Sara Sheridan. Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland. Edinburgh: Historic Environment Scotland, 2019. RRP £9.99 paperback.
In Edinburgh, there are more statues of animals than there are of women. There are only 5 monuments to women in Glasgow. The underrepresentation of women in the built environment is not a uniquely Scottish problem, across the world men are memorialised by monuments, statues, street names, and buildings much more frequently than women. This gives the impression that women just haven’t achieved as much, which is, quite frankly, bullshit. In my Turbulent Londoners and Turbulent Scots blog posts, I recognise and attempt to publicise remarkable women and their achievements. So Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland immediately appealed to me as a creative, and probably more effective, attempt to do the same.
Where are the Women? A Guideto an Imagined Scotland is a guidebook for a hypothetical Scotland in which women are memorialised in the built environment to the same extent as men. Region by region, Sheridan traverses the country, renaming some features and creating others. In each case, she recounts the stories of the women who have contributed to so much, not just in Scotland but around the world. Sheridan also echoes recent calls to move away from statues as a primary form of memorialisation, instead suggesting more creative monuments such as events, benches, murals, fountains, and parks. Each chapter has a beautiful stylised map and sketches of some of the monuments by illustrator and designer Jenny Proudfoot.
There were times that I found the structure of Where are the Women? a bit repetitive, but this is largely because a guidebook is not meant to be read cover to cover. I am confident that I will go back to this book time again, particularly when I travel in Scotland, and get more out of it each time. Each story does not go into much detail, but Sheridan explains that that this was a deliberate decision: “I wanted to cram this book with stories – making it dense and capturing a real sense of how limited our mainstream history is, in terms of gender” (Sheridan, 2019, p. 411). I found the chapter about Edinburgh easiest to connect too, as it is the only part of Scotland that I have spent any significant amount of time. It frustrated me that I couldn’t get my head around the geography of Scotland’s other regions. However, that is not Sheridan’s fault, and once I stopped trying to figure out how all the monuments related to each other in space (it’s not easy to take off that geographer’s hat!) and just let the stories and memorials wash over me, I enjoyed it much more.
If we want things to change, we need to ask difficult questions about the way our history has been represented and whether some of the things that history currently tells us are valid. We must celebrate our female stories alongside our male ones and make them just as visible.
Sheridan, 2019, p. 14.
Where are the Women? is a beautifully written and designed book that will interest anyone who is interested in histories that have previously been overlooked or ignored. But it is also a demand for history to be represented more equally in the spaces around us. The fact that this book is published by Historic Environment Scotland, the public body charged with protecting and promoting Scotland’s historic spaces, gives me some hope that the demand is being listened to.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history.In this post I’m looking at Elsie Inglis, a doctor, suffragist, and champion of healthcare for women.
Despite being born in India and dying in Newcastle, Dr Elsie Inglis is perhaps one of the most well-respected women in Scottish history. After looking into her story, I can see why she was so admired! After qualifying as a doctor just before her 28th birthday, Elsie dedicated herself to improving women’s healthcare. On the outbreak of the First World War, she organised and led all-female medical teams in Serbia and Russia, becoming the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia.
Elsie was born on 16th August 1864 in Naini Tal, India. She was one of 9 children, and her father was a magistrate in the Indian Civil Service. Her parents believed that women should be educated, and unusually for the time, Elsie started her education in India. She showed an interest in medicine from a young age, covering her dolls in spots so that she could cure them of measles. The family moved to Edinburgh when her father retired, and Elsie finished her education at the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies and at a finishing school in Paris.
Elsie was very close to her father. She wanted to study medicine, but was reluctant to leave her father after the death of her mother in 1885. In 1887, Dr Sophia Jex-Blake opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, and Elsie was one of the first students at the School. Jex-Blake was a pioneer, having been one of the first 7 female students to start studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. However, her students found her too strict, and after two other students were expelled, Elsie and her father set up the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women. Elsie continued her studies there, qualifying as a doctor and surgeon in 1892, at a time when women still were not permitted to graduate from University medical schools.
