IWD Exhibition Review: Deeds Not Words

What: Deeds Not Words: Women’s Suffrage in Britain exhibition

Where: National Library of Australia

When: 6 February 2018 to 19 August 2018

Who: Curated by Dr Beatrice Bijon

Image credit: Kate Riggs

I’ve resisted labelling 2018 so far. Fair, fair, it’s irresistible to assign meaning and momentum to the fantastic uprisings of late – the culmination of #MeToo at the end of last year and the Time’s Up campaign. 20-Gay-Teen is likewise tantalising – and really picking up speed with the casting of Gina Rodriguez as Rosa’s girlfriend in BROOKLYN 99 I’m SO EXCITED!!

Plus, all of this comes after the epic shit show that was 2016 and 2017 – President Pussy Grabber and the Honourable Barnaby ‘too many family values for one family to handle’ Joyce. Women everywhere are ready for change, and we want it now.

But, as A Feminist History Person, it is my duty to crush this sort of celebratory meaning-making, and to crush it good. For all there is to cheer about 2018, there is one thing to pour one out for: it has only been 100 years since Britain gave women the right to vote.

Fine, okay, that is worth a celebration! But what if I told you that was only for women over 30? And that it still took place 19 years after Australian women attained the vote? British (and Australian) suffragettes pursued gruelling tactics such as hunger strikes, throwing themselves under carriages, and chaining themselves to parliament. I know, I know, you already knew all of this, because you are Collage readers and you know What’s Up. But not everyone is as entertainingly informed as you are.

Image credit: Kate Riggs

This centenary of British women’s suffrage is the subject of the National Library of Australia’s Deeds Not Words: Women’s Suffrage in Britain. The exhibition features letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, badges, and other wonderful objects from the personal collection of Bessie Rischbieth, donated following her death in 1967. An influential feminist, OBE, and League of Nations appointee, Rischbieth witnessed the British suffragette movement at its zenith during her travels in 1913. Inspired by the political zeitgeist, she built a collection of remarkable memorabilia, which continued to grow throughout a lifetime spent campaigning for equality.

Bessie Rischbieth conceived of her collection as a ‘bridge over the British and Australian demand for the vote’, and the exhibition does frame the tenacious link between battle-hardened (voting) Australian women and their British sisters. Curator Dr Beatrice Bijon does what she can with the small space allocated within the National Library’s ‘Treasures’ Collection, amidst a brief but captivating look at the arc of Australian public life.

Deeds Not Words hints at the epoch-making battle that was women’s suffrage in Edwardian Britain. Though at times rather dry, there are some interesting finds – such as an official souvenir napkin, commemorative badges for hunger strikers, and Rischbieth’s original hand-lettered signs for her would-be ‘exhibit’. A rather missed opportunity rests in the lack of sound, especially as song was so important to the movement being commemorated. There are glimpses here and there of the important role played by anthems, including sheet music for “March of The Women” (which has been in my head all week, you’re welcome). Sound could have lent an inclusive atmosphere that was sorely missing from the exhibition space.

Image credit: Kate Riggs

Maybe it was the smell of International Women’s Day around the corner, but I came away yearning even more for an Australian National Women’s History Museum, a place of one’s own (thanks Virginia). As Deeds Not Words recounts, many of our Australian activists who won the right to vote and stand in parliament here later went on to be fundamental in international women’s suffrage campaigns. The National Library of Australia, Adelaide’s Centre of Democracy and other similar institutions across the country should be lauded for their efforts to document the women’s movement and early Australian suffragettes. There are contenders for the role of Women’s History National Collection across the country, yet in a city like Canberra where every aspect of Australia’s heritage seems to be symbolised in a national institution, Australian women’s internationally significant heritage feels underrepresented.

This is not to say Australia is not at the forefront of the industry: the International Association of Women’s Museums was actually founded in 2012 at Alice Springs. Physical and virtual museums of women’s heritage and history exist all around the world, from Senegal to Peru. Even more, there is a global drive to include women and other minorities within traditional collections. Think of ‘queering the museum’ programs that have spread out across institutions across the world. I felt exhilarated during my first encounter with this movement via the Unstraight Museum in Sweden. Since then, this process of refreshing permanent collections by presenting queer angles has exploded, even into our own backyard via History SA’s efforts to invite LQBTIQ representation.

All this brings me back to the exhibition before me: I wandered into the NLA, and fell by accident upon the exhibition. I was emotional, and left my fair share of greasy finger-marks over the glass exhibition cases. I felt like I echoed Rischbieth’s words in a letter to her sister after hearing Emily Pankhurst: “as I listened, I felt my backbone growing longer, as though you gained courage and freedom from her“.

But I still left unsatisfied. Repeat viewing and more careful examination for this review again stirred me, but left me needing more.

I am conscious that the words ‘not enough’ are etched into women’s psyches – one of the most distasteful lessons of the patriarchy is to ‘get over’ our dissatisfaction with our traditional emotional, political, and sexual lives. Ultimately, the suffragette movement is one stitch in the fabric of women’s cultural heritage. Its importance to Australian history and our standing in the world cannot be understated – but so too monumental game changers like the contraceptive pill and the criminalisation of marital rape.

Image credit: Kate Riggs

Yes, there is something that feels momentous about 2018. Women all over the world will not be confined to the fringes anymore. We don’t care if you want to listen, we will continue to rise and help our sisters in their fights – like workplace harassment, displacement, and disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous women – just as we’ve done before. Go see this exhibition, and any other space that celebrates, mourns, and lifts the curtain on the great deeds of women like Bessie Rischbieth. Remember: we have more than 100 years of history behind us. Keep up the momentum.

Kate Riggs

Deeds Not Words: Women’s Suffrage in Britain is at the National Library of Australia until August 19.

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