In this fascinating blog, our committee chair, Professor Maggie Andrews reflects on what women’s history means to her.
March is Women’s History Month a chance for those in WHN and beyond to share their passion, curiosity and enthusiasm about the multiple complex and contradictory histories of women. It is an opportunity explore the ways in which women have made and been made by history and to celebrate some of the wonderful research and activities that are going on. Women’s history now has a place in museums and heritage organisations, it adorns the shelves of libraries and bookshops, is studied by community groups and students in universities and in schools. Women’s history and women historians are seen on television programmes and in films, so it perhaps it is easy to forget how very recently women’s histories have had a place in contemporary culture and academia and how important a sense of their past is for women.
As a young child, my enthusiasm for women’s history was sparked by the captivating and rare image of Mrs Banks singing Sister Suffragette at the beginning of the film of Mary Poppins (1964), which my father took me to see. Mrs Banks suffrage activities were not given a ringing endorsement in the film, rather it was suggested she had neglected her children to undertake them, but as a child this film offered a memorable snippet of women’s history. At school in the nineteen sixties and seventies, the History we studied only occasionally mentioned women, the suffragettes, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale were noticeable exceptions but working class women seemed to escape attention. Outside school however, I was totally absorbed by biographies of famous women; reading R. J Minney’s Carve Her Name With Pride (1956] about Violette Szabo in junior school. This narrative about a young half-French war-widow with a cockney accent who worked in the Land Army and an aircraft factory before she became a member of the Special Operations Executive was captivating. Szabo’s second mission into Nazi occupied wartime France led to her capture and execution at Ravensbrück, at the age of only 23, in 1945. This woman’s bravery provided such an inspiriting and exciting alternative view of the past to the history we studied at school.
It was when I was studying Cultural Studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic, as a mum with young children in the early 1980s, that I really began to encounter social and women’s history. Thanks to Second Wave feminism, and an inspiring tutor – Enal Ainsworth, I was able to read ground breaking publications such as Sheila Rowbotham Hidden for History (1975) which opened up an entirely new version of the past and propelled me towards a lifelong obsession with women’s history). I voraciously consumed the reasonably priced Virago books on women’s history that came out in the period including The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant (1984) edited by Liz Stanley. E.P. Thompsons’ epic history of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) introduced me to another remarkable working class women Joanna Southcott, whose followers Thompson sought to rescue from ‘the condescension of posterity’. Southcott was born in Ottery St Mary in East Devon in 1750 and worked as a domestic servant and then an upholstereress. At the age of 42, convinced that the Holy Spirit had visited her, she began prophecy. She critiqued the wealthy, the corruption of the church, defended her position as a female prophet and gathered supporters, particularly amongst the poor, who found it appealing that spiritual revelations were being visited upon a working class woman.
In years of writing, researching, teaching, publishing, working with community groups, being involved with the WHN and consuming women’s history since I graduated, I have encountered the lives of the many millions of women for whom perhaps carrying on with the daily grind of their everyday mundane lives was as heroic a task as the heroines who became the subject of biographies. For example Nell Haynes worked her Worcestershire smallholding with her four children for many years after her husband Will was killed in 1916, fighting in the First World War. Then there was the West Sussex housewife I interviewed in the early 1990s. During the Second World War, she had delivered her three eldest children to school and taking her youngest with her once a week as she voluntarily worked in a Women’s Institute canning centre. Or Dorothy Chadwick’s mother who looked after wartime evacuees in Staffordshire, regularly stripping their beds of wet sheets, dressing her small charges in clean clothes without a word of rebuke, before undertaking the washing without the benefit of a washing machine or an inside tap. All such women’s histories deserve a spotlight to be shone upon them in Women’s History Month.
For although things have changed since the 1960s, women’s history still struggles to gain legitimacy and funding, without the diligence and the passion of its proponents it will loose its tenuous place on curriculum’s, be banished to the margins. Indeed some may see signs this is already happening.
Maggie Andrews is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Worcester and Chair of the WHN Steering Committee. Her recent publications, with Janis Lomas, include A History of Women in 100 Objects (History Press 2018) and Hidden Heroines: the forgotten Suffragettes (Crowood 2018). Her most recent monograph Women and Evacuation during the Second World War will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.