Simon Community Visit

1 Jun

About three weeks ago, volunteers and homeless women from the Simon Community embarked on our first trip out to the Women’s Library and we haven’t stopped talking about it since.  The Simon Community is a homeless charity in North London. Along with many other services, we provide a Women’s Group every week where homeless women and Community volunteers cook a meal together, chat and relax in a kind and equal space. The Women’s group has now been running for nine months. We had always talked about venturing out for a group trip and the All Work and No Pay exhibition seemed like the best place to start!  Everyone really enjoyed the exhibition, especially seeing photos from women in work throughout the ages, the various protests that have allowed us more equality in the workplace and the small but powerful things like the great badges! We also enjoyed the end of the exhibition where visitors were asked to leave comments about their experiences of being a woman in the workplace which sparked conversations and debates within the group and later over dinner. It was excellent to have a tour guide for the exhibition as well so we could ask questions and enjoy the exhibition at our own pace. We were very pleased to be welcomed by the Women’s Library and all the staff were very friendly. Not every place in London accepts homeless people, especially homeless women so warmly. Being a homeless woman in London is very challenging and we at the Simon Community strive to provide a safe and friendly space to enable women to feel empowered and have the ability to make their own informed choices. Many of our guests have not been to museums or group outings in years and this exhibition showed all of us how far women’s equality has come but also how far we have to go. The exhibition also inspired the women in the Simon Community to ensure that we continue to strive for equality for women everywhere, including the workplace and the streets.  It was a really great afternoon out at the Women’s Library and we are already planning our next trip!           

To find out more about the Simon Community, visit here

Introducing the team: Briony Benge-Abbott

27 Apr

As Curator of The Women’s Library my role in the development of this exhibition was that of project management. I have worked in the museum sector for just over 3 years. Prior to this I undertook a foundation course in art and design before going to Bath Spa University where I studied Fine Art, specialising in painting. Whilst I greatly enjoyed the practical aspects of the course I also developed a strong interest in the theory of art, particularly that of the gaze. John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing was particularly influential on my approach to making and understanding art. I would often spend hours in local museums and art galleries with my sketchpad and pencils, studying the artefacts on display but also trying to capture the different ways in which visitors interacted with museum objects and looking for hidden meanings in the art works and exhibition design.

After leaving university I briefly attempted to make a living as an artist, but as anyone working in this field can testify it is incredibly difficult to make ends meet! I had no clue how to set myself up as a freelancer and spent most of my time working in a restaurant, often on my feet from 10am until midnight. It paid the rent but it certainly wasn’t my dream job. Disillusioned and almost two years out of university I decided to attempt a drastic change of career and flew over to Majorca for a month of walking the docks in Palma. I was trying to get a job as a stewardess on a super-yacht heading to the Caribbean. It sounded fantastic, but in many ways I am pretty relieved I didn’t manage to get a position, not least because I have since discovered that my sea-legs are pretty much non-existent!

It was only on return to the UK that I rekindled my love for art, design and heritage and decided to pursue a career in the museum sector. I had started volunteering in my local museum and at the same time came across the Museum Association’s Diversify scheme (now sadly finished) which sought to support people from ethnic minority backgrounds to enter the sector. This scheme enabled me to undertake an MA in Museology at the University of East Anglia, an extraordinary course which took place inside the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, enabling hands-on practical experience along with many opportunities to discuss theories behind the collecting and display of objects. The Diversify scheme also led me to The Women’s Library, where I undertook a 6 month placement with the curator.

I have been at The Women’s Library ever since, also working part-time at Brent Museum as Exhibitions Officer for a year and a half. I consider it a privilege to work with collections that capture the many ways in which women have actively fought and campaigned for equal opportunities, in addition to developing exhibitions that provide a space for the celebration of such achievements as well as redressing the under-representation of women’s experiences throughout history.

Last September I started full-time at the Library as the Curator’s maternity cover, joining the All Work and Low Pay team at the end of the long-exhibition process when the focus was on finalising the loans, signing off the design, finishing the text and organising the installation. For me, this period is the most exciting and yet exhausting part of creating an exhibition. All the different elements are being pulled together and excellent team work is essential. Luckily, I was joining a team of incredibly passionate and skilled women! It was also a great opportunity to work with some fascinating objects from the Library’s collection as well as those from the TUC Library, the Black Country Living Museum, the People’s History Museum, the Museum of English Rural Life and numerous objects from private lenders. The exhibition is on until 25th August so if you have not yet had a chance to visit it, then you’ve still got plenty of time!


