Leeds exhibition to examine women's roles on suffrage centenary

Boxing gloves of Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams among exhibits at Abbey House Museum

A vintage vacuum cleaner, Lego’s Women of Nasa set and a pair of boxing gloves worn by the Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams are among the exhibits in a show examining women’s roles in and out of the home in Britain over the past 150 years.

A Woman’s Place at Abbey House Museum in Leeds is timed to coincide with the centenary of most women getting the right to vote in the UK.

Included is a badge worn by Leonora Cohen, sometimes called “the forgotten suffragette of Leeds”. In February 1913, the milliner and mother of one snuck into the Jewel House at the Tower of London with an iron bar hidden under her coat. She smashed it into a display case containing priceless regalia before she was wrestled to the ground by Beefeaters.

Wrapped around the bar was a piece of paper that said: “This is my protest against the government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain.”

The exhibition also features newly commissioned ceramics honouring four local heroines, including the cyclist Beryl Burton, who held the men’s world 12-hour time trial record for two years in the 1960s. In 1967, she cycled 277.25 miles in 12 hours, overtaking her male rival and giving him a Liquorice Allsort as she passed.

Katch Skinner, who designed the pottery, said she was challenging the male dominance of commemorative ware and paying tribute to female “trailblazers and visionaries” who helped change society.

“Women are 50% of the population and have been integral in shaping the course of history, but make less than 1% [of] appearance[s] in written documents,” she said.

Jacky Fleming, the illustrator behind the book The Trouble With Women, has produced a series of original drawings for the exhibition, including a recreation of the moment Cohen took a swing at the crown jewels, and a pickling workshop at the Women’s Institute.

Lego’s Nasa Women set
Lego’s Nasa Women set, which celebrates astronomers, computer scientists, physicists and astronauts. Photograph: Lego

“To understand where our own lives are in the history of women’s place in the world, we need to know what that history is. This exhibition in Abbey House Museum does just that, so we know which battles have been won and which we still have to fight for,” she said.

Kitty Ross, the social history curator at the museum, has chosen a mixture of one-off and everyday items to honour inspiring local women such as Adams and Cohen, and document the everyday struggles women have faced throughout history.

She has picked out labour-saving devices including a Volvac, an early wooden vacuum cleaner operated with a steering wheel, to ask whether they really improved women’s lives.

“In museums these days, the default is still that most of the displays depict men and celebrate the work of men. But when you look at how these inventions were used, often they were used by women,” she said.

Part of the exhibition looks at women’s workwear, showing off the museum’s collection of “rational dress”, most notably a stylish roller-printed velvet dress, which Ross said “was very radical in its day, even if it is modest by today’s standards”.

A dressing-up box for children includes outfits for girls and boys to pretend to be engineers, police officers and doctors.

A series of photographs of ordinary Leeds women have also been commissioned. Each woman holds up a sign saying what her job is, challenging preconceptions the visitor might have.

The most modern exhibit was purchased recently. The Women of Nasa, which celebrates the astronomer and educator Nancy Grace Roman, the computer scientist and entrepreneur Margaret Hamilton, the astronaut, physicist and entrepreneur Sally Ride, and the astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison.

Ross said: “We hope to inspire women and girls to believe that their ambitions and achievements are not limited by their gender.”


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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