Rights for women: London’s pioneers in their own words is a free exhibition at Senate House Library (SHL), which runs from 16 July–15 December. It explores the famous and also lesser-known stories of more than 50 female pioneers who used London as a platform to campaign and advance equality for women in the areas of politics, employment, education and reproductive rights, from the late 18th century to present time.

Dr Maria Castrillo, SHL’s head of special collections and engagement, explains how and why the exhibition came about.

The idea for the exhibition emerged as a response to this year’s milestone in the history of the University of London, which is celebrating 150 years since the institution established the Special Examination for Women in 1868, a modest but important step in securing equal access to higher education. This anniversary provided an opportunity to go further and delve deeper in Senate House Library’s collections to reveal the individual and collective stories about women’s struggle for equal rights.

The exhibition content and design aim to offer a rich and diverse tapestry of women’s voices and narratives over the past 250 years. Through the unique and precious autobiographical accounts, books published in the course of their professional lives, manuscript letters, petitions, memorials, ephemera and photographs on display and online visitors are encouraged to explore the work of these female pioneers who broke barriers and drove change. Using London as a lens to highlight these stories was a natural choice. Given it is one of the world’s most diverse and multicultural metropolises, this global city offered the right angle to place these important debates into a much wider context.

Among the stories featured in the exhibition are those of early pioneers such as Phillis Wheatley and Mary Prince, whose influence on the debates concerning the inhumanity of slavery at the end of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th century was unprecedented (left, The History of Mary Prince, London: F. Westley and A.H. Davis, 1831).

Their works sit next to those of well-known activists of the women’s suffrage movement such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst, and not far from the writings of some of the first female MPs to take their seat in Parliament following the passing of The Representation of the People Act 1918. While it may seem that, there is no close connection between anti-slavery campaigning and winning the vote, one cannot be understood without the other.

Women’s political activism continued throughout the second half of the 20th century. This is evidenced by pioneers such as Sheila Rowbotham, whose seminal pamphlet Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (below, Nottingham: The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1971), first published in 1969, is on display in the exhibition next to the works of prominent activists Amrit Wilson and Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe (below, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, London: Virago, 1985). They were instrumental in steering change and equality for women from ethnic minorities in London.










Increasing access to learning and full educational opportunities is one of the most effective ways to empower women and achieve full equality. The exhibition touches on this key debate given its relevance to contemporary society. Female educationists such as Dorothea Beale, Frances Mary Buss and Emily Davies were concerned with raising the standard of teaching and learning for young girls. They also played a key role in ensuring that the doors of higher education opened to women at the University of London, which in 1868 approved the regulations to conduct the Special Examination for Women. It is no coincidence that the supplemental charter granted to the university in 1867 to make this change possible is surrounded by letters and documents written by these pioneers of female education.

Supplemental Charter granted to the University of London to enable the establishment of the Special Examination for Women, 27 August 1867 

Working for justice and particularly for equality in the areas of employment and pay, is an ongoing issue. The section of the exhibition concerned with this subject is thought-provoking and compelling. As well as showcasing the work of social reform pioneers like Clementina Black, Helen Bosanquet and Clara Collet, it provides a fascinating picture of women coming together and ensuring their collective voice was heard and amplified through the trade union movement and other campaigning organisations.

Furthermore, this section explores the role of pioneering women in the professional world, particularly as publishers (Margaret Busby and Carmen Callil); journalists (Una Marson); and writers (Virginia Woolf), and how they led the way in breaking the glass ceiling in the work place, and in doing so contributed to enshrining rights for women.

The last section of the exhibition focuses on reproductive rights, and particularly on birth control and the implementation of legislation to ensure safe abortions. These are complex issues where ethical, social and public health considerations come into play.

Exploring the subject through the lens of the women who campaigned for contraception and the right to abortion has been truly enlightening, and a poignant reminder that very often campaigning for radical change comes with a huge personal price to pay. One such example was Annie Besant, who was arrested and tried for publishing material that advocated birth control for the poor. After her victory at the trial, she published Law of Population (1877). Both the media and the establishment were polarised about it and the scandal cost her the custody of her children.

One of the main aims of this exhibition is to provide a historical snapshot of how women have struggled to achieve equality through their own voices and in their own words. In doing so, the exhibition will raise awareness about the continuing relevance and of these issues and ensure these messages are carried forward by today’s women and those of the future.

To that end, the ‘continuing her story’ engagement project which is being developed as part of the season seeks to showcase the works that have influenced contemporary pioneers such as Amrit Wilson, Helen Pankhurst, Naomi Paxton and Stella Dadzie, to continue a platform for women’s voices today. We want to gather as many voices as possible and are inviting the public to participate and add their stories to our digital platform and also via social media by using the hashtags #RfW18 and #RememberHer.

More information

  • The exhibition is co-curated by Dr Maria Castrillo (head of special collections and engagement) and Mura Ghosh (psychology research librarian).
  • Rebecca Simpson (engagement officer) and Dorothée Olivereau (graphic designer) have created the artwork and exhibition design.
  • The events programme to accompany the exhibition include: walking tours; a film club on the last Thursday of the month in SHL’s periodicals room; a comics and zines workshop; a women’s parliament; a talk by leading activist Helen Pankhurst; book launches; a songs of suffrage concert; and a grand finale event at the end of November. Most of these events are free, with details on the SHL website.