Introducing the team: Anna Martin

27 Mar

Working by gender graph 2011At University I studied Media and Society, which led to an interest in museums, particularly exhibitions and interpretation.  Since graduating, I have worked as a Gallery Assistant at various museums and arts venues, and contributed to a number of exciting projects – in archiving, marketing, event coordination, artist and production assistance and installation.  I have sought opportunities relating to what excites me, and this led me to The Women’s Library, where I volunteered with the Audience Development team for about a year.  In May last year I was asked to assist Clare Rose, the All Work and Low Pay Exhibition Researcher, and it has been a fascinating journey.

The core of my work was to research statistics relating to the themes of the exhibition to compliment the timeline in the form of graphs and charts. Spanning over a century, the timeline documents the many significant political and social changes which frame the exhibition and provides an enlightening context to the incredible stories represented through the objects.

Rummaging through the collections at The Women’s Library and The TUC Library, Clare and I collected a huge amount of information on wage rates, hours of work, types of work, discrimination, childcare and career progression – relating to women of all ages, from many backgrounds and experiencing life from many different perspectives , from the 1800s to the present day.

Sifting through the figures, I pulled out the most interesting bits, converted a lot of shillings into the decimal system, and pieced the puzzles together in the best possible way to translate the information in the graphs that I was to create.  It was very important to us that through the graphics we could highlight the “wow” moments that we encountered during our research.Women as a proportion of executives- 1974- 2001

As a 25year old woman it was fascinating for me to delve into the way things have been historically but even more important to see, and show, how things have progressed.  I see the timeline and the statistics it carries as an extension of the exhibition that reaches into the future, representing the continuing and living importance of the themes of the exhibition.

Introducing the team: Clare Rose

27 Mar
Clare Rose

Clare Rose, exhibition curator

Clare Rose was the Exhibition researcher for ‘All Work and Low Pay’, selecting key documents from The Women’s Library and the TUC Archive Collections to create the backbone of the exhibition. She also sourced artefacts and images to bring the narrative alive, finding them in museum collections and even in the local pub, and she wrote the exhibition texts. She has been working as a curator and researcher for over twenty years, specialising in textiles and in women’s history. In 2009 she was the Vera Douie Fellow at The Women’s Library, collecting interviews, photographs and surviving garments from 1970s feminists on ‘The Politics of Appearance’. This research formed part of the exhibition ‘MsUnderstood: Feminism Since 1970’ and  was featured in radio interviews and the national press,  including this article on the liberation look.

Clare Rose has also written several books and numerous articles on the history of fashion, including a set of volumes on ‘Clothing, Society and Culture’ (with Vivienne Richmond, 2005 Douie Fellow at TWL).

These highlight past issues surrounding clothing for women, both as producers and consumers. Many of these issues are highly relevant today; in 2010 she presented a text from 1910 at a meeting about garment workers organised by Fashioning an Ethical Industry. Her other specialism is the history of childhood, and she has written and lectured on this, including appearing in programs for Radio 4.

Clare Rose currently teaches for the Open University and the Victoria & Albert Museum; details of her activities are on her website,

Guest Post- Phoebe (aged 15)

21 Mar

I’m Phoebe, I work as a volunteer at the Women’s Library and I am writing about women across generations in my family.

Surprisingly, the things I want to do in my life are not very different to those that my grandmothers and great grandmother did. Although neither my paternal grandmother nor great grandmother have held down any real job, my great grandmother did go to university to study languages (French and Italian, at the Sorbonne and in Perugia) and I am also planning to do either French and Russian or History at university. My maternal grandmother worked as a nurse in an Australian boarding school, which, whilst it is something which I would definitely not consider as a career option, I do admire as she was a single mother.

I would love to have a career, perhaps as a journalist or a writer but I would also like to have children and raise a family, something all the women in my family have successfully done. My great grandmother brought her daughter up through the Second World War, and they had to flee from the Nazis in the south of France. My paternal grandmother managed to bring up five children in a single parent family and my maternal grandmother both held down a job as a nurse at the local boarding school and cared for four children. I would like to be as successful a mother as them, although I hope my parenting style will be much different. My great grandmother can remember leaving her daughter outside in the snow whilst she did her shopping, whilst my paternal grandmother swept the youngest children off to India, where they received minimal education.

Although the world of work has opened up considerably, for women of my grandparent’s generation the only careers available were nursing or teaching, there are still glass ceilings to be broken. There are very few female executives and jobs requiring strenuous activity, such as janitors, the army and sports teachers, are still mainly male dominated. There are also female dominated areas, such as receptionists, nursing and hair dressing. To create a truly equal society, these gender barriers and stereotypes must be overcome.

