European studies blog

12 posts categorized "Women's histories"

12 February 2021

Multi-tasking women from the 1920s to the 2020s

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One of our key roles as curators is to explore the contemporary resonance of the Library’s collections in national and international contexts. I was acutely reminded of this two weeks ago when showing an item at an event connected to the exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. Together with colleagues from the European, Americas and Oceania collections, we each selected and discussed an item that we felt spoke to the themes of the exhibition and went beyond its UK focus, before joining the audience for an informal Q&A session.

Beginning with women's suffrage cartoons from a 19th-century newspaper published in Aotearoa New Zealand, the session also introduced our online audience to the cartonera book Afro Latina by the Afro-Brazilian lesbian author Formiga, as well as a work by the 19th-century French writer, feminist and anarchist Victoire Léodile Béra, known as André Léo.

The event was originally scheduled to take place in June 2020 at the British Library but was postponed – along with the exhibition – due to the pandemic and eventually re-conceived as an online session. Like many of the Library’s brilliant online events over the past year, the format allowed us to reach a much larger audience, with close to 100 people tuning in.

Ialtinskaia Delegatka

Ialtinskaia Delegatka. Yalta, 1927. Add MS 57556.

The item I presented was an enormous 2-metre long, hand-drawn Soviet wall newspaper, Ialtinskaia Delegatka (The Yalta Woman Delegate). Created by a local women’s committee in Yalta, Crimea, in the late 1920s, it contains reports on their achievements, as well as amateur poetry, drawings and stories intended to inspire and promote communist values.

In the bottom right hand corner is a drawing of a woman carrying out an epic feat of multitasking. She is simultaneously writing (possibly carrying out committee work for the newspaper), cooking, cleaning and watching a child. I find it particularly fascinating as it encapsulates the different – often conflicting and gendered - responsibilities that the new Soviet woman was supposed to balance: those of a Communist citizen, worker, mother and, increasingly by the late 1920s, wife.

Close up of a drawing from the newspaper of a woman simultaneously writing, cooking, cleaning and caring for a child

Close up of a drawing from the newspaper of a woman simultaneously writing, cooking, cleaning and caring for a child

The newspaper is important as it gives us an idea of how the 1917 Russian Revolution and the first years of Bolshevik rule affected the lives of many women – as seen from the perspective of women themselves.

The Bolshevik revolution established the legal equality of women and men. In October 1918, legislation known as The Family Code granted illegitimate children the same legal rights as legitimate ones, secularised marriage, and allowed a couple to take either the husband or wife’s name once married. Divorce became easily obtainable, abortion was legalised in 1920, and communal facilities for childcare and domestic tasks were introduced with the aim of relieving women of household chores and dismantling the traditional, nuclear family. In 1919, a Women’s Bureau (Zhenotdel) was established. Its purpose was to disseminate propaganda among working class women and attempt to engage them in public life and the revolutionary process.

Cover of the women's journal Rabotnitsa featuring a woman worker with a banner

Cover of the women's journal Rabotnitsa, No. 1, 1923. BL copies at Mic.F.866 and Mic.A.20186. Image from Wikimedia Commons

By the mid- to late-1920s, both public and party attitudes towards family policy had become more conservative. This was partly in response to the social impact of some of the reforms of 1918, particularly de facto marriages, which were seen to in fact create inequality for women.

High unemployment among women in the 1920s and rising numbers of homeless children played a significant role in the return to the more traditional family unit. In 1926 a new marriage law granted registered and unregistered marriages equal rights and placed more emphasis on the obligations that came with marriage. Plans to free women from childcare and housework by creating communal facilities had also failed to fully materialise – as is perhaps clear from the drawing of the multi-tasking woman.

In the 1930s, Stalin further reversed many of the rights granted to women and families in the 1918 Family Code. Abortion was banned, divorce became extremely difficult to obtain, and the law on the rights of illegitimate children was revoked.

Stalin also closed the Zhenotdel in 1930 on the basis that women’s emancipation had been achieved in the Soviet Union and the department was therefore no longer needed. Despite this, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, women constituted (on average) only 3–4% of the party’s Central Committee.

Thus, the early Communist vision of women’s equality and liberation was never fully realised. As emphasis shifted back towards the traditional family unit in the 1930s, women were faced with the double burden of combining domestic duties with full-time work.

Although the newspaper had been at the back of my mind before the pandemic, it took on an additional significance in the context of the past year’s events. On seeing the drawing of the multi-tasking woman, one colleague remarked that it gave her goosebumps. Across the world, women are doing more unpaid domestic chores and family care as a result of the pandemic, often in addition to other work responsibilities. According to global data from UN Women, it could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality.

