‘She lived a woman-centred life’: modern recognition of lesbian and bisexual suffragettes.

As part of Snapping the Stiletto’ Project Manager, Pippa worked with students at the University of Essex who were taking a module ‘Votes for Women’. As part of this some researched themes and individuals which particularly interested them and wrote these up as blog posts.

As we move from LGBT History Month to Women’s History Month this post from M Borrowdale looking at the role of ‘invisible’ women in the fight for equality which ends with a call for historians to look further into these stories seems particularly apt.

When we read histories of the British women’s suffrage movement, the aims and methods of campaigners are often at the forefront. Images of women chaining themselves to the railings outside Number 10, or Emily Davison’s actions at the Epsom Derby are well-known and written about. However, who were these women? And how did their personal relationships shape their experiences in society and within the movement? Katharine Cockin researched the life of Edith Craig, saying that ‘she lived a woman-centred life’: Craig was a suffragette and theatre director who was in a number of relationships with other women. These woman-centred experiences shaped her perspective on her theatre performances, and on her activism within the suffragette movement.

Minorities in general are not well documented in history, however historians have begun to uncover the often untold experiences of women of colour who fought for the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, Anita Anand researched into Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian-born British suffragette. In Edwardian British society, women of colour from imperial colonies had different and unique experiences from white women, but still fought for equal suffrage alongside them. Queer women were in a similar position, where their legitimacy within relationships or as individuals was not recognised, and they were expected to be married to men. A popular modern representation of the suffragette movement, the 2015 film ‘Suffragette’, blatantly leaves out the more nuanced stories of women of colour, and of queer women.

It is important to consider the women in the movement whose romantic and personal lives followed a path which was different from the social norms of the time. It is now coming out (pardon the pun) that many suffragette leaders may have entered into romantic and sexual relationships with other women. Hilary McCollom’s 2017 talk for the National Archives discusses the possibility that within the suffragette movement, there were ‘invisible’ women in same-sex relationships, and it is important to recognise the layered element of their fight. If these women were in fact bisexual or lesbians, they were not only facing arrest for resisting the police and the government at protests and during hunger strikes, but they also ran the risk of facing further prosecution and/or social alienation for the nature of their relationships. This social view has been investigated by historians: McCollum argues that there is some evidence that the Women’s Freedom League (a group which broke away from the Women’s Social and Political Union) may have been created because of the perception that some female members had formed strong emotional bonds with each other which were seen as ‘unbalanced, primitive and dangerous to the movement’.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst of the WSPU are widely believed to have had a close relationship with one another, with many other women also writing letters of admiration about both of them. Kenney wrote: “the changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no-one to say what we should do or what we should not do.”

Researching historical personal lives is a difficult task. It often relies on the analysis of private documentation, as same-sex relationships were deemed illegal and socially unacceptable. Such research requires documents of personal admittance, and the historian’s knowledge of specific and often undercover social circles in order to confirm such thoughts and relationships. The National Archives have begun to highlight the importance of researching the history of LGBTQ+ people. In a 2012 speech about researching hidden histories, Jenni Orme likens such ‘non-mainstream histories’ to the exercise of ‘digging for diamonds’. The complication with researching people in same-sex relationships is that much of the written evidence would have been destroyed, or not recorded in the first place. For example, one of Edith Craig’s long-term female partners, Christopher St John, is believed to have ‘destroyed Craig’s papers after her death’. These remaining papers and records are fragmentary, and they display to historians only the information which these women saw as acceptable to leave behind, to represent their lives and relationship. Many other women simply did not keep diaries or personal letters, and therefore much of it is speculative based on the writings of other women in their circles.

Sometimes, proving the personal private thoughts and actions of individuals in history is simply not possible. However, this doesn’t mean that we should disregard the possibility that some women were in sapphic relationships, or the evidence that we have to support this claim. When researching the centenary of the 1918 Act, it is important to acknowledge that women from all walks of life were involved in fighting for their right to a democratic vote – including LGBTQ+ women. Their stories are coming to the forefront as modern society becomes more accepting of these people and their relationships, and it may be time for us as historians to look further into their stories.

An exciting year ahead

Happy New year! Last year was an exciting year and you can’t have missed that it was a year when we celebrated 100 years of some women getting the vote. Teams of Snapping the Stiletto volunteers worked with our partner museums throughout the year to uncover stories of Essex women and their achievements over the last 100 years.

 

 

This year we are telling these stories across Essex starting with an exhibition at Epping Forest District Museum opening this Saturday (12th  January) and staying there until March 16th. See our exhibition page for details of where else the exhibition will be over the coming year.

This exhibition contains stories both researched and told by Essex women. They chose the title ‘Essex Women; Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration’. Project volunteers and the Project Team consulted local groups to steer the research and volunteers worked hard with our partners to find these stories. A team of volunteers have written much of the text, chosen images and come up with interactive ideas all designed to celebrate 100 years of change for women.

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Volunteers attending a text writing workshop

Come along and find out what it has been like for women serving in the police and Fire services, working the land during wartime and moving here to support our health services.

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Women Police Officers. Image courtesy of the Essex Police Museum

 

Discover Essex businesswomen and engineers.

Women worker at a machine

A worker at the EKCO factory in Southend. Image courtesy of Southend Museums

 

Grace Chappelow campaigning. Image courtesy of Chelmsford museum

Find out more about Essex women who campaigned for lots of different causes and let us know who is your strong Essex Women!

