Exploring 100 years of women on film

What reactions do you get when you show young millennials, who didn’t grow up with feminist issues at the forefront of their family life, a selection of films that depict women’s lives over the last 100 years?  Bethany, Zoe and Freya, second year history students at York St John University, recently completed placements with YFA, working on our ‘What About the Women?’ project.  

The three students began their placements by watching ‘Born a Rebel’ a film made by YFA and commissioned by Cinema For All as part of the Vote 100 programme, supported by the Women’s Centenary Grants Fund.  They then selected a specific topic – and further films – to research, based around their own interests. 

Val Baxter, YFA volunteer, spoke with the students at the end of their placement, to find out more about their experiences and how the films had shaped their understanding of the journey women have taken over the past 100 years.  Here’s a snapshot of their conversations and research.

Zoe:  ‘Born a Rebel’ is a fantastic display of female empowerment throughout the 20th century. It deals with a range of issues from suffrage, to war work, to the ‘traditional female’ and perceived sexism. As a young person, and now gender historian, and yes, a feminist, a lot of the issues presented in this film were familiar to me, but a lot of the background information was completely foreign.  Feminism didn’t hit me until 6th form.

Val:  The title ‘Born a Rebel’ was inspired by the words of Mrs Elizabeth Dean, who, still a proud suffragette at 100 years old, told the camera, “Between you and I, I think I must have been born a rebel!” 

Born in 1886, she reveals in 1978 aged 92 that she refused to marry in a church aged 21 and have someone say ‘who gives this women away’. Her own mother died aged 38 in childbirth having had eight children and Elizabeth didn’t want to become ‘a childbearing machine’ and a ‘mere chattel’.   

In her BBC interview, she talks about meeting Emmeline Pankhurst at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, where the family lived from 1898-1907.  The building continues the fight for women’s equality today as the headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid. 

Did any particular era from the film stand out for you?

Freya:  For me, the best part of watching the videos used in ‘Born a Rebel’  was seeing the cultural shift from the post-war era to the 1960s and 1970s in terms of fashion and self-expression. As time moved into the sixties, women started to dress in a way that expressed their personality. They started to use their clothes, makeup and hairstyles to tell the world who they really were and to stand out from the crowd. This cultural revolution planted the seeds of the world we see today, where women have more freedom of expression. They can dress how they like, wear as much or as little makeup as they see fit and adorn themselves with piercing and tattoos if it pleases them. 

From a twenty first century perspective, London - King's Road, Chelsea (1967) is interesting watching. This is not only because it shows genuine footage of life in 1967, but because the excitement for the cultural revolution is very apparent from the laughter and smiles on the faces of the women in the video. They all seem confident and at ease in their outfits, proud of their creativity and self.

Val:  That’s very interesting. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and following decades, brought together women who were living in a rapidly changing social arena.  These changes made them question their life opportunities. Women, educated and many now armed with degrees, articulated and challenged cultural assumptions, their relationship with men and patriarchal power, and we should not forget the ongoing debates and challenges about the competing motherhood/work narratives. 

Women were active in political movements that campaigned for civil rights, peace, reproductive rights, trade unions, education and the grass roots politics, forcefully arguing for things that directly affected their lives. When I was young (late ‘60s/’70s) the questions were often about what we should wear. Were dungarees too masculine? Could we wear trousers for work?  Long skirts versus short skirts, make up or no make up, was just lipstick acceptable or were you still making a statement? Should we shave our legs and armpits, now that was a big question. And let us not forget as recently as 2016, a British receptionist was dismissed for not wearing high heels!

Zoe:  It is interesting that we talk about ‘60s liberation because actually the 1950s/1960s ‘traditional housewife’ was the next step forward (or backwards) in the lives of women after the war. ‘Born a Rebel’ contains many films portraying women in the home, often in the form of adverts or informational programmes detailing the next innovation in technology.

Hub of the House (1945) is a good example of the ‘traditional female role’ demonstrating how the new advancements in technology would benefit housewives. It can be argued that these new innovations in technology reinforced the gender roles as the advertisements were almost solely for the benefit of women. This film shows women getting excited about a new kitchen, describing it as being ‘like a dream’. Although it is directed by a female, the film portrays women in a simplistic way: that her only ambition in life is to get a good kitchen to aid her housework. 

Women were taught the art of housekeeping at school with classes in cookery, household management, darning and sewing etc. This is also seen in the film Joseph Rowntree Senior School - New Earswick (1947) which shows young women having lessons in housework compared to young men who were learning skills such as farming and driving. The stereotypical representations of men and women on television and adverts has only recently been picked up on. The Advertising Standards Authority is set to enforce a new code in June 2019 which means that ads will no longer be able to depict men and women in gender-stereotypical roles. Personally, I find it incredible that an issue that was prominent 70-80 years ago is only just being resolved. 

Bethany:  For me, the thing that stood out was the miners’ strike. Growing up in a small village in County Durham, I never really learned about the facts of the miners’ strikes that took place during the 1980s or indeed very much else about the North of England at school. In history classes we focused on topics such as medicine, crime and punishment and the various wars throughout history and none of it mentioned the North of England.  

My mother remembers the power cuts that would throw the house into total darkness for hours rendering her terrified in the middle of the night and using camping torches to light the rooms. Yet I never really understood what the strikes entailed until I transferred secondary schools and I was astounded to see tapestries and banners lining the walls. These tapestries are exactly like those featured in the ‘Born a Rebel’ edit, in particular the film Durham Miners Rally No. 1: Banners and Arrival at Racecourse (1984).