Stay home advert showing a woman carrying out domestic chores and home-schooling children while the only man depicted is seen relaxing on the sofa

Official social media advert from January 2021 urging people to ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’

The use of gender stereotypes in the media only serves to reinforce this inequality. Just the day before the event, it transpired that the UK government had withdrawn a ‘Stay Home’ advert after it was criticised for its sexist portrayal of women. The advert showed a woman carrying out domestic chores and home-schooling children while the only man depicted is seen relaxing on the sofa. 

The backlash to the advert, along with the countless inspiring stories of activism featured in the Unfinished Business exhibition, demonstrate that the fight for gender equality is far from over.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.

Further reading and references:

Barbara Alpern Engel, Women in Russia, 1700–2000 (Cambridge; New York, 2004)

Catherine Baker, ed., Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (London; New York, 2017)

Elizabeth A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1997)

Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 (London, 1999)

Marianna Muravyeva and Natalia Novikova, eds., Women's History in Russia: (Re)Establishing the Field (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014).

Melanie Ilic, ed., The Palgrave Handbook of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Russia and the Soviet Union (London, 2017).

Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930 (Princeton, NJ; Oxford, 1991)

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905–1917 (Pittsburg, Pa., 2010)

Rosalind Marsh, ed., Women in Russia and Ukraine (Cambridge, 1996)

Wilma Rule and Norma C. Noonan, eds., Russian Women in Politics and Society (Westport, Conn.; London, 1996)

29 January 2021

A radical duo and their Italian connection

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Antonio Gramsci’s influence and legacy has been extraordinarily rich and vast, producing new ideas, interpretations and seeds all over the world. But how is Gramsci indirectly related to the current BL exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights?

Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) was the only regular foreign correspondent for the Italian newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (‘The New Order’), established by Gramsci and three other editors (Angelo Tasca, Palmiro Togliatti, and Umberto Terracini) on 1 May 1919 in Turin. Her monthly contribution entitled Lettere dall’Inghilterra (‘Letters from England’) was translated by Palmiro Togliatti (1893 –1964).

Front page of L’Ordine Nuovo

Front page of L’Ordine Nuovo, 11-18 December 1920, n. 22. Source: Wikipedia Commons 

More than just a workers’ newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo was the vibrant engine of the mass education policy set up by Gramsci in Italy’s vibrant ‘Motor City’. During the strikes of 1919-20 (the so-called Biennio Rosso), Turin became the ‘City of Factory Councils and Red Guards’, the ‘Mecca of Italian Communism, the ‘Italian Petrograd’, almost on the verge of a Bolshevik-style Italian revolution. At the heart of this revolutionary hive was L’Ordine Nuovo’s office, where all sorts of people flocked to visit Gramsci. Among the international visitors to Gramsci’s office, during the turbulent year of 1919, was Sylvia Pankhurst. The trait d’union, who arranged the meeting between two advocates of working-class interests, was Silvio Corio (1875-1954), Sylvia’s partner and interpreter during their clandestine journey across Italy (Turin, Milan and Bologna).

Photographs of Sylvia Pankhurst and Silvio Corio

Sylvia Pankhurst and Silvio Corio. Source: Westminster Libraries 

An anarchist printer and journalist, Corio joined the network of Italian radical activists in London in 1901. The elective affinity (of heart and mind) between Corio and Pankhurst blossomed in 1917 and produced the first and most influential duo of antifascists in Great Britain during the two World Wars. Corio worked shoulder to shoulder with Pankhurst at the London communist newspaper Workers' Dreadnought (1917-24), being a major source of influence and support in all her campaigns and activities, although he was keeping a low profile to avoid any trouble threatened by the Aliens’ Act of 1918.

Front page of The Workers' Dreadnought,

The Workers' Dreadnought, 3 May 1919 (LOU.LON.702). Image from Spartacus Educational 

Three years before Mussolini’s ascent to power, the contacts with Gramsci and the other leftist intellectuals ignited the spark of anti-fascism in Pankhurst. During her critical journey to Italy she experienced first hand the polarization of Italian society, and realised the risks arising from the fascist and colonialist propaganda on the international arena. Back in London, together with Corio and other activists, she was the first influential voice to ring alarm bells against Mussolini’s regime, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935-1937) and the looming prospect of a second world war.

I picture Pankhurst, along with Corio, supporting the international campaign organised by the economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983) at Cambridge University and Gramsci’s sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht (1887-1943) in order to demand Gramsci's release in 1934.

Thanks to this trio of visionary activists and thinkers the seeds for a modern civil society, such as we have and enjoy today, had been sown.

Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team

References/ Further reading:

Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: natural born rebel (London, 2020). ELD.DS.553677

Maurizio Rodorigo, ‘Una storia di amore e di tenebra: mostra a Manchester sugli antifascisti italiani negli anni ’20 in Inghilterra’ in La Repubblica. Londra, 9 April 2019, available here 

Alfio Bernabei, Esuli ed emigrati italiani nel Regno Unito, 1920-1940 (Milan, 1997). YA.2000.a.20751

Antonio Gramsci, Il giornalismo, il giornalista: scritti, articoli, lettere del fondatore de “l'Unità” a cura di Gian Luca Corradi (Florence, 2017). YF.2019.a.4541

Antonio Gramsci, L’Ordine Nuovo 1929-1920, in Opere, v. 9 (Turin, 1954). and YA.1999.a.4692

Antonio Gramsci, Socialismo e Fascismo: L’Ordine Nuovo 1921-1922, in Opere, v. 11 (Turin, 1966). and YA.1999.a.4692

M. Ledwith, ‘Antonio Gramsci and Feminism: The elusive nature of power’, Educational Philosophy and Theory (vol 41, number 6, 2009, pp. 684-697) 661.480000

Laura E Ruberto, Gramsci, migration, and the representation of women's work in Italy and the U.S. (Lanham, 2007). YK.2009.a.8920 and m07/.36400

Selections from political writings [of] Antonio Gramsci, selected and edited by Quintin Hoare (London, 1977). X.0700/1032

Video of Rachel Holmes in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti on latest biography “Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel” available on the British Library Player


25 January 2021

Beyond the Exhibition: Unfinished Business – Curators' Lunchtime Session

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From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights.

Photograph of people at a women's rights march

Image © Molly Adams, CC BY 2.0

Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.

As part of this events series, on Friday 29 January curators will discuss women’s rights in Europe, the Americas and Oceania through items from their collection areas that they think deserve a spotlight.

Looking beyond the UK focus of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights, the curators will be in conversation about their handpicked choices that speak to the themes of the exhibition and, in many cases, challenge and disrupt pre-conceptions of women’s activism, experiences and struggles for equality.

This free, online event will take place on Friday 29 January 2021, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.

17 November 2020

Feminism in Early Modern Venice: Lucrezia Marinella

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In the light of the current exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, I want to show a new acquisition, an Italian poem printed in Venice in 1618.

This religious, heroic and allegorical poem has an extraordinary feminist subtext and its title is Amore innamorato, et impazzato poema di Lucretia Marinella; con gli argomenti, & allegorie a ciascun canto. Alla serenissima [...] Caterina Medici, Gonzaga, duchessa di Mantova [...] – “Poem on enamoured and mad love by Lucretia Marinella, with topics and allegories before each canto. Dedicated to Catherine de’ Medici Gonzaga, Duchess of Mantua”.

References to the author’s intentions are already clear in the choice of the dedicatee, a female patron, Caterina Gonzaga, whom she actively encourage to read the poem.

Title-page of Amore innamorato, et impazzato

Title-page of Amore innamorato, et impazzato (Venice, 1618) awaiting shelfmark

The poem tells the story of Cupid’s conversion to Christianity. The literary form is inspired by Ariosto, Boiardo, Tasso and the epic poems of the Counter-Reformation. The author’s aim is indeed to promote the values of the Church, through the allegory of Cupid’s religious journey and conversion. The poem at a first glance follows the religious constraints of its time, but its main female character, Ersilia, is an independent woman fully in charge of her destiny. She will reject Cupid’s love and the passive role of the ethereal donna angelicata provided by the Italian literary canon of Dante and Petrarch.

Ersilia is stronger than Cupid, and her resistance to his advances asserts her religious values, but is also imbued with feminism. Religion had to be used to validate work and ideas and to get published.

The author, The author, Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), was the daughter of the writer and physician Giovanni Marinelli, and is usually known by the feminine form of her father's surname. Her father encouraged her to study poetry, music and philosophy. She became the most versatile, prolific, and learned woman writer of her generation. She was close to the Accademia Veneziana, but led a reclusive life of private study. She married a physician and had two children.

Engraving of Lucrezia Marinella

Lucrezia Marinella by Giacomo Piccini, 1652

Lucrezia Marinella’s fame as one of the very first feminist writers ever is mostly due to the treatise Le Nobilità et Eccellenze delle Donne, et i Diffetti, e Mancamenti de gli huomini.. (Venice, 1600; 1080.k.7.(2.)) ‘The nobility and excellence of women’, recognised as a landmark in the history of women’s contribution to the querelle des femmes

Engraving of Moderata Fonte

Moderata Fonte, anonymous 16th-century engraving

Marinella’s work will sit alongside that of another Venetian author of the same period: Modesta Pozzo or Moderata Fonte (1555-1592). Although little known to modern criticism before around 1980, Fonte is recognised as one of the most accessible and appealing of 16th-century Italian women writers. Her best-known work is the posthumously-published dialogue Il merito delle donne ‘The Worth of Women’ (Venice, 1600; 721.f.17.), which is one of the most original contributions to early modern debate on sex roles, as well as one of the earliest to have been authored by a woman. Other women writers who preceded and inspired Marinella are Gaspara Stampa and Vittoria Colonna.

