A History of Women and Feminism in Nottingham 1903-2014

Words: Penny Reeve and Natasha Picot
Friday 28 February 2014
reading time: min, words

In Celebration of International Women's Day 2014, WoLAN take us through the history of women's rights in the 20th and 21st century and Nottingham's part in the movement...


About 50% of people reading this magazine are probably women, and maybe 75% of people are, in one way or another, feminists. This is good news because as this timeline shows, it ain’t always been that way. Everyone knows that men used to be in the driving seat but through the effort of some frankly incredible women - like Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse in 1913 - we’re moving towards a place where women and men are equal in society.

That’s where International Women’s Day on 8 March comes in, so that the world can celebrate women and their place in society. As Rachel Adams, part of the No More Page Three campaign says, “If you look back in history it’s often the women pulling together that really made a difference.” And to quote mother Beyoncé, “Who run the world? Girls.”

WoLAN has so far interviewed over thirty local women to capture their inspiring stories and celebrate their triumphs and successes. The history project also focuses on, records and archives the oral, written and pictorial history of Nottingham Women’s Centre and celebrates women’s activity from the sixties through to the nineties, as well as keeping the flame of women’s rights alive.

Adams, a WoLAN interviewee, talks of how “Nottingham has a proud history” of thinking “big and ambitious” and how women fought hard for what we have today; a women’s centre that provides crucial services and is “going from strength to strength”.

The following timeline helps to mesh Nottingham women’s history along with national and international news, to provide an insight into important events relating to the city’s women over the past 100 years.

Emmeline Pankhurst founds the Women’s Social and Political Union to fight for votes for women.
Nottingham Suffragette Helen Watts joins the WSPU and soon after gets imprisoned for fighting for women’s suffrage, screwing with the common notion of how an Edwardian English woman should behave. In 1909 she wrote from her prison cell in Holloway, “There comes a time in every reform movement when some protest action against the continuance of injustice and consequent inevitable evils becomes a solemn and sacred duty, not to be ignored without shame and degradation of ideals.”

1914 – 1918
The Chilwell Canaries provide invaluable service to the war effort.
Nottingham women play a big part in the war effort by working at the munitions factory in Chilwell, filling shells. This was an incredibly dangerous job, earning them the nickname Canary Girls thanks to the yellow stains on their skin from the dangerous chemicals they were working with.

The Representation of the People Act passed a reform to the electoral system, which included giving the vote to about six million women.
WoLAN’s most mature volunteer and Public Engagement Officer for Elders, Ruth Thompson, is born on 9 March.

Nancy Astor becomes the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.
In 2013 Nottingham’s Lord Mayor, Merlita Bryan, advises young women starting out in their career to “go for it” and “don’t give up at the first hurdle.”

Nottingham women get involved with the council.

Three female magistrates and one female police officer were employed in Nottingham, proving that Nottingham was well ahead of its time, even back then.

By the end of the Second World War there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work.
Ruth Thompson tells us how there was a general attitude before this time that “girls were not as good as boys” and how her mother - a Victorian - had to sit behind a screen while working as a secretary at a law firm as her employer was too ashamed to admit they had hired someone with breasts.

Su Pollard is born.
Need we say more?

We’re not going to lie, the fifties were a slightly regressive time for women.
In 1952, 75% of women were married and the average age for marriage was 21. Women tended not to work, mostly staying home to look after the kids. As Marjorie McNicol told Stylist magazine, “[my role was] looking after my husband. And he didn’t half need looking after.”

The invention of the contraceptive pill made a difference to women the world over.
An anonymous WoLAN volunteer describes the “double edged-sword of the permissive society” which left “women free to do what men had always wanted them to do”. This also perpetuated the age old institutions of female objectification. However, on the plus side, women used for babies could take their bodies into their own hands.

Around 500 women came together for the first British conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement at Ruskin College in Oxford.
Not only women were passionate about women’s lib though. While chatting with WoLAN, Lesley Kershaw remembered “Me dad was home and me mum got back from cleaning...she was absolutely worn out, and my dad said ‘Come on, we’re going to go and vote.’ My mum was too tired and he lifted her up off her chair, put a coat on her and said ‘Women have died for you to vote, Ivy. You’re coming to vote.’”

Nottingham’s Women’s Centre founded Nottingham Women’s Liberation Group.
Becoming the first place in Nottingham where women could enjoy a safe women-only space. The centre has remained true to the core values of the original founding-mothers. Artist Rosemary Wels, designer of the original WoLAN project logo, joins the original Nottingham Women’s Liberation Group who met at Newcastle Chambers in the seventies. In her youth, she remembers being told to put down her crayons and start “knitting like her cousin or mending socks.”

The influential feminist magazine Spare Rib is published.
Ross Bradshaw, founder of Five Leaves bookstore, and employee of Mushroom bookshop (from 1979 - 1995), mentions the feminist publications, “second wave feminism was all about literature. There were endless magazines; Shrew, Women’s Report and Spare Rib, of course!”

The Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act come into effect and equal opportunities commission established.
The first female Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Ivy Matthews, takes up office.

American folk singer Joan Baez performs in Trafalgar Square.
Nottingham women travel down by coach including WoLAN interviewee Vicky Sheil. She talks about how powerful this experience was, singing with other women and linking arms to We Shall Overcome against the “conniv[ing] of women with their own oppression, saying ‘you can’t do that, it’s for men.’”

Nottingham Rape Crisis is formed by the Women’s Liberation Group.
These services have continued to flourish and have helped thousands of Nottingham women. Val Lunn, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid talks of her triumph with co-worker Pat Holland in establishing the first 24 hour helpline for Women’s Aid later in the eighties through sheer determination and tenacity.

Nottingham Women’s Centre moves to premises on Shakespeare Street.
Despite the new centre being old and damp, it was deemed by Rachel Adams as “a palace compared to the room down the alley at Newcastle Chambers.” After much renovation the centre became the bastion of Nottingham women that it is today.

Margaret Thatcher - The Iron Lady - is elected as the first female UK Prime Minister.
And punches feminism - and the country - in the ovaries shortly afterwards. Jennifer Allison, Head of Services for Women’s Aid Integrated Services County & Accommodation and WoLAN interviewee, talks of how the Thatcher legacy still affects women today in terms of poverty and social inequality.

Greenham Common Peace camp begins.
Nottingham Women for Peace joined the campaign, WoLAN interviewee Rachel Adams talks of her involvement. “[At] Greenham Common Peace Camp, 30,000 women linked hands around the camp in a symbol of the unity of life. The camp lasted nineteen years. Nottingham women who couldn’t live at the camp in support of the peace campaign would travel regularly at the weekend in support and would lie in the road to block the transport of missiles, often bravely facing arrest.”

1982 (Scotland) 1991 (England and Wales)
Marital Rape becomes illegal.
Marian Davis, who was part of the founding committee of Nottingham Women’s Centre, talks of campaigning for this law and meeting a “wall of ignorance” due to common understanding it was “a woman’s job to please her husband.”

Women get involved in the miners’ strikes.
Nottingham women supported their husbands during the miners’ strikes, helping to set up support groups and feeding the men. Yvonne Woodland, a miner’s wife, became politicised during the strikes and was quoted in the Nottingham Post as saying, “It was portrayed that Notts was not on strike and we had to get out there and tell them we were.”

Nottingham Women’s Centre moves to its current location at Chaucer Street.
Previously home to East Midlands’ Institute for the Blind since it was built in 1853, it is found by Susie Daniel while on her bike. Rachel Adams talks of how Susie Daniel and Jane Todd, who later became chief executive of Nottingham City Council, fought for the building on the services such as Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid and Refuge services that local women had founded. The centre opens after being renovated by female workers.

Trade Union reform and Employment Rights Act guarantees every working woman the right to maternity leave for the first time.
Nottingham Women’s Centre continues to thrive despite various threats of closure over the years. The centre provides a ‘one stop shop,’ where women can access advice, childcare, educational training and other support. The centre provides crucial services for Womens Houses, Women’s Aid (WAIS) and Rape Crisis, provides specialist counseling for women accessing these support centres.

The Spice Girls hit our ears and coin the term ‘Girl Power’.
Let’s face it, who doesn’t still love a bit of Zig-ah-Zig-ah?

Gender pay gap still at 19%.
WoLAN interviewee, Vicky Shiel remembers her husband commenting as she took up her place at university “what’s the point of having a career when you can get married and stay at home anyway?” Because that’s the dream, ladies. That is the dream.

Rebecca Adlington wins gold at the Beijing Olympics for 800m and 400m freestyle.
Despite people being complete aresholes about her looks, our homegirl goes on to make us proud all the way to the 2012 Olympics and then I’m A Celebrity…

Lilian Greenwood, Shadow Minister of Transport and MP for Nottingham South, assumes office.
She’s fierce, she’s personable and as she proved at the Notts TV politics debate, she knows how to shut Ken Clarke up.

In July the decision is made that author Jane Austen is to feature on the £10 note.
The campaign was led by Caroline Criado-Perez from Rutland which, you know, is nearly Nottingham. Unfortunately, the campaign was overshadowed by a bunch of mouth breathers on Twitter threatening to kill and/or rape her. This leads to a huge outcry about the social media site’s frankly shoddy abuse reporting procedure.

In September, Nottingham Feminist Action Network (NFAN) organises Nottingham Women’s Conference, a women’s only event that helped to promote new ways of thinking about feminism and rights. Nottingham drummer Sophie Fishwick, who helped make the Women’s Centre what it is today, explains her attitude in the fight against injustice towards women, “it’s about changing their attitudes rather than letting anything get in the way…[we must] all be role models for each other.”

WoLAN Exhibition, Saturday 1 March - Monday 31 March, free. Launch event, Saturday 1 March, 10am -2pm, free. Nottingham Central Library, Angel Row, NG1 6HL

WoLAN website
Nottingham Women's Centre

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