Because of my connection, ‘Born a Rebel’ was even more enjoyable to watch to the point where I showed my parents. They found such joy in recognising streets they grew up around and recalling stories from when they were young. Seeing their reactions made me think more about who I am, where I am from and who I identify as. 

Val:  Women found themselves at the centre of the strike because obviously it directly affected their families. They fundraised, cooked and fed miners, their families and assisted  in the community welfare. Their fight empowered them to take further roles on picket lines, marching with banners, speaking at meetings in support of the strike. This was unprecedented and life-changing for many of the women. 

These were ordinary women but we were of course getting used to seeing a smattering of women on the national political stages, such as Barbara Castle, who was largely responsible for the historic introduction of the Equal Pay Act and was the first female secretary of state in 1965. 

Shirley Williams who was one of the "Gang of Four" rebels who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and of course Margaret Thatcher who was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century and the first woman to hold that office from 1979 -1990. Durham Miners Rally No. 1: Banners and Arrival at Racecourse (1984) shows the personal strength of the miners’ wives but it is also fascinating watching scenes in Civil Unrest, Armthorpe Doncaster (1960) which documents a CND protest at RAF Finningley, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire. 

Women still continue to campaign for social justice and equality and yet despite important gains in women’s rights, in 2019 there is still a gender imbalance in the positioning of women in key roles in our working-based society.

Zoe:  I was very inspired by 'Born a Rebel' and then went on to look at other films in YFA collections, especially showing women’s war work. Although many films in the collection focus on the land army,  I decided to focus on women in industry, more specifically women in the shipbuilding industry. 

Tyneside Story (1944) is a dramatised account of the re-opening during World War II of the Tyneside shipyards, which were closed down during the Depression, and was a propaganda film made for the Ministry of Information in 1944, with a cast drawn from the progressive People’s Theatre in Newcastle.  

It discussed the past of shipbuilding and the need for men to return to the industry from other professions to produce ships for use in the second world war. ‘Born a Rebel’ shows a clip from ‘Tyneside Story’ focussing on one particular woman, ‘Betty’ (a welder), accompanied by the audio – ‘She’s as good as any man in the yard’ – showing female capability in an industry which had previously been dominated by men. Women were prominent in the shipyards during WW2, and again when the men returned, women were cast out. Many women didn’t get the chance to return to the shipyards. The oral histories from the shipyard in Beverley recollect that management believed that women ‘do more damage than good’ and would therefore not employ females to do any of the physical labour after the war.

Val:   Women certainly they did their bit.  Knitting, Make Do and Mend, Sew and Save schemes and taking in evacuees 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 an 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. 

Women were actually active in both world wars, doing the sort of jobs that only men were thought capable of doing.  It was the First World War which highlighted the economic worth of women to the country.   As the young men were on the frontlines in France, women filled their place working long hours, again in munition factories, but also as tram drivers, in policing, as engineers as well as the much more well-known nursing. 

What about the children?  Well, the need for women to work in munitions did focus the government mind to provide some funds towards the cost of day nurseries for munitions workers; however, there was no provision for women working in any other form of employment who then needed family to help care for their children while they were at work. This war contribution, though, had a significant impact on attitudes towards women, a battle-worn country finally believed women deserved some greater political rights. As the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George said, ‘It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war’.  

So, however useful women may have been doing this dangerous work, these workers were still paid as little as half the wages of the men doing similar jobs. Having challenged the conventions of the age by going into heavy industry, their success was short-lived as the returning troops wanted their jobs back.  These adventurous, independent-minded women now found themselves at odds with the mood of the country. Despite their invaluable wartime contribution, which definitely advanced the feminist cause, most women were expected to return to the home and just one woman was elected to parliament in the General Election of December 1918.

Zoe:  Sadly yes, and in the year of women’s football World Cup, I was also especially taken with Preston Ladies Football and T.A. Volunteers (1945). Women's football was very popular during the First World War as many men had joined the Army and were no longer around to participate in sport. Female-only clubs filled the void often with women who were employed in munitions factories. The Dick, Kerr Ladies football team (later renamed the Preston Ladies) was not an exception, with most members being made up of workers from the Dick, Kerr and Co factory in Preston which had turned its attention to munitions during the war. This film shows the ladies football team participating in matches throughout the North of England. Interestingly, this footage was filmed in 1945, 24 years after the decision on the 5th December 1921 to ban women from using league grounds. The FA decided that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.

This did not deter the Preston Ladies who continued playing and continued to attract large crowds to their games, as seen in the film.  It was also later referred to as the most successful women’s team of all time. Lily Parr, who was inaugurated into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame for her exceptional skills as a player was part of Preston Ladies. In the 828 matches the team played before the ban of 1921, she scored around 1000 of the goals. She played in the first ever recognised women’s international between England and France and after the ban she toured America with the team as it was no longer legal professionally in England. She continued to play with the Preston Ladies till 1951 and is actually visible in the film from 1945.

Val:  Any closing comments?

Freya:  I was very inspired by all the filmic images and the accompanying music. We think we have made progress and then something happens like the Me Too movement, which highlights how easy it is to be taken back, or indeed the lack of progress. The idea of women and community struck me too. The suffragettes started the debates, but I think each generation contributes to equality. 

Zoe:  Ending on a positive note, when researching these films, it is easy to get dragged down by the perceived sexist remarks and abundance of material portraying women ‘chained to the kitchen sink’. However, so much of the footage used in this film shows the capability of women and their resilience. ‘Born a Rebel’ is a testament to what females are capable of and their struggle towards equality which has been ongoing for centuries. Sheila Graber’s Howway the Lasses (1977), ending the film, perfectly sums up female empowerment.