History comes home

Daisy-James-(C)-Redbridge-Heritage-CentreDaisy James

Redbridge Museum will open a new permanent exhibition in the spring exploring 200,000 years of local history. In the 13th of a series of articles, Museum Officer Nishat Alam looks at some of the items on show

I’m sharing a timeline of significant points in local women’s history for Women’s History Month this year. This article highlights ordinary women’s stories amidst major events of the 20th century, which saw numerous changes in societal attitudes to women’s rights and roles.

We begin at the turn of the century when social class tended to define women’s roles. Many working-class women at this time worked as servants in Wanstead’s and Woodford’s new suburban houses. Wealthier women did not go out to work, but there were exceptions. Elizabeth Mace-Matthews owned and edited The Bugle newspaper, covering Wanstead and Woodford from 1907 to 1922. This was a unique position but may have been made possible because of Elizabeth’s status as a wealthy, middle-class woman.

Between 1900 and 1914, hundreds of local women campaigned for the vote, joining demonstrations or distributing propaganda in the local area. Radical suffragettes often used violent and illegal campaigning tactics and were arrested. Many went on hunger strikes while in prison, including Sylvia Pankhurst, who would later become a Woodford resident.

More women went to work in wartime, filling in for jobs usually occupied by men or to help the war effort. During the First World War, women became Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, took clerical jobs or set up fundraising societies. In the Second World War, local women worked in factories, farms or, like Daisy James of Wanstead (pictured here), as Air Raid Precaution wardens.

Between the wars, life for women changed drastically. Winning the vote in 1918 gave them more power, and more women started to go to university and into professional jobs. Trends in fashion and entertainment shifted, giving younger ‘flappers’ the freedom to go out to parties and dances, wearing looser and shorter dresses than ever before. 

The 1950s saw a return to the ‘traditional’ roles of housewife and mother, but many women again went into the workplace soon after the economic boom of the 1960s where they experienced gender discrimination. Their protests, combined with a second wave of feminism, led to the introduction of new laws in the 1970s, including equal pay, maternity pay and protection against racial discrimination – although sexist attitudes lingered. The feminist movement continued into the 1980s and 1990s when working women were a norm, though unfortunately, still not considered equal to men at their level. 

The stories I’ve touched on and more will be explored more fully throughout various displays about the history of our borough in the new Redbridge Museum, set to open in late spring.

Fore more information on Redbridge Museum and to complete a survey about the new displays, visit wnstd.com/rm