“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.

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‘She lived a woman-centred life’: modern recognition of lesbian and bisexual suffragettes.

As part of Snapping the Stiletto’ Project Manager, Pippa worked with students at the University of Essex who were taking a module ‘Votes for Women’. As part of this some researched themes and individuals which particularly interested them and wrote these up as blog posts.

As we move from LGBT History Month to Women’s History Month this post from M Borrowdale looking at the role of ‘invisible’ women in the fight for equality which ends with a call for historians to look further into these stories seems particularly apt.

When we read histories of the British women’s suffrage movement, the aims and methods of campaigners are often at the forefront. Images of women chaining themselves to the railings outside Number 10, or Emily Davison’s actions at the Epsom Derby are well-known and written about. However, who were these women? And how did their personal relationships shape their experiences in society and within the movement? Katharine Cockin researched the life of Edith Craig, saying that ‘she lived a woman-centred life’: Craig was a suffragette and theatre director who was in a number of relationships with other women. These woman-centred experiences shaped her perspective on her theatre performances, and on her activism within the suffragette movement.

Minorities in general are not well documented in history, however historians have begun to uncover the often untold experiences of women of colour who fought for the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, Anita Anand researched into Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian-born British suffragette. In Edwardian British society, women of colour from imperial colonies had different and unique experiences from white women, but still fought for equal suffrage alongside them. Queer women were in a similar position, where their legitimacy within relationships or as individuals was not recognised, and they were expected to be married to men. A popular modern representation of the suffragette movement, the 2015 film ‘Suffragette’, blatantly leaves out the more nuanced stories of women of colour, and of queer women.

It is important to consider the women in the movement whose romantic and personal lives followed a path which was different from the social norms of the time. It is now coming out (pardon the pun) that many suffragette leaders may have entered into romantic and sexual relationships with other women. Hilary McCollom’s 2017 talk for the National Archives discusses the possibility that within the suffragette movement, there were ‘invisible’ women in same-sex relationships, and it is important to recognise the layered element of their fight. If these women were in fact bisexual or lesbians, they were not only facing arrest for resisting the police and the government at protests and during hunger strikes, but they also ran the risk of facing further prosecution and/or social alienation for the nature of their relationships. This social view has been investigated by historians: McCollum argues that there is some evidence that the Women’s Freedom League (a group which broke away from the Women’s Social and Political Union) may have been created because of the perception that some female members had formed strong emotional bonds with each other which were seen as ‘unbalanced, primitive and dangerous to the movement’.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst of the WSPU are widely believed to have had a close relationship with one another, with many other women also writing letters of admiration about both of them. Kenney wrote: “the changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no-one to say what we should do or what we should not do.”

Researching historical personal lives is a difficult task. It often relies on the analysis of private documentation, as same-sex relationships were deemed illegal and socially unacceptable. Such research requires documents of personal admittance, and the historian’s knowledge of specific and often undercover social circles in order to confirm such thoughts and relationships. The National Archives have begun to highlight the importance of researching the history of LGBTQ+ people. In a 2012 speech about researching hidden histories, Jenni Orme likens such ‘non-mainstream histories’ to the exercise of ‘digging for diamonds’. The complication with researching people in same-sex relationships is that much of the written evidence would have been destroyed, or not recorded in the first place. For example, one of Edith Craig’s long-term female partners, Christopher St John, is believed to have ‘destroyed Craig’s papers after her death’. These remaining papers and records are fragmentary, and they display to historians only the information which these women saw as acceptable to leave behind, to represent their lives and relationship. Many other women simply did not keep diaries or personal letters, and therefore much of it is speculative based on the writings of other women in their circles.

Sometimes, proving the personal private thoughts and actions of individuals in history is simply not possible. However, this doesn’t mean that we should disregard the possibility that some women were in sapphic relationships, or the evidence that we have to support this claim. When researching the centenary of the 1918 Act, it is important to acknowledge that women from all walks of life were involved in fighting for their right to a democratic vote – including LGBTQ+ women. Their stories are coming to the forefront as modern society becomes more accepting of these people and their relationships, and it may be time for us as historians to look further into their stories.

Construction: An Exhibition on Clothing, Image & Persona

Construction explores the ways we project identities and construct personas through the clothing we wear and how we wear it. Current obsessions and pressures regarding self-image and its documentation online make it a timely and highly relatable exhibition for visitors. Particularly for women, clothing has been a medium through which to express oneself but also to restrict, through societal expectations of body image and appearance.

Playful and bold fashion on display

The wide-ranging exhibition showcases pieces from the costume and fine art collection alongside designer fashion and specially commissioned photography. The display of garments breaks from traditional chronological formats through unexpected placements of contemporary fashion with historical garments and a range of mounting techniques.

Visitors will find a 1640’s slap-sole shoe placed next to a 1970s brothel creeper whilst Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2009 fashion show is projected alongside formal 17th century portraiture. These jarring juxtapositions alongside bold colours and unusual displays create a modern, clashing effect and recreate how a designer approaches a collection through assimilating contrasting influences and inspirations. These clashes also reflect the ways we borrow from diverse influences when dressing and expressing our individual identities.

