Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared

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While a crowd formed a line waiting for entrance into the Bodleian Library’s excellent new Tolkien exhibition, the gallery directly across the entryway was quietly waiting for its treasures of women’s history, suffrage, and achievement to be revealed to the curious. 

  

The exhibition, Sappho to Suffrage: Women who dared, marks 100 years since passage of the Representation of the People Act, and covers 2,000 years of history, beginning with second-century fragments of Sappho’s poetry on papyrus and highlighting 80 books and objects showcasing stories of women who stand out for their daring work, adventuring spirit, creative gifts, and impact on history.

  

There are exceptional works on display, from a ninth-century poetry manuscript, “The 36 Immortals of Poetry,” turned to an illustration of Lady Ise, one of the five women poets included; to the handwritten leaves of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (in which she notes where to begin chapter two in the margin); and the only known surviving copy of Suffragetto, a formidable-looking board game that pits suffragettes against the police to gain entry into the House of Commons--it was produced by the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union to raise money for the suffragette campaign. 

  

In addition to Jane Austen’s notebooks, the exhibition has other famous literary luminaries’ work. There are also manuscripts and notes by groundbreaking scientists, including the French royal midwife Louise Bourgeois, and politcial campaigners including Mary Wollstonecraft. A beautifully embroidered book by a young Elizabeth I that she made for her stepmother is displayed next to the work of famous women bookbinders. 

  

The attention to Tolkien at the Bodleian is much deserved, but the stunning brilliance of women’s contributions on display right across the hall is worth equal, if not more, consideration, for how many women we constantly forget and have to rediscover are on display right next to the ones we never forget, reminding visitors of the depth and excellence of women’s contributions to history and how often they are overlooked. 

  

The exhibition was curated by Professor Senia Paseta, co-director of Women in the Humanities, and History Tutor at St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. It remains on view through February 3, 2019.

  

Image: The only known surviving version of the board game Suffragetto. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

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