Marvel-ous Heroes: Fictional Essex Women

Avengers Endgame was released at midnight. What has that got to do with a women’s history project in Essex you ask? Well, did you know that there are two female superheroes whose biographies list their birthplace as towns in our county? In today’s post, we examine how these fictional characters have been inspired by and reflect the diversity and personalities of the real women of Essex.

 

 

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Image copyright of Marvel Entertainment

Psylocke 

 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock was originally created in 1976 as a supporting character, the twin sister of Brian Braddock aka Captain Britain. According to the comics, the twins were born in Maldon, the younger children of Sir James Braddock (their older brother Jamie is a Marvel villain).

Betsy is a Charter Pilot who develops psychic powers including visions of the future, telepathy and telekinesis. She briefly served in her brother’s role as Captain Britain, before taking the name Psylocke and joining the X-Men.

Betsy/Psylocke, while fictional, is definitely a Strong Essex Woman. With over 40 years of plot-lines, she obviously has been through a lot, including having her mind placed in the body of a Japanese warrior, dying and coming back to life, modeling and helping teach a new generation of heroes at a school for mutants, she has continued to fight (mostly) on the side of good against the baddies in the Marvel universe.

 

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Image copyright Marvel Entertainment

Excalibur

Doctor Faiza Hussain is a much more recent addition to the “Marvel Universe”. Created in 2008 by Paul Cornell to be a main character for the series “Captain Britain and MI13“, she is a doctor, born in Chelmsford and a big fan of cricket. Her parents are from Pakistan and she is Muslim.

In the comics, Faiza is performing emergency triage on a battlefield when an energy-bolt gives her an extreme level of control over biological organisms. According to Cornell, she can “safely open up a body, see what’s wrong with it, and sort it out on a subatomic level” – useful skills for a doctor.

Faiza joins a team of heroes led by Captain Britain, and wields the mystical sword of legend, Excalibur.

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Image copyright Marvel Entertainment

We spoke to Paul Cornell about creating Faiza, and he said:

“I wanted to make a British muslim woman super hero, and for her to be not ‘the other’ but the point of view character, the down to earth one.  I’d lived in Chelmsford, and I liked the double take of the Essex coat of arms looking vaguely Islamic, but also being very British. In that the swords look like scimitars, all very cliched Arabian Nights.  So use that as a super hero insignia, and it brings all her meanings together.  I asked a group of Muslim women to advise me on her, and they did for the whole run”. 

Cornell worked with this group to ensure that Faiza was a realistic representation of someone whose cultural background is very different to his own, that he respected the character’s Muslim faith but conveyed that this was only part of who she is. The result is a character that many Essex women can relate to. She is a hardworking, intelligent and complex. Cornell told us:

“I gave her Excalibur as a sign of archetypal British identity, of absolute mystical acceptance of her”. 

 

Sadly, neither Betsy Braddock or Faiza Hussain feature in the new Avengers film, however Betsy/Psylocke was portrayed by Olivia Munn in X-Men Apocalypse, and is briefly glimpsed as a child in Wolverine Origins.

Faiza/Excalibur, the superhero doctor from Chelmsford, has yet to be seen on screen. Maybe we can convince Marvel make her the star of her own film?

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It Isn’t Over…

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North East Essex Girl Guiding at the Snapping the Stiletto: Essex Women’s History Festival

Today marks the end of Women’s History Month for 2019. Our festival took place earlier in the month, we ran two guided tours of Colchester and our touring exhibition in the process of moving from Epping Forest District Museum to the Museum of Power.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Snapping the Stiletto is winding down. In fact, we’re really excited about our remaining months’ work.

New opportunities for researching local women’s history with our museums continue to come up, and current opportunities can be found here. We have just launched our “Wikipedian” opportunities and have already received some great responses.

Our project manager, Pippa Smith, is in the process of arranging events and “pop up” displays to help share all of the exciting opportunities we’ve uncovered and we’ll post details here as soon as possible.

