Unknown Heroes.

This post is inspired by an event which I attended yesterday. During this event every participant was required to tell us their most inspirational person (Dead or Alive). Out of a room of nearly 40 people, only 4 said a woman. Eva Peron, Marilyn Monroe, and Emmeline Pankhurst were all well known, however mine was a little more out of the box.

I chose Hannah Mitchell. No one had heard of her, as I was consistently told by the group of people I was working along side. But I believe she is worthy of more recognition than people like Monroe, as she fought to get where she was.

Born to a poor farming family, Mitchell was expected to amount to little within her lifetime. Possessing no formal education – though her father taught her to read – she was expected to remain in the domestic sphere, caring for her family and performing household chores. From a very early age Mitchell saw the inequality in this, which some have argued encouraged her commitment to feminist issues.

Once married, Mitchell worked in dress making in order to subsidise her husbands low income, however she also became responsible for the household – despite her insistence that the labour should be shared. Mitchell had begun to get involved within the socialist movement from an early age and following her experience in the home, became convinced that feminist issues had a place in the socialist agenda. She spoke at meetings of the Independent Labour Party , became involved in WSPU – aiding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and worked herself into a nervous breakdown campaigning for what she believed.

She was immensely proud of her working class roots, though she eventually became a member of Manchester City Council and a Magistrate she consistently worked for working class issues and rights, including new public wash houses in working class areas which would be ‘greatly appreciated by women’. Her autobiography ‘The Hard Way Up’ remained unpublished during her own lifetime but was published in 1968, and is now considered a classic account of a working class woman’s political activism.

The fact that no one had heard of Hannah Mitchell did rather astound me, given her own struggle to break from the bonds of working class women’s duties. However it is perhaps unsurprising. Women like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison – from middle-class backgrounds – were more in the public eye and considered to be breaking from the lady-like image which working class women were not afforded.

This meant that the actions of women such as Hannah Mitchell – though more remarkable – were swept under the carpet, and never taught to generations who shall instead idolise film stars, business figure heads – like Michael O’Leary (The CEO of Ryanair), and people who are famous because they just are. I say that this is wrong, and people need to begin to look under the carpet and discover a truly inspirational and remarkable person (Male or Female), who achieved something remarkable against their own personal circumstances.

Terrorism or Freedom Fighting?

Yesterday saw the 156th Birthday of the woman who many see as the one who eventually gained women the right to vote in Britain – Emmeline Pankhurst. Her link to the women’s movement stems from her formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 as an offshoot of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett. The NUWSS lobbied for political change peacefully and democratically, using public debates as a means of airing their message. Whereas the NUWSS saw the fight for female suffrage as being:

‘Like a glacier; slow moving but unstoppable’
Millicent Fawcett; 1911

The WSPU, headed by Pankhurst, used more direct methods to lobby for the change to the law, such as chaining herself and other members to railings, commiting crimes in order to raise awareness through the use of the reports of the events. To what extent each of these methods actually worked in order to gain women the vote in 1918 is a topic still up for political debate – and one which I’m sure I’ll return to in a future post. However the discussion that I wish to relay today is the way in which we view the actions of the WSPU or Suffragettes today.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Google yesterday chose to honour Pankhursts birthday, placing the above image onto their homepage, however to what extent people feel the actions of the Suffragettes should be praised is up for debate. In an article published in 2007, the Daily Telegraph compares their actions to that of Al-Qa’eda. It is true that Suffragettes were a militant bunch of women. In 1912  Ellen Pitfield, a forty ­five-year-old midwife, set fire to kindling in a Post Office – though this was symbolic as she went on to attract attentions immediately. They attacked politicians - At 6am on the 18th February 1913, a bomb set by Emily Wilding Davison and accomplices wrecked five rooms of a partly-completed house that Lloyd George was having built near Walton Heath, Surrey. They broke windows, destroyed golf courses, defaced works of art and all in all made their voices and aims heard. As I said this probably did more to damage the cause of the women than make the Liberal government likely to give in to them; however lets compare the actions of these women to a more recent set of riots in Britain.


In August 2011, a series of riots swept across the country. Beginning in London on Saturday 6th August as a legitimate protest against the killing of Mark Duggan, the riots spread quickly and resulted in the looting of premises, the criminal damage of public property and the ruining of my trip to London – it was so scary to be in London when this was taking place! An estimated £200 million of property was damaged and the local economy was also damaged owing to businesses closing early to protect themselves and their employees. However rather than calling these people terrorists and saying that their cause was flawed, politicians and local papers began to look into causes for the riots and what could be done to resolve any inequalities that might have caused this outburst of public anger.

