Following on from last year’s set of posts, to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, this week I will be posting about a selection of books connected to women’s place in the world. To kick things off this year, a second-hand find filled with unexpected hidden treasures within.
Some Eminent Women of Our Times (available at the excellent Project Gutenberg) is an 1889 collection of biographies of 19th century women compiled by ‘Mrs Henry Fawcett’ – Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the English feminist primarily known for her work as a campaigner for women‘s suffrage. The majority of figures are from the literary world – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Lamb, and Dorothy Wordsworth among others – but there are also social reformers and campaigners (including Elizabeth Fry and Mary Carpenter), scientists (including Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville), travellers (Lady Sale) and even royalty (our Queen Vic).
The magic of this book is not to be found in any rousing feminist interpretations of great female lives, however. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Fawcett’s moderate approach as a ‘suffragist’ rather than ‘suffragette’, there is a slight conservative bent to these biographies, which starts with some telling lines in Fawcett’s preface:
(As well as the) remarkable development of literary activity among women, there has been an equally remarkable activity in spheres of work held to be peculiarly feminine. So far, therefore, from greater freedom and better education encouraging women to neglect womanly work, it has caused them to apply themselves to it more systematically and more successfully…The sketches were intended chiefly for working women and young people; it was hoped it would be an encouragement to them to be reminded how much good work had been done in various ways by women.
I inwardly grumbled reading this for the first time almost a decade ago: a benign-looking book suddenly looked suspiciously like one of those middle-class attempts to remind subservients – the ‘working women and young people’, patronizingly grouped as one – how to be good Victorian citizens.
But there is still magic to be found within these pages. Someone – potentially as far back as 1906, from what my detective work can fathom – has plastered Fawcett’s guide to useful womanhood with cuttings of pictures of other ‘eminent women’ and newspaper articles relating to female endeavours (see pictures below). The book’s metamorphosis into a sort of feminist scrapbook makes me feel a real link with its previous owner(s): the mysterious scrap-booker’s paper-and-glue physical presence reminding me how I and whoever else owned this book beforehand shared an interest in a common battle, however much that battle has morphed over the past 128 years. Moreover, it reminds me that we have been fighting these battles for a long bloomin’ time, sisters, and inspires me to KEEP ON TRUCKIN’. Happy International Women’s Week!