The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on 8th March 2011 is day for celebration and reflection. While the first International Women’s Day wasn’t recognised in England, it was a time when many women were actively fighting for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote. The buildings, sites and public spaces around us, as well as the memories of those which have gone, serve as reminders of these struggles and how women’s lives have changed since 1911.
Women fought for suffrage in many different ways. In April 1911, hundreds protested by defacing census forms, risking imprisonment. One woman wrote “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this form, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper.” This boycott and a protest in Trafalgar Square on the night of the census were organised by the Women’s Freedom League from their office at 1 Robert Street, London. The building still stands today.
It was 1928 before equal suffrage was granted, however the Women’s Freedom League also sought sexual equality on wider issues such as those relating to equal pay and employment. The experiences of women undertaking what was deemed ‘men’s work’ during the Second World War added a degree of momentum to these causes.
During the war years women laboured on the railways, built bridges and grew food to feed the nation. They also served in military units such as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force which had employed 180 000 women on the home front by the end of the war. The living and communal sites for the WAAF such as those at RAF Honeybourne were basic and could be quite bleak.
The years following the war witnessed the rise of women’s participation in paid employment, particularly on a part-time basis. Career choices were generally limited though and were further restricted by class. One woman who had an exceptional career at this time, yet a tragically short life, was the scientist Rosalind Franklin. She carried out research which was key to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Her achievements have been celebrated with a Blue Plaque at her flat in Donovan Court, London, where she lived until her death in 1958 at the age of 38.
The private made public
Like the campaigners for equal suffrage, the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 70s took over public spaces to build awareness and draw attention to their cause. In 1971, International Women’s Day was recognised in England for the first time by a group of around 4000 women marching through the streets of London. Their route was probably quite similar to those taken by their suffragist forebears but the issues were now quite different. They sought equal pay, equal education and opportunities, free access to family planning services, and, free child care. These were once private issues made public for the first time.
While not considered a feminist as such, the artist Rachel Whiteread explored this idea of transforming the private into the public realm with her sculpture ‘House’ in 1993. She filled a London Victorian terraced house with concrete before removing the walls and roof, revealing its domestic interior. Someone’s private home had become public art, visible to all. The sculpture only stood for a few months before being demolished, however it won Whiteread the Turner Prize and she was the first woman to do so.
The following year another group of women experienced a ‘first’ of their own when in a ceremony at Bristol Cathedral on 12 March 1994, the first 32 women were ordained as Church of England priests. Celebrations were also held there in 2004 to mark the 10th anniversary of their ordination. Yet while women can now freely become priests of the Church of England, it is yet to be determined whether they may one day be ordained as bishops.
International Women's Day: Looking back, Looking forward
The International Women’s Day centenary is an opportunity to reflect upon the dramatic economic, political and social changes which women have experienced in England over the past 100 years. They are events which are reflected in the histories of our buildings and public spaces. There is much to be celebrated but also much to contemplate as we consider how women will experience the next 100 years.