Elsie was shocked by the poor quality of care that female patients received, and the lack of specialisation in issues that affected women. Her first job was at the New Hospital for Women in London, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (another pioneer, she was the first woman to qualify as a doctor and surgeon in Britain). She also worked at the Rotunda, a leading maternity hospital in Dublin. She returned to Edinburgh in 1894 to nurse her father. She also lectured in gynaecology and set up a medical practice with Jessie Maclaren Macgregor. The two women set up a small maternity hospital for poor women, which also had a midwifery training centre. In 1904, the hospital moved to larger premises on the Royal Mile and was renamed The Hospice. By this time the University of Edinburgh had also started allowing women to study medicine, and Elsie graduated in 1899.
For Elsie, the poor standards of medical care for women was intertwined with the fight for women’s suffrage. Opposed to the violent methods of the suffragettes, she became a leading member of the suffragist campaign in Scotland, serving as the secretary of the Edinburgh Society for Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s, and the secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies from its formation in 1906 until 1914. She traveled Scotland speaking at pro-suffrage meetings, sometimes as many as 4 a week.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Elsie was central to the foundation of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. She was motivated not just by patriotism, but also by a desire to prove that women were skilled medical staff in fields other than gynaecology and paediatrics. Funded by the suffrage movement, the Committee’s goal was to provide relief hospitals for the war effort that were entirely staffed by women. The British War Office rejected the offer of help, but the French and Serbian government were not so prejudiced. Over the course of the war, the Scottish Women’s Hospital sent 14 units to Belgium, France, Serbia, Salonika, Romania, Malta, Corsica, Serbia and Russia. In the summer of 1915, Elsie led a team to Serbia. Not long after, the region was invaded by Austro-Hungarian and German Forces. Refusing to leave her patients, Elsie was captured. She was released and returned to Edinburgh the following year, where she campaigned for more aid to be sent to Serbia. In August 1916 she led a new team to help Serbian forces in Russia. She knew she had cancer before she left, and by the following autumn she could no longer perform surgery, although she continued to lead the unit. She refused to leave Russia until the Serbian forces did too. She eventually arrived back in Britain on the 26th of November 1917, but died that evening in a hotel in Newcastle.
Elsie Inglis was a skilled and determined woman, who achieved a huge amount in her 53 years. Her funeral took place at St. Giles Cathedral, and was attended by representatives of the British and Serbian royal families. Considering women tend not to be memorialised, there have been quite a few tributes to Elsie over the last century. In 1922 a tablet was erected in St Giles in her memory. In 1925, The Hospice was replaced by the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in Abbeyhill. It was closed in 1988, but some of the buildings still remain, and there is a small memorial in nearby Holyrood Park. There is a plaque marking the location of her pre-war surgery at 8 Walker Street, and in 2009 she was featured on the £50 note produced by the Clydesdale Bank. There is a memorial fountain dedicated to her in Mladenovac, Serbia, and her photo features on the plinth of the Millicent Garrett Fawcett statue in Westminster. Elsie Inglis was a truly remarkable women, who deserves all of this recognition, and more.
Sources and Further Reading
Leneman, Leah. “Inglis, Elsie Maud.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34101 (requires a subscription to access).
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history.Next up is Flora Stevenson, a philanthropist and education campaigner who has recently been announced as the next face on Scotland’s £50 notes.
It was recently announced that philanthropist, educational campaigner and suffragist Flora Stevenson is going to be the first woman featured on the Scottish £50 note. It is very unusual for a woman to be chosen to feature on British currency (apart from the Queen), so I wanted to find out more about the woman who has been deemed worthy of such an honour.
