A look at women in the rare book world

Book Collector Women's Issue Launch Party
NEWS STORY by Silke Lohmann
14/3/2019
Is it serendipity or simply about time? It seems that all over the UK bibliophiles have pressed the pink button almost simultaneously. It is rare for a quarterly journal with a long lead time to run an issue that is so timely, but with The Book Collector's Spring Issue we seem to have achieved just that. The Women's issue is coming out just a couple of weeks after Peter Harrington launched its first Women's catalogue, turning collecting works by women into something that has finally moved on from being 'niche'.
 
There are many women who have been collecting women's literature, social history, ephemera, basically anything to do with women. Libraries, particularly in the US, have been collecting in this area for decades and are way ahead of most art museums whose curators are now rushing to catch up by buying works by female artists. There are more and more women deciding to become book dealers and there is real solidarity among them. At the same time the establishment is opening up and finally recognising that women are a force to be reckoned with in the book dealing and collecting world.
 
2018, the year of #metoo, certainly kick started change all over the world. Allison Devers was a trend setter when she opened the first women's book shop in Soho, London at the end of the year and definitely got the ball rolling with her first women's catalogue cum journal, which pre-dated her shop by a couple of months. The Second Shelf is selling rare and some second-hand books and ephemera by women or important works on or for women. Ultimately, the idea behind the shop is to make collecting more approachable and affordable for women, there are plenty of books for sale at very reasonable prices as well as some of the rare books you would find at the long-established top dealers. But it is by no means a 'man-free' zone and it is rather encouraging to see how many men buy from The Second Shelf.
 
This year's ABA Fair Firsts London will have a strong representation of women dealers exhibiting. Camilla Szymanowska, the ABA secretary, is thrilled that “there are so many Bibliofilles exhibiting this year. They include Bibi Mohamed, Jen Johnson and Natalie Bauman among the US dealers, Amelie Sourget from France, Iris van Daalen from the Netherlands, Dasa Pahor from Germany and Charlotte Du Rietz from Sweden. Among the UK dealers are Anke Timmermann, Claire Trimming, Fuchsia Voremberg, Laura Massey and Deborah Coltham."
 
The latter two have published their first combined paper catalogue in time for International Women's Day. Entitled A Hunger of the Mind: Four Centuries of Women & Science, it is highlighting women’s connections with STEM fields over four centuries and contains works by famous women such as Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson, but also focuses on lesser-known women. Many of these researchers weren’t household names but contributed enormously to their fields, and others were popular science writers, educators, translators, entrepreneurs, explorers, and activists.
 
“Our goal for this catalogue is to show that women have always been involved in scientific enterprises, often despite great obstacles, and this hidden history is now being uncovered by pioneering historians, librarians, and book collectors”, says Deborah Coltham (Deborah Coltham Rare Books). Laura Massey (Alembic Rare Books) adds, “The history of science is frequently presented as a story of men and a handful of really remarkable women. That’s simply not the case, as this catalogue demonstrates. Even when women weren’t allowed into the ranks of professional researchers, they found other ways to participate, for instance by writing popular science books or collecting specimens”.
 
Bernard Quaritch Ltd has also launched a catalogue with the title 'Women' covering photographs, manuscripts and rare books with a more international angle. Sally Deegan managed to compile the first general catalogue focusing on women including 50 items. Although Quaritch has published a catalogue about women travellers a couple of years ago, this catalogue has already proved to be a real success with about 50% sold in the first three days and interestingly the buyers seem to be equally distributed between women and men, with of course a lot of institutional interest.
 
Peter Harrington, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is pleased to present In Her Own Words: Works by Exceptional Women, an exhibition of its first catalogue focused solely on women. The catalogue contains some 180 remarkable rare books, manuscripts and ephemera, spanning the centuries and has been created in recognition of the growth of interest in works by women. It has been compiled by Theodora Robinson and Emma Walshe and includes items by pivotal figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Marie Curie and Millicent Fawcett as well as seeking to highlight the work of lesser-known women who were instrumental in pushing legal, intellectual and physical boundaries: trailblazing activists, mathematicians, economists, classicists, travellers, mountaineers and suffragettes.
 
Among the highlights are a first edition of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank published in 1947 in Dutch (£6,000). A first edition presentation copy of Jacob’s Room inscribed by the author Virginia Woolf to her sister Vanessa Bell who designed the dust jacket (£75,000) and a first separate edition of the work containing what has been described as “the first computer programme” by Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer” (£200,000). Pom Harrington explains: “It was key not to just focus on the big names – there isn't a Mary Shelley Frankenstein included for example, although it could have easily been – but the idea was to show variety and give less famous women some exposure.”
 
But it is not just a UK phenomenon, several European dealers have been working on catalogues with a women focus – Antiquariaat FORUM from the Netherlands is following on from its 2017 Women & Society catalogue with a 2019 issue. It contains 25 rare books, manuscripts, photographs and prints from the period between 1555 and 1940 on a wide range of subjects including Botany, Emblems, Literature & Poetry, Obstetrics, Religion and Women's Rights.
 
Brussels-based Pierre Coumans' latest catalogue Femmes Extraordinaires stands out with its beautiful design and is very appropriately honouring the women who illustrate books. Although there are only 19 books included, they cover women illustrators from all over Europe plus Argentinian Norah Borges; from 1907 to 1994. The catalogue entries include a substantial biography on each artist – all of whom were not just illustrators, but often writers, poets, critics, painters or sculptors and although you may spot classics from Italo- Belgian Marguerite Callet-Carcano's cats to Finnish Tove Jansson's Moomin, there is a lot to discover, like the book by Hungarian writer and illustrator Anna Lesznai, where Folklore meets Wiener Werkstaette.
 
In America the book trade has also seen a higher percentage of female dealers joining the trade. Honey & Wax from New York stand out in particular as Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney have undoubtedly been trailblazers in the US. They weren't the first, but they have done a lot to bring women to the forefront and in particularly encouraging young women to collect with their special annual collecting prize. Let's not forget that two of the most influential women booksellers of the 20th century were also New York based - Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern of Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books.
 
Although the figures will have changed a little since the publication of an article on the ILAB website in 2015 about Women in the Trade, it was then noted that only about 10% of some 2000 ILAB affiliates were women.
 
Last May, Deborah Coltham, currently the only woman on the ABA Council (but certainly not the first), talked about the growing number of women in the book trade during the ABA book fair and stressed that “over the last few years, the Antiquarian book trade has benefitted significantly from the recruitment of a number of highly intelligent, articulate, and passionate young women, who have either joined some of our larger established firms, or else have set up under their own steam. The drive of this younger generation of trailblazers, who are more attuned to calling out inequality and imbalance, is certainly helping us to find our ‘collective voice’ and women in the trade are certainly being listened to more, though the trade has not been without many influential book women over the years.”
 
It is also worth noting that a number of active social media platforms, most notably the Facebook page Women in Rare Books and Manuscripts, have helped with the progress. This has resulted in seminars at Senate House; was the focus of discussion at the Book History Conference at Stationers Hall; and has put the role of women firmly ‘on the agenda’. Luckily, we have now reached a state where there are so many women in the rare book trade that there are too many to mention, and hopefully that number will keep growing.
 
Women collecting rare books is also nothing new, but is now much more encouraged and not just by women. Lisa Baskin is one of a number of women who have been collecting books overlooked by many of their male counterparts for years. The Book Collector's Women's Issue includes an interview with Lisa as well as an article on another famous collector, Mary Eccles, but also covers one of the greatest libraries set up by a woman.
 

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