‘Radical Women and their Political Struggle’ or, alternatively ‘A Homage to Four Beatrices’. A Tea Towel Collection.

If you read the Sunday papers, you can always find a ‘5 Minute Interview’ with someone, supposedly famous, in one of the magazines.  The final question is often “Who would invite to your dream dinner party?”.  I am always fascinated by the answers.  Without any hesitation, my response would be ‘The Four Beatrices’.  “Who?”  I hear you ask.  These are women who I have admired, who have had an influence on my life, in various ways, only one of whom I have met, but the women to whom I would want to ask “What does Brexit mean to you?”, and all manner of other questions; the intriguing part is that I  am not sure what their answers would be.

This ‘Special Collection’ of tea towels, celebrating the rights of women, depicting radical women and their political struggle, is about women who have fought for my right to vote and women who have tried to lay the path to women’s rights and equality, my rights and equality.  Women’s equality does not stand alone; it is often part of discrimination that affects black or gay people, poverty and social class, religion and political beliefs.  

Women’s rights and equality is not something I write about as an intellectual exercise but as something that is close to my heart; it is personal, which is why I chose this subject for the second ‘Special Collection’ of tea towels, in the centenary year of women being able to vote in Britain, and to be published on the first anniversary of the opening of the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  

Party politics have never been of interest to me, probably because I felt I lost part of my childhood to them.  For me, it has always been politics with a small ‘p’, issue based.  No political party can claim my allegiance, but elections can bank on my vote.  My vote was hard fought for, over a long period, with as little publicity as the press could get away with.  Women died for me to have a vote, they suffered the indignity of imprisonment, force-feeding and the ridicule of both women and men, equally.  Politicians shouldn’t take the electorate for granted, relying on the fact that some people will always vote, for example, Labour or Tory.  Politicians should respect our right to make choices depending on their actions.

For all my working life, I was employed in organisations largely made up of women, usually managed by men.  Women’s suffrage was not about just being able to go to a polling station once every couple of years or standing for parliament; it was about equality and power sharing.  I was always surprised at how few women, in my staff team, voted.  

I remember Annie saying one Election Day “What’s the point in voting?  It won’t change anything”. 

There began my lecture: “If women, in 1850, had said that, today we still would not have the right to vote”.  

I don’t think any of them realised that, even in their lifetime, there were women, in Europe, who did not have the right to vote.  In Switzerland, women’s suffrage only happened in 1971, in Liechtenstein it was not until 1984. 

Women’s exclusion from the political system comes in many forms.  Let me give you one example: there are 11 statues of significant international political figures standing in Parliament Square, in London; not until 24 April 2018, was there was a female presence.  That was when a statue of Millicent Fawcett, a suffragist, was erected.  On the unveiling of the statue, Theresa May said

“I would not be here as Prime Minister, no female MP’s would have taken their seats in Parliament, none of us would have had the rights and protection we now enjoy were it not for one truly great woman, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett”.

As with most contentious issues there are always different approaches.  Millicent Fawcett believed debate and argument should show the way.  Emmeline Pankhurst, however, followed the slogan “Deeds not words”, using more militant tactics, with arson and criminal damage being weapons in their arsenal.  

The path to universal suffrage took many routes; thousands of women have dedicated their lives to women’s equality and suffrage, all have their part to play.  Where we are today is not as the result of one person, one approach, nor just about people who have achieved fame, have become household names.

If this ‘Special Collection’ is a ‘Homage to Four Beatrices’, who exactly are they, these four women that have, seemingly, impacted on my life?  

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Beatrix Potter (Beatrice Number 1). Image courtesy of @NationalTrustImages

My first entrant is Beatrix Potter.  From a small child, I delighted in the beauty of the Lake District and I have Beatrix Potter to thank for that.  I have her to thank for my love of topography, geology and the countryside but, alongside that, her ability to see that women have a place in the world, with, rather than subservient to, men.  Not the Beatrix Potter of Squirrel Nutkin and Peter Rabbit, who I found irritatingly naughty, but the Beatrix Potter who was a fierce campaigner on conservation issues and was determined not to see wealthy developers take over swathes of Lakeland countryside; the Beatrix Potter who was the first women to be elected as President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, as a skilled, and prize-winning, breeder of Herdwick sheep; the Beatrix Potter who bought, with her earnings from writing and painting, 14 farms and 4000 acres of land which she endowed to the National Trust to be preserved for what she believed in, the traditional hefted grazing system, unique to the Lake District for more than 1000 years, allowing for communal shepherding without walls or fences on the largest common grazing land in Europe; the Beatrix Potter who followed her talent, and heart, in writing and painting and gave them up to preserve the beauty of the landscape in an economically viable, and practical, manner, as a farmer.  The Beatrix Potter who worked, as an equal, in what was a man’s world, in order that changes might be made; the good preserved, the not-so-good made better.  Not party-political but politics with a small ‘p’, not a politician but a pioneer.  And 75 years after her death, it is fair to say, that she had played a big part in the Lake District becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.

