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.