Amore innamorato, et impazzato has been purchased with the generous help of the British Library Collection Trust.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further Reading:

P. Malpezzi Price, Lucrezia Marinella and the "querelle des femmes" in seventeenth-century Italy ( Madison, c2008.) YC.2009.a.11706

S. Kolsky, ‘The literary career of Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653)’, in: F.W. Kent & Ch. Zika, eds. Rituals, images, and words: varieties of cultural expression in late medieval and early modern Europe (Turnhout, 2005) pp. 325-342. YC.2006.a.12963

A. Cagnolati, A portrait of a Renaissance feminist : Lucrezia Marinella's life and works ( Rome, 2013.) YD.2013.a.3057

Stephen Kolsky, ‘Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Giuseppe Passi: an early seventeenth-century feminist controversy’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct., 2001), pp. 973-989.

Paola Malpezzi Price, ‘A Woman's Discourse in the Italian Renaissance: Moderata Fonte’s “Il merito delle donne”’ Annali d’Italianistica, Vol. 7 (1989), pp. 165-181. 1014.600000

Prudence Allen and Filippo Salvatore, ‘Lucrezia Marinelli and Woman’s Identity in Late Italian Renaissance’ Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series / Nouvelle Série, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Fall / Automne 1992), pp. 5-39. 7356.865100

04 September 2020

Jadwiga Piątkowska, the forgotten poet of Solidarity

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This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read the first here

Cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska with her photograph

A cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska published by her daughter. Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków: 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Jadwiga Piątkowska (1949-1990), also known as Jagoda, was a member of the opposition movement and a poet writing about Solidarity and events related to the political struggle in Poland in the 1980s. A single mother, Jagoda was on holiday in Czechoslovakia when she heard about the onset of the strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk on 14 August 1980. She immediately returned to Poland and convinced Lech Wałęsa, the future leader of Solidarity, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first democratically elected president of Poland, that she might be of help to the protesters. She began working as a typist and, after Solidarity was established on 31 August, as an editor and journalist for its periodical Rozwaga i Solidarność (‘Prudence and Solidarity’; Gdańsk, 1982-1989; Sol.90), in which she published many of her poems. The shipyard workers' journal was established in April 1981. During the duration of the martial law in Poland (13 December 1981 - 22 July 1983), it became an underground publication of the movement, which circulated documents related to Solidarity and described repressions suffered by the political opposition.

Photograph of Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia

Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia as a reporter for Rozwaga i Solidarność. Photograph taken from Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków, 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Piątkowska’s work describes the struggle of the opposition against the Polish communist government. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Ewie-mojej 12 letniej córce’ (‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’), Piątkowska tries to comfort her child, who hasn’t seen her in a long time, but who gave her the energy to persist in the strike along with other protesters. The poem was written on August 29, 1980, at 23.45 — two days before the Solidarity movement was officially established.

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’, from a Collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications. Sol.764

Hold out a while longer, my little daughter.
Our destiny is at stake.
Never mind that so many days
I’ve been away from you.
Never mind the sleepless nights,
the tired eyes and hands.
Faith heals people,
and people are with us (…).

(Translation from the album Solidarity! — Postulat 22: Songs from the New Polish Labour Movement (Nowe Polskie Piesni Robotnicze) (Folkways Records, 1981). You can listen to this poem set to music from the album here).

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk, an actor, singer and voice of the Solidarity movement. Sol.764

After martial law had been declared in Poland, Piątkowska stayed with other members of Solidarity until the Lenin Shipyard was pacified by the militia. She witnessed a female colleague being crushed to death by a tank and got arrested. Once released from prison, she returned to her work in the opposition, this time underground. After a few months, she was re-arrested, subjected to torture and threatened with deprivation of parental rights. Her poem ‘Behind the walls’ reflects the despair many political prisoners felt at that time:

(…) I znowu nic.
Pustka. Oczekiwanie.
Zgrzyt klucza
W grubych drzwiach.
Moje serce otoczyły
Wiem, że nie przyjdziesz

(…) And again nothing.
Void. Anticipation.
A creak of a key
In the thick door.
My heart is surrounded
By weeds.
I know you will not come,

As a result of her imprisonment, Piątkowska suffered damage to her health, which resulted in her premature death at the age of 41.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References and further reading: 

‘Rozwaga i Solidarność’ in: Encyklopedia Solidarności (2010-), available at:  

13 January 2017

Science, Art and Insects: Maria Sibylla Merian

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Maria Sibylla Merian, who died 300 years ago today is justly remembered both as a pioneering naturalist and an entomological and botanical artist, and as a woman who made her mark in both art and science at a time when these fields were dominated by men.