Excuse me?

This seems entirely one sided to me. The suffragettes had a legitimate cause to fight for, and are labelled terrorists or causing £54,000 worth of damage, whereas much of the damage of the London riots was done with no legitimate cause in mind. Pankhurst herself has an explanation as to possible reasoning for this:

‘Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs’

Emmeline Pankhurst

By this is means that it was not seen as ladylike to act in the militant manner. Women were revolting from the bonds of tradition, and thus were seen to be rejecting traditional British values – making them appear to be against civil society. The fact that many of these women died for their cause as a result of hunger strikes whist imprisoned – Pankhurst herself was often ill and fatigued as a result of the force feeding she endured in prison – rather than killed for their cause in itself surely shows this to be a matter of freedom fighting rather than terrorism.

There can be no doubt that the militant tactics of the Suffragettes have gained them a place in the history of the fight for women’s rights. A recent exhibition on Peoples Political Activism in Manchester contained several images of Suffragette activities. Whereas most of the captions of other images (such as Peterloo or the Luddite movement) contained references to the bravery of individuals involved, the captions of the women contained references to the violent methods and so called ‘terror tactics’ employed by the individuals. It seem that history shall remember the fight but as a militant stand to society rather than the amazing achievement that it was.

I leave you with a quote by Pankhurst, which I believe sums up the whole argument eloquently, and as always would love to hear any comments you have on anything discussed.

‘The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and for these deeds of horror and destruction men have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics.

The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness. Time alone will reveal what reward will be allotted to women.’

Emmeline Pankhurst

The Science of Memory.

Despite the title of this piece, this is not going to be a very in depth article detailing how we remember things. Instead this article was sparked by a game of Pointless I was watching earlier today. In this show there was a round on Nobel Prizes, and a question which asked which woman won the first Nobel prize. The answer is Marie Curie, a truely remarkable woman who I had the pleasure to research at Primary School and still consider a role model. Though my love for her knows no bounds, out of 100 people asked for the show only 12 people knowing this fact.

This got me thinking, if the most influential woman in science – according to a poll by New Scientist in 2009 – can be forgotten by so many people; what other amazing female scientist have been pushed into obsurity? Before you begin thinking that this post will be a load of man bashing, it isn’t. We have an amazing amount to thank male scientists for; I just want to raise awareness of the work some female scientists have done for the cause. 

Lets begin with my home-girl Marie Curie. Polish born and French-naturalised, Curie is most famed for her work along with her husband on Radioactivity – a term which she actually coined. She even discovered two elements, Radium and Polonium – which she named after her native country. However most of us will know about her due to the Marie Curie Cancer Trust. This Trust was set up by Curie as she began pioneering work into the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive materials – something that is still used today. Something that makes me love her even more than all of this. She funded her research using money won through her Nobel Prizes (She won two!), and gave a lot of the money to other research centres; never putting herself first but the pursuit of knowledge. 

Another famous female scientist – who actually came second in the New Scientist poll – is Rosalind Franklin. Her work was never formally recognised during her lifetime, despite giving a valuable insight into the Helix structure of DNA. Infact, it is commonly believed that her own private papers convinced the later work of Crick and Watson that the backbones of DNA had to be on the outside. She was never credited within their work, something which has often been perceived as sexism owing to the social background of universities within the 1940′s and 1950′s – a time often seen as a return to the ‘traditional’ way of life. As a result her significant contribution to the world of Biology was not directly known until after her death in 1958.

Within this same vain, Florence Nightingale was a brilliant mathematician. Not only did she invent the pie chart – remember that it’s good pub quiz knowledge – but she also became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. Despite this, we only remember her as the Lady with the Lamp – a view in keeping with the traditional ideas of femininity. Her achievements in mathematics come second to the preservation of the female ideal and the view that we still hold of Victorian Britain.    

While researching for this article I came across thousands of female scientists I have never even heard of, yet alone knew anything about. Sophie Germain was a French mathematician who in the 19th Century changed the way that Fermats Last Theorem was regarded for centuries afterwards. But she was cast aside, because she was a woman. Maria Montessori came up with an educational concept that is still utilised in a variety of public and private skills the world around. And it’s not just 19th Century women. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, however Cosmonaut  Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to ever enter space in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya followed suit in 1982. Are their names remembered by people that were on this side of the Iron Curtain.

Researching this article has just made me realise what an amazing amount women contributed to the world of science, but can we remember everything? Everyone remembers where they were when man landed on the moon, but will anyone ever remember the contributions of women that helped this be the achievement for all human-kind?

