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Are we as a society assisting sexism and gender inequality by the omission and exclusion of our female history?

?While watching X Men First Class with the family last night I asked my daughter if she could think of a female character within the film that didn’t remove their clothes in any of the scenes. We both soon discovered that there wasn’t one. My daughter for a moment couldn’t see the problem until we put the same question to the male characters with a very different answer.

Similarly, while shopping for my son for his birthday, I fully prepared to be irritated by the science toys for boys and nail varnish maker equivalent for girls; brain dissection for boys and lip-gloss maker equivalent for girls; explore, adventure, super-hero slogans on boys t-shirts and pretty princess, unicorn equivalent for girls. Sadly, the list goes on.

But it was a Mothercare image published this year of what appeared to be a young girl dressed up in 1950’s clothing pushing cleaning paraphernalia really took my breath away.

(MotherCare 2017)

Recently within my current role I have been promoting the Arts within schools in Carmarthenshire. I actively ask every child what their GCSE choices were. depressingly, I am aware that the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification has made GCSE choices harder for young teens by putting PE, Art, Music, and now vocational subjects in the same choice column. Thus choice is massively restricted.

However, I was astounded by how popular as a subject Hair and Beauty has become for girls in retrospect to other creative and practical subjects. One pupil stated that she chose Hair and Beauty over sport because ‘at least she would get a job out of it.’ I wondered if she knew the story of Lily Parr who played for the most successful women’s team of all time called the Dick Kerr Ladies. ‘Parr played against both male and female teams and she reputedly had a harder shot than any male player’ (national football museum,2017) The team drew large crowds and in December 1920 attracted a crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park and in the same year played in the first ever recognized women’s international between England and France.

Women’s football grew in popularity until in 1921 when the Football Association banned women from playing on their member grounds. I wonder if she knew of Lily Parr, would she still choose hair and beauty? Are we marketing sport for girls in the same way as the Tour de France where the only representation of a woman is a podium girl congratulating the male victors with a kiss?

During a recent research project when I was a resident artist for The Welsh Arts Review I learned of a woman named Amy Dillwyn. History was written that Dillwyn was ‘doomed to a life of abnegation’ when her fiancé died of smallpox and ‘despaired of leading a worthwhile life’ (Alison Favre, 2009). She is recognized as having single-handedly saved her family’s spelter works business from bankruptcy, and was also a novelist.

History is being rewritten by Professor Kirsti Bohata. She tells a very different story where Amy Dillwyn was in love with another woman for most of her life, a woman she later referred to as her wife. In her novels, Dillwyn championed women as the protagonist heroine in her novels and wrote of their same-sex desires. In society, she wore men-ish clothes and definitely did not want to marry.

I wonder, if Dillwyn’s story was told in accuracy, whether women would feel more empowered today? Would the toy aisle still be so gender separate and derogatory towards girls? Would my own daughter have had such problems with her own gender growing up had the steps taken by women such as Amy Dilwyn had not been covered over by a patriarchal society intent on oppressing its female other?

Iron On The Dress 2017 (in response to Amy Dillwyn’s life and fiction) Mandy Lane

 Are we as a society assisting sexism and gender inequality by the omission and exclusion of our female history?

On a recent project responding to Dyffryn Gardens, I learned about the mining and colliery industry upon which the Gardens were built. When investigating this history, I was bombarded with images of the men down the mines; of small boys blackened with coal dust; of bodies that were crumpled and bludgeoned following the too regular collapse of shafts. Later there are images of the men at the picket lines and young man under the polices truncheon.

After a period of time considering these images, I began to wonder where the women were. Professor Bohata gave me a paper entitled Counting the Cost of Coal: Women’s Lives in the Rhondda, 1881-1911 by Dot Jones.

As a Welsh woman who lived in Wales I had never heard the history I was reading in the paper. I had never heard of Elizabeth Andrews nor the need for pit-head showers. In response to this discovery, the sculpture I created was entitled Elizabeth Andrews’ To-Do Pile 2017.

However, I felt that the pile was never big enough, nor ever could it be to do the narrative justice. Eventually, the figure of the baby was removed by the garden staff as it reportedly caused offence to some visitors.

I found this upsetting, my memorial to the unheard female voices of the coal mines silenced again. In contrast, the memorials to the World Wars often depicting male dead soldiers are recognized without complaint or offence. Is this another example of patriarchy othering the female? Hiding the parts of history that it finds unpalatable? The To-do Pile has since been reimagined, now highlighting the reality of infant mortality, birth and birth control for the women of the pits.

I feel that a history told inaccurately is a most neglectful action, with detrimental consequences to any society, culture, gender, or individual. Were a film produced depicting Hitler’s Nazi Germany as the hero to the Allied villains, I wonder whether we would as a society tolerate this inaccuracy. Yet as quickly as iconic women like Amy Dilwyn and Elizabeth Andrews are uncovered after decades buried by patriarchy; that same society removes them from sight, silencing their voices once again. It would appear that gender bias is still hidden in plain sight.

 Current reading list:

 Our Mother’s Land: Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830-1939(Gender studies in Wales)

Angela V John.

Struggle or Starve: Women’s Lives in the South Wales Valley’s Between the Two World Wars.

Peter Mathews.

 Our Sisters’ Land: Changing Identity of women in Wales.

Jane Aaron.

 Out of the Shadows: a History of Women in Twentieth-century Wales.

Deirdre Beddoe.

The Rebecca Rioter.

 Amy Dillwyn