The second Beatrice in my life is Beatrice Sharp.  Not famous, not even well-known.  My first introduction to her was when I found a photograph, by accident, in a shoe box on the top of my mother’s wardrobe.

“Who is this?” I asked, intrigued.  

“My mother”

“Doesn’t that mean she’s my grandmother; did I know her?”

“No, because I didn’t know her”

“What do you mean, you didn’t know her, if she were your mother?”

“She died when I was 2.  My only memory of her is when they brought her coffin down the stairs for the funeral.”

A lump came to my throat.  How does that make a child feel, the only memory of your mother is in a coffin?  Questions tumbled out.  “Why isn’t this in a frame? Have you got any other photos of her?  Do you know anything about her?”   

“There are a couple of other photos but I don’t know anything about her”

“Aren’t you interested?”

“Dad wouldn’t talk about her, so I didn’t push it.  I don’t know if it made him sad or that he just felt guilty.  I do regret that I didn’t ask him; but it’s too late now”

The photograph I found was of a good looking woman, tall and robust, short cropped hair, wearing leather boots laced to her knees and dressed in the Women’s Land Army uniform; she was stood next to her friend.  It was dated 1916; she was just 17.  

Talking to my mother, we realised there were still people around who could answer questions and fill in the gaps.  Visiting my grandmother’s younger siblings in Millom was one option.  There were so many questions I wanted to ask and my Great Aunt Mona had much to say; I think she just wanted to tell the story, the story she had kept to herself for so long.

“You do know that Beatrice wasn’t my full sister, she was my half-sister?”.  In stunned silence, my mother whispered “No”.

Mona continued “Beatrice’s mother died very young, when she was about three; she was an only child.  I think our Dad felt he should marry again so there was a woman to bring up Beatrice.  I don’t think he gave much  thought to what that might mean to Beatrice”. 

So many questions sprang to mind but Mona ploughed on “There were three of us; John, Maggie and I was the youngest.  Three half-siblings probably changed things for Beatrice; she’d been an only child for quite some time, she was a lot older than us.  Beatrice was always on the edge of the family, a child-minder rather than a sister.  As children, I don’t think we excluded her but no one bothered about her loss, her grief; they probably thought she was too young, at the time of her mother’s death, to understand and feel anything”

“I know Beatrice missed her mother” Mona continued, “which, I think, is why she left home at a very young age.  The Great War was a good excuse to leave home; she enrolled in the Women’s Land Army, moved to Lancashire and she never lived in Millom again”.

“Why didn’t she return?” I asked, thinking that would have been unusual in those days.

“She hadn’t told the truth about her age; really, she was too young to be posted away from home but she was interested in the Women’s Suffragette Movement.  She thought that if she moved away from the confines of Millom she might be able to work with, and for, the movement”.  

“Did she keep in touch? Did you see her?  Were there pictures from that time?”

“Oh yes.  She came home from time to time.   She didn’t talk about what she was doing.  When she died, we heard that she had been active in the Lancashire Women’s Suffragette Movement”

“Do you know what she did?”.

“Not everything.  I know she went to meetings, giving out leaflets.  I know she actually met Emmeline Pankhurst on one occasion and she took part in marches.  But, I also know she met George and fell madly in love; that had never part of her plan”.  Mona smiled, a secret smile, the holder of the key to the family ‘ghosts’.

“I have no pictures of their wedding day; in fact, none of us went.  In those days, it was a long way to travel just for a wedding”.  

Talking to me, she said “When your mum was born, they came up to show her off and there are lots of photos.  Beatrice was so happy and looked beautiful; I realised it was the first time that I had seen her genuinely happy.  After they went home, we all talked about the visit.  We thought she had lost some weight but didn’t realise she was ill, seriously ill.  We wouldn’t have let her go back to Lancashire.  She spent the last nine months of her life in a sanatorium in Fleetwood, where she knew no one”

My mother sat in a rigid silence throughout this.  That was another of the pictures I found in the shoe-box, my grandmother wrapped in a fur coat and rug, sitting in a ‘basket chair’, on the steps of the sanatorium, with shrunken cheeks and hollowed eyes.

“She missed you so much”.  Mona said, turning to my mother.  “She wanted to come home, to be with you but it was an isolation hospital.  Once she went in, she never saw you, or any of us, again.  You lived with us until your Dad married again”.  Silent tears rolled down my mother’s cheeks, as she said “Families are a dangerous place to grow up in”. 

