This past week marked the third anniversary of the death on 11th March 2018 of Sheila Capstick, a woman who 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 have been a woman and to have been from a working class background left her doubly disadvantaged when it came to being held in remembrance.
Women seem considered unworthy of the remembrance accorded to men. How many men from history could you name in a minute? How many women from history could you name in a minute? Our recall of women from history tends to include a significant number of queens and princesses, Queen Victoria, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great?
What about 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 950 such plaques in London, just 1 in 7 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 have often disappeared altogether in phases of rebuilding or redevelopment. A Sheila Capstick of former times would have had little hope of remembrance.
Among the women the Independent deemed worthy of a blue plaque is 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. What are the prospects of her ever receiving that plaque?
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?