Maria was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1647 into an artistic family. Her father was the engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian, but his death when Maria was just three years old meant that her own talent was mainly fostered by her stepfather Jacob Marrel. As well as being encouraged to draw and paint, the young Maria developed a fascination with insects and began collecting, studying and drawing them.

In 1675 Maria published a book of botanical illustrations, the Neues Blumenbuch. Four years later, the first part of a new work appeared. Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (‘The Wonderful Transformation and Strange Floral Food of Caterpillars’ – a second part followed in 1683) drew on Maria’s interest in and close observation of caterpillars and butterflies, illustrating and describing the stages of the different species’ lives and also the specific plants that they fed on.

Decorative title-page with insects on a wreath of leaves
Title-page of Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung... (Nuremberg, 1679)  445.c.15. 

It was not until 1705 that Maria published another book, but for lovers of both science and art it was worth the wait. In 1699 she had travelled  from her home in Amsterdam to Suriname with her daughter Dorothea to record the insect life of the country, then a Dutch colony. The resulting work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium appeared in 1705 and combines careful observation and detailed recording of the insects’ habitats, lives and behaviour with aesthetic skill in depicting the different stages of their life-cycles and their favoured plants. The British Library holds a splendidly hand-coloured copy of the 1726 edition (649.c.20) from which the pictures below are taken.

In Suriname, as in Frankfurt, Maria’s primary interest was in butterflies:

Butterflies and caterpillars around a pineapple
Plate 2 from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

A butterfly and caterpillar on a watermelon plantPlate 15 (The rather plump larva about to feast on a watermelon here might remind the modern reader somewhat of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar)

 Details of individual butterflies show Maria’s talents:

A butterfly with brown, blue-tipped wings  A butterfly feeding on a seed pod

A butterfly on a bunch of grapes
Details from (top to bottom) plates 20, 44 and 34

But as well as butterflies, Maria also depicted and described other insects as in these images.

Beetles and their larvae on a yellow-flowering plant
Plate 24

Insects and their larvae on an ivy-like plant
Plate 50. The painter has used gold to capture the iridescence of the fly in the bottom right-hand corner

She also portrayed spiders (for the sake of sensitive arachnophobes I merely add a link), snakes and lizards:

A green lizard and two butterflies
Plate 14

A caiman attacking a red and black snake which is trying to steal its eggs as the young hatch
Plate 69, the famous image of a caiman attacking a snake which is trying to steal its eggs as the young hatch

In one image she even shows a mammal, a tree-rat carrying its young on its back, although her hand seems a little less sure here than with the insects: 

  A tree rat with its young on its back, with two mantises on a branch above
Plate 66

Like many fine-printed books of its day, our 1626 edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium has a fine engraved frontispiece which has also been hand coloured. It shows a woman instructing an eager group of botanising putti, with a Surinamese landscape in the background.

Decorative frontispiece with a woman and some putti in front of a tropical landscape

The artist of the frontispiece clearly knew the work he was illustrating. The open book in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture shows one of Maria’s plates, in a nice tribute to the original creator of the work. 

Detail of the frontispiece showing an open page of Merian's book

Detail from the frontispiece (above) and plate 29 (below)

Butterflies and a caterpillar around a large orange-yellow fruit

I hope the gallery above will likewise act as a tribute to a woman who is justly celebrated  today for her achievements as both artist and natural historian.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


13 November 2015

Germany's first female doctor: Dorothea Erxleben, 1715-1762

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Despite being considered the more nurturing and caring sex, and having an age-old role as healers and nurses in families and communities, women were for centuries largely excluded from professional medicine, seen as the preserve of university-educated men.

One of the pioneering exceptions to this rule was Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, the first German woman to qualify as a doctor. She was born on 13 November  1715 in Quedlinburg to the physician Christian Polycarp Leporin and his wife Anna Sophia. Dorothea was bright and a quick learner, and her father was determined that she should share the same education as her younger brother, Christian. Both children studied Latin with a local schoolmaster and learned science and medicine from their father.

Colour portrait of Dorothea Erxleben
A contemporary portrait of Dorothea Erxleben (image from Wikimedia Commons)

However, childhood education was one thing, formal adult training quite another. While Christian might be expected to take over his father’s practice in due course, a medical career for Dorothea was impossible by contemporary standards. Nonetheless, the siblings planned to study medicine together and, with her father’s encouragement, Dorothea petitioned Fredrick II of Prussia for permission to enter the University of Halle with her brother. This was granted in 1741, but Dorothea did not actually attend the university. Accounts and chronology  vary between sources, but it seems that there was some problem involving Christian’s military service which left him unable to take up his own place at Halle and that Dorothea did not want (or was not able) to study there without his company.

