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.

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A Volunteer’s Perspective

In honour of National Volunteers’ Week, Jan Whitelaw tells us about her experience volunteering at Southend Museum.

I came to be involved with the ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project through a rather circuitous route. I am the Chairlady of the Prittlewell Victoria Townswomen’s Guild in Southend. All branches of the Guild had been tasked with producing a commemorative plaque of a notable local lady to display at the National AGM in Brighton. A google search helped me to find Rosina Sky, a Suffragist who had lived in Southend c1900. This was of particular interest to us as the Townswomen’s Guild grew out of the Women’s Suffrage movement. We were very keen to portray Rosina on our plaque. Unable to find a picture if her I e-mailed Southend Museums asking if they had one in their archives, which was the very best thing I could have done. Very soon I had a reply from Iona saying that they didn’t have any pictures of her, but would we be interested in carrying out research on Rosina for the ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project, and inviting us to a training session. Yes – we would! This generated a great deal of interest amongst our members and five of us volunteered. At the training session we also heard for the first time about Councillor Adelaide Hawkins, the lady responsible for founding the very first Mother and Baby Clinic in Southend. So often the achievements of women (particularly those born Essex) are sidelined, so having the opportunity to help smash that negative ‘Essex girl’ image really appealed to us.

 

We have discovered so much about Rosina – a very strong woman who not only fought for women’s suffrage but managed to bring up four children, completely on her own, whilst running her own tobacconist and fancy goods shop. What a wonderful role model. We also found that elusive photograph for our plaque! The added bonus was hearing about Adelaide. One of the volunteers even managed to track down Adelaide’s granddaughter and had tea with her.

 

There is still much research to do, and we’re hoping that we can discover information about other, perhaps more recent, notable ladies of Southend whose stories have been lost in the annals of time.

 

If you are interested in getting involved, have a look at out current volunteering opportunities 

National Volunteers’ week

June 1st to 7th is Volunteers’ week – a time to say thank you for the fantastic contribution volunteers make across the country. We’ve talked about our volunteers before but can’t miss this chance to celebrate the work they have been doing – and have signed up to do- again.

We launched our volunteering programme in International Woman’s Day (March 8th) using the Volunteer Makers platform. Through this we have recruited 113 volunteers who are supporting our 12 partner museums with research, by transcribing oral histories, decoding 100-year-old handwriting in a police notebook and sharing information across social media.

 

Some volunteers have enjoyed the fact that they can fit volunteering around busy lives and have taken up challenges that means they can work from home when they get a minute (and every minute adds up). Others find that they enjoy being part of a team and there is a very active group in Southend working with the Museum service there.

The research stage of the project is going well – although we’d really like to find out more about the women who worked in various engineering firms across Essex- can you help?

There are also opportunities to visit various libraries and record offices to explore what information they hold– we can help with travel expenses so don’t let that put you off. Braintree museum would love more help in researching Katherine Mina Courtauld and Redbridge Museum would like volunteers to look through the newspaper archive at the Heritage centre for stories of local suffragettes.

The next stage is to start to put all of this research together so we can tell the stories of strong Essex women over the last 100 years. Volunteers are signing up to help design an exhibition, to work on an engagement programme and to help take these stories out to events across the county. There are still spaces on these teams if you’d like to sign up.

We are lucky that we have an experienced museum curator who has volunteered her time to support the project (thank you Becky!) but you don’t need any experience of working in museums, exploring archives or designing exhibitions to get involved as we will provide any training and support you need. You just need enthusiasm and an interest in celebrating the lives and achievement of strong Essex women over the last 100 years.

Finally- THANK YOU to all of you who have taken part so far

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.

handmaid

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… Colchester Museums

colchester-castle

Colchester Borough Council runs three museums in the town, Colchester Castle, which focuses on archaeology, Hollytrees which contains their social history collections and the Natural History Museum, which focuses on the science wildlife habitats, biodiversity and climate change.

