Campbell-Pretty explains that it was a special handbag that led her to underwriting the Women Writers Fund, which was set up in 2021 to fill holes in the State Library’s rare book collection. At a London auction in 2018, Campbell-Pretty came across a silk purse called a “slave bag”. Dated around 1826, the dainty piece bore a picture of a West Indies slave woman and her child, and was made by middle-class British women in local, anti-slavery ladies’ societies. They distributed them to the aristocracy as a form of political statement. The bag captivated Campbell-Pretty, who bought it for about $15,000 and gave it to the NGV.
The bag piqued her interest in women’s activism and her focus then jumped a few decades to the guerilla-like campaign of the British suffragettes, who won women universal voting rights in 1928 (South Australia, in a world-first, had beaten them to it in 1894). She became one of Australia’s foremost collectors and experts in suffragette materials and donated her collection – hunger-strike medals, board games, sashes, pins – to the NGV. But, looking for a more appropriate home for her suffragette newspaper collection spanning 1907-1908, she approached the library in late 2020.
The library took the newspapers and Campbell-Pretty asked if they had a women’s fund for buying up neglected areas of women’s writing, history and achievement. They were working on it, they said. In mid-2021, the library came back to Campbell-Pretty with the idea of a Women Writers Fund and then went on to secure the support of another Melbourne philanthropist, Helen Sykes.
The fund has now purchased 104 items, including what the library considers its “great white whale”: a first-edition Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in a set). They’ve also picked up a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s gender-shifting tale Orlando: A Biography; the first illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, still with its original title: Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus; and a 1497 medieval guide to famous women written by Italian monk Giacomo Filippo Foresti. In October, the library secured $1 million from a trust set up in the name of Helen Macpherson Smith, a philanthropically-minded heiress who left £275,000 in 1951 to be spent on Victorian charities. The trust helped fund the Austen purchase and will support an annual marquee oration.
As a collection, these items begin to create a parallel history, one often devalued and forgotten in the mists of time: the story of women’s achievement, their lives and roles in history. This is the story that drives Campbell-Pretty’s philanthropy.
In her 1929 book, A Room of One’s Own – a first edition now acquired by the fund – Virginia Woolf recounts setting off on a dismal London day to the British Museum with basic questions about how women lived across history, only to find an avalanche of books on women by men, but none on women by women.
There was also the problem of censorship: in her recent book Femina, medieval historian Janina Ramirez writes about the destruction of female-authored books, especially from the Reformation onwards, when libraries were scoured for controversial texts and marked “witchcraft”, “heresy”, “Catholic” and “femina” (written by women).
Sometimes female authors and figures of note were left out of male-written history for decades. The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, the women’s rights campaigner, philosopher and French Revolution historian, were shunned for a century because she’d had an illegitimate child, suffered depression and had some relationships without getting married, a penalty her male peers would not have faced (the fund has purchased a 1794 first edition of Wollstonecraft’s book on the French Revolution, but the one coveted most by Sykes and Campbell-Pretty is her hugely influential 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects).
Then there’s women such as Émilie du Châtelet, a French mathematician, philosopher and polymath, whose 1756 translation of Newton’s basic laws of physics is still used today. History remembers her more for being Voltaire’s mistress than for her remarkable intellectual achievements (the fund has purchased several of her works).
Writings by women of colour suffered the double discrimination of race and gender, evidenced by the library’s lack of first editions of American novelist Toni Morrison, despite her winning the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature (the fund has purchased five of Morrison’s first editions, including the Pulitzer-prize-winning Beloved. It also purchased a first edition of Efuru, the first novel by Nigerian author Flora Nwapa, who some consider to be the mother of modern African literature.)
Sykes hopes people will feel a sense of identity and ownership about the fund and support it with their own donations. For her, the fund is about giving young women a sense of being part of a continuum of study and intellectual achievement. “It’s not only about the female literary figures, but the scientists, the mathematicians, the political thinkers: it’s important that young women can see that the goals they might want to achieve have been achieved by women 200 to 300 years ago.”