Instead, Dorothea took what might seem like the complete opposite path: in 1742 she married Johann Christian Erxleben, a widowed clergyman with five children (she would have four more children of her own). But she clearly embarked  on matrimony and domestic life very much on her own terms and continued to study and practice medicine. In the year of her marriage she published a book describing and arguing against the factors that prevented women from studying. Again, her father was instrumental in encouraging her to publish, and provided a preface to the book, but Dorothea speaks clearly and firmly in her own voice.  She condemns familiar assertions that women’s education is a waste of time, goes against religious teaching, damages their health and strength, or prevents them from carrying out their ‘proper’ domestic duties. All of these beliefs she disproved in her own life, successfully combining the role of clergy wife and mother to nine children with her work in medicine.

Title page of 'Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studieren abhalten'
Dorothea Erxleben (as Dorothea Leporin), Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studieren abhalten (Berlin, 1742), British Library (and in digital form)

On her father’s death in 1747, Dorothea took over his practice, effectively becoming a doctor in all but name. This made her enemies among other local physicians, and the death of one of Dorothea’s patients gave them the opportunity to accuse her formally of ‘quackery’ and of practising without qualifications.  In order to clear her name and be able to continue working, Dorothea volunteered to submit a medical dissertation for examination. The civic and university authorities debated for some time whether a woman could in fact qualify as a doctor: did the university statutes allow for female students, and if medicine was a public profession, were doctors public officials, a role from which women were barred?

Finally, on 12 June 1754, Dorothea was allowed  to present and defend her dissertation before the medical faculty in Halle – in Latin, as was usual at the time. Her argument was that swift and pleasant cures were often deleterious to a patient’s health in the longer term. She impressed the examiners both with her medical knowledge and her Latin and was awarded her doctorate. The published version of the dissertation includes a number of tributes in both Latin and German by her supporters, including her old Latin teacher, Tobias Eckhard.

Title-page of Dorothea Erxleben's dissertation
Dorothea Erxleben, Dissertatio
inauguralis, exponens quod nimis cito ac jucunde curare sæpius fiat caussa minus tutæ curationis. (Halle, 1754) T.600.(33.). The dissertation which gained Dorothea the official title of doctor.

Dorothea would continue to practise medicine unhindered until her death in 1762. Sadly, however, she remained an exception in German medical history for nearly 150 years. Only at the start of the 20th century would women be admitted to German medical schools. However, Dorothea is still remembered as a pioneer. Various clinics and foundations have been named after her, a commemorative stamp bearing her image appeared in the 1980s, and on the 200th anniversary of her birth she has been the subject of the day’s ‘doodle’ on the German Google site, bringing this 18th-century pioneer into the 21st century.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


03 June 2015

Child of the Revolution: the tragic story of Nelly Ptashkina

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This April saw the launch of  (‘Lives Lived’), an online database of thousands of 20th-century diary entries in Russian. Although the site primarily includes the published diaries of prominent writers, scientists and other notable public figures, its creators have also started to digitise the diaries of ordinary citizens from a range of backgrounds, an addition which will provide a fascinating insight into how different people experienced events such as the Russian Revolution. 

I recently came across one such ‘ordinary’ diary during my research at the British Library, which is yet to be published by Written by a young Russian girl named Nelly L’vovna Ptashkina, the diary contains her account of life between 1918 and 1920, a period of revolution and civil war in Russia. Nelly was from a middle class background and she describes how the Bolsheviks targeted her family, forcing them to flee Moscow for Kiev and eventually immigrate to Paris in late 1919.

Nelly Ptashkina
An undated portrait of Nelly Ptashkina in the Russian-language edition of her diary. (British Library 010795.b.50.)

Nelly flits between astutely describing and reflecting on the political situation and relating her girlish and adolescent thoughts, interests and dreams, the latter giving away the fact she was only 15 when she began this diary in 1918. She is conscious of the gravity of the events unfolding around her and writes of her wish to record them:

Truly we are going through a terrible, terrible time … It would be a good thing to collect the newspapers, but that is impossible as we move from place to place; at least I have my diary. (29 January 1918)

While Nelly’s diary offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a young girl during a period of immense change and upheaval, there is a tragic story attached to its publication. In July 1920, just days after passing her Baccalaureat examination at the Paris Sorbonne, Nelly slipped while walking by the Le Dard waterfall in Chamonix and fell to her death. She was just 17 years old. Two years previously, Nelly had written about a sudden premonition she had had of her coming death: 

I love to stand at the edge of an abyss, at the very edge, so that a single movement—,
and … to-day, stepping closer to the brink of a precipice, although not so deep as I should have wished, the thought came into my mind that some day I should die thus, crashing headlong into the chasm…  (20 October 1918)

Yet Nelly’s diary is also full of her hopes and dreams for the future, making her untimely death all the more tragic. Nelly’s mother decided to publish her daughter’s diary in Paris in 1922 to preserve her memory and so that others could ‘appreciate the tender unfolding of a soul’. The publication of Nelly’s diary is not only a tribute to a sensitive and talented young writer, but it also serves as a reminder of the experience of countless children during the revolution and civil war.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student


Ptashkina, Nelly L’vovna, Dnevnik, 1918-1920, ed. by S. Svatikov (Paris, 1922). 010795.b.50.

