“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).

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Why Now?

Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer, explains why Snapping the Stiletto is looking back on the past hundred years and examines why the stories we’re uncovering are relevant today.

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale

Sunday saw the return of The Handmaids Tale to Channel 4. Based on the novel by Margaret Attwood, it depicts a future where American women’s rights have been thoroughly supressed. They are not allowed to read, have jobs or have bank accounts.

 

Over the weekend, I read this interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing how the book is frighteningly relevant today, arguably more so then when it was first published in the 1980s. It made me think about this project, why I instigated it and how much has changed for women (both positively and negatively) in just the last couple of years since I started working on it.

 

Relevance when it was originally written…

Things began back in 2016, when museums across Essex were taking part in a WW1 commemoration project entitled Now the Last Poppy Has Fallen. The project was coming to an end and several museums asked me to support them in running another countywide project. A quick Google search revealed that 2018 marks 100 years since the first UK women got the vote, 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and 50 years since women employed by Ford at Dagenham went on strike for equal pay. Given the local and national relevance, and the negative stereotype surrounding “Essex Girls”, a project celebrating the women of Essex was an obvious choice for all of us. We wanted to explore how women’s lives have changed during this last century and highlight stories of inspiring individuals to help shift perceptions of what it actually means to be an Essex woman.

 

As I worked with the museums to flesh out the project, the need for a project researching the history of women in the county became very clear. Most museums had very little knowledge of what was in their collection regarding women’s history. For most of the past hundred years, museum collections have been assembled and researched by men, often pursuing their own particular areas of interest. Women’s history has been very much neglected. We knew that the museum collections contained objects that could tell stories of many amazing women, but we lacked the information to know what those stories are.

 

While I was writing our application to the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund, the “period tax” and debates around equal pay were very much in the news, and this certainly informed how the project was developed.

Consulting with the museums, we were very clear that this project was about two things.

  1. Improving museum’s own understanding of Essex women’s history over the past hundred years and how that is reflected within their collections
  2. Sharing the stories we uncover with as many people as possible

 

Our definition of an “Essex woman” is very broad and we have always wanted to make sure that the stories include those of women who migrated to Essex from around the world.

It was also clear to us that we reach people who don’t usually visit museums with our project, we need to work with members of the public to help plan and deliver the project. Our Project Manager Pippa Smith has been conducting a lot of consultation to find out what themes to focus our research on and how we can present the information to reach as many people as possible.

 

Relevance now…

I always believed that in showing how much women’s lives have changes, we would highlight how much still needs to change, but I was unprepared for how much the news would be dominated by women’s rights during the last two years. The election of Donald Trump and the protest marches this sparked, #MeToo, Meghan Markle giving up her career as an actress when she got married and the Windrush Scandal at a time when we are trying to promote how much migrant women have done for our county. The gender pay gap and period poverty have not gone away and continue to be issues that need addressing.

 

Today is the Irish Referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Depending on the outcome, women there may gain the rights that Essex women have had since 1967 while in America, Trump’s administration is seeking to cut funding to family planning clinics if they provide “abortion related services”.

 

The research done by our incredible volunteers has uncovered so many parallels to these “modern” themes. The protests of the suffrage movement, women being sacked as teachers because they had married or finding that their pay had been cut when they returned from honeymoon because “their husband would be providing for them”, the first women’s clinics being founded in Essex during and after World War 1…

 

I am already proud of the work this project is doing, but I hope that when it ends in Autumn 2019, we can say that we have not only been relevant, but that we have led to positive changes for local women.

 

If you to be involved in Snapping the Stiletto, we have numerous volunteering opportunities, including helping with events and writing exhibition text. Find out more here. New opportunities are added regularly so do keep checking back.

Focus on…The Essex Fire Museum

The Essex Fire Museum in Grays has a great collection of historic fire engines, firefighting equipment, uniforms and photographs that tell the story of how firefighting has changed over the years. Today’s blog is a guest blog by Snapping the Stiletto volunteer Becky Wash who signed up to help the museum investigate their collection to look for stories of women in the service over the last 100 years.

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Volunteering at the Essex Fire Museum

Although I work full-time, I saw that the Essex Fire Museum was offering one day volunteer opportunities so I signed up to take part.

We started the morning with a discussion about the history of the fire service and the role women played. I asked questions and listened to interesting stories retold by Fire Museum volunteers, which we noted as potential stories we could use for the project.

