Women & Power: Reflections by Rachel Crossley

‘Women & Power: Redressing the Balance’ was a 2-day conference which took place on the 6th and 7th March 2019 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. The conference was jointly convened by the National Trust and the University of Oxford to reflect on programming around the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote. Contributions were invited through an open call and the resulting programme brought together academics and heritage professionals from a wide range of institutions, roles and subject areas to share their work, reflect on practice, and look forward to the future of researching and programming women’s histories.

Thanks to generous support from TORCH and the Women in Humanities programme, it was possible to offer a number of bursary places at the conference. Recipients have contributed to a blog compiling reflections on the conference; the full blog series can be viewed here.

As Director of a new museum , the East End Women’s Museum, which seeks to capture and share women’s stories, I was hugely grateful to be able to attend this conference, providing bags of inspiration and insight. Writing this now, over a month later, several discussion points really stand out, and I know I will have these in mind as we work towards opening a site in Barking in 2020:

  1. Collections are gendered: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) described a compelling two-year project Women of Tyneside which used a range of interventions to increase female representation within its – historically masculine – collection. Not only were the activities inspiring (for example, documenting discussions with older women about ‘taboo’ subjects such as contraception and domestic violence), but the work gives fantastic legacy, which can diversify TWAM’s interpretation in future.
  1. Anticipate criticism: several speakers discussed the mixed responses their work provoked, from the Great Cragside Cover-Up (concealing some objects to spotlight women’s representation) which made the national press headlines, to non zero one’s put her forward which saw objectors questioning whether living women are appropriate for statues celebrating ‘heritage’. I took heart from speakers working through such criticism with both dedication and practical strategies – e.g. pre-emptive FAQs, giving space to all visitors’ views, emphasising it is one artistic (rather than any definitive) interpretation.
  1. Make your own mark!: one unexpected (to me) question, posed by UCL’s Dr Nina Pearlman, was – what are YOU doing in the present day to help historians of the future tell YOUR tale? We know of the challenges of finding women’s stories in historical archives, so often have they gone untold and undocumented. It follows that we have something of a duty to try to prevent that in future – recognizing that archives are not neutral, and generations record what they consider important. It made me think about how we encourage our museum participants, staff and volunteers to build their own material legacy – through blog posts, photographs, ephemera, oral histories, etc.
  1. This work can be challenging…..: women’s history is often hidden, collective, more ‘subtle’ than men’s. It can feel confrontational (especially to audiences seeking a ‘lovely day out’, as the National Trust’s Director-General Hilary McGrady reflected) and it is difficult to break beyond expectation that its place is solely within Women’s History Month or a Centenary year.
  1. ….but so important: women’s history is not a niche, it is men’s history, it is everyone’s history. This work can act as a form of ‘feminist complaint’ (Jenna Ashton of Manchester University, drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed) which can bring about institutional change. It can give voice to women who might otherwise be lost to history, and bring new understanding, appreciation and inspiration for today’s audiences.

Rachel Crossley is the Director of the East End Women’s Museum, an organisation which began in 2015 as a social media campaign, which now has an established web presence at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/ and is working towards moving to a permanent physical home in Barking in 2020. The museum works in partnership with local communities as well as with academic partners including the University Leeds and Birkbeck University.

Image: Jean Bishop for put her forward © non zero one

Jean Bishop for put her forward © non zero one