“We are not beautiful,” say the words on the leaflet, alongside a picture of a raging, cigar-smoking vixen with hairy legs. “We are not ugly,” they continue. “WE ARE ANGRY.” This leaflet was part of the protests against Miss World contests in the 1970s. It features in Unfinished Business, an exhibition that traces the history of the women’s movement through its signature, headline-grabbing flareups, but also through its imagery, philosophy and artefacts, with one eye always on the work left to do.
You can’t help but be struck by the vastness of the terrain: this movement needed its engineers as much as its crusaders, its poets and comedians as much as its scientists. It took a village, in other words, and then a load of other villages. It would be glossing the reality to say that it took all women, but it took enough of us that to tell its history means running headlong into an inconvenient truth: the trouble with women is we don’t all agree.
There are some lovely details: a carefully engineered dress from the first days of the mass-produced bicycle, which allowed women to hoik up their skirts and experience leg liberation for the first time, then let the skirts down again when they wanted to pass, socially, for obedient helpmeets. Sylvia Pankhurst’s poetry, smuggled out of prison on bog roll during one of her many sentences in 1920, is part of the archive – testament, I think, to her standing as the feminist’s feminist.
There is a section on female pleasure, accompanied by a podcast that I found rather mournful, in which the philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan hears from a group of 17-year-old women about what the limits still are to their fulfilment. Not as much has changed as you might wish: female masturbation is still taboo; women still feel the expectation upon them to be passive, un-appetitive.
I would argue that this is because the tension between sex-positive feminists, in the second wave, and let’s call it the all-men-are-the-enemy school, in the same era, was never resolved. We see it playing out again in the fierce intra-feminist rows about sex work, which this exhibition approaches trenchantly, determining SWARM (the sex worker advocacy and resistance movement) to be a critical part of the fight for women’s rights at work, alongside equal pay initiatives and the struggle for the recognition of domestic labour, which has a very long and intellectually rich history.
Drawing on British Library archives, curator Polly Russell has made all those differences part of the intellectual texture, rather than a historical awkwardness: alongside those Miss World protests are the black beauty pageants launched by Claudia Jones, the Marxist feminist campaigner exiled from the US by the McCarthy trials.
There’s a whole series of podcasts running alongside the exhibition. In Pants, Pageants and Protest, the academic Dr Rochelle Rowe discusses the tension between the black beauty pageant launched by Jones that was a seminal part of what would eventually become the Notting Hill Carnival; and the Miss World that white feminism was protesting six years later, the first year ever that a black contestant had won. Objectification is oppression, and the fight against it was critical to the second wave. But simultaneously, the endemic racism that simply erased black women from the concept of beauty was its own oppression.
The women’s movement has been criticised, rightly, for its myopia on race, from the Suffragettes onwards. Christabel Pankhurst’s paper, Britannia, explicitly connects the fight for women’s suffrage with the British imperial project, happy to accommodate this contradiction, that a rights-based movement might be able to draw itself a national border, and disregard the rights of any outside it.
Marie Stopes famously battled for female reproductive autonomy – and was arguably, in my view, as important to the arc of female self-determination as any of the democratic movements – and yet was a well-known eugenicist, with all the explicit and implicit racism that went along with that. (Actually, I think history is unjust on this. Stopes flirted with the eugenics movement to win funding from it; women’s movements never have any money. If you didn’t know that already, you can tell from the graphics. Yet there was nothing progressive or, indeed, defensible about her views on race, which were vividly anti-miscegenation.)
So the story of female protest and liberation is by definition vexed and contradictory, and the ability to tell that story in a way that allows its protagonists to be complicated, ambiguous, difficult and, frankly, not always right, is deft and admirable.
Looking at today’s grassroots feminist activists (gal-dem in the media, Sisters Uncut, the anti-austerity movement, those fighting against period poverty) you can see that modernity has thrown up new challenges, failed to resolve old ones, and then there’s perhaps the other big blind spot of the movement: class. How much gender inequality is maintained by wealth inequality? Is it logical or even possible to fight one and not the other? In the 90s, we thought it was, but we thought a lot of dumb things in the 90s. What makes Unfinished Business so interesting is that it is as questioning as it is celebratory.
• Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights is at the British Library, London, until 21 February.