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Womanchester: the story, the tours, the exhibition

Jonathan Schofield finds his feminine side during a month devoted to women

Written by . Published on March 9th 2010.

Womanchester: the story, the tours, the exhibition

Women might have help make Manchester but you’d never know it. Take a look at the statues and artworks on the city streets. Queen Victoria aside, it’s all men apart from symbolic ladies summing up abstractions such as motherhood, peace or the arts. And then invariably their tops have fallen open and they’re baring their breasts. Those Victorians and Edwardians – talk about repressed sexuality eh?

Given all this achievement it’s odd that Manchester can’t muster a single city centre public artwork dedicated to any of its real womenfolk.

Get your Titian out for the lads....Edwardian gents enjoy a bit of Page 3 action

Yet Greater Manchester’s history is shot through with significant women. From eighteenth century eccentrics to women who changed our nation’s history and set an international example it’s all here.

We start with a women who claimed divinity. Ann Lee, born close to where Urbis now stands, became ‘Ann the Word’ for the Christian sect called the Shakers. They believed her to be the female incarnation of Christ – because she’d told them she was. Following another revelation Ann and her followers emigrated to upstate New York in 1774. A small community of Shakers live on in Maine.

Manchester’s 1700s are partially defined by women even if they weren’t God Incarnate.

At the beginning of the century two matriarchs Lady Ann Bland and Madame Drake were opinion leaders. Lady Ann, a widow, was the patroness of St Ann’s Church – the choice of dedication was a clear reminder of her generosity. She supported the ousting of the Stuart Kings by William of Orange whilst Madame Drake adored the older dynasty which had originally come from Scotland.

The pair competed in every area of town life. Ann Bland would wear orange to irritate Madame Drake and the latter would don tartan to annoy Ann Bland. Madame Drake was a star in other ways: it was said that she ‘could not reconcile herself to tea or coffee and when she visited her friends of an afternoon used to be indulged with a beer and a pipe.’

Impressive though these two were they couldn’t match the indefatigable Elizabeth Raffald for energy. Raffald ran coffee houses, pubs, wrote the first Manchester Directory –Yellow Pages without the phone numbers - and in 1769 published The Experienced English Housekeeper, which ran to 13 editions and was pirated 21 times. It was the first mass popular cookbook in English with full recipes, preparation suggestions and menu recommendations. That’s not all. In the 18 years she spent in Manchester after service at Arley Hall, near Warrington, it was said she was pregnant full-term 16 times. Her husband by the way was a seedsman and sold horticultural seeds on the marketplace. Given his fertility this was a job that suited.

The nineteenth century sees activism in politics become a feminine theme for Manc women. In 1819 the Manchester Female Reform Group (MFRG) was formed and led by Mary Fildes. Later that year there was a meeting in support of extending the vote to all men (not women) irrespective of property and position which the MFRG supported. Broken up by the authorities the meeting became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Fildes was one of the main speakers and was wounded by a sabre cut – there would be fifteen fatalities overall. Subsequently she promoted birth control and was accused of disseminating pornography.

Forty eight years after Peterloo Lydia Becker was a leading light in the national campaign for the vote but this time for women as well. In 1887 she became the president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Whilst her name has been largely forgotten that of the Pankhursts is familiar to anybody interested in politics. Emmeline Pankhurst’s parents had both held radical political beliefs and their daughter was a chip off the old block. Frustrated with lack of progress in the constitutional struggle for the women’s vote she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 at her Manchester home on Nelson Street. When the Union became militant, the Suffragettes were born. Amongst other famous Suffragettes from the area included Annie Kenney and Emmeline’s children Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst. Emmeline Pankhurst

Meanwhile politics had spilled over into art with the work of Elizabeth Gaskell in the middle years of the century. Gaskell, one of the great nineteenth century British novelists, lived for many years on Plymouth Grove not far from the Suffragettes subsequent home. Novels such as Mary Barton, North and South and Ruth looked at the new industrial age from both a working and middle class viewpoint. They were often deemed offensive because they dealt with subject matters not thought suitable for respectable readers. Thus Ruth was about the fate of a ‘fallen woman’. Some fathers burned it in case their innocent daughters should be tainted by the story. Other female Mancunian novelists were less controversial such as Francis Hodgson Burnett, the author of The Secret Garden.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mancunians had an impact on art as well. Louise Jopling was the first woman to be elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and Annie Swynnerton was the first woman to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. The latter also set up the Manchester Society of Women Painters.

Louise Jopling

Into the twentieth century and many of Greater Manchester’s feminine movers and shakers (not of the Ann Lee variety of course) become more familiar. In literature we’ve had Richmal Crompton, the Just William novelist, Shelagh Delaney, playwright of A Taste of Honey, Maisie Mosco chronicler of Manchester’s Jewish community, Dodie Smith author of 101 Dalmatians and current writers such as Gwendoline Riley, Andrea Ashworth and Maria Roberts. The first female Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy may not be from Manchester but lives here.

In entertainment and comedy there’s been Caroline Aherne, Brenda De Banzie, Violet Carson, Shobna Gulati, Anna Friel, Wendy Hillier, Sarah Lancashire, Pat Phoenix, Beryl Reid, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Victoria Wood. Music gives us Elkie Brooks, Gracie Fields, Louise Rhodes, Rowetta and Lisa Stansfield. Sport has given us Diane Modahl and Tracey Neville amongst others.

Supermodel Agyness Deyn(born Laura Hollins) was born in Failsworth before moving to Rossendale where she got her first break – as a chip shop assistant.

Lisa Stansfield

Appropriately given past history the contribution to the nation’s politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has remained significant with key players such as EllenWilkinson. Labour since 1997 has given several Greater Manchester women government office: Ruth Kelly, Estelle Morris, Hazel Blears (the least popular woman in recent government history) and Beverley Hughes.

Hazel Blears

Given all this achievement it’s odd that Manchester can’t muster a single city centre public artwork dedicated to any of its real womenfolk. We don't have to be too obvious with this of course, we don't need a bronze of Emmeline Pankhurst, but maybe something temporary each year or a clever variation on the theme outside the People's History Museum – a Walk of Female Fame perhaps.

This would help underline the city’s feminine origins too - at least in the origin of the word Manchester.

We get our city moniker from the Romans and it has precious little to do with the male of the species. It was Mamucium which means ‘breast shaped hill’.

Maybe those repressed Victorians were on to something after all.

Women Like You, 6 March–9 May 2010, Manchester Art Gallery, Free entry. In celebration of International Women’s Day 2010, Manchester Art Gallery is exhibiting a specially commissioned portrait of Manchester-born Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. A photo mosaic portrait, created by artist Charlotte Newson, is made up of hundreds of photographs of inspirational women, donated by people from Manchester and all over the world.

How Manchester was made by women: the Confidential tour Saturday 13 March. If you're a woman Manchester is important - this is the city that lead the Votes for Women movement. But it's fun too. On this tour we'll be tripping the light fantastic around a whole boudoir of charming tales, sexy stories and – that's life – some of the crap that gets thrown a woman's way as well. It's the story of a city defined by remarkable, sassy femmes who knew their own minds and didn't care who complained. There's glamour, passion, illicit love, drama, fashion and prostitution. There's triumph and disaster, in an essentially upbeat stroll across the city. The tours are fun, informative, dramatic and last an hour and a half. We finish somewhere smart for cocktails or coffee (not included in the price). Click here.

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