Great things are coming, so please do by sign up to our newsletter or follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram to stay in the loop.

This project has been very much steered and delivered by the people of Essex, who have advised us in shaping the programme, done the research, written the exhibition and helped with our events. We are incredibly grateful to all of you.

We were therefore delighted to receive these two poems, written by attendees of poet-in-residence Elelia Ferro’s session at our Snapping the Stiletto: Essex Women’s History Festival. The first is by Wendy Constance, and the second is by Juliet Townsend, Chairwoman of the Essex Women’s Advisory Group.

 

Unpaid work                            Unjust disparity                       Undermined lives

Hidden women

Cruel anti-suffrage                 Fearless campaigning                         Women’s rights

Hidden stories

Printed propaganda                Seditious stitches                    Dangerous coats

Hidden pockets

 

A new century arrived

under fresh skies

women gathered, raised awareness

inspired each other to

seek liberation – but

injustices continue

still much to do

 

Women’s resilience                Shared stories                         Snapped stilettos

Voices heard

Wendy Constance 2019

 

 

Folk devil                               Dumb blonde                                    Reject reclaim                                                                                    Rock bitch                                                                                         Bereaved mothers               Brave stance                                      Subtleprose

Pacifist

In a progressive place                                                                                                                                    progressive women

meet and talk,                                                                                                                                                   storytelling lights                                                                                                                                                 new ideas

Blood red                             Think hard                         Share tales

Free the period

 Juliet Townsend 2019

Strong Essex Women: A Celebration in Poetry

Last year we put a call out for a poet-in-residence. We had a fantastic response and, after a tough selection process, appointed Wivenhoe-based poet Lelia Ferro.

If you attended Lelia’s session at our festival earlier in the month, you will have heard about how she uses words and phrases to create a sense of place. Using phrases she overheard during the day, and others supplied by festival attendees, she has written two poems, shared below.

Some of the attendees at Lelia’s festival session were inspired to create their own poems and have kindly agreed to share them with us. Check back on Sunday, when we’ll be using them to make the end of Women’s History Month 2019.

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Phrases donated by attendees of the Snapping the Stiletto Women’s History Festival. Image courtesy of Lelia Ferro

 

Anti-suffrage                         Factory acts               Male curators                                                                                                Hidden histories

Station rollers                       Tax resistance          Family ties                                                                                                     Women’s history

 

Our life achievements

will no longer be sidelined.

Essex girls, deeply dissent

uncover traces

of powerful treasure –

trailblazing their way

into the hawken sky.

 

Dangerous pockets            Propaganda kimono                        Red threads

Brave new sparks

 

 

Lelia Ferro 2019

 

 

Women’s refuge                  Witch hunts                         Sexual politics

Violent patriarchy

Handkerchief messages    Suburban neurosis             Minding the baby

Period poverty

 

With confident eyes                                                                                                                                   we weave new connections

with the everyday extraordinary –

revealing sisterly secrets

for rebellious bad-arse

young feminists

to take forward

 

Raised fists                          Free nipples              Reclaimed bodies                                                                                        Fight back

 

 

Lelia Ferro 2019

Women on Wikipedia: Addressing the Gender Gap

photo of woman using her laptop

Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

As of October 2018, only 17.82% of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. This is not because there are a lack of notable women worthy of inclusion in the online encyclopaedia, but because the majority of their contributors are Western men who do it for fun, therefore writing about the subjects that interest them or that they already have good knowledge of. This is not to say that men don’t or can’t write about women, it is just that they are less likely to.

The Wikimedia Foundation, who runs the website, is aware of the problem and is taking steps to address it. They have set up projects to identify women who should be the subject of articles and to research them, which has led to an increase from only 15% of biographies being about women in 2014.

They are also looking at other ways gender bias presents on the site. For example, the word “divorce” occurs four times as often in articles about women, probably because they are more likely to be written about in terms of their relationships.

