Our voices will be heard
Posted on January 21, 2011
I took part in the pre-launch event for Women’s History Month at Portcullis House last night – and blimey, what a truly inspiring evening that turned out to be!
Anyway, here’s what I said:
I’m going to start by sharing an anecdote with you, one that, in the context of this discussion about how women’s contributions to history have been largely ignored, really brings home to me how the personal truly is political.
Like a lot of people of my generation I grew up hearing all about the part my grandfather played during world war 2. In fact some of my earliest and favourite memories are of the times granddad would get together with some of his old friends, and as long as I promised to be quiet, I was allowed to sit and listen as they swapped war stories and reminisced about what they got up to during those times.
And yet I never really heard anything about what my nan got up to. I assumed that she spent most of her time during the war at home with her children, cooking and cleaning and doing all the domestic stuff, just waiting and praying for my granddad to come home.
My nan died in 1993, but a few years after she’d died I got a phone call from my mum. She wanted to know if I’d been watching some programme about the war that had been on Channel 4 the night before, and if I had, had I seen the clip with my nan in it.
So naturally I asked her what she was talking about, and what on earth my nan could have been doing during the war to get herself on the telly.
And that’s when I first found out that during World War 2 my nan was one of those women who went off and worked in a job that would traditionally have been considered a man’s job. That’s when I learned that during the war my nan was a bona fide railway worker.
A few years later I was at a women’s history trade union event, and as part of the day we sat and watched an episode from the BBC’s People’s Century series – the episode called Half the People, which is the one about women in the 20th century. And about half way through, there they were talking about the Second World War, and suddenly there was the clip – there was clip my mum had talked about, of the group of women painting a railway bridge. There were no interviews, nothing about the individual women, just a quick glimpse of them painting the bridge and then they were gone.
Now I don’t know how much of the original film exists, or what its original purpose was. But I do know that every now and then clips of it turn up on programmes like the BBC one, about Britain during the war, and every time it’s shown the narrator will be talking about how women had to do the men’s jobs while they were away fighting, and he’ll say something like: “Look, here are some women painting a bridge”. And every time I want to stop the film and say “Wait, someone pause it, that’s not just ‘some’ women. See that one there, that’s my nan. That’s Elsie Parsons. She had a name, and she had a life. She was born in September 1918 in a small Devon village. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 44 and Elsie was only 11. She left school at 15 with no qualifications and went into domestic service as a live-in maid.
At 19 she eloped and went off to London with my grandfather, Ernie, then, when the second world war broke out and Ernie signed up to fight, Elsie returned to Devon, where during the day she would leave her small daughter, my mum, in the care of her mother-in-law, while she went off to her job as a maintenance worker on the railways.
And she always remembered the day the film makers came and filmed the women painting the railway bridge. She told my mum that when it was finished the women were all invited to a special screening, so she went along with the others and watched herself up on the big screen for the first and only time.
She wasn’t just ‘some woman’. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother. She was a maid, a railway worker, a nursing auxiliary. She voted in every election, local and national, and she encouraged her daughters and granddaughters to do the same. And while she may not have chained herself to any railings, and she may not have marched on parliament, in her own small way she played her part in this revolution, and she gave her daughters a place in the world.”
But you wouldn’t know any of that from watching the film, and you won’t ever see her name or the names of any of the other women on the bridge as the credits roll by at the end. All you’ll ever see is a clip of some random working-class women painting a Devonshire railway bridge.
But things are different now. Times have changed.
Nowadays if something like that happened, if someone came along and filmed you for something, it would probably end up on YouTube at some point, with stills posted on Facebook and all the women tagged and their names recorded for posterity.
Things are different now, we’ve moved on, and we now have the tools at our disposal to ensure that our contributions do not go unrecorded and unremarked.
Most of us probably aren’t even conscious that we’re doing it, but with every blog post we write, and every photo we put up on Flickr, we’re recording our history, we’re making our own contribution. Whether we write anonymously or whether we choose to use our real names, we’re ensuring that women will not be written out of the history of the 21st century and beyond. We’re ensuring that women’s voices will be heard down the decades and centuries to come.
So in a hundred years time when they’re studying how women lived in 2011, or wondering what women thought about their lives or about politics or the state of the world in general back then, all they’ll have to do is Google us, or whatever their equivalent of Google is, and within seconds there’ll we’ll be.
