In artistic terms 2018 was, rightly, dominated by work marking the centenary of the end of WWI and (partial) female suffrage. ‘Essex Women: Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration’ from the Snapping the Stiletto project looks beyond suffrage to the lives of women in the century since and has just launched a county-wide tour starting at the Epping Forest District Museum.
Snapping the Stiletto was created specifically to bust a stereotype. Namely that of the ‘Essex Girl’ – a “derogatory term applied to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” and – typically stiletto-wearing. This is, I hasten to add, the OED definition and in no way mine! It is a stereotype which had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990’s – fuelled by the fall-out from Thatcher’s Britain and the ‘Laddette’ Culture. Indeed the stiletto stereotype may have receded sufficiently in public consciousness that one wonders at the extent to which younger visitors to the exhibition will be aware of it to start with.
Having said that, if the myth does persist, then ‘Essex Women’ certainly does ‘bust’ it. Information and exhibits are organised around themes including ‘Women at Work’, ‘Campaigning Women’ and ‘Migrant Women’. This facilitates understanding of the diverse range of contributions to the progress made in women’s lives during the last century – most of which were made by ‘ordinary’ women, often under extraordinary circumstances.
Essex Police Museum/Snapping the Stiletto
One of several opportunities to learn more about the key role many Essex women played in events of national importance begins with the contribution of Essex women to the war effort. At the start of WWII Essex was largely agricultural and as a consequence the county’s Women’s Land Army (WLA) was one of the largest in the country – playing a key role in keeping England fed during the wartime shortages. This also included many women from East London (then part of Essex) joining the WLA, sometimes against the wishes of their families. They endured both challenging working conditions and prejudice, with determination and perseverance – relishing the new found freedoms and independence that life in the WLA gave them. And in doing so they paved the way for much of the changed perception of the role of women in the decades since.
Indeed their contribution in both wars was paradigm shifting to the extent that the exhibition rightly poses the question ‘would women have made the progress they have in the last 100 years if there had been 100 years of peace’?
The ‘Women at Work’ strand also includes women in technology and engineering for well known Essex companies such as Marconi and Bentalls. This includes Florence Attridge at Marconi – who was likely to have worked on the British Type 3 Mark radio sets used by special agents during WWII and received the MBE for her work. There is also material on women in the Essex Police and the Essex Fire Service. Tellingly this spans an era from the Leyton Fire Chief who publicly stated “No woman is going to come into my fire station while I am here” in the 1930s – to the current leadership of the entire Essex Fire Service by Jo Turton.
This also to an extent overlaps with the ‘Migrant Women’ theme which chronicles the experiences of four young women who left the West Indies between 1956 and 1971 to work as nurses in the UK. Negotiating an unfamiliar climate and culture, and strict working conditions, not to mention levels of prejudice that seem unbelievable today, the individual experiences of these four women vividly brings to life that of many of their contemporaries.
West Essex Suffrage Banner
‘Campaigning Women’ links back to the suffrage movement with panels on Rosina Sky (a self supporting businesswoman prominent in the Women’s Tax Resistance League) and Adelaide Hawken – one of the first female councillors and magistrates – known both for her contribution to family health in Southend, and also to suffrage. It also includes a panel on Doris and Muriel Lester and their work for social justice and peace across the world from their roots in east London and Loughton.
For an exhibition led by a project aiming to stereotype-bust, the inclusion of a display of shoes – many of them ironically stilettos – and contextualised by Marilyn Monroe’s quote “give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world” – is more than a little incongruous. But aside from the (actually intentional) ironic twist, these objects are a serving a multi-layered purpose. Donated by a range of well known Essex women – including Helen Mirren, Sally Gunnell and Kate Silverton – they are to be auctioned towards the end of the exhibition run – with proceeds going to a women’s refuge charity. It also has to be said that so far, the inclusion of Ms Mirren’s shoes has given the exhibition a level of publicity it may have otherwise (sadly) struggled to achieve – at least this early in its run, though that the launch drew an attendance of 60+ bodes well.
Unusually this exhibition has been largely created by the work of 150+ volunteers from across the county. Contemporary Essex women working in different roles from research, through to transcription and interpretation, often embedded in the communities in which their ancestors worked and campaigned have brought these stories to life with a resonance that only increases our understanding. That each touring location will also be able to supplement the core material with the histories of their own, will only enhance this.
The stilettos (excluding those to be auctioned of course) are well and truly snapped
‘Essex Women : Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration’ is at Epping Forest District Museum until 16th March 2019, before touring various Essex locations.
Snapping the Stiletto is a two year county-wide project exploring how women’s lives have changed since the extension of the right to vote to women (aged 30 and over) in 1918. In addition to the centenary of some women being given the right to vote, 2018 also marked 90 years since the Equal Franchise Act which granted women the same voting rights as men, and 50 years since the major strike by women machinists at the Ford plant at Dagenham in Essex which led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
The project is funded by a grant from the Esme Fairbairn Collections Fund, to work specifically with 11 museums and galleries across the county to use material from their existing collections to discover – and share – the hidden stories of the lives of Essex Women.
See Snapping the Stiletto for more information.
The author contributed interpretation to this project for the Women in Wartime theme, and proposed the exhibition title.