 

With Snapping the Stiletto, we have been researching the lives of Essex women represented in museum collections about whom little was known. We want their stories to reach as wide an audience as possible. This has so far led to out touring exhibition, events, posters in railway stations and our social media accounts. However, we want to share these stories even further and to have Strong Essex Women better represented on Wikipedia. Therefore, we are recruiting volunteer “Wikipedians” to help us update existing and create new articles to share these women’s incredible lives.

 

What’s involved?:

While it is not necessary for you to already be a contributor to Wikipedia to sign up to this volunteering opportunity, you will find it easier of you have good IT skills. There is a useful page on their website which explains how to do it. We would suggest that you familiarise yourself with this information, their policies and conventions if you are new to writing for Wikipedia. If you don’t already have one, you will need to set up an account on the site.

You can sign up as a volunteer oven on our VolunteerMakers page. You will then receive an automated response with a list of subjects to choose from and our contact details. Once you have let us know which article you are interested in contributing too, we will send you the research our volunteers have collected along with any relevant images which we have the rights to use.

You may find it useful to read this article on Grace Chappelow, which was updated by a volunteer at Chelmsford Museum.

Folk Devils, Free Nipples and Mary Whitehouse

Ahead of the Snapping the Stiletto: Essex Women’s History Festival, we put out a call for volunteer bloggers to come along and then share their experiences of the day. This post was written by volunteer Claire Kibble. All images are courtesy of Claire.

Claire Pitt-Kibble Free the Nipple Selfie

 

When I saw the event page on Facebook for the Snapping the Stiletto festival, I was excited! Being a fierce feminist I always make sure to celebrate International Women’s Day. Usually I do this by sharing pictures and some information on social media about the famous strong women that inspire me. This year, however, seeing that there was this amazing local women’s history festival going on in the town I live in, it inspired me to talk about the women I know or have known personally and the important part they have played in my history. I shared pictures and wrote about people like my great granny who used to tell me stories about how liberating it was for her during World War II when most of the men where away fighting the war. So, as you can see, Snapping the Stiletto inspired me before I even got there and it didn’t disappoint once we were there!

 

The tone for the day was set up brilliantly by Pam Cox giving us some context with a talk on the invention of the Essex girl and her place in culture. The thing I found most interesting about her talk was that she described the Essex Girl as a ‘folk devil’. By this she meant that the Essex Girl had been created to be a cultural place holder for a rebel woman, one that can’t be shut up and that doesn’t fit in because she is sneered at by everyone, different classes, political leanings, and people from all over the world. I’d never thought about the Essex Girl in this way before and it actually made me relate to her, which surprised me. I’ve never owned a pair of white stilettos or even slightly fit in with the aesthetic forced upon her but I relate to the rebellious side of her, the side that doesn’t care what people think and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. This part of her that is also an enormous part of me is what made me choose the craftivism activity that I chose.

 

claire-pitt-kibble-felt-nipple-e1552924815524.jpgMe and my husband went along to the Free the Nipple craftivism activity run by Stitch and Bitch. During this activity, we made felt nipple brooches of all colours, sizes, textures and levels of hairiness! It was fun and I’m definitely making more at home. The Free the Nipple campaign is something that I am onboard with because women are judged so harshly on their looks and their bodies when they shouldn’t be. Everyone has a body and that should be good enough. If you want to bare all of it or none of it then you shouldn’t be judged on that. I carried on this philosophy when I went to the drop in rosette making workshop where I made a ‘Riots not Diets’ rosette instead of a ‘Votes for Women’ one. Obviously, this was intended to bring highlight the plight of the suffragettes and I did think about them when I was making mine. It brought to mind groups of women huddled around together making their rosettes and we were doing the same thing, not for as an important cause like getting the vote for women but for fun and sharing the experience of the women who came before us.

 

Claire Pitt-Kibble RosetteI also enjoyed learning more about Mary Whitehouse. She isn’t someone that I relate to in terms of politics or ideology; but it was interesting finding out more about someone who had views that were oppressive but the way she went about expressing those was actually really rebellious and almost in conflict with what she was campaigning for. It has inspired me to find out more about the history of local women even those that I might not completely agree with!