I got to look within the museum’s displays to find objects and create a list of items that may be suitable for display in the exhibition. We also took photographs of suitable artefacts.

Then I searched through the handwritten accessions registers, searching for more suitable artefacts that could help tell the story of women in the Essex Fire Service, and created a list.

 

IMG_20180501_125245We then visited the museum store and I got to see first-hand, how the objects were stored, and we were able to handle some of them.

We decided that we would like to scan some of the paper documents and photographs and I hope to return to assist with this in the near future.

Focus on… Brightlingsea Museum

Herrings smoking Mussons c1920

It’s an exciting time at Brightlingsea Museum. They are in the process of moving out of their current building and into a brand new, purpose built one and plan to re-open in 2019.

 

The museum are looking for volunteers to research some important women from Brightlingsea, both as part of Snapping the Stiletto and to inform the displays in their new museum.

 

Could you help research the women who worked in the Brightlingsea Fish Yards? While thought of as a “male” profession, photos like the one above (from the museum’s collection) show that women worked there too and we would love to know more about them, the work they did and lives they lead. We are recruiting volunteers to spend an hour or two searching online, finding information for us to follow up on later or people able to visit the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford and do in-depth research.

 

Crooks Reginald Josie nee Culling, Teacher UDC and BowlingAnother story that the project and museum are keen to know about is that of Josephine Culling, the first female Chair of Brightlingsea Urban Distrct Council, former teacher and National Bowls Champion. She was an influential woman in Brightlingsea during the mid-Twentieth Century but we know very little about her.

 

Brightlingsea Museum is also looking for people to help share their social media, promoting both our project and their move.

 

To find out more about all of our volunteering opportunities, click here.

Focus On… Redbridge Museum

 

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Redbridge Museum is within the Central Library in Ilford. While Redbridge is now a London Borough, it was part of Essex until 1965 which is why the museum is taking part in our project.

 

The museum hosts a range of permanent displays and temporary exhibitions, runs an active schools programme and is open Tuesday to Saturday.

Red Mus EdwardianRm low res

There is a varied range of volunteering opportunities available with Redbridge Museum through Snapping the Stiletto. You could research local suffrage campaigners and the museum is offering training in the use of microfiche readers to find these stories hidden in old newspapers.

The museum is also helping Woodford County High School celebrate its centenary in 2019. They want to know what happened to the school’s first female graduates who went on to attended university in the 1920s.

They have several hours of oral history recordings which reveal local women’s stories in their own words that need to be transcribed. This can be done in your own home as the museum will send you a copy of the recording. Topics include moving from the Caribbean, nursing, the NHS, dating, sexism, racism and living in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford.

Finally, there is also an opportunity to go behind the scenes at the museum and search their archive for information about local women’s groups and societies.

 

All of these and other volunteering opportunities can be found here.

Have Your Say: Training and Events

chappelow4-e1524227097785.jpgWe are planning to run more training sessions and events for project volunteers, covering a range of subjects such as research skills, handling museum objects, writing museum text and conducting oral history interviews. The sessions will take place at venues across Essex.

We want this training to be as accessible as possible, so want your views on when the best time is to run it. Please can you vote on the poll below, to let us know when you’d be available? You can choose as many options as you want.

Unfortunately, we will be dependant on when trainers and venues are available so we can’t guarantee that everything will be split exactly as indicated by the poll, but we will try our best!

 

 

 

 

The poll closes at midday on 8th May.

 

Focus on… Chelmsford Museum

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Chelmsford Museum, Oarklands Park

Our first “Museum of the Week” is Chelmsford Museum.

Set in the beautiful Oaklands Park, just outside of the city centre, Chelmsford Museum is currently undergoing big changes!

The modern extension on the building is still open for visitors, but the original Victorian house is closed while the team work hard to update the displays to include different objects and stories as well as adding in a much-needed café.

You can read more about their plans for the future here and there is currently a display about what’s happening in the Meadows Shopping Centre in Chelmsford City Centre.

As part of Snapping the Stiletto, Chelmsford Museum is looking for volunteers to research lives of women working at the Marconi factory. Built in 1912, it was the first purpose-built radio factory in the world. They are looking for people to give a couple of hours to research online or, if you have more time to spare, to go into Essex Record Office and do research there. For more information about these, and other opportunities, have a look at our volunteering pages.​ 

If you are interested in doing research at Essex Record Office but are not sure how to go about it, we do have a few spaces left on out training session on Wednesday 25th April.