I am recommending a tiny but eye-opening London exhibition! It’s free, open to all and hosted by the LSE library at 10 Portugal St until 9 April.
Entitled Women Peace and Equality, one part of the exhibition emphasises how women have consistently promoted peace. It highlights both the founding of WILPF and our recent campaigning work, particularly outlining our involvement in the various versions of UN Resolution 1325 that all seek clear gender guidelines in every peacekeeping effort.
The other main aspect of the exhibition features stories of women’s practical humanitarian interventions in wars and their aftermaths. It concentrates on three key periods: the Boer Wars; World War 1; and the Spanish Civil War.
These stories are told through individual women’s eyes – but the exhibition always keeps a sense of the social and political movements they represented. Thus we discover that it was women who initiated the campaign against the atrocious conditions Boer soldiers’ families were suffering in the British concentration camps.
As a result, the prominent suffragist Millicent Fawcett and Lucy Deane Streatfield, later associated with the early days of both WILPF and the Women’s Institute, and one of the first women factory inspectors, were sent to South Africa in 1901as leaders of a Women’s Commission to report directly to government.
Of particular relevance to current crises is the exhibition’s story of the 250,000 displaced Belgian families supported in Britain particularly through women’s efforts during WW1. And how, in 1919 the magnificent Eglantyne Jebb became a prime mover in the post war Fight the Famine movement.
Distributing leaflets protesting against the starvation conditions imposed on Germany and Austria by the British government’s continued blockade, she was promptly arrested under the new Defence of the Realm Act. At her trial, the prosecutor was so moved by her oratory that he paid her £5 fine. This became the first donation for the Save the Children organisation that she founded that same year.
Labour MP Dr Edith Summerskill is mainly remembered for her sustained campaign throughout 1950s to ban professional boxing. But she is represented in this exhibition as a key member of The National Women’s Appeal for Food for Spain during the Civil War and as a member of the 1930s Socialist Medical Alliance that contributed much of the thinking feeding into the creation of the postwar NHS.
These are just a few of the stories the exhibition recounts. What is striking about nearly all the narratives is the predominance of very well-to-do women, from families steeped in an ethos of public service and social justice. Whilst few visitors to the exhibition will share their sort of material wealth, many more of us will have had similar kinds of educational and social opportunities.
And what we can maybe all identify with is the extent of women’s multitasking. In the first half of the last century, just as now, how often women’s involvement in one campaign seems to lead inevitably to taking on another and then just one more!
By: Rosalind Brunt