Flora Stevenson was born on 30th October 1839, the youngest of 11 children. Her father was a wealthy Glasgow industrialist; when he retired the family moved to Edinburgh, and Flora spent most of her adult life living at 13 Randolph Crescent in the West End with her 3 sisters. The Stevenson sisters were all active in the mid-nineteenth century Scottish women’s movement. They all supported women’s suffrage, and were founding members of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association which was founded in 1868 to campaign for higher education for women. Flora was also committed to improving education for society’s poorest children; as a child she started a class in her home to teach messenger girls basic reading, writing, and maths skills.
In 1863 Flora joined the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor as a district visitor, investigating the circumstances of charity claimants and assessing whether or not they were ‘deserving’ of support. She also joined the committee of the United Industrial Schools of Edinburgh, a voluntary body that organised schools for poor children. Flora believed that compulsory school attendance was central to improving the lives of poor children in big cities, but she was opposed to the state providing welfare support, as she believed it undermined the responsibility of parents to provide for their children. She argued that charities coordinating with school authorities was sufficient support.
In 1873 Flora was elected to the newly formed school board for Edinburgh. School boards were the first public bodies in Scotland which were open to women. As a result of her experience she was placed on the destitute children’s committee, where she was responsible for a scheme that gave food and clothes to poor children on the condition that they attended school. She also persuaded the school board to set up a day school for truants and juvenile delinquents, which was the first of its kind under the control of a school board. Flora’s expertise in this area was well respected; she served on several committees advising the government.
Flora’s belief in women’s rights carried over into her educational philosophy. She believed that girls and boys should be treated the same in education, and argued against the school board’s policy of giving girls 5 hours less teaching than boys every week so they could practice needlework. She believed that boys should be taught household management as well as girls, and that unmarried female teachers should receive equal pay.
Flora’s dedication to Edinburgh’s education system was respected and acknowledged. In 1899 a new primary school in Craigleith was named after her, and in 1900 she was unanimously elected to the Chair of the Edinburgh school board. In 1903 she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh, and two years later she was given the Freedom of the City in recognition of her service to Edinburgh’s philanthropic institutions and the school board. When she died in September 1905, thousands of schoolchildren lined the route of her funeral. She is buried with her family in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.
I may not agree with all of Flora’s politics – she was opposed to Irish Home Rule, and I find her perspectives on state welfare questionable – but there is no doubt that she was a formidable woman, who dedicated her life to public service at a time when women weren’t really supposed to do that. Hopefully her inclusion on the £50 is just the latest step in a long journey to properly acknowledge the contributions that women have made to society throughout history.
Sources and Further Reading
Corr, Helen. “Stevenson, Flora Clift.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46826 [Subscription required to access].
Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.
Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.
Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.
Connelly, 2013; p.3.
Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.
Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history.Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.
Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.
Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.
Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.
1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.
By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.
During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.
During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.
The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.
Sources and Further Reading
Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Last time I looked at Wendy Wood, artist and campaigner. This time it is the turn of Margo MacDonald, a charismatic politician and broadcaster.
The movement for independence in Scotland has been building momentum since the mid-twentieth century, and has made some significant gains over the last 50 years. Central to those gains have been the efforts of some charismatic and driven women, including Wendy Wood, who was the first Turbulent Scot I featured on this blog, and Margo MacDonald, the focus of this post. Like Wendy, Margo was passionate and likeable, although both women struggled with the constraints of membership in a political party.
Margo Aitken was born on the 19th of April 1943, one of 3 children. She grew up in East Kilbride, and trained as a PE teacher when she left school. In 1965 she married her first husband Peter MacDonald, they had 2 children. The couple ran a pub, and Margo’s experiences talking to customers and getting to know the regulars seems to have been influential on her later political beliefs.
Margo embarked on a political career in the early 1970s, winning the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973 as an SNP candidate. She won by 571 votes. This was a remarkable achievement; the SNP wasn’t considered a serious political force at that point, and it was widely believed that they couldn’t win an election under a Conservative government. Margo proved all the doubters wrong. She wasn’t an MP for long though, as she lost her seat in the 1974 General Election. She lost further elections in 1978 and 1979, but her 1973 victory helped establish the SNP as a serious political force.
