Born a Rebel blog: Part 2

The Spirit of Women  

The first part of my blog ended with a great film made in 1977 by animator Sheila Graber (you can read part one here if you missed it).  Now, we're back to the ‘30s when it may have been unusual for women to go to university or even to find a role outside the home, yet role models were indeed established, and dreams followed in all walks of life. In the 1930s, one of Britain’s most famous women was aviator Amy Johnson.   A Yorkshire woman born in Hull, amazingly she went to Sheffield University in 1923 and completed a BA in Economics. 

Whilst working as a secretary to a solicitor she became interested in flying and with grit and determination set out to prove that women could be as competent as men.  She was the first woman to fly alone to Australia, coming home to a hero’s welcome.  After her commercial flying ended with the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. After crashing into the Thames estuary her body sadly was never recovered. Amy Johnson at Hedon (1930) is well worth a look to illustrate such a pioneering spirit.

Cycling and Britain winning gold medals may seem like a recent new sporting fad but here in Yorkshire we have had a long history of cycling prowess, way before Yorkshire successfully hosted the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart.  A name that should be more well-known is Beryl Burton, the fiercely competitive Yorkshire woman who won seven world titles - two road race championships and five track pursuit titles - and 96 national titles - 12 road race championships, 13 pursuit titles and 71 time trial titles against the clock. Phew!  

When she was at the peak of her powers, she regularly beat the men. In 1967, she overtook Mike McNamara in an Otley CC 12-hour time trial and it is reported that when Burton routinely overtook men during a race, they expected the usual quick-fire witticism, but in this instance she just nonchalantly offered him a Liquorice Allsort. A gallant Yorkshire woman.  Check this fine sportswomen out at the British Cyclo Cross Championship (1962). 

Now the biggy – women and football. Women’s football has a longer history than most people would think. There were even several women’s clubs in the 1890s with Preston being the stronghold of women’s football in its early days; the famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies was formed there in 1894. Go to Filmed and Not Forgotten on Google Arts and Culture to see a Yorkshire ladies team being thrashed by the Dick Kerr Ladies in Hull in 1921.

Many munitions factories had a ladies’ team as it was believed it boosted morale and thus increased production. Yet in 1921 the FA banned women from playing on Football League grounds. “… the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged".  It wasn’t until 1971 that this ban was lifted.

OK, this is not sport but just so you don’t get too exhausted, watch Drive with Clare (1963-68) to see women freely enjoying each other’s company, fabulous scenery, even more fabulous clothes and cars and learning to drive in spectacular white high heeled shoes. And little traffic on the roads, bliss.

A funny one to finish this section, watch Bringing in the Coal (1980). This film documents the 17th annual World Coal Carrying Contest at Gawthorpe. During this race, which takes place every Easter Monday, contestants are required to run nearly a mile while carrying large sacks of coal. This delightfully West Yorkshire activity carries on to this day.

Strong and able women enter World War 2

Knitting, Make Do and Mend, and Sew and Save were essential initiatives run by women but by 1941, Ernest Bevin, the Government Minister for Labour, declared that, 'one million wives' were 'wanted for war work'.  By the end of the year women began to be conscripted for war work, when Parliament passed the National Service Act. 

There were over 640,000 women in the armed forces, including The Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. In Hunshelf Gun Site (1940) we see women working and training at the Hunshelf anti-aircraft gun site. Also captured is a baseball match, possibly with some American GIs who were based close by. A much wider experience for these women than they could have imagined.

Closer to battle lines there were also many more women like Amy Johnson who flew unarmed aeroplanes, women who drove ambulances under fire, women who served as nurses in the military hospitals in France  and women who worked behind enemy lines in the Special Operations Executive.  

War work at home meant women worked as nurses but also as mechanics, engineers, in factories as munitions workers, in heavy industry as shipbuilders, as air raid wardens, as drivers of buses and fire engines, and by 1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were working. These were of course traditionally male occupations. The entry of women into occupations which were regarded as highly skilled and as male preserves also renewed debates about equal pay.   

In the film Munitions Factory (1940) we see women making 84 Pounder Shells. This is heavy dirty work and most of the women are dressed in boots and overalls, although there is one shot of women wearing heels, albeit low. Worth a full watch to follow the laborious nature but precision needed by these plucky women.  

Interestingly, with the increased employment of women during WWII, the need to meet working women’s caring responsibilities had to be urgently addressed. With state funding, wartime nurseries were established across the country.   However, this was a temporary measure for the period of the war and, despite the increase in women’s employment since the 1920s, a married woman’s place was still considered to be in the home.

So, although women's contributions to the war effort was publicised in newspapers and magazines to aid propaganda, and women’s auxiliary forces paraded regularly through towns as shown in Rotherham Services Procession (1942) and Holmfirth in Wartime (1941-45), as the war ended, it was taken for granted that these now physically strong and independently-minded working women would forget these newly-acquired skills, return to the home and rebuild a family. The same propaganda that had conscripted women to work, now eulogized the virtues of women’s place in the home and the returning man's duty to look after her and head the household once more.