The weekend edition of the Morning Star carried an obituary for Sheila Capstick, a woman who had devoted her life to a struggle for equality for women in the world of working men’s clubs and for the rights of working people in mining communities. News of the campaigner’s death was carried by the press in Yorkshire, but the Morning Star was the only national newspaper to report her passing – to be a woman and to be from a working class background leaves her doubly disadvantaged when it comes to being held in remembrance.
This weekend’s BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour included a podcast from Standard Issue Magazine which discussed the remembrance of women. How many men from history could be named in a minute? How many women from history could be named in a minute? The recall of women from history tends to include a significant number of queens and princesses. The discussion moved on to the question of blue plaques, those signs on house walls which indicate a person of note has lived in the house for a significant period of time, or that an important moment in their life has taken place here. There are 903 such plaques in London, just 111 of them recall women. In the case of both men and women, the plaques are nearly all on buildings that were homes to middle class families; the homes of working class families had often disappeared altogether in phases of rebuilding or redevelopment. The Standard Issue Magazine podcast concluded with a recalling of the story of Dorothy Lawrence, a woman reporter who posed as a male soldier in order to discover the reality of life at the frontline. Barred from publishing her work, which was heavily censored when it did reach publication after the war, Dorothy Lawrence never achieved the prominence a male writer would have been accorded, and, suffering declining mental health, was admitted to an asylum in 1925, where she spent the remaining 39 years of her life. Dying in 1964, she was buried in an unmarked, pauper’s grave.
Sheila Capstick’s campaign targeted four thousand clubs and institutes, it affected hundreds of thousands of people. If she had been a man, wouldn’t her role in changing those clubs have meant her death was more widely reported? If Dorothy Lawrence had been a man, and not a woman without family or money, wouldn’t her life have been different? Wouldn’t veterans organisations, at least, have ensured that she did not spend four decades unvisited by anyone?
Is there evidence that historical writing at the present time is more inclusive of women and of working class people? Or is the material with which historians must work still so exclusive that balance will not be reached until a future generation?