Saturday, January 28, 2012

Notable Sussex Women

Think of some famous women who worked in Sussex in the 19th or early 20th centuries. I bet you're thinking about someone like Virginia Woolf, or Catherine Cookson. Can you name the Gaiety Girl who became an MP? The white woman who led a protest march of 20 000 black Africans? The heiress who gave away £12m? The rally driver who beat Stirling Moss? Thought not.

In 19th Century England, there were women working in most walks of life. Working class women did whatever they could to raise the money to feed their families and were paid scandalously little for their efforts. Middle and upper class women were involved in a far wider range of occupations but it was not 'nice' for them to accept payment and they rarely got the credit or respect a man doing the same work would have expected.

We tend to forget what a long way women have come in a short time. Although there are quite a few famous women whose deeds date from before the 20th century, there are far more who were the 'movers and shakers' of their time and yet have been forgotten.

This is not the first book Helena Wojtczak has written on this subject and she says that, when she was researching her previous books ('Women of Victorian Sussex' - a social history, and 'Railway Women') it struck her that town monuments and records offices all had their lists of local worthies displayed proudly, and that there were remarkably few women on those lists. This realisation was, at least in part, the inspiration for 'Notable Sussex Women'. By unearthing and recording details of some of these forgotten women, and giving them a well-deserved place amongst the more famous names of their era, Helena Wojtczak has gone a good way towards redressing the balance.

As well as 580 biographical sketches, there are some fabulous photos in this book. It is a rewarding book to own as a coffee-table book for Sunday morning browsing as well as being a candidate for local historians' reference shelves. But for me personally, what makes it irresistible is the collection of quotes, poems and polemics by women from the last two centuries who knew a woman's place all to well and had a fair deal to say about it. Here are some choice ones...

The philosophers seem to know that hard work never unsexes a woman: only wages can do that - Mrs Swisshelm

Anonymous was a woman. - Virginia Woolf

A blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel. - Dr Elizabeth Blackwell.