“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.

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.

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.

 

Charity Auction – Can You Help?

Dame Helen Mirren shoes image credit Helen Mirren PR UK

Shoes donated by Dame Helen Mirren are currently on display at Epping Forest District Museum. Image courtesy of Helen Mirren PR UK.

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Our “Essex Women; Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration” is currently on display at Epping Forest District Museum, who are organising a charity auction in aid of the women’s charity, Safer Places.

The exhibition itself reveals the hidden stories of women who lived in Essex and explores how women’s roles and opportunities have changed since the first UK women gained the right to vote in 1918. It also aims to dispel the negative stereotype of ‘Essex girls’ and their white stilettos, by highlighting the lives and achievements of Essex women.

Alongside our touring exhibition, Epping Forest District Museum are displaying shoes  worn by several notable Essex women with fascinating stories, including Sally Gunnell, Kate Silverton, Penny Lancaster and Dame Helen Mirren.

These celebrity shoe donations will form part of a charity auction being held at the museum in March in support of Safer Places, which supports women in Essex who are suffering from domestic abuse. The charity helps to rebuild their confidence and empower them to achieve what they thought would be impossible.

There will also be a raffle during the event.

If anyone would like to support the event with a raffle or auction prize please do get in touch with Epping Forest District Museum by calling 01992 716882 or emailing museum@eppingforestdc.gov.uk

“Singing” the Stiletto

“We’re brazen husseys and we don’t give a damn

We’re loud, we’re raucous and we’re fighting for our rights

And our sex and our need to be free”

(The Greenham Songbook)

 

Music is powerful. Patients with dementia often remember songs from their youth long after other memories have gone. The right melody can stir our emotions, moving us to tears or to the dancefloor. It is little wonder then that protest movements down the century have regularly used music as a call to action.

 

Probably the best known suffrage anthem is “March of the Women” by Ethel Smyth. She was a trained musician and a prolific composer, writing in a range of styles. Smyth was the first female composer ever to be made a Dame and, while serving two months in Holloway for breaking windows during the suffrage campaign, conducted a choir of her fellow inmates while using her toothbrush for a baton.

This performance is by Glasgow University Chapel Choir, but it is important to remember that it would have been sung by ordinary women as they protested, not just by formal choirs.

 

Ethel Smyth wasn’t the only woman writing suffrage songs, and the tradition of women writing and singing campaign songs didn’t end in 1918 with the vote. Music has been at the heart of campaigns including equal pay and nuclear disarmament. The handwritten Greenham Songbook, passed around between protesters, has been digitised and can be viewed online.

More recently, “Quiet” by Milck has been picked up by the anti-Trump women’s movement in America. This video shows her performing it with other women at the women’s march in Washington DC

 

We are really keen to incorporate music into the Snapping the Stiletto project. Do you know of any protest songs from the last 100 years which were written by an Essex woman? What were the Dagenham Ford workers singing as they campaigned for equal pay? Which lyrics filled the air at Brightlingsea as women campaigned against live exports? Are there any other “local” protest songs we should be singing? Please email pippa.smith@essex.gov.uk with your suggestions (and don’t worry, we know the lyrics may include a few swear words).