“We Can Make A Difference”

Ahead of the Snapping the Stiletto: Essex Women’s History Festival, we put out a call for volunteer bloggers to come along and then share their experiences of the day. This post was written by blogger Laura Kerry, and is also available on her own website.

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Professor Pamela Cox from the University of Essex spoke about the origin of the term “Essex Girl”

To mark International Women’s Day, Snapping the Stiletto swapped glass ceilings for the grass roof of Essex Business School to explore the lives of Essex women. The festival largely explored the decades prior to the early 1990s, when I was born; I imagined these women marching for their rights while I was learning to walk, aspiring one day to follow in their footsteps.

We couldn’t celebrate Essex women without acknowledging the ‘Essex girl’ stereotype, which was bred in broadsheets and pop culture and remains popular today with the rise of shows like TOWIE. By showcasing Essex women, Snapping the Stiletto reclaims and redistributes this stereotype. I also learnt how the everyday woman felt about the Representation of the People Act (which, amusingly, was used to promote clothing sales) and how they were affected by high maternal and childhood mortality rates before we had the NHS, an incredibly precious resource which could now be undone in my lifetime.

Seeing Red

The post Laura made during the Seeing Red workshop. Courtesy Laura Kerry.

I was surprised, but not shocked, at how buying sanitary items was once as covert as buying class A drugs, as this ‘shame’ continues presently. I saw reflections of today’s often poor education surrounding periods and bodily knowledge. While a great deal can be learnt from magazines, these often become our enemies as we enter adulthood.  It was interesting to see that, despite attitudes changing vastly, advertising for sanitary products has changed little through the ages, with decades-old adverts showing women engaging in physical activity during their period. During the Seeing Red craftivism session, we looked again at this advertising as well as the evolution of the products themselves – sanitary belt, anyone? I was perplexed that menstrual cups were introduced in the 1930s, yet are scarcely seen in adverts. It left me questioning why this is; no doubt linked to a lack of ongoing profit.

Accounts of domestic violence were met with a murmur of appalled familiarity and empathy. Another familiar tale was the initial shock that refuges for women were even needed in the first place, until statistics were recorded and shared. I enjoyed hearing of the persistence from the women running the refuges, who became key decision makers through their roles; the physical progression of the first run-down refuges to the more visually appealing spaces we have today was also encouraging. One of my favourite parts of the day was hearing stories from celebrant Katie Deverell about everyday working women in Essex; there was something comforting in hearing about their passion and determination and the impact this had on the lives around them.

The main thing I took away from the festival was the sense that we can make a difference to the world around us through our everyday lives. It’s easy to worry that we’re not taking big enough actions to influence the world, but these strong Essex women influenced the world around them with their various skills and qualities along with their warmth and wit, both at work and at home. We may not have the time to start a revolution, but we can donate items to charities like the Red Box Project or help paint a women’s refuge; we can all identify something we feel passionately about, get involved in our community, and take small steps to change the world.

International Women’s Day – Preserving Women’s Voices

This International Women’s Day, Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux shares snippets from just a few of the hundreds of oral history interviews with women held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.  The numbers in brackets are the recordings’ record numbers, and you can request those recordings at the Essex Record Office if you would like to hear more.

Oral history cassettesWomen’s history is one of the areas where oral history can make a great contribution. From telling the stories of notable women who have had a significant impact in their field, to telling the equally significant stories of ‘everyday’ women who made an impact just by their daily routine, first-hand accounts can reveal subject areas that do not always make it into written records. Furthermore, they can reveal the ‘whys’ of history – motivations that prompted women to take the actions they did.

The Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex Record Office is one resource for accessing such sources for women’s history. A substantial number of the oral history interviews in our recollection were recorded with women – and many were recorded by women (a discussion topic for another time – what difference does the gender of the interviewer make to the recording?).