The exhibition considers how the physical construction of garments alters our bodies and enables us to embody new personas. For women especially their bodies have continually been shaped by fashion in order to fit in with societal expectations and pressures. This still continues today and on display is a waist trainer from 2017, a modern day corset.

The Construction Exhibition

Yet fashion can be a medium for positive expression. The contemporary designer items on display show fashion as a form of celebratory self-expression. Bold brash power suits from the 1980s show clothing as a way to project empowered identities, at a time when women were increasingly entering more executive positions in the workplace and had greater disposable incomes through which to spend on fashion.

Jean Paul Gaultier suit c.1990s

Ideas on how fashion can both empower and restrict women will be explored in a curator led tour of the exhibition on Friday the 16th of March from 12pm-12:45 pm. The tour will unpick the great social and political changes in women’s lives through fashion and discuss current developments within the fashion industry.

This talk arrives at time of increasing awareness of gender inequalities, in the wake of campaigns such as #MeToo and the BBC pay scandal. More so than ever fashion is a tool to protest and attendees at recent awards ceremonies have expressed solidarity with the Times Up movement by wearing black.

The talk will give the chance to explore in depth the pieces on display and gain insights into how fashion history can be used as a tool to document changes in women’s lives.

Tickets are free and can be booked online or collected from the Beecroft Reception desk

Beecroft Art Gallery
Victoria Avenue

Southend-on-Sea

SS2 6EX

Tuesday- Saturday 10am – 5pm

Women’s History Month – Essex Campaigners

Every day during Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a different inspirational Essex woman from the last 100 years. For the first week, we have focused on great campaigners.

 

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Muriel Lester was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize

We started the month with Muriel Lester. Born in Leyston, she was a pacifist who created a holiday home for poor children and toured with Mahatma Gandhi. She was also twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Grace Chappelow was a Suffragette and lived in Hatfield Peverel. She was arrested more than once for her activities while protesting. A volunteer at Chelmsford Museum recently wrote a Wikipedia article about her.

Another Suffragette was Ethel Haslam from Ilford. She was secretary of the local branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) and a teacher. Ethel was dismayed to find her pay as a teacher was cut after she married.

Many of the iconic posters used by the Suffrage movement were designed by Catherine Courtauld, who was based in Braintree.

 

From Southend, we highlighted several “campaigning women”. Rosina Sky was a single parent who ran a tobacconist shop while also being an active Suffragette. Councillor A H Hawken, who founded the first child welfare clinic in Southend in 1925. That year, she also became one of the first female Justices of the Peace. We also looked at Lady Gwendolen Guinness, who was elected as Southend’s first female MP in 1927.

Southend Museums are really keen to know more about these women, so please do get in touch if you’re able to help with the research.

 

Another MP was Leah Manning. She was elected MP for Epping in 1945, was a campaigner for education reform and rescued Basque women and children from Spanish Civil War

Ada Cole was born in Norfolk, but was instrumental in setting up a charity to care for animals in Roydon. She was upset by the state of horses returning from WWI and campaigned for animal welfare.

Joyce Baldwin who was born in Essex, but later moved to Nottingham. She was a biblical scholar and early campaigner for women’s ministry. She worked as a missionary in China during the 1940s and went on to become Principal of Dalton House Theological College.

 

Don’t forget, there are lots of ways to get involved with helping us celebrate Strong Essex Women. Find out more on our Volunteering page.

Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month is celebrated in March in the UK, US and Canada and aims to highlight the contribution of women to events in history and contemporary society. International Women’s Day is celebrated during the month on March 8th.

 

One of the ideas behind ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ is to help museums increase the visibility of women in their collections and to tell some of the hidden stories of the strong Essex women who lived and worked in the county. Some initial work has uncovered Essex women who have campaigned for a range of different causes, represented us in parliament worked in science, industry and medicine making some amazing discoveries, directed archaeological digs, written and illustrated some of our favourite books for children and adults, created art, acted, made music and have generally made a huge contribution in a range of fields.

To celebrate Women’s History Month we will be tweeting about a different Essex woman every day (@snapthestiletto). The first group of women we are celebrating are all campaigners who felt strongly about a cause and decided to do something about it. Some were wealthier than other and could use money and family influence to help them, others were well educated and used this advantage to create better conditions for others. Some were ‘ordinary’ women who saw injustice and decided to campaign for a cause.

Check our Twitter feed on March 5th to find out more about this woman

Some of these women are well documented but for others we know very little and the project will aim to find out more about them, their lives and campaigns and their legacy. We will also be working to find women who are, as yet, unknown or unnamed and to get material from archives and museum collections to tell their stories and celebrate their achievements. One story that intrigues me at the moment is that of a group of women in Harlow who banded together to protest against a National Front gathering in the town and apparently managed to turn the group away- I’d love to find out more!

Following on from the campaigners will be the women whose achievements were in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths). Please keep an eye on our twitter feed and help us celebrate strong Essex women.

Oh, and if anyone asks- International Men’s day is November 19th– the comedian Richard Herring does sterling work every March 8th letting people know about this (@Herring1967) and is raising money for Refuge at the same time.