Friday, 1 May 2015

I shall have to be a feminist…

Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian, introduces a new exhibition

Putting together an exhibition is always a thrilling and often an unexpected pleasure. My starting point for I shall have to be a feminist: 18th century women writers and their legacy in the Special Collections (currently found in the Harry Fairhurst corridor), was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the rights of woman.  I was excited to find that we had a wide selection of women writers from around the same period and the idea of the exhibition was born.

I knew from the beginning that I would like to find a way to make the final case more up to date. I am strict about using material that can be found in the Special Collections so I expected that final case to be the biggest challenge. The collection does not hold the writings of such current feminists as Germaine Greer or Caitlin Moran, but I was pleased to find some interesting material from the first half of the 20th century which fitted very well with the writing of women some 200 years earlier. What was particularly fascinating was realising that the demands and challenges faced by Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More and others were really not that much different to those reflected in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby
held in the Special Collections
The discovery of Winifred Holtby's book was one of the unexpected pleasures. The title of the exhibition is a quote from her and I would like to explore her life and influence in a bit more detail.

"I dislike everything that feminism implies. … I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie … But while … injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women,I shall have to be a feminist."

Those of you who have seen the recent film Testament of Youth will know that Winifred was the best friend of Vera Brittain. Special Collections holds a published edition of their letters donated to the university by Brittain. The correspondence show both of them to be warm, funny and generous characters.

Winifred Holtby, Women and the changing civilisation,
London 1934. Photo by Paul Shields.
There is one book by Holtby in the Special Collection, Women and the changing civilisation, which can be found in the final case of the present exhibition. Holtby examines the legacy of 18th century writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and sees that there is still a long way to go towards full equality for women. Holtby campaigned for equal pay and work in the public sphere as well as measures that would give women a degree of financial independence such as widow's pensions, and child benefit allowance. From 1926 she edited the feminist magazine Time and Tide.

She spent time in South Africa and wrote articles against racism and supporting black trade unionism. The thirties were a difficult time for her as she feared the rise of fascism and the attitude of its supporters towards women. She wrote "I want there to be no more wars: I want people to recognise the human claims of negroes and Jews and women and all oppressed and humiliated creatures. I want a sort of bloodless revolution."

Photo by Paul Shields
As well as being an author Holtby was also a poet and the poem that appears pasted into the front of the Women and the changing civilisation is one of hers. It is the third part of a poem written in 1933 and called For the ghost of Elinor Wylie. Holtby had become ill with Bright's disease, a disorder of the kidney which would eventually prove fatal. She died in 1935. The three parts of the poem reflect the progress of her illness, the final Peace, perhaps signifying that she had reached some sort of acceptance.

Poet and novelist Elinor Wylie suffered from a similar illness to Holtby and was admired by her for her lack of conventionality.

Holtby's prose, poems and plays largely remain in print and many can be found in the University Library. The Drama Channel is repeating the mini-series made of her final novel South Riding. Eighty years on, her writings still reflect many of the issues and challenges that continue to face women today.

For more information about this subject or any other questions about Special Collections, please contact Sarah Griffin.

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