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International Women’s Day: Some remarkable women of Swansea

Painting of Mumbles Pier and lighthouse
Mumbles Lighthouse from Bracelet Bay

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.

Ben Evans, Swansea
Ben Evans, Swansea

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:-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thereza_Dillwyn_Llewelyn

https://www.swansea.ac.uk/crew/research-projects/dillwyn/

https://companieshouse.blog.gov.uk/2018/02/14/amy-dillwyn-lgbt-history-month/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Dillwyn

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Ace_and_Margaret_Wright

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iris_Gower

https://www.fantasticfiction.com/g/iris-gower/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonnie_Tyler

 

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International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements – from the political to the social – while calling for gender equality. Its roots can be traced to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. The first time there was an a “Women’s Day” it was a year later, on February 28, 1909 in New York. March 8 was suggested by the 1910 International Woman’s Conference (attended by more than 100 women from 17 countries) to become an “International Woman’s Day.” In 1911, it was celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19. In 1913, it was decided to transfer IWD to March 8, and it has been celebrated on that day ever since.

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Frauen Tag 1914

After women gained the vote in Soviet Russia in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday there. It was also celebrated by the communists in China from 1922, and after founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mao Zedong declared that ‘women hold up half the sky’ and March 8 was made an official holiday and women were given a half-day off. One can help but wonder that if it had been a international Men’s Day they’d have been given a whole day off! IWD  was finally adopted by the United Nations in 1975.

The original aim – to achieve full gender equality for women the world – has still not been realised. A gender pay gap persists across the globe and women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Figures show that globally, women’s education, health and violence towards women is still worse than that of men.

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Former Cricketers

In Swansea there will be an exhibition of Swansea-based female artists’ work at Cinema & Co. It is meant to show case the work of female artists, myself included. My painting “Former Cricketers” (above) is included. It is from my “Hollowed Community” project which focused on theme of declining community and the lack of sustainability (that means families with children) in areas such as Brynmill in Swansea due to (pretty much) unchecked studentification. The exhibitions will run from March 8th to 20th. There is an opening event on Thursday March 8th 6 pm to 8.30 pm. There will be performances, paintings, films and some “extra surprises”.

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If you want to read more about the “Hollowed Community” project click here.

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Feminism in stitches.

Next week is International Women’s Day which has got me thinking. I am a feminist. That means I believe in equality for everyone. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial but for some reason the term seems to be shrouded in confusion and discombobulation (I have never used that word in a sentence before but its seemed to fit nicely with what I wanted to say).

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Jenny Eclair

Last week British comedian Jenny Eclair was invited onto BBC Radio 4’s Front Row to debate which piece of “female-generated” work would best mark 100 years since many women got the vote.

 

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Tracey’s Bed

She was batting for Tracey Emin’s installation, “My Bed”, while a bright young female writer and performer was championing the Nora Ephron film When Harry Met Sally.

Surprisingly, to both me and Jenny Eclair, more listeners voted on twitter for When Harry Met Sally than “My Bed”. It was a landslide, in fact. What had gone wrong? Had a load of male trolls or even Russian bots voted for  When Harry met Sally? Were young people just stupid?

But then I thought about it. Both pieces are about women (Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan in When Harry… and Tracey Emin) openly expressing the reality of their sex lives in a frank way.  For Tracey it was as a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking woman falling to pieces in her period-stained bed, for Meg it was about showing that man cannot tell when women are faking an orgasm (with all her clothes on in a deli), as well as exploring the question can men and women ever “just be friends?” Perhaps, more importantly it demonstrated that for modern women friendship and emotional equality, not just sex, is at the heart at the most rewarding relationships, in a Hollywood, fluffy way.

 

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Tracey’s Tent

I would say, however, that Jenny Eclair, missed a trick when she offered up Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” to Front Row audiences. She would have done better with Emin’s “tent” Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Her reinvention use of a traditionally female craft – quilt-making and what it nowadays termed “craftivism” – was particularly radical and exciting. This was a craft usually associated with old ladies,turned on its head and made positively offensive and downright controversial. She turned a craft into art.

Yet, women have always been able to turn this genteel craft to political purposes. In the early decades of the 19th century ordinary people were keen to show their support for Wilberforce’s  anti-slavery campaign. Thousands took part in a sugar boycott, bought and wore anti-slavery pins, plates and badges.

Some made their own embroidery pieces. Later the suffragists and suffragettes made their own banners, belts and slashes. This craft also helped give women some financial independence. My great-aunt, Janet, who never married but lived all her life with her mother in Cardiff, sold her designs to embroidery magazines.

Craftivisim still has resonance two decades later.  In last years’ Women’s March in the USA thousands of woman wore pink “pussy” hats. These pink hats weren’t mass produced in China – they were handcrafted by women through a grassroots effort. Over 80 patterns for pussy hats were published on social media.

And then again, maybe, Tracey’s embroidery and the history of women’s political action in the last 200 years or so just would not have won over the twitterarti because When Harry Met Sally is a lot funnier!

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