Val's Born a Rebel blog: Part 1

For her latest series of blogs, our fabulous volunteer, Val, has taken inspiration from a newly-commissioned short film, Born a Rebel: a collaboration between Cinema for All, Yorkshire, North East and North West Film Archives (find out more about the film here).  Here’s part one - parts two and three will follow over the next few weeks.

Born a Rebel is THE not to be missed short film of the year, which will move you to tears. Even after watching it many times I am genuinely moved and proud of all the women who fought, sacrificed, demanded a voice and never gave up on what they believed in. Edited from footage across three film archives, it charts early Suffragettes protesting, students demonstrating, sporting pioneers, factory workers, through to women enjoying new essential devices such as vacuum cleaners and even irons!

If you can get to any of the special live events, presented by Cinema for All, and watch the full film, please do - see how your life story twists and turns and coincides with the story of ordinary women.  Have we achieved equality? Well, progress has been painfully slow in some areas, but we are still celebrating and still fighting.  So, in case you want to look in more detail I have signposted some essential further viewing with some bits of historical facts.  So, get yourself a cup of tea and settle down for the perfect autumn afternoon.

The early years

2018 is quite a year. Not only are we celebrating the 100th anniversary since the end of the 1st World War, we are also celebrating 100 years since women gained the vote, even if the number of women who benefited in 1918 was highly restricted.  The Representation of the People Act added 8.5 million women who were over 30, owned property, or were university graduates to the electoral roll. It also gave the vote to 5.6 million more men after their voting age was lowered to 21, and the property condition abolished.

The Suffragettes were being pragmatic and knew that this was a good first foot into the door of Parliament and of course this was a huge accomplishment in a society that had previously believed that women would not be able to think rationally when voting, would neglect their responsibilities at home and reasoned that their husbands took this household responsibility anyway.

This traditional view of a woman’s place in society had kept them out of the social educational and political sphere, even though thousands of working class women had been contributing to society by working in mills and factories since the industrial revolution.

The earliest petition to Parliament asking for women to get the vote was unsuccessfully presented by Henry Hunt in 1832.  Women wanted more equality in society, but it was their right to vote which became the focus of their fight. Interestingly, changes to the law in favour of women getting the vote were presented to Parliament almost every year from 1870 onwards.

All continued to be unsuccessful, so some women felt the campaign needed to be more vocal and more militant to get their message heard.  They routinely smashed windows, set fire to politicians' post boxes, went on hunger strikes and chained themselves to railings. Frustrated with years of inactivity and false promises the various groups inevitably splintered as differing strategies to gain public opinion emerged.  The most famous violent act was at the 1913 Derby when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse. This loss of life for democracy and equality is a reminder for us all to do our duty and run down to the polling stations.

Interviewed by the BBC in 1978 aged 92, the wonderful Manchester suffragette Elizabeth Dean, seen in the opening of our film, took her chance to set the record straight about the different tactics and the different life experiences of women:  

“Not all the women in the Suffrage movement were fighting for degrees. We hadn’t a chance of getting a degree, we were working women, and each of us had our own private thoughts of what we wanted, what we thought was just, and what was worth fighting for.”

And fight they did. There is a quick glimpse of the film taken from the 1912 election result in Bolton, The Bolton Election ResultA few things immediately spring to mind, notably the small boy carrying a child. Were his parents in the crowd or was that his job for the day whilst his mother worked in the local mill? Poignantly, we see the obviously poor women wrapped in blankets as coats were a luxury item, taking the time to listen to the two Suffragettes.  A reminder for us all about the significance of hard won social and political rights to society today.  

It was the 1st 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 in munition factories, as tram drivers, in policing, as nurses and engineers. This contribution had a significant impact on attitudes to women. A battle-worn country finally believed women deserved some greater political rights. Yet despite their invaluable wartime contribution, most women were expected to return to the home and just one woman was elected to Parliament in the General Election of December 1918.

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman; it is civilisation as a whole that produces the creature.” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972)

And with that quote in mind watch Howway the Lasses (1977) produced in the 1970s by prolific North Eastern animator Sheila Graber.  The film is a funny journey through history, following a cavewoman's attempt to obtain freedom in modern times.