Alex Maxam finds out more about the Snapping the Stiletto project.
A project has been launched to explore how Essex women’s lives have changed since 1918. Snapping the Stiletto is a campaign that has been set up by Essex County Council to mark the centenary of the first British women being given the right to vote.
The project works with local museums and galleries to explore their collections and discover hidden inspirational stories. By doing so, it aims to replace the “Essex Girl” stereotype through stories of strong Essex women. The stories are being shared through exhibitions and events around the county as well as online.
Snapping the Stiletto received a grant of £95,445 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which is organised by the Museums Association and is set up to fund projects which develop collections to achieve social impact. This has allowed the scheme to work in partnership with 12 museums and galleries across the county to dig up as many hidden stories as they can find over the course of two years.
The project is being managed by Pippa Smith, who is working alongside Essex County Council’s Museums Development Officer Amy Cotterill. They have managed to recruit over 100 volunteers so far to trawl through archives at the museums and galleries in their search for stories. They’re also working alongside poet Lelia Ferro to add some artistic flair to the project.
I spoke to the three of them to find out more about the scheme, and how it’s going so far.
Alex Maxam: What’s the most interesting story you’ve found so far?
Pippa Smith: I like Rosina Sky, we talk about her quite a lot but she’s a fun story. She was a suffragette in Southend who owned her own tobacconist shop she – I think at times – described herself as a widower, but she was actually divorced from her husband, we’re trying to find the detail out —
Amy Cotterill: — I believe volunteer researchers have actually found her divorce records, so that’s been confirmed.
PS: She was a single parent and took part in a lot of the protests against paying tax – no taxation without representation – so her goods were sold two or three times as she refused to pay tax without the vote. There’s all sorts of little details being found out about her, she travelled to America on the same boat that Emmeline Pankhurst travelled on, so whether she was actually quite senior in the suffragette movement we don’t know. She died in 1928 in Hathersage up in the Peak District and left £2,000 so by the time she died she was quite a wealthy woman. We’re finding out more and more about her, she’s intriguing me.
AM: How does it work in terms of the volunteers?
PS: So we’ve got about 111 volunteers so far, and we’re relying quite heavily on them. We’re using a new system called Volunteer Makers, which is a web platform but it’s also a bit of a philosophy, looking at the different way people can volunteer. All the volunteers are signed up to this, some of them are there just to follow our social media accounts and retweet, follow our blog and share that, and just keep an eye on anything that they can flag up for us on our own social media accounts. When I last looked, the people who have been contributing that way have logged up to 16 hours between them, so every little bit helps, so it’s called micro-volunteering.
We’ve got other opportunities for people to listen to oral histories and transcribe those so you can volunteer from home, we’ve got people working at museums, looking at their collections, and I’m putting together teams of volunteers to help me with an engagement programme, to write an exhibition, and they’re going to be very heavily involved over quite a long time, so it can be as little as send three tweets, or spend hours working up an exhibition with me.
AM: So what’s the endgame of the project – what are you hoping to achieve?
PS: Museums will understand their collections better, they might think about how things are catalogued because most museum catalogues were designed by men and if it’s not a mangle then they don’t associate it with women because everything associated with women is domestic. So museums will understand and catalogue their collections more effectively, women’s history will be fore-fronted, easier to discover in the future and we’ll also be celebrating strong Essex women and how they’ve come on over the last 100 years and part of this, the name “Snapping the Stiletto” is to get rid of the negative stereotype of the Essex girl and replace it with stories of strong Essex women.
AC: It’s really about uncovering these stories in the museums and bringing them to public attention, raising aspirations of young women around the county, and celebrating what it really means to be an Essex woman.
AM: How important is it to relate the past you’re uncovering to what’s going on in the present?
AC: It’s really interesting some of the parallels that we’re finding through the project, so one of the stories that volunteers have been researching is that of Adelaide Hawkin in Southend. She set up the town’s first mother and baby clinic during World War One and the site where that clinic was held is now a community centre and a parent and baby group still meet there twice a week. I think one thing that history does very well is that if you can illustrate how other people have overcome barriers of gender and gone on to do amazing things, then young women today will hear those stories and think “what can I do with my advantages in the world I’m in, and the platforms I have, and what difference can I make”.