Data Spotlight: Women’s History

This is a guest blog post from the Decentralised Public Library, an Arweave initiative.

As we come to the end of Women’s History Month, we thought it would be a good time to reflect upon the variety of women’s history already stored forever on the permaweb!

Women and Human Rights: The Suffragettes

Votes for Women poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909

Across the world, women have had to fight for generations to live, work, and vote on the same legal basis as men. On many issues in many places, women and their allies still fight these battles.

In Britain, one of the most monumental legal battles for women’s rights was for the right to vote in public elections. Although partial voting rights were granted to women — those over 30 who owned property — in 1918, this only accounted for around 40% of women. It wasn’t until 1928 that the remaining 60% of adult women gained voting rights in the UK.

The Suffragettes or the ‘Votes for Women’ movement is a vital part of our shared social history, its members fighting fiercely for women’s voting rights for decades. Interestingly, the term ‘suffragettes’ was originally coined as a somewhat derisive term for women suffragists. However, the Votes for Women movement happily adopted the moniker, even naming one of their publications after it.

One all-women household boycotts the 1911 census in protest

The suffragettes employed a range of civil disobedience methods to achieve their goals, including boycotting the census, refusing to pay certain fines and fees, marches, protests, and picketing. Above you can see an image of a returned census form from an all-women household that has been voided in protest, reading, “No persons here, only women!”. The message being that these women refuse to comply with other legal obligations (such as census completion) while they are simultaneously denied equal rights under the law.

Poster by Alfred Pearce for the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1910

When imprisoned for these activities, many suffragettes undertook hunger strikes which the British government met with tortuous force-feeding of the detained women. The practice was much discussed and featured in many political posters, campaigns, and protests as depicted here.

Detained suffragettes were denied the label of political prisoners, which further exacerbated tensions. See the below image of a 1912 petition demanding that suffragette protesters be granted political prisoners status, and the “cruel and dangerous” practice of force feeding be stopped.

Petition for end of force feeding of detained suffragettes and grant of political prisoner status, 1912

If you’d like to learn more about the British suffragette movement, we recommend the British Library’s collection of NUWSS pamphlets, and their Votes for Women collection.

The place of women in UK society has changed monumentally over the past 100 years (as you might hope!). For instance, the UK has now had two women Prime Ministers of course, and the UK government regularly publishes analyses on women’s representation in government. For the latest of these reports, check out this permaweb link. Today, women account for approximately 30% of MP candidates and 32% of sitting MPs in the UK, the highest percentages ever.

Women and Literature: Jane Austen

To pick just one female author to represent this category is very difficult, as you might imagine! However, since the publication of her first novel, Jane Austen has been a remarkably popular author, so we feel it’s fitting to showcase her work today and store it for future generations on the permaweb.

Austen’s name is notably missing here, 1811

Sense & Sensibility, Austen’s first published novel, was released in 1811 with the author’s name recorded as ‘By A Lady’ rather than Austen’s own. At that time, women were unable to act as their own signatory for legal contracts, and so Austen’s brother Henry helped her finalise her first publication. Later publications of her books were noted to be by, ‘The Author of Sense and Sensibility’, given that the novel was popular despite publications penned by women being a distinct rarity.

In her lifetime, Austen’s novels received favourable reviews, especially for their realism. Even today they are remarkably accessible and easy to read, despite her first publication being over 200 years ago!

Austen overcame significant legal and societal barriers to become a successful author, and many would agree that her young death was a huge loss to the literary world. If you’d like to learn more about Austen’s internal world and personal life, this publication of her letters should offer more of an insight. Additionally, for a specific exploration of Austen’s place in women’s literature, and discussion of whether it’s accurate to refer to her as a feminist specifically, check out this article.

Today, thanks to brave women like Jane Austen, best-selling authors are commonly women though notably the majority of the New York Times Best Sellers list remains consistently male. For further exploration of the gender split on the NYT Best Sellers list, please check this great blog post on the topic!

Austen’s works are now all in the public domain, meaning they’re free and open to use, duplicate, edit, and adapt without fear of copyright infringement. As such, please check out the following permaweb links to Austen’s work:

Sense and Sensibility:

Pride & Prejudice:

Mansfield Park:


Northanger Abbey:


Lady Susan:

The Letters of Jane Austen:

Women and Science: Dr. Marie Curie, née Skłodowska

Dr. Curie in her own laboratory, 1911

Marie Curie is probably the best-known female scientist and Nobel Prize winner. Dr. Curie was, in fact, the first person and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, and in different fields — jointly in Physics in 1903 (for assisting Becquerel’s radiation research), and independently in Chemistry in 1911 (her discovery of radium and polonium). Earning her doctorate and first Nobel Prize in the same year, Curie was truly a remarkable scientist and researcher. One of Curie’s doctoral assessors remarked that her doctoral thesis had contributed more to science than any other they had seen.

Curie’s success was a result of fighting long and hard against many societal expectations of what women should and should not concern themselves with. Marie Curie almost missed out on her first Nobel Prize due to these societal norms, as she was not originally nominated for the prize along with her husband and their colleague Henri Becquerel. When alerted to the situation, Pierre Curie wrote to the nominating committee alerting them that it would be a “travesty” if Marie was not also jointly awarded the prize. As you know, the committee capitulated and awarded the Nobel jointly to the three researchers, with Marie on equal terms with her colleagues.

Curie at the 1911 Solvay Conference, pictured with Poincaré, Rutherford, and Einstein, among others.

Curie’s own bravery and dignity in the face of much — often negative — press attention was recognised by Albert Einstein himself. In a letter to Curie following a press scandal regarding her personal life, Einstein informed her that he admired her greatly, and to keep her chin up and ignore her critics as the “reptiles” they were.

Curie continued her work into her final years, especially focusing on lobbying government to increase funding for scientific research. Her lobbying work has been described as follows:

“She could argue fervently, but her appearance alone was the strongest argument. A frail and aging woman dressed in black, already a legendary figure, she had — as one observer put it — the appearance and moral force of a Buddhist monk.” — Stéphane Lauzanne, editor of La Martin, 1920

If you would like to further explore female Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, we highly recommend the Nobel Prize website itself which offers an array of woman laureates’ stories, and even offers a fun tool matching you with a woman laureate based on your interests!

If you liked this article, consider following us here on Medium, and over on Twitter! Or, drop a mail with an interesting open data or public domain dataset you’d like us to perma-archive (for free!) or include in a future ‘data spotlight’ blog.

To learn more about the Decentralised Public Library’s mission and motivations, please check out their opening blog post here.

Written by: India Raybould, Head of the DPL


A list of permaweb URLs for the documents and images contained in this blog post (plus a few extras!):

Votes for Women poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909:

One all-women household boycotts census in protest, 1911:

Poster by Alfred Pearce for the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1910:

Petition for end of force feeding of detained suffragettes and grant of political prisoner status, 1912:

Austen’s name is notably missing from Sense and Sensibility title page, 1811:

[Not in article] Letter demanding the cessation of force-feeding and the granting of political prisoner status for detained suffragettes:

[Not in article] Poster depicting the force-feeding of American suffragette Alice Paul, 1909:

UK Government Report ‘Women in Parliament and Government’ 4th March 2019:

Dr. Curie in her own laboratory, 1911:

Dr. Curie at the 1911 Solvay Conference, pictured with Poincaré, Rutherford, and Einstein, among others:

Jane Austen eBooks

Sense and Sensibility:

Pride & Prejudice:

Mansfield Park:


Northanger Abbey:


Lady Susan:

The Letters of Jane Austen:

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