International Women’s Day: Birmingham Women who inspired change
Saturday the 8th March is International Women’s Day.
‘International Women’s Day celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action.’
In this blog we wanted to highlight the stories of some of the Birmingham women featured in the history galleries who have inspired change.
This rare portrait of an18th century businesswoman depicts Ann Fuller who was a pawnbroker in Digbeth during the late 18th century. Ann took over her father’s business at 53 Digbeth shortly after this portrait was painted.
We know very little about Ann other than she was one of a small number of businesswomen in Birmingham at the time. Research for the history galleries revealed other women including Catherine Sawyer who ran the Boarding School in The Square, and Mary Lloyd who was the owner of the Hen & Chicken’s Hotel.
You will find Ann’s portrait in the Strangers Guide to 18th Century Birmingham (1700-1830).
Nellie Hall was a suffragette who lived in Edgbaston. She became an active campaigner as a teenager, and suffered imprisonment in Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Later she was sent to prison again in London, went on hunger strike and endured forced feeding. Birmingham had a very strong suffragette movement, which involved women from prominent local families including the Cadburys and the Rylands. The equality for which these women risked their freedom, and sometimes their lives, was a long time in coming. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, but full voting equality with men was not granted until 1928.
Nellie Hall wrote to her father from prison in 1914: ‘No free spirit has ever been wrecked by a mean spirited oppression yet. And mine won’t be either.’
You will find Nellie’s hunger strike medal in Forward (1830-1909)
Mary Newill studied at the Birmingham School of Art. In the late 19th century the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement was reviving hand crafts, in a reaction against mass production. The Birmingham School of Art encouraged students to try new techniques, and pioneered art education for women. Female students were encouraged to work with metal, wood and stained glass as well as textiles and painting. Mary Newill was one of the women who forged ahead in techniques traditionally practised by men. Newill also worked as an illustrator and embroiderer, and became a teacher at the School of Art.
You can see Mary Newill’s stained glass panel in Forward (1830-1909)
Lilly Duckham OBE
Lilly was born in Birmingham on the 14 October 1892. She left school aged 14 and went into domestic service. In 1917 she enlisted with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aged 25. Lilly was one of 10 women sent to the Western Front to be in charge of the Officer’s catering. Many disapproved of women working on the Western Front. In this extract from an interview with Lilly in 1981 she explained why she believed it was important for her, and other women to serve alongside men.
‘When I read of the quantity of boys that were being killed and that they, they wanted more men they wanted more people out there and they were going to try and experiment with girls you see I put my name through […] They asked if I wanted to stay at home or go abroad, well I very much wanted to go abroad there were only about five of us the rest were wanted to stay in England you know but I wanted to get out […] to do what I could […] I felt that was where the help was wanted was needed and that’s why I thought that’s where we should be and I mean the hardships and everything it was no more I felt it was no more for us than it was for the boys’.
Lilly was demobbed 6 months after the end of the war. Shortly after returning to Birmingham she was awarded an OBE for her war services.
You can listen to extracts from Lilly’s interview as well as other Birmingham women’s first world war stories in An Expanding City (1909-1945) in the Birmingham at War display
Shahin Ashraf was born in Birmingham in 1971. She is a fundraiser for Islamic Relief, an international aid organisation which began in Birmingham in 1984.
Shahin began volunteering for Islamic relief in 1989 after the Kashmir earthquake. In this extract from her interview for the history galleries she recalls what it was like as a volunteer.
‘We were basically going around the country collecting clothes in a big truck, there was a group of us and we were the only women that could drive at that time. [We then delivered] them back to the warehouse and […] helping […] sorting out clothes, making sure the clothes […] were okay for the country that they were going to. I mean a lot of people gave summer clothes and it was winter there so […] we couldn’t take those clothes’
Islamic Relief [was] in its infancy and then what happened was that […] Central News in Birmingham […] picked it up and suddenly there was an influx of clothes and the warehouse was full to the brim but they had […] hardly any volunteers
So this was the call for volunteers and I was one of the very few volunteers. In those days there was no texts, there no sms, there was no email, it was just word of mouth and Doctor Hany [the founder of Islamic Relief] had gone to the different colleges within Birmingham and he said I really need your help so if you could come to the warehouse […] and suddenly there was about 4-500 volunteers’.
You can listen to extracts from Shahin’s interview in Your Birmingham (1945-today)
Jo-Ann Curtis and Henrietta Lockhart, Curators – History