“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.

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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.

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.