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.

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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.