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UW Professor Publishes New Academic Book on Visual Culture of Women’s Activism

July 30, 2018
woman holding up a book
Colleen Denney, an art historian and a UW professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, within the new School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice, recently published her fifth academic book, titled “The Visual Culture of Women’s Activism in London, Paris and Beyond: An Analytical Art History, 1860 to the Present.” (Colleen Denney Photo)

For a decade, Colleen Denney toiled on an academic book that focused on women’s activism in some of Europe’s largest cities. However, it was attending a play at the Globe Theatre in London that brought the theme of the book into clear focus for her.

“The whole book solidified for me when I was on the Seibold Professorship and doing work in London. I attended a play by Jessica Swale called ‘Blue Stockings,’ which was having its debut at the Globe Theatre,” says Denney, an art historian and a University of Wyoming professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, within the new School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice. “It addressed a different kind of vote, a vote to decide whether women students at Girton College, Cambridge, could do more than study there but, rather, receive a diploma. This was in 1897. They were denied. In fact, they were not able to earn diplomas at Cambridge until much later, 1948.”

Denney recently published her fifth academic book, titled “The Visual Culture of Women’s Activism in London, Paris and Beyond: An Analytical Art History, 1860 to the Present.” Funding for the book was made possible by the Seibold Professorship, a basic research grant and the Caitlin Long Fund -- all from UW’s College of Arts and Sciences. Some funding also came from a UW social justice research grant.

The image that clarified the level of scrutiny under which these women suffered is of a female effigy that the young male Cambridge students created of a Girton girl on a bicycle, which they suspended from the local bookstore’s window railings. The female effigy wears blue stockings, the symbol of a woman intellectual.

But effigies are made to be burned, and this one was, by many reports. That or it was torn to bits and stuffed into the gates of the other women’s college on campus, Denney says. Fear, contempt for competition and a real lack of understanding of women’s intellectual capabilities fueled the young male students’ actions.

“If that were the case in 1897, you can understand what these courageous women were up against in trying to gain political representation,” Denney says.

woman standing in front of a statue
Colleen Denney recently poses with the new statue of London activist Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. (Colleen Denney Photo)

The book represents a decade of mining feminist archives for imagery and ephemera of the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement with comparator analysis of the French feminist movement. The book also includes an up-to-date examination of women’s activist work around the world through banners, posters, feminist cartoons in journals and portraits of activists. All are covered, with the argument that we are directly tied to this first-wave activist work in our current demonstrations and marches, including those on UW’s campus.

“This book will expand our scholarly knowledge of the different historical women that the activists represented, admired and evoked in their cause, including Joan of Arc and Boudica, as well as allegorical representations of Britannia, liberty and justice,” Denney says. “It further broadens our understanding of art materials and artists involved in the first-wave suffrage movement in Edwardian England (roughly 1906-1918).”

University professors can use this book in their courses on women’s history, art history, visual rhetoric and activism, Denney says. She says the last chapter, which examines the late 19th century to the present in terms of women’s representation as protestors on the streets and in negotiations for women’s rights, is particularly apt.

The book’s publication coincides with the centenary celebration of the Representation of the People Act in England, which gave some women the right to vote for the first time. There are ongoing activities all over England this year to commemorate the centenary, she says.

“I hope one takeaway will be just how connected we still are to these brave, courageous first-wave women, many of whom lost their lives in the battle for rights we still possess,” Denney says. “There is a newly unveiled statue of the main leader, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, at Parliament Square by the young British artist Gillian Wearing.

“I love the connection of the brash, often risk-taking Wearing taking on the rational, determined, equally risk-taking Garrett Fawcett. And the key issue is that the art acted as a huge propaganda machine in getting their messages to the public, be it in the form of political cartoons; large, colorful, waving banners in demonstrations; or formal photographic portraits.”

Because conducting the original research involved studies in archives and museums, Denney says it has taken her roughly 10 years to complete the book. This included conception of the project, writing grants, travel and eventual publication, which happened this month. The book is published by McFarland Press and is available in paperback and e-book format.

For more information, call Denney at (307) 766-4351 or email cdenney@uwyo.edu.


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