“From Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared” – and the women standing up in 2018

No one likes an uxorious man – but as my wife Prof. Senia Paseta is the curator of a new (and not untopical) exhibition about pioneering women, a plug seems very much in order. The exhibition opened this week in Oxford and is called From Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared (Bodleian Libraries events page: From Sappho To Suffrage). Equally amazing is something else she has put together as co-director of Oxford University’s Women in the Humanities: a 2018 “Suffrage Wall” of contemporary prominent women who wanted to help mark women getting the vote 100 years ago: WiH’s 2018 Suffrage Wall. It is fascinating, inspiring and moving in equal measure.

The BBC website, like many, has picked up on the display of one particular curio from the suffrage era: the only known surviving copy of a suffrage board game called Suffragetto.  Senia explains the background a little here: BBC Arts: how a board game helped women win the vote.

Suffragetto high res
Suffragetto: the Albert Hall or the clink for our intrepid female democracy campaigners? Hiding £100 notes under your knee while your brother was getting some Kia Ora won’t help on this one.

In short, it’s an example of the ingenious lengths the Suffrage Movement went to to raise money for the cause. It’s a reminder too that an eye for popular culture is no recent thing in political campaigning. It’s like someone in 1909 making a Call of Duty: Green and Purple Ops. OK, so Boardgamegeek.com only rate it 5.9 (Boardgamegeek.com on Suffragetto), but on the other hand it’s almost certainly had considerably more female attention in the last week than the guys who write for Boardgamegeek.com have enjoyed in their lifetimes.

The suffrage artefacts in the exhibition are fantastic, but there’s a lot more to the exhibition. You’ll also want to see:

  • the “Suffrage Wall” – one wall of the exhibition is devoted to the 2018 “Suffrage Champions”, marking 2018 as the centenary of women’s suffrage. Prominent women of today from around the UK and across the political spectrum are there, “making a powerful statement about women’s achievements and the continuing need to challenge barriers to gender equality one hundred years since women were first enfranchised.” Suffrage Champions have each contributed a few words of inspiration and it makes fascinating reading. More detail than could be fitted into the exhibition space lives on the online version of the Suffrage Wall https://wih.web.ox.ac.uk/suffrage-wall.
    Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 12.22.24
    Women in the Humanities’ Suffrage Wall, 2018: just some of the Ds … Warning: you may be embarrassingly moved by it, so bring some dark glasses and a hat if reading on the train.

    It is an absolutely brilliant thing, please do take a look. You might start with someone you know already like Katya Adler, Dame Katherine Grainger, Ali Smith or Bridget Christie – then discover amazing women you might not have heard of. I now know who Octavia Goredema, Purna Sen and Sarah Wood are and I realise I really should have already known them. The relative invisibility of women in large areas of public life is still a national, and international, shame.

  • As the title of the exhibition suggests, fragments of Greek poet Sappho’s writing, from versions transcribed almost 2,000 years ago: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/poems-by-sappho/
  • An original of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, from 1792: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/mary-wollstonecraft/
  • A teenage Jane Austen’s hand-written novella, called “The Beautifull Cassandra”: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/jane-austen/. It’s described as “a parody of sentimental literary convention and style: the heroine falls in love with a bonnet, ‘devours’ and refuses to pay for six ice creams, knocks down a pastry cook and runs away.” Coming with me to the beach, that one.
Prof. Senia Paseta, co-founder of Oxford University’s Women In The Humanities research centre, at the Suffrage Wall. Senia curated the exhibition and assembled the Suffrage Wall project. Here she is relishing an evening away from having her limbs chewed by our teething puppy, Lucky

The venue is the Weston Library, part of Oxford Universary’s remarkable Bodleian Libraries which underwent a multi-million pound refurb in 2015 and is a stunning place to visit these days – decent cafe too, which is always important. If you spent your student years as I did, you may know the Weston Library as that building between the King’s Arms and the White Horse on Broad Street.

It runs for the rest of 2018 and right through to February 2019, so there is no shortage of opportunities to pop your head in. If you’re a tight-a***e like me, you will be thrilled to hear it’s free entry too.


Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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