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Reaching back into the past during a lunch break

NPG x197267; (Julia Sarah) Anne Cobden-Sanderson by Unknown photographerThe LSE library is a tall building that during term time is bustling and busy with students from all over the world. The inside of the building resembles a giant white cylinder. A large staircase coils up through the middle of the library like a giant spring from the ground floor to the 4th floor where the Women’s Library Reading Room is located. The staircase is made up of large flat steps that are so widely spaced apart that any person walking down them looks as if they are swaggering like a pirate with a wooden leg. I have met one librarian at LSE that finds this phenomenon very amusing.

It was these stairs that I climbed on a Tuesday morning to meet Anna Towlson, Assistant Archivist at London School of Economics. Anna was going to help me research female suffrage activist, Anne Cobden-Sanderson. Since I had arrived late to the ‘These Dangerous Women’ project, I had not managed to attend the archive training organised for all the other volunteers. Luckily I was assigned to research Anne Cobden-Sanderson, also known as Annie, for whom there was more archive information than my film character, the journalist Miss Jetley.

Anna Towlson is a friendly and helpful woman who showed me how to use the online library catalogue and to request the materials I needed from the archive. Together we searched for any articles, journals, reports and letters that related to Anne Cobden-Sanderson. There was a fair amount of information about Annie available, but I was worried to find that almost all of it had nothing whatsoever to do with WILPF. How was I going to write an appropriate article for the ‘These Dangerous Women’ booklet if Annie Cobden-Sanderson had never actually been one of the ‘dangerous women’ mentioned? Anna reassured me that some relevant information would crop up on closer inspection of the WILPF annual reports, Annie’s prison diaries and her obituaries in various newspaper clippings.

I booked my space in the library, requested my materials and waited for the day when I would begin my research.  Since I already worked at LSE as an administrator I was able to do most of my research in my lunch breaks.  I am frequent visitor to libraries and I read a great deal, but I had not done proper academic research in a library since my days at University, more than 10 years ago. I was a little nervous. There are a lot of rules to remember when dealing with archived and old materials. Luckily the women who work in the LSE Women’s Library Reading Room were very helpful and friendly. They showed me to my assigned desk and handed me a key to the door of the glass box containing my requested items. I settled my notebook and pencils and took a look at my surroundings. The reading room is light, airy, very quiet and peaceful. To my left sat a woman peering over stacks of old women’s magazines, behind me were four undergraduates studying letters from Suffragettes and across the table from me, a man was quietly clicking through newspaper clippings on a microfiche reader machine.

I collected my first box of materials and began to read. Holding old documents gives me a thrill. To know that the very letter I am holding was composed and sent so many years ago by the very woman I am now researching was extremely exciting. Anne Cobden-Sanderson was an extraordinary woman. Having done a little research using online basic biographies of her, I knew that she was a close friend of William Morris and his wife, that she was a left-wing women’s suffrage campaigner, interested in the arts and crafts movement. In 1906 she was arrested for her suffragist activities and sent to Holloway Women’s Prison. In the course of my research I found her prison diaries and on rough blue paper furnished by the prison Warden, I read her observations and her deeply held convictions about gender equality. I was deeply inspired and moved by her strength of character and I scribbled down on my notepad a quote from her diary:

‘Why have I come to feel that the enfranchisement of women is at this moment of supreme importance to the progress of humanity? Because I do not believe that the present industrial system can continue, but will give place to one based on more moral and eternal principles and for the building of which it is necessary that women should take this part.’

My only concern was in all of my research I could find no mention of Annie being involved in the creation of WILPF or showing any desire to attend the peace conference at The Hague in 1915. She was definitely against the Great War, as was her husband and she had signed the Emily Hobhouse open Christmas letter to the women of Germany and Austria from 100 British women calling for peace. As I poured over the annual reports of WILPF from 1915 onwards (revelling in the joy of flicking through its musty pages), I saw how many women throughout London were against the War even as early as 1915. I noted that in 1917, there were around 83 women living in the borough I currently live in who were supporters of WILPF.

As I scanned the names of the women who were regularly donating to WILPF during World War I and the post-war years, I was startled to find regular annual donations from a Mrs Cobden-Sanderson. Who else could it be but Annie? Annie was unusual for the time because when she married her husband Thomas James Sanderson, she kept her maiden name and joined it with her husband’s last name. In fact both Thomas and Anne together adopted the joint surname, an unusual act of equality of the time period, but as her husband poignantly wrote in his diary, it was done ‘in order that she might not lose her name.’ It is highly unlikely that there were two women with this last name in the UK at this time. So there it was, in small black print, a testament to her support of WILPF, even if it was only financial in the final years of her life. As I cradled this book of WILPF 1915 reports in my hands 100 years later, I wondered if Annie knew her small donation was helping to make history and support an organisation still very much alive today.

Clara Manasion Cook

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