In 1974 Margo became Deputy Leader of the SNP. She was critical of the Party’s poor performance in the General Election that year, particularly the failure to convert more Labour voters. She was a prominent member of the 79 Group, which tried to persuade the SNP to move further left to appeal to the working classes. The Group was banned by the SNP in 1982, and many of its members left the Party. However, they were later readmitted to the party and several had successful careers, including Margo and Alex Salmond.
Margo’s membership of the 79 Group meant that she wasn’t re-elected as Deputy Leader of the SNP in 1979, and she was one of those who left the Party in 1982. She established herself as a successful radio presenter, and wrote for several Scottish newspapers. She remarried in 1981, to politician and columnist Jim Sillars. As devolution became more likely in the mid-1990s, Margo rejoined the SNP as she believed it was the only way to achieve Scottish independence. She was elected as an MSP for Lothian in 1999. Margo was popular, but was outspoken on lots of contentious issues such as sex worker’s rights and MSP’s salaries. She struggled with the restrictions of being part of a political party, and was disciplined in 2000 for not toeing the party line.
When the SNP chose its candidates for the Scottish elections in 2003, Margo was 5th on the list, almost guaranteeing that she would not get re-elected. She stood as an independent candidate in protest, and was kicked out of the SNP. Margo had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996; in the run up to the 2003 election this became public knowledge. Margo believed someone in the SNP had leaked the information in an attempt to hamper her chances of getting re-elected, which they denied. However her diagnosis got out, it didn’t prevent her getting elected. She went on to be reelected as an independent candidate in 2007 and 2011. Margo used her platform to continue to fight for what she believed in. She became a fierce advocate for assisted suicide; this was a particularly personal issue because of her illness.
Throughout her career, Margo was suspicious that the British Security Services were interfering in Scottish politics. She believed that MI5 infiltrated the SNP in the 1970s, and in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum she asked the Security Services to guarantee that they would not interfere. Throughout her career she supported the causes that mattered to her; she once joined an Anti-Trident protest outside the Scottish Parliament, and she campaigned to ban vuvuzelas in Scottish football grounds.
Known as firebrand and rebel, Margo remained a popular and well-known politician until her death on the 4th of April 2014. She was respected, if not always liked, by allies and opponents alike. Although she never had a smooth relationship with the SNP, she helped to establish the party as a serious political actor. I’m sure that many Scots remember her fondly.
Torrance, David. “MacDonald [nee Aitken], Margo Symington Jack.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 15th February 2018, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.108517 [Subscription required to access]
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Olive Morris, radical, activist, and organiser.
There has been a conscious effort over the last few years to ensure that black activists throughout history receive the attention they deserve. Olive Morris is one of those who has been the subject of concerted efforts to research and publicise her life and legacy. She was even featured on a Google Doodle on the 26th of June 2020, which would have been her 68th birthday. Olive was an accomplished and dedicated activist, who made significant contributions to the developing Black Power movement in Britain in the 1970s.
Olive Morris was born on the 26th of June 1952 in Jamaica. Her parents moved to London when she was young and in 1961, aged 9, she joined them in Lavender Hill. She left school without any qualifications, although she would later go on to study at the London College of Printing and the University of Manchester. The London that Olive grew up in was not welcoming or supportive of people like her; black and Asian people faced a racist police force, attacks by racist groups such as the National Front, and discrimination in education, employment, and housing. In this context Olive became a fierce and determined activist, campaigning against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Her activism was intersectional; she believed that all forms of discrimination interact and overlap, and in order to fight one you must fight them all.
In 1969, at the age of just 17, Olive intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton. The police did not believe that a black man could own such a nice car, so accused him of stealing it. Olive was physically and verbally abused by the police for standing up to them. She was also arrested, charged with assault on an officer, and fined £10 and given a 3 month suspended sentence.
