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Unfinished Business: the fight for women’s rights

“If feminism doesn’t include everyone, then it isn’t feminism.” Layla Saad

smashed scales fuck the patriarchy jameela jamil
Jameela Jamil’s weighing scales, which Jamil smashed in response to a body-shaming meme in 2018

The title of this long-awaited exhibition at British Library couldn’t be more accurate. After centuries of activism, women still have a long way to go before we achieve equality with men – in every aspect of our lives. We still carry the burden of unpaid care work, we don’t have bodily autonomy, violence continues to blight the lives of millions of women globally, every day. And the list goes on. Worse still, interconnected systems of oppression – patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism – further exacerbate gender inequality as it intersects with multiple categories of discrimination – such as race, age, sexuality, migrant status, disability or class.

Unfinished Business couldn’t be timelier – marking 25 years since United Nations’ Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, hailed by policy makers as the blueprint for advancing women’s rights. But what makes the exhibition so important is that it positions the battleground away from the mainstream and firmly in the hands of feminist activists - without whom there would be no fight for equality and without whom the flame would have been extinguished long ago.

Initially scheduled to begin during international women’s month, March 2020, it was pushed back by the first lockdown and only opened at the end of October. I managed to catch it then – just before the second lockdown. And frankly it feels odd to be writing about an exhibition that is currently inaccessible – EXCEPT there is thankfully lots available online, including podcasts and events.

The display is extraordinary – and a bit mind blowing to be honest (so do take time if you go). It includes a total of 180 original objects - personal diaries, banners, letters, art, fashion items - split along three key areas of the women’s struggle - Body, Mind and Voice. Each section introduces a contemporary activist organisation working in the UK today before exploring the history behind the issues their campaigns tackle through a variety of items from the British Library’s collections and lenders.

Some of the banners on display in the exhibition.

Unfinished Business highlights issues that have long been the bread and butter of feminist activists – reproductive justice, women’s representation in the media and politics, period poverty or domestic violence. But it dares to go beyond the ‘safe issues’ to venture into thornier grounds, such as trans and sex workers’ rights, that continue to divide the feminist movement. Crucially, it recognises the need for a more holistic conversation about race. For too long, the transformational role of radical Black feminist thinkers and activists in disrupting the patriarchal order – from Claudia Jones and Olive Morris to gal-dem and Reni Eddo-Lodge - has been side-lined by mainstream Western feminisms. Finally, this is changing – not least through the hard work of movements such as Black Lives Matter.

From sexual pleasure to the rights of disabled women, the plight of refugee and migrant women and our role the peace movements, art, music, science and sport – there are so many facets to our struggle for gender equality – all of them linked by a passion for fighting injustices. We do have a long road ahead, but I came out of the exhibition feeling hopeful that we are connecting the dots and learning from each other that we cannot fight the patriarchy without also fighting for racial, social, sexual and economic justice.

In solidarity and sisterhood!

Practical info

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (exhibition)

💥Currently closed – re-opening post lockdown until Sunday 21 February 2021 💥

The British Library 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB

Exhibition tickets must be purchased online:

Getting there

  • By train - Kings Cross and St Pancras International and Euston

  • By tube - Kings Cross St Pancras, Euston and Euston Square

  • Bus routes 30, 73, 91, 205 and 390

For more details about accessibility:

💥Continue the conversation online through a series of events, podcasts and web space💥

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