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HerStory.York: Making Invisible Women Visible

On International Women's Day, Cara Lee looks at HerStory.York's new partnership with York Museums Trust, uncovering the untold lives of York women.

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Image Credit: Penguin Vintage, 2020

The censorship and almost total erasure of women throughout history is something that fascinates me. It is something I’ve written about before for Nouse, in an attempt to raise awareness about contemporary and historical gender inequalities. Gender biases and prejudice have prevailed for hundreds of years, shaping the society we live in today. One very tangible and obvious example is art; undoubtedly, you’ll be able to name more male artists than female, but in countless other ways and disciplines women are side-lined due to misogyny. Why is the present – whenever the present in question may be – more favourable towards men?

With a more favourable present of course comes a more favourable future: men are remembered long after for their achievements. But this isn’t reflective of societies, and so a movement has recently begun to rewrite the archives, and rewrite women into the history books.

This has caused a storm on the stage and on the page. The musical Six depicts the story of King Henry VIII’s wives, as detached from the man who supposedly gave them their worth. The Five, written by Hallie Rubenhold, explores the lives of five of Jack the Ripper’s victims. It is startling how Jack the Ripper holds a sort of celebrity status even now – there are still speculations about who he was, 150 years on. Why do we focus on the murderer, and not the lives of the innocent women he took?

A more modern expose is Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women, which is introduced with the declaration that “the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall.  When it comes to the lives of the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence.”  This “silence” is deafening.  Women appear transient and trivial, whereas men leave legacies.

I finished my article ‘History of His Story?’ by saying that “now a revision is needed, and a change must be made in how we view history. Censoring is one thing, but to accept and not question it is another thing entirely.”  This makes projects such as HerStory.York’ even more vital.

In anticipation of International Women’s Day, HerStory.York has partnered with York Museums Trust to highlight the lives of York women whose stories haven’t been fully told.  Kate Hignett founded HerStory.York, a community history project, in 2018 after realising how few women were present in historical records and books.  The combined efforts of HerStory.York and York Museums Trust aims to uncover the stories of local women and create change, including establishing a women’s history placement programme.

About the partnership, Hignett says, “The history of York is full of fascinating tales, but far too often it is focused on stories about men, told by men. It’s His Story. We are delighted to be working in partnership with YMT to tell more stories about the other 51% of the population; women who have helped change York for the better!”

The project currently focuses on one hundred ‘invisible’ women who lived in York between 1918 and 2018.  The website provides a biography of each woman and the work they did, ranging from the arts, education, politics, media and more. It is inspirational to read.

Importantly, and close to home, is Kathleen Jones, who founded the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York in 1965.  By the time she retired in 1988, the department had grown to be one of the most successful in Britain.  In 2012, Vivienne Faull was the first woman appointed as Dean of York Minster, breaking a thousand-year-old tradition of male Deans.  Hilda Appleby joined the Women’s Voluntary Service in World War Two, working to provide food and drink to prisoners of war, and working also as an ARP warden. Marion Patron was a code breaker at Bletchley Hall, decoding German and Japanese messages for the Naval Unit. She was eighteen at the time.

These women have all left incredible legacies on the city of York, but are not always remembered for the achievements they made.  HerStory.York seeks to change this. History often feels detached from our present selves, but projects such as HerStory.York brings local history to the forefront, reminding us how astounding it can be.  Whilst this International Women’s Day is unusual, it is a good time to reflect on the stereotypes surrounding gender, and the inequalities still present in society today.  Partnerships such as HerStory.York and York Museums Trust allow these issues to be brought to the surface once more, demonstrating our progress in equality, but also reminding us that there is still a long way to go in making women’s voices heard.

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