Ptashkina, Nelly L’vovna, The Diary of Nelly Ptashkina, trans. by Pauline de Chary (London, 1923). 012591.aa.38.

11 March 2015

Notes from an Old Profession

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Attempts to regulate the sex trade are almost as old as the trade itself. Most cultures and societies, while openly deploring prostitution, have nonetheless tolerated it and, increasingly, tried to bring it under some form of governmental control. A recent British Library acquisition sheds light on one such attempt in 19th-century Hamburg: 

Title page of 'Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen'
Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen in der Vorstadt St. Pauli
([Hamburg], 1853) RB.23.a.36389.

Like many port cities, Hamburg had a long history of prostitution and the city authorities had been issuing regulations for brothels and their employees since at least the 15th century. By the mid-19th century a set of regulations dating from 1834 were in force, but in 1847 some additional rules were issued by Dr A. Meier, ‘Patron’ of the suburb of St Pauli, then as now home to Hamburg’s main red light district.  Our recently-acquired copy of these rules was printed in 1853, and each ‘girl’ (as they are always referred to here) in a brothel was to be given a copy. A label on the front wrapper shows that ours belonged to one Johanna Maria Friederica Wendland who worked “bei Brackert” (presumably the name of the brothel-keeper).


Marbled paper cover of the 'Rgulativ' with two names in manuscriptThe wrapper of our copy of the Regulativ with the names of Johanna Wendland and  “Brackert”

The 22 short paragraphs set out various rights and responsibilities. Brothel-keepers must provide a heated communal room in the winter (§13) and “simple, good food” (§15; specifically there must be no stinting on the morning coffee!). The women must be allowed free time to go out at least once a week (§17) although they must not wear “conspicuous” clothing that draws attention to their profession on these outings. Importantly, paragraph 18 states that “No girl may be forced to sleep with a man who is not acceptable to her.”

Many of the regulations are concerned with finances. Brothel-keepers may not advance more than 150 marks in credit to the women (§1). They can take up to half of a woman’s earnings (§2), but if she earns more than 50 marks in a week she need only hand over 25 (§3). Brothel-keepers cannot lay claim to gifts given to the women by clients (§9), and must not accept or demand gifts from the women (§10). The women must pay a monthly fee for such luxuries as a sofa (§8) or individual heating (§14) in their own rooms. A central kitty is to be maintained to help with extra expenses, such as clothing and travel costs for women who leave the brothel to return home, marry or take up another job (§19-20). 

The seven pages of regulations are followed by 16 blank account-book pages. Paragraph 5 requires each woman’s copy to be filled in regularly by the brothel-keeper with a note of each month’s expenses. Paragraph 6 adds that a doctor must also sign each month’s page to certify that the woman is in good health.

An anonymous study of prostitution in Hamburg, first published in 1858 and reissued in a much enlarged edition in 1860, sheds light on some of the reasons behind these regulations. The author states that brothel-keepers regularly advance huge amounts of credit for clothing and other expenses (including gifts for themselves) to the women in their establishments, thus keeping the women effectively trapped in debt and unable to leave the brothel. Over a decade after the first publication of Dr Maier’s regulations, this commentator is clearly cynical about their effectiveness. He also doubts that many doctors have time for the regular health checks required.

However, a doctor did authorize our copy. Either Johanna Wendland herself or Brackert filled in two pages of accounts for September and October 1855, noting purchases including collars, a pair of boots and a velvet dress. The doctor signed it with the brief note “gesehen” on 6 October and 2 November.

Manuscript page of accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855The first page of Johanna Wendland's accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855

After this the entries cease and we can only speculate what happened. Did Johanna leave the brothel, and if so was it for another brothel, for the streets, or for a different employment or even marriage? Did she fall victim to disease, or to a violent client? Or did she or Brackert simply fall out of the habit of keeping the records while the authorities failed to enforce their well-meaning regulations, proving the cynic right? Whatever the case, Johanna’s brief accounts leave a slight but intriguing trace of a real woman working in the 19th-century sex trade.

