Donald Trump’s labeling of Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” at the last presidential debate was disconcertingly familiar. Those acquainted with suffragette history may have pricked up their ears at Trump’s comment, which in some ways harkens back to the “gobby” woman of the early 20th century. She was too demanding, loud, castrating by her very nature.
Trump’s remark that night—one which launched a cottage industry and a thousand memes—was rooted in a long tradition of misogyny, and you need look no further than the Glasgow Women’s Library to prove it.
Each year, the Glasgow Women’s Library attracts upwards of 20,000 visitors—no small feat considering that for the first 23 years of its existence it was in an almost-constant state of upheaval. Vulnerable to the whims of commerce, politics, and real estate since its inception, volunteers and organizers of the GWL worked hard to keep the place alive, and today it is the only accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the whole of the UK. In 2015, after occupying four other locations, the library finally moved into its permanent home, a renovated 1903 building in Bridgeton in Glasgow East End. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the library, which celebrates its 25th year in 2016. In addition to its archive, museum, and library collections, the Glasgow Women’s Library houses special collections like the National Museum of Roller Derby, the Lesbian Archive, and—one of their most popular draws—artifacts from the Suffragettes.
“Collections like ours are really important,” says Alice Andrews, the facility’s Lesbian Archive Development Project Worker. “We understand the importance of collecting women’s histories which have been suppressed and marginalized from many institutional museums, galleries, libraries, and archives.”
The material is not easy to look at.
Postcards and other ephemera from the time casually depict sexualized, violent images. Reproduced often like an early meme, many involve cutting or caging a woman’s tongue. Others suggest voting rights will limit men’s access to women’s bodies or cause lesbianism. In one piece, the words “I want my Vote!” appear under the picture of a crying kitten. That the image could be as easily understood as a response to Trump’s “grab her pussy” comment as when it was originally distributed should alarm us all.
These are not benign images. They’re not just “locker room talk.” They exist in relation to very real-world conditions, artifacts of which live alongside them at the Library. The remains of an iron umbrella stand have a place of honor at the library—salvaged from the rubble of Duke Street prison, the stand was painted by suffragettes during their incarceration there.
“Feminists and other marginalised groups understand that archives and libraries can be really important sites for developing activism and politics,” Andrews notes. During this time when history appears to be repeating itself, the Glasgow Women’s Library is a home base for the gobby women, for the nasty women, everywhere.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.