At this time, Brixton was a hub for black political organisations, so Olive found no shortage of allies. In the early 1970s, she joined the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement. In 1974 she was a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, which was formed to create a space for women who felt marginalised by the broader black freedom movement.
Olive began squatting in 1972, and quickly became very good at it. For her, squatting was a political act; she used it to draw attention to the fact that so many black people were homeless, despite good quality housing being available. In this way, she helped pioneer squatting as a form of activism. In 1973 Olive squatted 121 Railton Road in Brixton, which became an organising centre for community groups such as Black People against State Harassment. It was also home to Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first black community bookshops in Britain. Railton Road remained a squat and community centre.
Between 1975 and 1978, Olive studied economics and social studies at the University of Manchester. Whilst there, she was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students. Amongst other things, she helped campaign against raising tuition fees for overseas students. Olive saw this policy as a racist denial of British responsibilities to its former colonies. She was also a member of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative (later the Abasindi Co-operative) and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.
During and after her studies, Olive traveled extensively, using what she learnt to inform her activism back home. She also wrote and published on her experiences and politics. In 1978, Olive co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), an umbrella movement which brought together other groups and activists. After graduating, Olive returned to Brixton and worked in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre. Here, she campaigned against the controversial ‘sus’ laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people based solely on suspicion.
Olive fell ill whilst on holiday in Spain in 1978. On her return she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment was unsuccessful, and she passed away on 12th July 1979, aged just 27. It was a tragic shock to her friends and family, and also a great loss to London’s activist communities. In 1986 a Lambeth Council building at 18 Brixton Hill was named after her; there is also a community garden and play are in Myatt’s Field dedicated to her. In 2008 the Remembering Olive Collective was set up to publicise and preserve her legacy; the materials they collected are now held at Lambeth Archives. In 2009, she was chosen by public vote to be one of the historical figures featured on the Brixton Pound, a local currency. In 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial Award was launched, which gives bursaries to young black women.
Olive Morris was a dedicated, skilled, and strategic organiser and activist, who fought against discrimination in all its forms. During her short life she worked tirelessly to combat the disadvantages faced by black people in Britain and build networks of solidarity and mutual support. Some of these networks were specifically aimed at women, encouraging many women of colour to engage in politics for the first time. Olive is remembered as a local hero in Brixton, but her legacy goes much further than that. I somehow doubt she would be impressed by being featured in a Google doodle, but is a step towards the recognition she deserves.
Sources and Further Reading
Allotey, Emma. “Morris, Olive Elaine (1952-1979).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/100963
Caitlin Davies. Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison. London: John Murray, 2018. RRP £10.99 paperback.
For 9 years, I studied at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London in Egham, Surrey. For 9 years, when I told people I went to Royal Holloway, I had to put up with jokes about Holloway Prison, the infamous women’s penitentiary in London. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about Holloway apart from the fact that a lot of suffragettes were imprisoned there. So when I heard about Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison, it seemed like a good opportunity to find out more about why Holloway is so well known.
First opened in 1852, HMP Holloway was made female-only in 1902, rebuilt in 1971-85, and closed for good in 2016. In that time, it has witnessed dramatic changes in society, including seismic shifts in the treatment of both women and prisoners. In Bad Girls, Caitlin Davies recounts how life in the prison changed over more than 150 years, telling the stories of governors and staff as well as the women incarcerated there. Some of the women described in Bad Girls are well known, either for the severity of their crimes, such as Myra Hindley, or because they took a stand for what they believed in, like the suffragettes and the women of Greenham Common. The vast majority of the women who spent time in Holloway, however, are unlikely to remembered by anyone but their families. That does not, however, make their stories any less fascinating.
the history of women in Holloway is a bleak one and stories of triumph are few and far between. It’s impossible not to feel depressed at a century and a half of women betrayed and coerced, condemned and mistreated, wrongly imprisoned, punished and executed. But this is why its story has to be told, because women have for too long been kept out of sight and out of mind behind the walls of Holloway.
Davies, 2018; p.316.
