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Sussex academics play part in major British Library exhibition about the ongoing fight for women’s rights

Placards on display at the Unfinished Business exhibition, loaned by Bishopsgate Institute (credit Bishopsgate Institute)

The fight for women’s rights has been brought to life in a new book and exhibition, thanks to the help of a University of Sussex professor and Sussex research fellows.

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights has been co-edited by Professor Margaretta Jolly and British Library curator, Dr Polly Russell. Taking a forward-facing, activism-oriented look at how the history of women’s rights informs the continued fight for equality, the book features 16 essays exploring topics like gender fluidity, black women’s access to education, and the right to sexual pleasure.

It accompanies the British Library’s new landmark exhibition of the same name, which shows how contemporary feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the long, complex but compelling history of the fight for women’s rights.

Sussex’s contribution to the Unfinished Business exhibition includes:

  • An interactive map, uniquely charting UK feminist activism and entrepreneurship in the 1970s–80s developed by the Business of Women's Words research team, led by Professor Jolly with Research Fellows Dr Eleanor Careless and Simon Wibberly, and co-investigator Dr Lucy Delap (University of Cambridge), in partnership with the British Library. The map draws on the British Library’s digitised collection of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, and can be searched to explore geographic and thematic dimensions.
  • The groundbreaking Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, again led by Professor Jolly, and hosted online by the British Library. This features detailed oral histories with pioneering women activists from the 1960s onwards, and is integral to the free, educational website just launched by the British Library to accompany Unfinished Business.
  • A map of women’s resistance in the UK developed by the British Library, supported by The Business of Women’s Words. This plots over 60 stories of women's lives, rights and activism from the 18th century to the present, with each entry linked to a British Library collection item and further reading.
  • Articles written by members of The Business of Women’s Words project team: Professor Jolly; co-investigator Dr Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge; Polly Russell, Lead Curator at the British Library; Research Fellow Dr D-M Withers, whose research engages with the cultural heritage of feminist social movements and the politics of the archive; and Research Fellow Dr Eleanor Careless, whose research focuses on 20th-century poetry, the history of the prison and the feminist avant-garde.

The Unfinished Business book and exhibition are both divided into distinct sections: Body, Mind and Voice. Each sub-section starts with a contemporary activist organisation before exploring the wider history of the issue using items from the British Library’s collections or provided by lenders. These include personal diaries, subversive literature, protest fashion and banners, which highlight how women and their allies have fought for equality with passion, imagination, humour and tenacity.

Margaretta Jolly, Professor of Cultural Studies in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities at the University of Sussex, said: “I have been delighted and honoured to work with the British Library on a number of projects, notably Sisterhood and After, the Business of Women’s Words and Unfinished Business, that all help shine a light on stories of women’s activism, creativity and endeavour.

“Together these tell of the vital, vivid and transformative struggle for women’s rights and equality, both in the past and today. They invite us to recognise and celebrate the courage and resilience of the innumerable women who have given so much to the struggle, and who continue to do so.”

Dr Polly Russell, Lead Curator of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights at the British Library, said: “When Covid-19 hit the UK earlier this year, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which has been over three years in the making, was almost ready to open.

“Covid-19 and the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted that the injustices we face are often dependent on our gender, race, or other social characteristics. It therefore feels particularly poignant for this exhibition, which explores the riveting and ongoing story of women and their allies to be taken seriously, treated fairly and to change the world for the better, to be opening now and reminding us that women’s rights are unfinished business.”

Unfinished Business runs from 23 October 2020 – 21 February 2021. Details of all the associated programming inspired by Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, including digital events, podcasts and educational resources, can be found on the Library’s website.

By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Tuesday, 27 October 2020

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