What my mother never realised, until that meeting with Mona, was that her own grandmother was called Barbara; that she had given me the name of Barbara, not knowing that it tied me to my great grandmother.  I am touched by that link to the past; and I am proud that a woman that I never knew, but was closely related to me, was part of the Suffragette Movement, had campaigned for my vote.

The third Beatrice, in this homily, was my mother; daughter of Beatrice Number 2, the baby who made her parents very happy but the baby who never knew the mother she was named after.  History had repeated itself; my grandmother never really knew her mother and her father remarried leaving her with an unhappy relationship with a step-mother.  My mother never knew her mother and had a similar relationship with her own step-mother.

My mother, however, adored her father, regardless of her the childhood she endured; from the age of 14 she worked in his building firm as a book-keeper.  He was a local politician, an Alderman, the Mayor of Ealing and she became his Mayoress in 1958, him having been widowed a second time.  She got a taste for service to the community and, in 1960, was elected as a Councillor and remained so for 22 years.

I recently moved house and, in that process, found a box of scrapbooks that she kept about her work as a Councillor: newspaper cuttings, photographs, speeches she had written, letters.  It was then I realised how highly thought of she was; it was almost the ‘secret life of Beatrice’.  Where  I had thought my childhood was sacrificed to politics, it was actually setting the foundations for my adult life. 

The local paper, the Middlesex Gazette, documented her journey through politics, with respect, understanding and familiarity, something that doesn’t seem to happen these days.

In 1969, she was the first woman Chairperson of the prestigious Education Committee in Ealing.  I have an amazing photograph of her, under the headline “Beatrice is Overlord of 113 Schools”, sitting on one of those ridiculous, winged, rocking armchairs, with a silver cigarette box and a Murano glass ashtray on a side table; I still have the chair, cigarette box and the ashtray.  She became the first woman leader of her party: the paper said “Beatrice takes over party leadership” and the first woman Leader of the Council: “Beatrice Howard, the woman in charge at Ealing Town Hall”.  She was awarded an O.B.E for her services to politics: the Middlesex Gazette’s headline was “Beatrice is given O.B.E.”.

I once asked her if she had ever thought of standing as an M.P.

“Never.  I like to see things improving for people I am living alongside.  I like to affect people directly.  Being an M.P. is about party politics, not about following your conscience”

“But, surely, being a Councillor is about party politics” I said “you’ve stood as a member of a political party”

“Constituents vote for you on local issues, not national ones.  I remember the 1974 General Election where membership of the European Union was the foremost issue, yet in the local elections, held on the same day, people were only interested in housing and schools.  That’s what I like.  Being able to do something that will change one person’s life for the better, not arguing about whether we were going into Europe”

“But what about the people who don’t vote for you, who don’t belong to your party?  Did you help them?”  I asked, naively I realise now.

“Once you are elected you are the ‘servant’ of all your constituents.  If someone comes to me about a housing issue, I don’t ask whether they voted or who they voted for”.

In that box of scrapbooks, I found a speech that she had given at Ealing Grammar School for Girls Prizegiving in 1967.  She said:

“…..Our right to vote was fought for by women, often not much older than you.  I don’t care which party you will support in the future, or who you vote for, but I do care that you exercise that vote, in both local and general elections.  Each of us has the power to effect change”

Good on you, mother!!

I am proud of my mother, a local politician, committed to local politics, the rights of local constituents and a passionate believer in our right, and responsibility, to exercise our vote.   That commitment to rights and justice was obviously ‘inherited’ from her own mother, even though she never knew her.

And finally let me introduce you to Beatrice Pearce, the only one of the four who is still alive.  Is she famous? Not famous as such, but well known amongst tea towel lovers.  She was one of the founders of the Radical Tea Towel Company and, let’s face it, tea towels are my passion in life.  Let Beatrice Number 4 tell her own story:

“In May 2011, I was wracking my brains for a present to buy an elderly family member who was celebrating his 91st birthday.

David was severely disabled after a hip operation that had gone wrong several years earlier so I needed to find something that would go through the letterbox and not involve him trailing out to the post office on his crutches.  He had been involved with trade unions and left wing politics throughout his life.  I thought I’d get him something for the house, something that he could make use of on a daily basis.  

And that’s when I thought – a Tea Towel!!  A tea towel with a radical or political theme.  First I googled ‘political tea towel’, then substituting ‘socialist’ for ‘political’ then ‘radical’,‘left wing’ and lastly ‘trade union’.  No success.

T-shirts, mugs and badges were there in their thousands, every theme, image and slogan you could imagine.  But I didn’t think David would look good in a T-shirt, somehow, and a mug wouldn’t go through the letterbox.

