Education: Women's history gets Lottery vote

A university's collection of artefacts from centuries of feminist struggle is getting a proper home. By Judith Judd
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Did the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison mean to die when she flung herself in front of the King's horse on Derby Day, 1913? Her secrets and those of her fellow campaigners lie hidden in cardboard boxes in a cramped and damp basement in the East End of London. The tiny purse she was carrying when she was trampled under the horse's hooves and the return ticket to Victoria which suggests that she had no intention of committing suicide are part of the Fawcett Library's collection of treasures at London Guildhall University.

At present, there is nowhere to display them but, yesterday, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced a grant of pounds 4.2m for a new National Library of Women. It will be built behind the facade of Victorian wash houses just across the road from the site of the existing collection - a reminder of the many 19th-century women who took in washing to earn enough to feed their children. The new four-storey centre will enable both schoolchildren and the public to view both the story of Emily Davison and of centuries of women's history.

The fight for votes for women is at the heart of the library. There are 53 banners, which campaigners carried on demonstrations, some 6ft by 6ft, others small hand-banners, with slogans such as "No vote, no tax". There are posters which they hung in their shops: "Convicts and Lunatics have no vote for parliament, should women be classed with these?" There are badges for a host of groups that supported their cause, the Actresses' Franchise League and the Men's League for Women's Suffrage.

And anyone who thought that marketing souvenirs for a cause was a modern phenomenon should prepare for a surprise. The Women's Social and Political Union, to which the most militant campaigners belonged, raised funds through merchandise with all the determination of a Nineties pressure group. There were postcards of their leaders, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, soap in their colours of purple, white and green, and even whole tea-sets decorated with the initials WSPU. All are at present tucked away in boxes and drawers, carefully wrapped in tissue paper.

Though the suffragettes and the suffragists provided some of the most dramatic moments in women's history, the library also has evidence of the stirrings of rebellious feminism centuries earlier. An Italian book published in Venice in 1621 had the title (translated) of The Nobility and Excellence of Women with the defects and failings of men. By the early 18th century, there was already a vigorous literary battle between feminists and their opponents, and the library has one of the first two editions of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792.

From this century there are reminders of the feminist activity of the Seventies and Eighties, badges with slogans such as "Rock against sexism" and "Uppity Women Unite".

More mundane female concerns are to be found in household books such as The Queen-Like Closet (1669). That not only advises on "how to make a rice pudding to bake", but also offers a bloodcurdling remedy for shingles which begins "take a cat and cut off her ears and tail...".

The library is continually updating the history of women, most recently with the acquisition of the papers of the women's ordination movement. There is an Australian poster of a knobbly-kneed man with the slogan "Hire him, he's got great legs". Women's magazines, such as New Woman and Marie Claire, are being added to a magazine collection that dates back to the 18th century.

Professor Roderick Floud, the university's provost, said: "The grant is tremendously good news. We shall be able to display the artefacts and provide proper space for books. And there will be room for growth. We aim to attract the papers of eminent women.

"The library will be a focus for women's activities in London: we shall provide conference facilities for women's groups."