Cath Elliott

Speech given at the launch of Women’s History Month, Thursday 20th January. 

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.

Cath Elliot is a freelance writer, blogger and researcher, an unapologetic feminist, and a trade union activist. She is currently working in local government, and was nominated for the 2010 Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize for her writing and campaigning to end violence against women.  She blogs at Too Much to Say For Myself.

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