“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.

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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.

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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.

‘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.

Body, Self and Family

The Snapping the Stiletto: Essex Women’s History Festival on Saturday 9th March 2019 is being organised in partnership with the Body, Self and Family Project. In this guest post, the BSF project team tell us about their work.

body self family bannerThe Body, Self and Family project at the University of Essex is researching women’s psychological, emotional and bodily health in Britain between the 1960s and 1990s. We want to find out more about the everyday health experiences of women in a period when the pattern of women’s lives changed almost beyond recognition. Across these decades, women entered the workforce in larger numbers, became involved in feminist activism, limited their families, and increasingly chose to marry later (or not at all).  By the end of these decades, women expected to lead very different lives to those of their own mothers and grandmothers.

 

This project asks: How did women experience these sweeping social and cultural changes? What did these shifts mean for women’s own emotional wellbeing, and for their traditional roles as carers? How did women of different ages, social classes, ethnicities and sexual orientations experience these social changes differently? To find answers to these questions, we are interviewing women born between 1940-1970, including 25 women from around Essex. Our talk at the Snapping the Stiletto Festival will present the team’s initial findings for the first time, focusing especially on the experiences of girls growing up in Essex in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Another part of the project is work with community groups, Girl Guides and schools to develop toolkits that draw on historical resources to improve the emotional health and wellbeing of adolescents today. You can get a taste of some of these activities at our two craftivism sessions at the Festival, on ‘Body Image’ and ‘Seeing Red: Periods, Poverty and Protest’.

 

To find out more about the Body, Self and Family Project, see our website

Tracey Loughran

Daisy Payling

Kate Mahoney

Hannah Froom

The Festival is now fully booked but please do join the waiting list if you are still interested in attending. We will offer out any returned tickets as soon as possible.

Snapping the Stiletto Festival – Can You Help?

HMS Westcliff Cooks - courtesy of Southend Museums

HMS Westcliff Cooks – courtesy of Southend Museums

It’s just under a month until our Women’s History Festival at the University of Essex Business School and we’re really excited. We’ve got a great range of contributors, who’ll we be talking about over the next few weeks, and tickets have been going so fast we’ve shuffled things around so we can add 100 extra seats.

We are currently recruiting volunteers to help us in the run up and on the day. Please can you help by signing up to one (or more) of the “volunteer challenges” below?

Social Media

Can you help spread the word about the festival amongst your friends, family and colleagues? We’re asking people to sign us as social media volunteers, who’ll keep an eye out for our posts on Twitter, Facebook and on our blog and share them on their own accounts. Click here to learn more or sign up.

Stewarding

We want everyone coming to our festival to have a great time, so we need some extra people to help us welcome attendees, show them where the different events are taking place and to assist with the evaluation. Click here if you’d like to help.

Donate

On the day, we’re going to be collecting items on behalf of two important causes. The Red Box Project battles period poverty by distributing sanitary products to young women via schools. Beauty Banks collect beauty and hygiene products and pass them on to those who need them via foodbanks and shelters. Click the links to find out more.

Beauty Banks – Providing Essential Supplies

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Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Sali Hughes, co-founder of Beauty Banks, described the birth of their organisation in a recent Guardian interview:

“While filming a report on homelessness for the BBC, I noticed a small box under the front desk of a homeless shelter. In it were single tampons, disposable razors, mini toothpaste tubes and mismatched tablets of soap. These, I discovered, were brought in by members of staff and volunteers, so that when homeless clients had a job or a housing interview, a health appointment, a period, they could access the hygiene essentials most of us are able to toss into a shopping trolley with scarcely a thought. I texted a photograph of the understocked crate to a friend and colleague, Jo Jones, and within 48 hours, we had launched Beauty Banks”.

Beauty Banks is a non-profit organisation – like Foodbanks but with essential personal care & beauty items instead. They collect, re-package and distribute parcels to their charity partners, registered foodbanks and shelters, who ensure donations get to those who need them.

At our Essex Women’s History Festival on Saturday 9th March, we will have a box where attendees who wish to donate can leave unused beauty and hygiene supplies such as face wash, shampoo, razors, shaving cream, deodorant, flannels, and moisturiser. We will then pass these items on to Beauty Banks.

If you can’t attend our festival but would still like to support Beauty Banks, or would like more information about them, please visit their Facebook page.

Pants to Period Poverty

Red box logoThe Red Box Project is a national initiative, supporting young people throughout their periods by providing red boxes filled with free period products to local schools. It was founded in March 2017 in Plymouth in response to articles about “Period Poverty” in the news, describing how young women are missing out on their education because they couldn’t afford the products they needed during their period.

 

At our upcoming festival, we are going to be collecting sanitary products for the Project to pass on to local young women.

If you are able to join us on Saturday 9th March and would like to donate, please bring along sealed packets of disposable towels, tampons or new underwear. If you would like more detailed donation guidelines or aren’t able to make it but would like to support The Red Box Project, more information can be found on their website.

There are still a few tickets available for our free Essex Women’s History Festival. They can be booked online here.