What women want: exhibition charts 100 years of feminism

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The Independent Online

And now - 100 years later - Nigella Lawson's laidback style hopes to guide the modern woman towards the pedestal of domestic goddess. Not without a hint of irony, those two recipe books feature next to each other in a collection of 200 items that define women's desires over a century of campaigning feminism.

The exhibits in the show entitled "What Women Want"', opening today at London Metropolitan University's Women's Library, celebrate what women have fought and longed for from the Victorian era to today.

Drawn from the Women's Library's extensive collection, the exhibition showcases material ranging from iconic banners carried by suffragettes through the streets of central London at the turn of the century to fashion magazine plates featuring corseted women in crinoline dresses in 1840.

An orange banner brandishing the angry slogan "So long as women are not free, people are not free", is set against wartime posters inviting women to "Join the Land Army" and rosettes demanding "Equal pay for equal work".

Gail Cameron, the exhibition's curator, said the displays reflected the chronology of women's desires, both public and private.

"It is an eternal question, what is it that women want? We are looking at what women have campaigned for and issues that have mattered to them.

"There have been lots of changes but also lots of continuities. Current reports of whether its better for women to stay with their mothers show how pertinent these issues still are and always will be," she said.

The show, divided into sections ranging from freedom and independence to home life, beauty, pleasure and equality at work, traces landmark missions that women have undertaken.

In the domestic life section, Lawson's recipe book sits alongside Barbara Cartland's Recipe for Lovers, which is in stark contrast to Erin Pizzey's The Slut's Cookbook and Why be a Wife?, a campaign in the 1970s.

Early editions of magazines from that era such as Spare Rib and Nova, are displayed alongside articles on how to dress without a corset (from 1905) to the 1994 poster campaign for Wonderbra, fronted by the model Eva Herzigova. There are also brochures on cosmetic surgery from the present day.

The life-changing journeys of pioneering women are featured in one section, including the personal diaries of an Edwardian firebrand travelling from Liverpool to North America on a steamer as well as women's marches to the peace camps at Greenham Common in the 1980s.

Images of empowered women are in contrast to the poster campaigns against domestic violence by small-scale women's groups which culminated in a campaign launched by the Metropolitan Police last year.

Antonia Byatt, the library's director, said: "It covers a huge range of women's desires, the desire to have a voice, to have a vote, for many kinds of pleasures, and the desires for freedom and independence." She added that some of the social issues women had grappled with 100 years ago, such as the pressure to be a dutiful wife and a beautiful woman, were relevant today.

"Some people think that, compared to 100 years ago, everything is OK now. There are lots of things that have changed for women that are very positive but there are still some things that are not, such as domestic violence, prostitution and equal pay. This exhibition is asking 'What do women really want? Have we got it? And are there things we still really want?"