The women imprisoned in Holloway did not just break the law, they also undermined society’s perceptions of gender; crime is simply not feminine. Caitlin Davies doesn’t just tell a good story, she also explores how dominant narratives around gender and femininity are tied up with understandings of criminality and punishment. She questions what prisons are for and highlights how their dual purposes of punishment and rehabilitation rarely complement each other. This book has as much to say to the present as it does to the past.
Although many of Caitlin Davies’ books are clearly based on extensive historical research, she describes herself as a writer rather than a historian, and this is reflected in Bad Girls. Unlike most history books, Davies herself is very much a part of the narrative; she details her visits to prisons and cemeteries, and describes the London cafes in which she interviews former inmates of Holloway and their descendants. I enjoyed this approach; it felt as though Davies is taking the reader with her on her journey to uncover the stories of women who’s lives have often been swept under the carpet.
Bad Girls is an excellent book. Not only is it a great read, it is also an ideal example of how an understanding of the past can illuminate significant issues in the present-day. In the acknowledgements, Davies mentions that she had to cut out a lot of material, and that a lot of stories have been left untold. My response to that is: when can we expect the sequel?
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Margaret Harkness, a radical journalist and author.
Margaret Elise Harkness was a second cousin of Beatrice Webb (nee Potter), one of the founders of sociology as an academic discipline. Margaret trained as a nurse before deciding to make her living as a writer, publishing under the name John Law.
Born on 28th February 1854 in Great Malvern Worcestshire, Margaret was the daughter of a clergyman, the second of five children. She was educated at home, before going to a finishing school in Bournemouth at the age of 21. In 1877 she moved to London to train as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital. After she qualified she worked at Guys Hospital in London Bridge, but she didn’t enjoy the work much.
In the early 1880s, perhaps inspired by Beatrice, Margaret decided to try and make her living writing. Beatrice and her sister Katie supported Margaret financially, and introduced her to a circle of intellectuals who met at the reading room of the British Museum. She began to publish both fiction and non-fiction, most of it under the pen name John Law.
Margaret became friends with a wide range of the radicals in London at the time, including Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. She began to take an interest in radical politics herself. Margaret must have seen the impacts of poverty first hand during her time as a nurse, and she came to believe that socialism was the solution to. inequality and poverty. Her beliefs influenced her writing, and she published five novels about the lives of London’s poor. The most famous is In Darkest London, first published in 1888. Another of her novels featured the famous Bloody Sunday in November 1887, when radicals clashed with police in Trafalgar Square over the right to protest there.
Margaret joined the Social Democratic Federation, and was an active campaigner during the 1889 Dock Strike. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, was instrumental in resolving the strike. Margaret went to see him in September 1889, and its thought she persuaded him to intervene in the dispute.
Margaret’s work enabled her to travel, she spent time in Manchester, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. It becomes quite difficult to trace her movements, but between 1906 and the start of the First World War she was in India. It seems likely that Annie Besant introduced Margaret to the religion of Theosophy, but she also became interested in Indian nationalism, and published a book about her experiences in the country. By this stage, Margaret had rejected socialism and now advocated the ideals and work of the Salvation Army, which inspired her last know novel, published in 1921.
Margaret continued to travel, living in France and Italy before her death, in Florence, on 10th December 1923. Margaret may not have been the best known radical female author in late-Victorian London, and she might not have achieved the most either. But her achievements were still remarkable, and I think it is important not to focus too much attention on a few prominent individuals. There was a vibrant radical community in London in the late nineteenth century, all of whom played a part in the successes and failures of that period.
Lucas, John. “Harkness, Margaret Elise.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 5th May 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/56894 [Subscription required to access].
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Susan Lawrence, an upper class politician who started her career as a Conservative Councillor, but converted to socialism.
Susan Lawrence was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Well educated, she embarked upon a career as a Conservative politician. It didn’t take her long before the realities of life in London helped in her conversion to non-revolutionary socialism. She became a devoted member of the Labour Party, and went on to be an effective politician.
