A collection of 100-year-old posters campaigning for women’s suffrage have gone on display for the first time at Cambridge University Library. The exhibition marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which saw women (aged over 30 and who passed a property qualification) given the vote.
The posters were sent to the library around 1910 in brown parcel paper, addressed simply to “the Librarian”, by Marion Phillips, a leading figure in the Women’s Labour League. She would later become chief woman officer for the Labour Party and an MP for Sunderland in the 1929 general election. According to the library’s exhibitions officer Chris Burgess, these are rare artefacts of the era. “They were created to be plastered on walls, torn down by weather or political opponents, so it is highly unusual for this material to be safely stored for over a hundred years.”
The posters took aim at a number of political issues of the time which restricted women’s rights, and were distributed by suffragettes to protest for women of all levels in society. “The majority opinion in the UK was against women’s votes,” says Lucy Delap, a member of Cambridge University’s faculty and a specialist in feminist history. “The suffrage movement definitely had to reach out to many women. Campaigning went far beyond the simple equality message to point out how the vote could make a difference in households, at work, on the streets – matters that concern all women.”
To that effect, some of the posters depict different types of women and the political issues that concern them, for example a factory worker – whose rights at work were decided by men – captioned with the quote “They have a cheek, I’ve never been asked.” Others are more general, such as one painted by prominent Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant, showing a man in a boat being pulled along easily by his “votes” sail, while a woman rows against the tide unable to keep up. It is simply captioned “Handicapped!”
A selection of the posters is on display at the Cambridge University Library until 31 March.