spare Rib magazine (which I had thought always prided itself on being a feminist alternative to Good House-keeping) advertising an article by ‘Georgie Best’ on sex.
Another case of books, diaries and postcards contains Married Love by Marie Stopes, opened at the title page to reveal that it was first published in 1918 and that it was subtitled ‘A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties’. It’s somehow rather satisfying to realise that sex talk was not created in the 1960s despite what the Pill generation like to think.
The exhibition is intended not just to showcase women’s aspirations but also to create a debate about what women want now in the 21st century. The curator, Gail Cameron, has drawn on the riches of the library, which was set up in 1926 by Millicent Fawcett, the great campaigner for women’s rights. She has also involved local community groups and the students of London Metropolitan University. The library is set within the campus, just a few minutes’ walk from Brick Lane and Spitalfields, and has a thriving commitment to the area’s past — the silk-weavers and embroiderers of the 18th century, for example — and the rapid changes of recent decades brought by the new wave of settlers from the Indian subcontinent.
Perhaps the most striking exhibits are the ‘umbrellas’ created by the members of HEBA, a group of women mainly from Bangladesh but also from Algeria, Morocco and Somalia, who now live and work near Brick Lane and who have set up their own training and skills agency, running courses on textile design and sewing. Their project is named after the Arabic word for ‘women’s freedom’.
Made of velvet and silk and festooned with sequins, their flouncy creations hang upturned from the ceiling. Some are decorated with spoons, shopping lists, purses, others are glitzy, while another, designed for ‘Superwoman’, is entwined with many arms, like the tentacles of an octopus, as if to show how women are always expected to play many roles at the same time — glamour puss and bread-maker, mopper-up of bruised knees and egos, chief of staff and girl friday. But the most compelling has a limp ragdoll for a handle, pierced by an AK47. It’s a powerful political statement, wrought by women who have witnessed the consequences of a society gone bad. But it’s also a clever display of the textile skills that the members of HEBA have brought to the London fashion trade.
On a wall nearby hangs a series of banners which illustrate an earlier attempt to make political statements through artistry. They were made by the Suffragettes almost a century ago to embellish their marches through London and are still an inspiration, a clarion call, a reminder of a time when women demanded the right not to drink as much as men but to the Vote.
Walking through the library — watching out for the umbrellas — I was struck not so much by the stereotypical exhibits (Women Against Rape badges, a delicate white-lace pillow decorated in powder-blue embroidery with the rhyme, ‘Love me tender, Love me true, But please don’t hit me’) but by the way that the show comes alive when it relates to women’s primary role as pilots of social change rather than mere conservers of the homestead. A newly made exhibit by Emma Pegg, a fine-arts student, is based on a newspaper cutting showing her as a baby held by her mother on a demonstration against the Bomb. She has superimposed on this the aptly worded motif, ‘Bomb baby just mad about the Bomb’.
It’s always been this kind of activism that women have done so well — from the women of Athens in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, who withheld their sexual favours until the men stopped fighting, and Dr Johnson’s Idler essay ‘Female Army’, to The Englishwoman (published in the 1910s with articles on ‘the ethics of Nationalism’) and Greenham Common. Where to next?