Let’s start with some headliners. We have an interview with Elfrida Johns, who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War (Acc. SA580). Eva Hart, a Titanic survivor, recorded her memories on a number of occasions which have made it into the Archive (Acc. SA318, Acc. SA398, SA 1/323/1, and SA 19/1/14/1). Helen Welburn was the first female Superintendent of the Essex Police, on her appointment in 1970, and spoke about the major improvements she made for other women in the police force (SA 25/1/10/1). We even have the reminiscences of a Suffragette, Helena Taylor, from an edition of the Sounds of Brentwood talking magazine (SA 2/1/12/1). We feel privileged to have the reminiscences of such accomplished women in our archives.

But we also feel privileged to have the reminiscences of so many other Essex women in our archives. Perhaps their lives did not figure in newspaper headlines; perhaps they were never known outside their village; perhaps they did not feel they had a story worth telling. However, it does not take long to get hooked into each woman’s story, no matter how mundane it seems at first, as her life unfolds over the course of the interview.

Take, for example, the many ‘New-Towners’ who have been recorded for posterity. At a young age, these women left their families and homes in East London to settle in relatively rural locations and establish their own homes, away from familial support networks. Dr Judy Attfield’s collection of interviews with Harlow residents is particularly rich in women’s accounts, fully exploring their experiences and emotions on moving to these remote locations (SA 22). For example, Mrs Summers in 1986 described her feelings when she and her husband moved to Harlow New Town in 1952 (SA 22/1364/1).

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Carole Sydney, image courtesy of the Evewright Foundation

We have recently received the recollections of women who moved even further to forge new lives for themselves. The Evewright Arts Foundation recorded a number of Windrush generation immigrants about their experiences of moving to Britain. Some already had family here; some left their family behind until they had established a new home for their children. Most commented on the cold; most admitted to encountering racist attitudes. But they persevered until, like Carole Sydney, they could claim to have made a success of their life in Britain (SA 69/1/5/1).

Life could also be a struggle for those who stayed in the same place. One of our favourites is Edie Brown, who was born in Kelvedon in 1895 and spent most of her life in Witham. She worked hard from the day she left school in her teens: working in domestic service and local industry before her marriage, then contributing to the household economy by going pea-picking or fruit-picking, sometimes before her children woke, or sometimes taking them with her. But she was never subservient: she would rather lose a job than put up with wrongful accusations or excessive demands in service (SA 59/1/7/1).

In the same collection, Elsie Hammond recalls female workers at Pinkham’s glove factory striking for more pay (SA 59/1/16/1).

Sometimes it is precisely the ‘normal’, everyday nature of an interviewee’s life that is useful to the researcher. Where else could you find detailed descriptions of household chores explained by the women who did them? Memories of helping mothers with household work allow us to reach back into the nineteenth century for the methods of housekeeping common in Essex. As technological advancements reduce domestic chores to button-pressing, without these interviews the former way of life of women kept busy full-time cooking and cleaning would otherwise be lost. With cultural change, it is also important to preserve the stories of mothers struggling to run their households on the limited budget provided by their husbands, as Connie Robinson shared about women she knew (SA 26/61/1).

Oral history interviews even give us the chance to look back on areas of private life that were formerly taboo. In later life, women were often happy to speak about their experiences of puberty or childbirth that they would not have discussed at the time.

But. There is still much about women’s experiences that is lacking in the historical record. We were intrigued by the Rebellious Sounds Archive, which captured the stories of activist women in south-west England. What more can you do to preserve the significant contributions of the women you know? Please do get in touch if you want to discuss an idea for an oral history project.

Many of these topics and more will be discussed at the Essex Women’s History Festival at the University of Essex tomorrow. You will also have an opportunity to listen to these and other recordings of women from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, or to chat to Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux about our collections. If you were fortunate enough to get tickets, we look forward to seeing you there.

If you cannot make it to the Festival, some of these recordings can be played online from the comfort of your own home. Look up the reference numbers on Essex Archives to check. Some will have a play feature; some will allow you to order the material to listen in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office; and others will advise you to contact us to arrange to hear the material.