 

(The exhibition will be on display at Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey from Saturday 12th January until Saturday 16th March. It will then visit other venues around the county – dates and details can be found here).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Women: 100 Years of Women’s Lives in Redbridge

Today we are hosting a blog from written by Alex Lyons from one of our partner museums talking about their current exhibition

Come back here soon for details of the  exhibition designed by Snapping the Stiletto volunteers which will launch at Epping Forest District Museum on January 12th- in the meantime do visit our partners at Redbridge.

Redbridge Museum invites you to visit their new exhibition ‘Wonder Women: 100 Years of Women’s Lives in Redbridge’

Redbridge Museum is one of 11 partner museums involved with Snapping the Stiletto. Today Redbridge is a London Borough but historically Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford were all part of Essex.

To celebrate 100 years since some women in the UK won the right to vote, ‘Wonder Woman’, focuses on the lives of women in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford over the past century. The exhibition explores the campaign to get the vote, the impact of two world wars, leisure, love, working life and sisterhood, all told by local women in their own words.

Preparing for this major exhibition ran parallel to Snapping the Stiletto and much of the research has been shared with the project team at Snapping the Stiletto.

Volunteers worked both in-house, researching local women’s organisations and externally, transcribing oral history interviews. The Snapping the Stiletto volunteers helped delve into Redbridge Museum’s collection and uncover hidden women’s stories.

 

Dee Ramlal of Ilford is one such ‘Wonder Woman’. Dee was born in Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean and came to England in 1971, aged 21, to train as a nurse.

Dee says:

“I come from a line of strong women. My Mum started off as a teacher but had to leave her job when she got pregnant without being married. She said don’t let that happen to you. And I listened. She said, you go to England and you get yourself a career in nursing and you’re going to live a good life.

Those days it was very hard for foreign nurses, very, very difficult. We went through a lot of racism, a lot of prejudice, but we stuck it out.

For me, the best part of my career was when I became a community nurse. I felt as if I was giving one-to-one care, there was no rushing without giving of your best. You know that when you organise their care and you see the patient recover, that’s what nursing is all about. It’s not about the money. Nursing to me is life.”

To find out more about Dee’s story and other Redbridge ‘Wonder Women’ visit the exhibition at Redbridge Museum, Central Library, Ilford open until 27 April 2019 (Tuesday – Friday 10-5, Saturday 10-4)

www.redbridge.gov.uk/museum

 

Ask her to stand- One hundred years of voting

One hundred years ago today women in the UK voted for the first time in a General Election. Two-thirds of women in the UK (8.5 million) were eligible to vote at this first election. One woman – Constance Markiewicz – was elected to the House of Commons in 1918 although, as a member of Sinn Fein, she didn’t take her seat and it wasn’t until the following year that Nancy Astor became the first woman to sit in the House.

In the last election (2017) 208 women were elected as MPs – 32% of the total. Essex roughly follows this pattern with six women and 12 men serving the 18 constituencies.

 

The campaign 50:50 Parliament has been working toward more equal representation

https://5050parliament.co.uk/

50:50 Parliament’s Mission

To achieve an inclusive gender-balanced parliament, that draws upon the widest possible pools of talent, including men and women equally, incorporating their full range of diversity and experience.

50:50 Parliament drives this mission by encouraging, inspiring and supporting political engagement, particularly from women. In addition, 50:50 Parliament lobbies Parliament and the political parties to be more inclusive of women.’

Do you know someone who would be a great MP? Has a friend always said she’d love to be involved but doesn’t know where to start? 50:50 Parliament has a campaign #askhertostand looking for women who may be interested in standing and working with them to support and mentor them. If we want to be represented then some of us need to take a deep breath and think ‘I’ll give it a go!’

If you need inspiration just think of all the amazing Essex women who campaigned for us to get the vote- today we say thank you to them all!

Rosina Sky protesting ‘No Vote, No tax’ after her goods were seized.

Grace Chappelow campaigning

International Day of the Girl

One of the aims of our project is to dispel the negative stereotype of the Essex girl and the girls and young women I’ve met through this work certainly confirm that the horrible and sexist stereotype of ‘dim’ Essex girls couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Early on I met with members of the Guides and Girls Brigade to ask for their help in steering the direction we were going in and setting our themes.

They came back with a range of ideas for us and it was clear that today’s Essex girls are interested in human rights, women scientists and engineers, women in the services, women who served in wartime, and those who worked undercover.

Planning themes for the project

The girls and young women have a strong sense of fairness and want to know WHY women couldn’t be treated as equals to men both now and in the past. The idea of women doing the same jobs as men and getting paid less amazed them and the continuing gender pay gap infuriates them. They admire women who stand up for women’s rights and want to find out more about them.

 

Photographs from the Essex Police Museum prompted an interesting discussion around the uniforms worn by the WPCs. The girls pointed out how restrictive the clothes would have been and how far they would have limited the women – ‘they couldn’t chase anyone wearing that!’ This led to a conversation about how clothes and fashions had limited girls and women and they came up with some great ideas for practical activities for people to try at our events to show how it would have felt to wear the clothes that women were expected to live and work in over the years.

Women Police Officers. Image courtesy of the Essex Police Museum

Photo courtesy of the Essex Police Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stereotyping angers these girls and although some of them like pink they want to make it clear that pink is not always a girls’ colour! They want choice and they want to challenge prejudice and stereotypes and are interested in talking to women who have fought for their rights.

These girls and young women have a strong sense of pride in the place they live and want to celebrate women who are important in their local communities.

You can hear their own voices on the GENE radio show- I was interviewed for the latest programme.

Pippa being interviewed by the GENE Radio team

These girls are proud to be Essex Girls