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In 2016, staffers at Cambridge University Library discovered an old, brown parcel in its collections. Opening the package revealed that it had originally reached the library around 1910, and for over a century, its contents had gone unnoticed. Mysteriously addressed to “the Librarian,” the parcel held a bundle of well-preserved suffrage posters from the early 1900s. Its sender was Marion Phillips, a major figure of the suffrage movement in Britain, who was elected to parliament in 1929.
For the first time since the discovery, the library has organized a display featuring a selection of the posters. The small exhibition marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted British women the right to vote — women over 30, that is, who met minimum property qualifications. (It wasn’t until 1928 that the full electoral equality was attained.)
“The posters in the library have been with us, probably since they were produced,” Dr. Chris Burgess, exhibitions program manager at the library told Hyperallergic. “But others would certainly have been pasted up around towns and cities. They would have been sold by the central organization to local groups to raise money for the cause; postcards were also very popular.”
Which makes their survival to this day, in near-perfect condition, rare. The librarians are unsure exactly why Phillips sent the posters, although they theorize that they were meant for C.M. Ridding, a scholar of Sanskrit who was the first woman to work at the library. Whatever her reasoning, the act of archiving ephemera of resistance resonates especially today as museums collect objects created after the 2016 election, from Post-it notes to signs from the Women’s March.
Representing a widespread, non-violent tactic of the suffrage movement, the poster campaigns intended to represent a range of women. They feature mothers and women in the household as well as women at work, including working-class individuals. Cambridge professor Lucy Delap notes that posters in collegiate cities such as Cambridge would depict women in academic dress to highlight the inequality women faced on university campuses. As Delap points out, women were not considered full members of Cambridge until 1948.
The visual language, too, was diverse. Some posters were satirical, drawing from familiar 19th-century political caricatures, while others featured more evocative, emotional images. One poster by cartoonist Alfred Pearse (signed “A. Patriot”) depicts the force-feeding of an imprisoned suffragette on a hunger strike — a practice that the government authorized in 1909.
The colorful pictures represented the voices of professional artists as well as everyday citizens — both women and men. Many of them are signed. The most famous among these creatives, arguably, is the painter Duncan Grant, who was a member of the modernist Bloomsbury Group. Others include Mary Sargant Florence, a mural painter, and Emily Jane Harding Andrews, a book illustrator. Harding Andrews created posters for the Artists’ Suffrage League, one of two chief organizations in Britain that were responsible for producing poster and postcard designs. The League was established in 1907 by stained-glass artist Mary Lowndes, two years prior to the founding of the collective known as Suffrage Atelier. Formed specifically to gear up for a demonstration by the Women’s Social and Political Union — the society set up by suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst — Suffrage Atelier favored using woodblocks to more quickly produce and distribute their posters.
For Britons, the century-old notices vividly capture the voices of overlooked individuals who fought for greater gender equality in their nation. For the rest of us, they’re poignant reminders of the significant role grassroots movements play in enacting systemic change.
The exhibition of suffrage posters continues at Cambridge University Library (University of Cambridge, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR, UK) through March 31.
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