This is a selection of tokens from mothers who, unable to keep their babies, left them at the Foundling Hospital in London. They highlight the plight of single mothers and destitute families unable to care for their children and are a poignant reminder of the growing poverty crisis as cities became more heavily industrialised and workers more mobile during the Age of Revolution. Many babies were left anonymously by their mothers, along with a token to identify them, in the hope that they might be reunited in the future.
Marie Antoinette was the wife of the last King of France, Louis XVI, before the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy. She was known for extravagance and indulgence, and was despised by the people of France. She came to symbolise the Ancien Régime - a long-standing system where the monarchy, aristocracy and Catholic Church held absolute power and privilege over ordinary people.
Born Margaret Bulkley, James Barry lived most of his life as a man, qualifying as a doctor and becoming an accomplished and respected military surgeon. His identity as a woman was only revealed when his maid laid him out after his death. It is not known whether Barry identified as a man or whether he simply kept up a disguise in order to have a medical career, at a time when women were denied this opportunity.
The Brontës – Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1849) and Anne (1820-1849), are the most famous sisters in English Literature. Their insightful, dramatic and often subversive novels, published in the mid 1800s, provide a unique window into the social conditions of the time. With unforgettable characters like Jane Eyre and Heathcliff, and themes which are still highly relevant today, their stories have become classics and been adapted over and over again for stage and screen.
Transportation was an extremely harsh punishment of the 1700s and 1800s, second only to execution. Between 1787 and 1852 as many as 25,000 women were transported from Britain to Australia to work in penal colonies, for crimes as varied as petty theft and poaching, to murder. Their sentences were often miscarriages of justice. Many didn’t survive the long journey. Most of them never returned. This remarkable quilt was made by women transportedto Tasmania in 1841.
The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries, it has been worn by women in different African countries and regions, in different forms, to reflect both communal and personal identities – which clan or tribe they belonged to, whether they were married, widowed, young or old, for example. This cotton kerchief, or headwrap, belonged to Nancy Burns (1800 – 1849). Born in Albany, New York, the daughter of slaves, she would eventually find work as a house servant and was painted in a portrait wearing the item in the 1840s. It represents a long history of cultural identity associated with women of African origin – particularly African-American women - that is still very much alive today.
Angelica Kauffman was a successful and influential artist of the mid-late 1700s, and one of only two female founder members of the Royal Academy of Arts, in Londonin 1768. Despite also being a skilled portrait and landscape artist, she is rememberedprimarily for her success as a history painter. This was seen as the most elite category in academic painting at the time, and an unusual choice for a female artist.
Quilting has a long history in North America, dating back to the early colonial settlers of the 1600s and bringing together different ethnic and cultural traditions. As well as their practical use for warmth, they were made – often communally - to mark important family occasions such as weddings and births. As quilt-making developed from a practical necessity into skilled folk artistry, different patterns and symbols emerged carrying different meanings. This classic ‘orange peel’ design is said to have been influenced by Lafayette.
Martha Washington was the first ‘First Lady’ of the USA. Although the term ‘First Lady’ was not introduced until much later, Martha Washington was known as ‘Lady Washington’, in recognition of her status as the wife of the USA’s first President, George Washington.
The Pussyhat project is a social movement focused on raising awareness about women's issues and advancing human rights.