So then I started thinking.  Well, if I want a political tea towel, and after hours of Googling cannot find a single one, I wonder how many other people want the same and can’t find one either?  Clearly a gap in the market and so one afternoon in May, after a discussion around the kitchen table, the Radical Tea Towel Company was born”.  

You might think that political and/or radical tea towels were a really niche market but this was a risk she was willing to take.  The focus of her tea towels is always left-wing politics with such a huge range of issues from the Suffragette Movement to the Chartists, from the Jarrow March to Orgreave, from Jeremy Corbyn to William Wilberforce.  There is a clever use of quotes, posters and sketches; each tea towel has a message.

Personally, I have always seen a tea towel as a ‘blank canvas’, something an artist can transform: as a thing of beauty, a form of advertising or as a means to ‘getting your message across’.  Vision and creativity can transform a household item into a thing of beauty.  And that is exactly what the Radical Tea Towel Company has done.  From that small beginning (and David did get a tea towel in the end), Beatrice Pearce has taken my two passions in life and combined them: tea towels and political activism. 

It is from the Radical Tea Towel Company’s work that this Special Collection is taken; the tea towels speak for themselves.  They are, in my opinion, simply wonderful; they offer powerful messages on a humble tea towel and they are all about women, and the work of women!  There is no link of tea towels to women and ‘women’s work’; this is a serious attempt at reminding anyone who does the drying up that there are political figures and political issues that we should all be mindful of.  This is not about stereotyping!

Four women named Beatrice, four women who have been ‘influential’ in my life, four women who I admire, four women who would appreciate, I’m sure, the Special Collection dedicated to ‘Radical Women and Their Political Struggle’ and four women who would answer the question “What does Brexit mean to you?” honestly, making a lively dinner table discussion.  Oh, what a shame that that meal will never take place!

The Special Collection

The twenty seven tea towels that I have chosen from the Radical Tea Towel Company’s collection are  ones relating to women.  It is a mixed selection, probably not women you would have imagined being linked together but all women of spirit, who followed their beliefs and passions and you can’t argue with that.  In order not to overwhelm the reader, I have divided them into five sections

Votes for Women

The whole movement about campaigning for the right for women to vote took place in the midst of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which flourished between 1880 and 1920.  The Arts and Crafts Movement stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms.  It advocated economic and social reform, essentially anti-industrial.  Many of the great artists were also supporters of electoral reform and offered their skills to the Movement for Votes for Women to create posters and pamphlets.  The Radical Tea Towel Company have taken nine such images and created nine beautiful tea towels.

These tea towels reflect the two divergent approaches to campaigning: debate and representation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett and the more militant approach of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, a breakaway group set up in 1903 because of the frustration some women felt at the slow progress of NUWSS.  Tap the images to read the stories

Women Born in 18th Century

Two tea towels representing very different women: Mary Wollstonecraft regarded as a founding feminist philosopher and Jane Austen who was a novelist, often overlooked as a writer of feminist issues

Women Born in 19th Century

Thirteen women, born across various parts of the world, who chose their own paths: Suffragettes and Suffragists, writers and politicians, socialists and anarchists.  Women who did their bit to change the ‘lot’ of women, the poor, the hungry, refugees.  You may not always agree with their stance but you can never argue that they did not fight their corner.  Each tea towel has a quotation which sums up their beliefs, their work, their life with the most amazing pictures of these great women.

Women Born in 20th Century

Two black women in America who did change things for the rights of black women; civil rights activists in the true meaning of the words.

Greenham Common

The final tea towel in this ‘Special Collection’ is a tribute to the women who campaigned and marched in protest against nuclear missiles at the American base at Greenham Common; women who camped there with their children, who hung ribbons on the wire fences, who sang and chanted, who took part in the human chains round the base in 1983 and for whom their lives were never the same having taken part in the protests.  This was a camp that lasted nearly 20 years.

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Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in September 1981 and disbanded in 2000. It was set up to protest against the American base where nuclear weapons were held.  On 1 April 1983, 70,000 people formed a 14 mile human chain from Greenham Common to Aldermaston.  The tea towel was inspired by a Peace Sign collage erected next to the control Tower.

This has been a massive piece of work, researching the Four Beatrices, linking them with the Centenary of women having the right to vote in Britain and the diverse women depicted in the tea towels shown above.  I doubt that it would not have been completed without the advice and support from Cathy Grindrod, tutor of the Creative Writing Course I attended and the fellow writers from that group.  Thank you.

Thank you to Radical Tea Towel Company for the beautiful tea towels used in this Special Collection. To see their ‘whole works’ go to http://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk or

@radicalteatowel

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