 

As part of Snapping the Stiletto, Colchester Museums want to learn more about Mrs Bertha Mason. Bertha, along with her husband and sons, set up the E. N Mason & Sons printing company. Their factory was situated in the Arclight works on Maidenburgh St in Colchester between 1921 and 1938 when it moved to Cowdray Avenue. It made some of Britain’s very first photocopiers amongst other copying technologies.

The museum holds an archive of material relating to the Mason family, including photographs of and letters from/to Bertha. They are looking for a volunteer to help by scanning this material and adding to the information about each piece. The volunteer can also spend a day at the Essex Record Office as there are a variety of documents and oral history recordings in their archive relating to the Mason family and the Arclight printing works.

To volunteer to help with the research, or to find out more, click here. 

 

The museum is also looking for volunteers to share their posts on social media, promoting the museum and the work it does. You can sign up here to help and follow their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Focus on… The Museum of Power

 

The Museum of Power, housed in a former water pumping station is based at Langford (about a mile from Maldon). It houses a varied collection of industrial history ranging from an overhead machine shop to a petrol powered iron.

The museum runs a range of event days and has the ‘Lilleshall’ triple expansion steam pump which is now back in steam.

They also have a thriving education programme and are keen to enthuse young people with a love of science and engineering.

 

 

Current exhibitions include ‘Women in Engineering’ and the museum has items in its collection from a whole range of Essex engineering companies and wants to uncover stories of the women who worked at these firms. They are particularly keen to find out more about female workers at Ford of Dunton, Paxman of Colchester and Bentalls of Heybridge and you can sign up to volunteer and help the museum with their research.

 

The museum is looking for untold stories about the roles of women who worked at the Museum of Power or within the associated Essex & Suffolk Water Treatment Plant at Langford nr Maldon to build their ‘family history’ and find out their impact on the water industry and local/national social history.  They would love to find families to invite to a ‘family of the Museum’ party so that they can share the untold stories and memories.

 

 

100 volunteers and counting

I missed the actual moment when our 100th volunteer actually signed up but last weekend we passed the 100 mark and now have 104 people signed up on our Volunteer Makers site to help with the project.

Since we launched the volunteering programme on March 8th (International Women’s day) there have been 30 challenges offered by our 12 partner museums and we estimate that volunteers have given us 227 hours of their time.

It’s really interesting to see how the minutes add up. Our Just a Minute challenges have been popular and people who have signed up to share information on social media have spent around 16 hours on this- it may not feel like you are doing much at the time but every tweet or Facebook share really adds up! We could do with some more help on this, particularly for our own Social Media accounts so please sign up to help us spread the word about the project.

Some of the Hour or Two challenges have been very popular and the most popular of these saw people deciphering 100-year-old handwriting in a Police Pocketbook- trickier than I first thought!

Alice Wilson’s Pocketbook from the Essex Police Museum

We were surprised by how many of you were keen to transcribe oral histories and have paused this while we work out how to convert more old recordings on tape so we can email them out to you. Lots of volunteers are looking online for stories of women who worked at various engineering companies across Essex and we are particularly keen to get more help looking for stories of women who worked at Fords, Paxman or Bentalls.

Spare a Day challenges have seen people sign up to research stories at the Essex Record Office, look at a collection at the Essex Fire Museum and research untold stories for Epping Forest District Museum. Brightlingsea and Braintree museum would both like some help with research so have a look here if you think you could spare some time.

Volunteers who have a little more free time have been signing up to the Regular Help Challenges. A team in Southend have made great progress researching Rosina Sky- a local suffragette and are also exploring the work of Adelaide Hawken who set up one of the first mother and baby clinics in Southend. Other volunteers are working with museums to investigate their collections or are spending time researching a specific story. If you’d like to help a museum out then the Museum of Power would really like your help to create a Museum of power party

A mother and baby clinic in Southend

We are just launching some team challenges and if you’d like to help us out at events please have a look at this challenge and see whether it’s the sort of thing you’d enjoy.

Thanks to all of our volunteers- the project wouldn’t work without you are we are grateful for every minute of the time you give us!