Equal rights is everyone’s unfinished business

Equal rights is everyone’s unfinished business

When you start walking round the British Library’s new exhibition on women’s rights, it first seems like a who’s who of feminist influencers from the last century. Celebrities (Jameela Jamil’s smashed scales, reality TV stars on magazine covers), politicians like the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas wearing a ‘No More Page Three’ T-shirt during a parliament session,  activists like Greta Thunberg, Notting Hill Carnival founder Claudia Jones and the suffragettes appear side by side, raising issues like body image, the right to vote and protest. 

Further into Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, we get to watch a clip about the women working in a fish packing plant in Hull who achieved equal pay in 1984; we also hear from a trio of Black women in wheelchairs who call themselves The Tripple Cripples discussing the joys of online dating (“You can and you should, as a disabled person have unwavering standards”). 

We learn about the ‘ayahs’ – Indian women who became separated from their children to work as nannies for wealthy British families in colonial India, the ugly xenophobia behind Marie Stopes’ pioneering work to promote contraception, the imperialist views of the British suffragettes, and the plight of female refugees, often the most vulnerable group in society. 

By not shying away from the unpleasant moments in feminist history when it’s had a white, middle class focus, the message is clear: gender equality will never truly be addressed until we deal with racism, classism, discrimination of all kinds and the root of it all: poverty. 

Photo courtesy of the British Library

Unfinished Business took three years to put together, and was originally set to open in early 2020. Then Covid-19 hit, followed by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have not only led to a far greater understanding of how deeply entrenched racism is in our institutions, but have made people actively think about the kind of  society they want to live in, and more than ever before, take steps to create it. 

The Poor People’s Campaign, a growing movement inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s call to unite all impoverished communities across the US, is a group of people who have come together to tackle racism, poverty, the climate crisis, militarism, and oppression in all its forms. Although the exhibition doesn’t specifically address the pandemic or Black Lives Matter, it covers all the above, and is a reminder of two things: the importance of libraries as the birthplaces of activist movements throughout history; and that around the world, at any point in time, there will always be women of whatever colour, race or background who are standing up and fighting for justice. 

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights is on at the British Library in London till Sunday 1 Aug 2021. 

Leila Hawkins


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