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Camden feminism: From Mary Wollstonecraft and Millicent Fawcett to Red Rag

PUBLISHED: 12:05 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 16:38 21 June 2018

A display case of feminist memorabilia on show at the A Stone's Throw From Westminster exhibition. Picture: Sam Volpe

A display case of feminist memorabilia on show at the A Stone's Throw From Westminster exhibition. Picture: Sam Volpe

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In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman while living in Camden and, in the years since, the borough has been a hotbed of feminist activity.

Women's rights posters at the A Stone's Throw exhibition. Picture: Sam VolpeWomen's rights posters at the A Stone's Throw exhibition. Picture: Sam Volpe

This summer, an exhbition called A Stone’s Throw From Westminster is drawing attention to this long and storied history.

Dr Susan Croft is co-curating the exhibition, which is being held at the Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre, along with Dr Irene Cockroft.

Dr Croft told the Ham&High: “Camden has been at the forefront of feminist movements for more than a century.

“From Mary Wollstonecraft to suffrage and then the women’s liberation movements in the 1970s, there are huge links to the borough.

An old banner for Kenwood Ladies Pond Swimmers. Picture: Sam VolpeAn old banner for Kenwood Ladies Pond Swimmers. Picture: Sam Volpe

“Take Belsize Lane Women’s Liberation Movement — they were one of the first in England and one of the prime movers in the second wave during the 1970s!”

The main thrust of the exhibition highlights Camden’s connections to campaign to get women the vote.

The headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were in Holborn - although they are now an unremarked upon Bill’s restaurant. Meanwhile pioneering sisters Millicent Garrett Fawcett — whose statue was unveiled in Parliament Square this year — and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson both lived in the area.

Of Elizabeth, Dr Croft said: “She was the first woman to qualify as a doctor. Another of those women who were foundational in their field while also campaigners for the vote — she signed the landmark 1866 petition.”

Millicent Fawcett's 1922 letter. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archive CentreMillicent Fawcett's 1922 letter. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre

Younger sister Millicent Fawcett is more well known, and pride of place in the exhbition is a letter she wrote in 1922.

For Dr Croft though, the exhibition is about more than just the suffrage movement.

She explained: “The really important thing is that it’s not just about then — about the past — it’s about now. So many things in politics today are feminist concerns, from austerity to cuts in social care, all of these things impact disproportionately on women.

“We wanted to make sure that the exhibition didn’t portray women’s rights movements as something that just happened in the past.

British travel writer, author and essayist Mary Wollstonecraft.British travel writer, author and essayist Mary Wollstonecraft.

“In the 1970s Camden women were in the vanguard. A number of them are still in the borough and still meeting.

“They started communes, they edited magazines like Red Rag...

The exhibition also shows off feminist banners, some date back to the 1900s but others were made especially for the Processions march which celebrated the centenary of women getting the vote.

This took place just before the exhibition opened, and the curators even held banner-making workshops.

Dr Croft continued: “I am really concerned that all of that history is preserved, along with the more well-known things about the suffragists and suffragettes.”

Part of the exhibition’s purpose is to tell untold stories. For example, Dr Croft told me that the cases of Camden women Margarget Wynne Nevinson and Evelyn Sharp prove a point.

Both married the celebrated war correspondent Henry Nevinson, whilst artist CRW Nevinson was Margaret’s son.

Dr Croft said: “Henry and CRW Nevinson are getting blue plaques unveiled at their old home in Belsize Park. Margaret and Evelyn were both remarkable women and suffragists, and they’re being ignored...

“Evelyn Sharp ran the WSPU’s newspaper and Margaret was a teacher and then she wrote the incredible play In The Workhouse,”

Another woman featured is Kathleen Brown a Newcastle-based suffragette who had a huge influence.

“She once stole a fire engine on and drove it down Tottenham Court Road, sirens blaring.

“Then there’s a story that she once chased Winston Churchill down the Thames in a boat. Sadly, she did three stints in Holloway prison on hunger strike, being force fed.”

The curators are keen that the exhibition’s message is amplified. Dr Croft said: “We really want to make this into something more permanent, we want to find funding for a book, or even a film about all of this”

Send us your views about the ongoing fight for equality. Email letters@hamhigh.co.uk to be featured on our opinion pages.

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