Arabella Susan Lawrence was born in London to a prosperous family on 12th of August 1871. She was well education, studying at University College London and Newnham College, Cambridge. In her early life, Susan was politically and socially conservative, strongly believing in the British Empire, the Church of England, and charity. In March 1910 she was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as a Conservative. As she immersed herself in London politics however, her beliefs began to diverge from the policies of the Conservative Party.
Over the next two years, Susan underwent a political and personal transformation. Previously a devout member of the Church of England, she became much more secular in her beliefs. She also realised that social change could not be brought about by voluntary work alone, it required action by the state. Susan joined the Fabian Society, a group of non-revolutionary socialists (they wanted to bring about a socialist society by gradual means), and became good friends with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a power couple of British socialism. Susan served on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1913 until 1945. As a member of the LCC, Susan became aware of how little the women who cleaned London’s schools were paid. As a result, she became involved in women’s trade unionism. She met and befriended Mary Macarthur, the secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). For the next decade, Susan worked to organise working class women, earning the nickname ‘Our Susan’. In 1912, she resigned from the LCC because of this dramatic change in her beliefs.
Susan still believed in making a difference, and the following year she was re-elected to the LCC as a Labour Councillor for Poplar in East London. After her mother’s death, Susan moved to the East End, living just off the East India Dock Road. It was not unusual at this time for middle- and upper-class women to try to help East London’s poor, but Susan displayed an uncommon level of dedication by actually moving there.
During the First World War, Susan was a Fabian representative on the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee, a coalition of Labour and socialist groups who worked to improve conditions for the working classes. She also served on government committees, trying to ensure the interests of workers, and particularly female workers, were taken into account. Like many other Labour politicians, Susan was optimistic that post-war reconstruction could be used to benefit the working classes. In 1918, she was elected to the new women’s section of the Labour Party’s National Executive. In just 6 years, Susan had become one of Labour’s most important women.
In 1919, Susan was elected to Poplar borough council. Two years later, she was one of 30 Poplar Councillors imprisoned because of the Poplar Rates Strike. The Councillors took a stand over the unfair way in which unemployment benefits were paid for in London, which meant that the poorest boroughs had the highest burdens. The government sentenced them to prison indefinitely, but the government backed down and Susan and the other Councillors were released after 6 weeks. Despite their success, the Poplar Councillor’s illegal strategy was unpopular with the rest of the Labour Party.
Susan was loyal to the Labour Party however, and in the 1920s she turned her attention to Parliamentary politics. After failing to win seats in the 1920 and 1922 elections, Susan was elected as the MP for East Ham North in 1924, becoming one of Labour’s first 3 female MPs. Although she was never a Minister, Susan held several positions in Labour governments became quite successful. She was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in October 1930. Despite being a trailblazer for women in politics, women’s rights was never a priority for Susan. She had been indifferent at best to women’s suffrage, and she didn’t want women’s issues to divide the Labour Party; for Susan, no other identity was more important than class. Unlike other female politicians at the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson, she seemed impervious to the pressure to appear ‘feminine’; she never took much interest in her clothes or appearance.
In the 1931 general election Susan lost her seat, and this marked the end of her Parliamentary career. She tried to get re-elected in 1935, but was unsuccessful. A new and younger group was increasingly leading the Labour Party, and Susan was increasingly alienated. She remained on the Party’s executive until 1941, however. Susan dedicated her retirement to translating books into braille. She moved to Berkshire after her house was bombed during the Blitz, but returned to London after the war, moving to South Kensington. She died at home on 24th of October 1947.
Susan Lawrence was a dedicated and effective politician. She was not a suffragette, but she shared with them a willingness to go to prison for what she believed in. I think it must have taken a huge amount of bravery and resolve to shift her political allegiance as she did, and I admire her for that. Contemporary politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and I think they could learn something from Susan.
Howell. David. “Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 28th May 2015, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34434 [Subscription required to access].