The Women's Library. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

ON FEBRUARY 4TH, THE WOMEN'S LIBRARY opens in an extraordinary new building in Aldgate East. Designed by Wright and Wright, it retains the facade of the old wash houses formerly occupying the site, a place where women gathered and worked. Behind, a startling contemporary building rises, constructed from brick, stone, copper and oak. In 1942, the Librarian of the Fawcett Library, Vera Douie, had written `Though at present only in its infancy, great things are expected of this little Library, which shows every promise of a very useful future'. Since 1977 the Library has had its home in a basement at London Guildhall University, hard to find, charming but cramped. Visitors from all over the world have visited it, but so has rain and, even worse, sewage. After the third flood, the University decided the Library must be rehoused in order to survive. It successfully applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 1998 4.2 million [pounds sterling] was awarded. The resulting magnificent new home offers the potential for much wider use of the collection. It is what many women, including Virginia Woolf, Philippa Strachey and Vera Brittain, have worked for over the last century.

The Library grew out of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, which was founded in 1867. Its formal life started with the appointment of Vera Douie, its first librarian, in 1926, in headquarters in Marsham Street, with a cafe and lecture theatre.

Subsequently, the library was renamed The Fawcett Library after Millicent Garrett Fawcett. She was the president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and campaigned for the vote constitutionally, persisting throughout the First World War, and beyond. Consequently, the Library has rich and unique suffrage holdings. During its initial life many women who had been involved in the campaign for the vote donated material. Not only does the Library have probably the most extensive collection of suffrage banners, but it also houses objects produced to incorporate the campaigns into daily life: badges, tea services, suffrage cookbooks, postcards, board games and card games. There was even suffrage tea. In the archive of Emily Wilding Davison, movingly, is her tiny purse, removed from her body after her death, a result of falling under the King's horse at the Derby. In it, her return ticket to Epsom, suggests she did not plan to die, but in giving her life for the cause, her funeral, attended by thousands, was that of a martyr's.

After the vote was won, the Library became a useful source of information for women who were hoping to enter the professions. The collections continued to grow, still mainly concerned with women's campaigns, from Greenham Common and the Movement for the Ordination of Women, to domestic violence and self help health. The Library is an extraordinary collection of social history; some of the earliest books document women's position in the law, or trace the beginnings of women's campaigns for equality. The woman as good as the man: or the equality of both sexes by Le Comte de la Barre (1677), is a kind of early relation of Mary Wollstonecraft's seminal Vindication of the Rights of Women (of which the Library has a first edition). More surprising riches in the collection are those of daily life. A look at women's magazines over the last 200 years tells us an extraordinary amount about how attitudes have changed, and about what hasn't! …