Ladies lighting the way

Statue of Florence Nightingale on Waterloo Place, LondonStatue of Florence Nightingale on Waterloo Place, London

From Florence Nightingale to Wanstead's Doreen Golding, historian Jef Page invites you to join him in honouring a number of great women this March as part of Women's History Month celebrations.

In the 19th century, women were considered less important for education and kept out of politics. Those (mainly working class) women who worked were relegated to roles of prostitutes, servants, housekeepers and teachers, though some exceptional women became notable authors and stars of the stage.

Reform came slowly: London University accepted women in 1878 and women could join local councils in 1888. The age of consent was raised in 1885 to what we have today (16), and most importantly the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882 allowed women to keep what they owned whether property or money. In the 20th century, after the First World War, things began to change with the enfranchisement of women over 30 in 1919. Corsets began to loosen and new career opportunities opened up in film (Elizabeth Taylor), radio, sport (Virginia Wade) and most important of all, politics (Margaret Thatcher).

For my talk, I will be discussing a wide range of famous women, from Sylvia Pankhurst – a leading suffragette and peace campaigner who lived in Woodford – to Rosalind Franklin – one of the discoverers of DNA who sadly never lived to see the success of her research. From a different world, and a class apart, Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson led the Jarrow March to London in 1936. Whilst I will be mainly speaking about British women I will also highlight Rosa Parks, who sparked the revolt against black segregation and for civil rights in the USA when in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama she refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus.

Marie Lloyd sang provocatively about A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good whilst Dame Vera Lynn sang about bluebirds over The White Cliffs of Dover. She sang to packed audiences at the Hippodrome music hall in Ilford. Then there is Agatha Christie, the most published crime novelist of all.

Nursing was a job that grew in professionalism in the 19th century. Florence Nightingale is the most famous but I will also be talking about Eva Luckes, an excellent matron of the London Hospital from 1880–1919, and Jenny Worth, who wrote a best-selling trilogy of memoirs about her work as a 1950s midwife upon which the BBC series Call the Midwife was based.

Local women also deserve a mention. Maria Dickin CBE founded the PDSA in South Woodford in 1917; Greer Garson OBE was a Hollywood film star (Goodbye, Mr Chips and Mrs Miniver) born in Manor Park and Wanstead's Doreen Golding is the Pearly Queen of the Old Kent Road and Bow Bells.

Join me in celebrating the life and work of these great women of the 20th century and discover many more insights into their lives.

Jef's talk will take place at South Woodford Library on 14 March from 6.30pm to 8pm (£3; concessions: £1.50). Call 020 8708 9067 or visit

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