Black History

Researching at The Women’s Library

Amid growing concern about the future of the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University (highlighted on this website recently by Angela V. John), Gemma Romain – last year’s Vera Douie Fellow at the library – reflects on the unique value of its holdings, and the urgent need to safeguard these collections

The Women’s Library 2001 © The Women’s Library

I am among many researchers saddened and concerned to learn that The Women’s Library is threatened with having to find a new custodian or have its opening hours reduced to just one day per week. The foundations of The Women’s Library date back to 1926 and for the last ten years it has been housed in a dedicated building converted to purpose with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is Britain’s largest archive of women’s history and its suffrage collections are UNESCO-awarded. The Library holds over 60,000 books and pamphlets and over 500 archival collections dated from the mid-nineteenth century to today on subjects ranging from equal suffrage, campaigning against sexual violence, international women’s rights, black women’s struggles and racial equality, lesbian activism, and economic and civil rights. It includes personal papers of individuals including the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison,Octavia Wilberforce, Ray Strachey; oral histories and testimonies including interviews with women supporting the miners’ strike, and organisational archives such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, records of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. The library also contains a museum collection including badges, banners, paintings, and postcards. For more on the history of the library and some of its unique contents, see Angela John’s posting.

women's tax resistance league banner, circa 1910
Women’s Women’s Tax Resistance League banner, circa 1910, copyright: The Women’s Library, courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library.

During 2011 I was the Vera Douie Fellow for The Women’s Library, documenting interwar Black histories within their collections in order to create a database for public use. The project explored the hidden histories of Black women and men in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s, seeking out evidence of the various and complex interactions between black and white individuals during this time. Additionally, I focused on adding to the database documents relating to themes of gender and imperialism, international women’s rights campaigning, the relationship between women campaigners in Britain and anti-colonialism, and the intersections of race, class and gender within interracial port settlements such as Bute Town in Cardiff. The experience of working with the collections was richly rewarding both on a personal and academic level and highlighted for me the importance of this unique resource to Britain’s heritage. Archives and libraries such as The Women’s Library are essential for uncovering previously marginalised histories and for exploring histories which are often pieced together by utilising a range of fragmentary sources.

Due to the strength and diversity of the library’s printed and archival collections, I was able to explore Black history through the prism of a range of individual and organisational histories, researching not only reports and journals, but also fragmentary personal histories found in diary extracts, letters, memoirs, testimony, notes and drawings. The collections relating to women’s campaigning groups in interwar Britain reveal activities that were often international in nature – such as the peace campaigning of Christian feminist Agnes Maude Royden – and as a result women and men of African and Asian heritage often appear within these type of records. Additionally, women in Britain and the Dominions campaigned on questions concerning empire and gender; for example organisations such as the British Commonwealth League often discussed issues including interracial relationships and racial ‘equality’ within the confines of empire. Some positive links were formed between black and white activists within certain campaigns, but within these relationships there existed unequal power relations, imperialist ‘civilization mission’ rhetoric and actions and limited representation and involvement of women of African heritage within decision-making processes.

Photograph of the 12th International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) Congress, Istanbul, 1935, copyright: The Women’s Library, courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library

I was interested in exploring silences and omissions within the archive – which particular movements, organisations, and individuals do not appear in the records and what this absence signifies about the interactions between white and black individuals and organisations within the period. For example in the records of Royden there are several mentions of Jamaican doctor Harold Moody, founder and President or the British anti-racist organisation the League of Coloured Peoples (established in 1931) but she appears not to have engaged with more radical black organisations and individuals of the time also living in Britain such as pan-African and women’s rights activist Amy Ashwood Garvey and communist and pan-Africanist George Padmore. The collections also include records of Indian women’s groups such as conference reports of the All India Women’s Conference, highlighting their campaigning activities in gender equality, suffrage, education, involvement in the Indian independence movement, as well as the ways in which they responded to women’s groups in Britain on issues within these campaigns and travelled to Britain to take part in campaigning.

Cover image of the 1985 book The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe. Reproduced by permission of Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group

Some of the Women’s Library documents included in the resulting database and exhibition Archival Tales include:

  • Typescripts of various articles by Sylvia Pankhurst, who along with suffrage campaigning dedicated herself to campaigning against colonialism and the fascist Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In ‘Make the League of Nations Genuine’ she writes about the League’s failure to support Ethiopia, stating:

 ‘The past year has been a dark and disgraceful one for the statesmen of this country and for the League of Nations. But we cannot content ourselves with sorrowing over the past. To women especially I would say: these are the politics we have inherited from the days before women entered into their citizenship: we are here to change them. … So far from trembling at Mussolini’s threat to withdraw from the League, we should call on the League to expel his Government for its breach of the Covenant, and to broadcast the fact in Italian to the oppressed people of Italy, that they may know the truth. I appeal to women to join me in agitating and working for the defeat of Italian Fascism.

  • Various reports of the conferences held in London by the British Commonwealth League which took place throughout the 1920s and 1930s and were attended by many individuals representing Indian women’s groups, including the Women’s Indian Association and the National Council of Women in India. Some women and men of African heritage also attended these conferences including Kikuyu activist and future Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, Trinidadian activist Audrey Jeffers, Jamaican feminist and writer Una Marson, Jamaican founder and President of the LCP Harold Moody and a West African nurse called Miss Quaynor who talked about Africa at the 1936 conference and who previously worked in Clapham and Dulwich. At the 1934 conference Una Marson, representing the LCP, spoke on the colour bar in England.

‘Miss Una Marson (League of Coloured Peoples) said that she came from the West Indies, where, through the strenuous efforts of the coloured people, there really was no colour bar, and coloured and white people worked harmoniously together.  Though there was no official colour bar there was still, as in Britain, a good deal of class prejudice.  She spoke at length on the difficulties placed in the way of qualified coloured nurses desiring to join the staff on any hospital in England.  English hospitals would not accept coloured nurses, and she appealed to the British Commonwealth League to take the matter up’.

Extract from Report of Tenth Annual Conference, Held on 13, 14 and 15 June 1934 at Y.W.C.A Central Club, London on the theme of ‘Women, Work and Pay Within the British Commonwealth.’

  • Newspaper articles and poetry by Claude McKay, Jamaican socialist poet of the Harlem Renaissance. During the time he lived in London from 1919 to 1921 McKay worked for Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper The Workers’ Dreadnought. He published his more radical and anti-imperialist writings under various pseudonyms. This poem Battle written under the name of Hugh Hope was published The Workers’ Dreadnought, on 9 October 1920:

    • The Eccleston Guildhouse visitors’ book, 1921 – 1936. The Guildhouse was established by the feminist Christian preacher, Agnes Maude Royden as a place of worship engaged in various educational and social activities. It held lectures on topics including philosophy, world religions, race relations, and empire. Looking at signatures within visitor books in general is an important way of exploring the hidden Black presence, documenting who attended public meetings and events and when individuals from Africa and Asia visited or lived in Britain. Those who signed the visitor book included M.K. Gandhi, Shoran S. Singha, and the Indian women’s rights activist J. A. Shah Nawaz.
a group of women watching a pruning demonstration by the womens institute in 1964
A Women’s Institute pruning course taking place at Denman College, Oxfordshire, circa 1964, copyright: The Women’s Library, courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library

These are just a few of the diverse and significant items found within the collections which relate to Black British history and the histories of women of African and Asian heritage. Any break-up of the library would result in the further marginalisation of black women’s history, a history already greatly-ignored and sidelined.

To join the campaign to save the Women’s Library you can sign this petition and follow the London Met UNISON campaign here.


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