Politics and Contraception

So recently the US attitude toward contraception has been hitting the headlines, with Obama care coming into direct conflict with religious groups who object to the covering of birth control under health insurance policies. As a result the Supreme Court in both the Hobby Lobby decision and Wheaton College case have sided with the religious argument and caused a bit of a ruckus in terms pro-choice activism.

But this is not the first time that politics in the US has impacted upon a females right to contraception, as this dates back to the conception of the USA itself. From the 1800′s the Social Purity Movement linked contraception to immoral practices such as prostitution, pre-marital intercourse and marital intercourse for the purpose of pleasure. As a result of this the Comstock Act which ‘banned all material relating to sex, including birth control information and devices from the public mail’ was passed in 1873. This Act however was a bit of a double standard. The Comstock Act – or the variations on it in the 14 States that adopted it – did not prevent medical professionals giving advise on venereal disease, and in some cases giving condoms to males – but not women!

It was mainly the work of one woman who helped to turn the tide on contraception in the USA – particularly New York. Her name was Margaret Sanger.

Born to Irish Immigrant parents, Sanger was no stranger to the need for contraception. Indeed Sanger herself referenced her mothers early death as a key point for her taking up the fight for contraception, as she believed that if the mother could be allowed to rest between pregnancies, with the aid of contraception the body would have time to ‘replenish itself’ thus allowing for stronger and healthier children.

Sanger published a variety of pieces about sexual education, most famously ‘What Every Girl Should Know’ – which can easily be found online if your interested. This piece was actually censored under the Comstock Laws – though this was not the first or last time that the Comstock Laws would halt Sangers battle for Birth Control.

Sanger founded of the first Birth Control Clinic in the USA in October 1916. While the clinic operated under normal conditions on the first week, on the ninth day the clinic was ransacked and materials were confiscated, including the records of patients.The three operators of the clinic, Margaret Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell spent the night in jail, however the clinic was opened the next morning by Margaret, leading to the arrest of all three women. While Mindell got off with a fine, Sanger spent thirty days in Queens County Penitentiary and Byrne spent thirty days in a workhouse, during which time she went on hunger strike, becoming the first woman in American History to be force-fed.

The rest of the world did not treat birth control in the same manner. The Netherlands within this period had birth control clinics which ran with the consent of the monarch. The French were openly practising contraception – with mothers passing their chosen method onto their daughters as a right of passage. Britain and the Soviet Union also legalised birth control within this period.

So what took so long in America?

This is mainly the idea of women being a vestige of virtue, and the idea of Republican Motherhood. This saw women’s primary duty to the State to be the baring and upbringing of children, at all times instilling Republican values of chastity, duty and morals – particularly to their daughters. It was also seen as a woman’s role to ensure that the sexual advances of a man were warded off, as a principle of womanhood. As a result birth control was thought to be not-required, as men and women should practice self control.

The Cromstock Laws were not abolished until 1936. And it was not until 1966 that Birth Control use between married couples was made legal, as opposed to Britain in 1961 when the Pill was made available to all – not just married couples. So despite the work of Sanger, who brought the need for contraception to the attention of the masses, it looks like America will always be behind on this issue, perhaps in part due to its Republican past.


Why Moaning Women?

Hello Readers, and welcome to Moaning Women – The blog for women’s history lovers, or loathers (I will convert you!), or just those who’s like to know more.

So I bet the first question that has popped into your head is why a blog that aims to celebrate all the wonderful work that women did fighting for equal rights, bucking the trend in a time when it was not the norm, called Moaning Women. Surely that’s derogatory. Demeaning everything that they did. It’s as if I’m Robin Thicke or something.

Well no. Not quite. The name actually comes from a personal experience I had during my degree. I have just finished a history degree at Coventry University, where I first developed this interest in women’s history. One of my best friends shares this passion. The other does not, we’ll call her E. So during a discussion about Women’s Suffrage, E suddenly suggests that she doesn’t know what these women were moaning about. My friend and I laughed at the time and it became a running joke, however it got me thinking. How many others know what women went through to gain the vote? To gain the right to not be abused or raped by their husbands? To actually have any rights under the law?

That is what this blog is going to explore. I am not a fully fledged academic, I’m not called Dr Jodie. But I am passionate, and keen to share information with you concerning women’s brave journey into the modern world. I may occasionally bring it all up to date but we will mainly focus on the 19th and 20th Century. So if you want to know more about what these women were moaning about, let’s not waste time!