References/further reading:

Die Hamburger Prostitution, oder die Gehemnisse des Dammthorwalles und der Schwiegerstrasse (Altona, 1858) 08282.f.20. (Zweite, vielfach ergänzte und durch Zusätze vermehrte Auflage (Altona, 1860) 12553.c.39.)

Jürgen Kahmann / Hubert Lanzerath, Weibliche Prostitution in Hamburg (Hamburg, 1981) X.529/61878

Ariane Barth, Die Reeperbahn: der Kampf um Hamburgs sündige Meile (Hamburg, 1999) YA.2001.a.41623

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

25 February 2015

Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia: London Adventures and An Unlikely Friendship

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Nadezhda Krupskaia, the Russian Bolshevik activist and politician, is perhaps best known as the wife of Vladimir Lenin from 1898 until his death in 1924. In 1902, the young couple moved to London to publish Iskra (‘The Spark’), the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

Krupskaia wrote about their time in London in her memoirs Vospominania o Lenine (‘Reminiscences of Lenin’). As this week sees the anniversary of not only Krupskaia’s birth but also her death, it seems a perfect opportunity to re-visit her time in London and, in particular, her connections to the British Library. 

Photograph of Nadezhda Krupskaia

Nadezhda Krupskaia, photograph dated before 1910. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Arriving in London in April 1902, Krupskaia and Lenin were immediately overwhelmed by the city, or, in her own words, “citadel of capitalism”. She later described their first impressions and struggles as they battled with the “filthy” weather, incomprehensible language and “indigestible” British food:

When we arrived in London we found we could not understand a thing, nor could anybody understand us. It got us into comical situations at first.

While Krupskaia unfortunately doesn’t expand on the “situations” she and Lenin found themselves in, she does give a fascinating and detailed account of the year they spent in London between 1902 and 1903. In between attending meetings and revolutionary activities, Lenin and Krupskaia found time to explore London, with Primrose Hill being their spot of choice. The pair were also regular visitors to the British Museum, where, Krupskaia notes, Lenin spent half his time in the library.

Lenin's application letter for a British Museum reader's ticket

Lenin’s application (under the pseudonym Jacob Richter) for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library. British Library MS Add 54579

While there is no record of Krupskaia holding a reader’s ticket during her time in London, the British Library does hold a rare pamphlet autographed by Krupskaia in 1923. Written for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic publication Put’ prosveshchenia (‘The Path of Education’, P.P.1213.ce.), the pamphlet discusses the Faculty of Social Education at the Kharkiv Institute of Continuing Education.  Although the exact details are unknown, Krupskaia appears to recommend the pamphlet to a fellow comrade, most likely in her capacity as head of the government’s Adult Education Division.

Offprint from Put’ prosveshchenia (Kharkiv, 1922) with Krupskaia’s autograph inscriptionOffprint from Put’ prosveshchenia (Kharkiv, 1922) with Krupskaia’s autograph inscription. RB.23.a.36382.

Another thread linking Krupskaia to the British Library is her early friendship with Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, a Russian politician and journalist who was active in the anti-Bolshevik campaign during the Civil War. The British Library holds a unique collection of letters and papers of Tyrkova-Williams and her husband Harold Williams relating to the activities of the Russian Liberation Committee in London.

Tyrkova-Williams and Krupskaia studied together at the gymnasiia in St Petersburg as girls and remained friends throughout their teenage years. Tyrkova-Williams describes her friendship with Krupskaia, as well as Krupskaia’s early life, in her memoirs and letters, noting that it was Krupskaia who first introduced her to Marx’s work at the age of seventeen. The two women went on to choose politically opposing paths, with Tyrkova-Williams joining the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), a liberal Russian political party, and Krupskaia becoming a Bolshevik revolutionary.

In a letter dated May 1931, Tyrkova-Williams refers to her friendship with Krupskaia. Responding to a flattering description of Krupskaia’s appearance, Tyrkova-Williams somewhat unkindly writes that she “did not have a single beautiful feature”, instead resembling a “piglet”. Krupskaia is believed to have suffered from Graves’ disease, which caused her eyes to bulge. Despite her somewhat cruel response to Krupskaia’s looks, Tyrkova-Williams declares in her letter that she loved her and, to a certain extent, still does.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student


Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Vospominania o Lenine, Parts 1 and 2, (Moscow, 1932).

Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Reminiscences of Lenin. Translated by Bernard Isaacs. (Moscow, 1959). 010600.c.43.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, Nasledie Ariadny Vladimirovny Tyrkovoi: dnevniki, pisʹma, ed. N. I. Kanishcheva, (Moscow, 2012). YF.2014.a.894.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, To chego bol’she ne budet: vospominaniia izvestnoi pisatel’nitsy i obshchestvennoi deiatel’nitsy A.V. Tyrkovoi-Vil’iams, 1869-1962 (Moscow, 1998). YF.2006.a.5200.