Today is International Women’s Day. As I drove through Mumbles yesterday afternoon I was reminded of two remarkable Swansea women and I was pondered on why we like to focus on very unsual women, rather than remarkable ordinary women. It got me thinking about other notable women of Swansea, past, and present
Here’s my list of five that came to mind:-
First comes the women of privilege:-
1. Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn (1834 –1926). She was an astronomer and pioneer in scientific photography. She came from a wealthy family and her father was a pioneer photographer, astronomer, a botanist and a Fellow of the Royal Society. She made some pioneering telescopic photographs of the moon in 1857/8.
2. Amy Dillwyn (1845-1935) – She was a radical novelist, feminist campaigner, and early female industrialist. Amy was first, a novelist, and a supporter of sexual equality and women’s suffrage. When her brother and father died in the early 1890s she found herself responsible for a workforce of 300 and a spelter business crippled by debt. Impressively, despite losing her home, she decided to run the business herself, which she did successfully. She was a strong supporter of social justice and in 1911 gave her support to 25 striking seamstresses, who worked for Ben Evan’s, a local department store. These dressmakers were demanding a living wage in return for their long hours. Amy called for a boycott of the store and encouraged her friends and family to not shop there. Her eccentric appearance, her habit of smoking cigars and lifestyle make her appealing figure to modern eyes.
Now to some working women.
2. Jessie Ace and Margaret Wright (neé Ace) these two sisters were the daughters of the Lighthouse Keeper, Abraham Ace. In the winter of 1883, these two sisters valiantly rescued two lifeboat crewmen, in the midst of a terrible storm, by tying their shawls together to use as a rope. Margaret supposedly exclaimed: “I will lose my life than let these men drown” as she waded into the icy waters.
4. Iris Gower (1935 – 20 July 2010)- This was the pen name of Iris Richardson a prolific novelist who wrote many historical romances set in this area. I once heard her talk about her writing and was left with the impression of a resilient, hard-working woman with fiery red hair, who was a force of nature. She talked about her early days of writing, about getting up before her 4 children to write, before going to work! I don’t think she ever let up, writing about 35 novels and many articles too.
And finally (as I drove down Mumbles Road and passed her beautiful house on the hill) I was reminded of
5. Bonnie Tyler – who I once saw in Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve several years ago. She looked very glamorous holding her wire basket in the tea and coffee aisle. I don’t think I have ever looked that glamorous, probably not on a night out and certainly on a trip to he local supermarket. Bonnie was the daughter of a coal-miner and grew up in a council house and left school with no qualifications, but talent and a lot of hard work led to a phenomenally successful musical career. Her two singles “It’s a Heartache” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” are among the best-selling singles of all time, with sales in excess of six million each.
It’s hard not to focus on exceptional women like these. Often, we end up focusing on unusual people because we know more about them. There are newspaper articles, books, and photographs of them. I cannot find an online image for the “Ben Evans’ Girls” who went on strike in 1911. Those 25 striking seamstresses that Amy Dillwyn supported, would have been just as hard-working as Amy was, but lacking in the advantages her privileged upbringing and family connections had given her.
Interestingly thousands of Swansea people attended a mass demonstration in support of their cause. I could not find out if they had won of lost their cause for a decent wage. Iris Gower’s fictional women, may have been romanticized, but their hard lives were real enough. So here’s to all the women of Swansea (and everywhere else) the world, past and present, famous, infamous and obscure!
If you want to find out more:-