It’s an awesome responsibility when you think about it like that, but hopefully it’s also an inspiring one. Because it means that our daughters, our granddaughters, and our great granddaughters will not, like us, be left wondering who these women were and what they did. It means that when they look back, they will not just be looking back at the lives of so-called important men, but at all of our lives. It means that they will know that, no matter how small, we all had a role to play; that we counted, and that we did our very best to make sure that we did.
Excellent Cath, really great post.
If this is the standard that has been set, then this should be bloody good month!
Now I don’t know how much of the original film exists, or what its original purpose was.
The purpose was (female) labour recruitment during the war, encouraging women to “do their part [for the war effort]”. The reverse occurred in film at the end of the war, showing women ‘gladly’ giving up their wartime jobs for the ‘returning heroes’ and to encourage them to get back behind the kitchen sink and have lots of baybees. I don’t think the women were ever given more than a passing thank-you for their contribution in the war, the focus was on the men, the ‘returning heroes’. Of course, once many women had experienced life outside the home, playing ‘happy housewife’ was actually a source of unhappiness and inner conflict with their post-war role. Which was really the catalyst for the second wave feminism.
I do not share your optimism that women will be remembered in the history to come. Sure, little bits and pieces perhaps, but within the mainstream (or malestream) history, women continue to get erased – not all, but most. I still see it happening even with contemporary events in the media. We need to do more than just blog posts, we need to write books and biographies (within mainstream sources) in order for women to be remembered.
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you publicly. Your site is brilliant – why, excuse me, aren’t you editing a major national newspaper? – and this article in particular was wonderful. But I agree with FAB Libber: the erasure of women’s contribution happens before our eyes, in realtime. I have seen it at work in the media as entire planning meetings (often with a majority of female producers) quite simply veto, talk down or coolly ignore anything for, about, with or by women. We deserve much more than to work ourselves to the bone writing blogs which, like yours, are far and away more intelligent, insightful, progressive and witty than much of what I read in mainstream newspapers. We deserve to be paid for our labout and credited for our incredible contribution to all aspects of the world. And while your rabble-rousing brings a tear to my eye, it also puts the steel in my soul and the flint in my heart – with anger that we still, as ever, must continually shore up women’s place in history.
But that’s a separate issue. What I really wanted to say was… please keep writing your brilliant pieces.
With all best wishes,
Funnily enough, I was talking about this today, the problem is ‘historians’ really. They tend (well the ones that get the prestigious academic posts at least) to be establishment figures and are only interested in other establishment figures. It’s not just women that get erased, it’s anyone who isn’t a white upper class male, basically.
Polly is right. For all the talk of “returning heroes”, if any footage existed of your Granddad Ernie during the war years, it would just be “some soldiers firing shells”.
Good for you finding out what your nan did in the war. *Resolves to do the same*. A railway worker, that is so cool.
Hidden from history, but never erased!
In Sheffield, the Women of Steel who worked in the steel works during WW2 finally received recognition last year:
A lady who used to live near me was a crane driver who stayed in her job long after the war. She said the women were promised equal pay year after year, but never actually got it. In later years, the crane drivers – men and women wrote poems which they shared in the canteen.
The Sheffield Women’s Film Co-op produced a film called ‘Diamonds in Brown Paper’, about the buffer lasses who worked in the cutlery industry. My friend, the late Gill Booth, was involved in making the film and wrote a book with the same title. You can see the film on YouTube:
Oops – didn’t realise that I was going to embed the video on your blog, Cath! My apologies.
I can also recommend Harriet Bradley’s ‘Men’s Work, Women’s Work’ and Sue Yeandle’s book about the women factory inspectors.
I’m seriously into women’s history … in my local area, not far from Orgreave, women defied the Mines Act & carried on working the coal. Once, when the soldiers were called in to the village to read the Riot Act to the striking miners and their families, it was the women who attacked and debagged the soldiers.
I saw you speak – not only a great speech but delivered with such grace. Your tale was a truly inspiring end to a brilliant evening.
Congratulations on your wonderful presentation, Cath. An excellent piece of writing that your nan would have been very proud of, I’m sure.