Visitor Views March

14 Mar

Some women have written, in response to the exhibition, about encountering sexism in the workplace. Particularly shockingly, one visitor remembers that, when she was working as a designer, a client had told her ‘He didn’t talk to me. He preferred to speak with my mate because… “women should be at home just taking care of their children”‘. Another recalls her worst job as being a waitress, ‘men felt it was OK to constantly comment on my height and appearance as I was on “display”. I had to be polite back at all times. I was often spoken to like I was incredibly stupid; I was only doing the job to save up for my masters in economic growth at Cambridge University.’

There are also those remembering struggling to move up the career ladder. A social worker commented that ‘It was always men who moved up to senior management jobs… It is also still seen as “women’s work” and the increase in workload is very stressful- I can’t wait to retire!’. Due to the problems of maternity leave, women still find it difficult to get a successful career. Some describe the ideal work situation as ‘Not having to question when would be a good time in my career to have kids’. Some women have even had breakdowns due to the stress of working in male dominated career areas, although some have successfully moved on from this, such as one visitor who ‘was able to return to college- I graduated with an MA- in women’s studies!’

Many visitors remember the efforts of previous generations of women to go to work, ‘she was a machinist in a dressmaking factory… Physically tiring and then she had to come home and do housework with no domestic appliances’. Another remembers her great grandmother ‘had twelve children… and worked at a Candy Company, NECCO ‘. Jobs that were done by women then are still done today, as one woman wrote, ‘I am about to begin working in the same profession as my mother and grandmother. I am training to be a nurse!’

Visitor views and All Work and Low Pay extension

26 Jan

Hello! Sorry it’s been a bit quiet on here of late. We’ve been busy getting the Spring/Summer events sorted. And we’ve got some great news. All Work and Low Pay has now been extended until 25 August 2012. So if you’ve not had chance to visit the exhibition, you’ve got chance to make the trip this summer.

We’re continuing to receive loads of fantastic anecdotes from visitors in response to questions we’ve posed in the exhibition. Here’s just a selection:

‘I worked in a creative agency based in Hoxton for seven months. I was on minimal pay and as one of the only girls was constantly made to feel like my opinions were useless. They just wanted me to do what I was told – no questions asked. When another assistant position became available, one of my colleagues told the boy who applied that they really wanted a girl for the job as it was “a glorified housewife” position. ie shut up, don’t think  don’t talk back. This was in 2011!’

‘My mother – now in her 60s – tried to teach me that women’s jobs were always less important than men’s. Women’s unemployment was high in the 1980s, she told me that there would be no problem with unemployment if women did not “take” jobs from men. Her advice had a galvanising effect on me, and I was determined that I would always earn my own living. My mother still talks about “lady doctors!”‘

‘I *had* my ideal work situation – self employed, freelancer and developing my creative side. Now – no paid work, only voluntary work – women are suffering in the cuts!’

‘A few years ago a friend of mine was at The London School of Fashion. After qualification she went for interview at Savile Row. Was taken as an apprentice though was told “we would rather have had a lad!” She’s a qualified master tailor now.’

‘My mother is the eldest of 12, and grew up in the 1950s in South Vietnam. She left school early to stay at home, help looking after her younger siblings and help her mother in the market selling fish. She married early and came to England in 1975 as a refugee during the Vietnam War. An intelligent woman, denied a formal education, she always supported my sister and I in our studies and careers. She encouraged us “not to marry early.”‘

‘My mum was taken out of school before O Levels by her mother, told “women have babies not careers”, she did various retail/cleaning work whilst doing adult education whilst we were small and graduated as a teacher at 40 with three very proud children. My situation couldn’t be more different, 24 and doing a PhD, I do wonder what work will be around by the time I finish though. All I know is she battled and worked incredibly hard to get anywhere due to class and gender.’

‘I am 21. A university student, I aspire to be a writer of columns, essays, stories, whatever. As long as I have a voice to tell others’ stories and my own, I will. I do want a family and a career. I believe I can have both, but we will see. Only time will tell!’


The Women’s Library on Radio 4’s Today programme, Monday 2 January

3 Jan

Very excitingly, we were featured on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday! Clare Rose gave their business reporter, Simon Jack, a guided tour of the All Work and Low Pay exhibition. Now, as it was a Bank Holiday, I expect some people may have been in bed and missed it. You can listen on iPlayer for the next week (it’s at around 2 hours 43 minutes into the show) or you can read the transcript:

Sarah Montague (presenter): An exhibition at The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University aims to put paid to the myth that the majority of British women didn’t go to work until the second half of the twentieth century. Simon Jack went to find out more. Simon?

Simon Jack: Yes, thank you. The exhibition is called All Work and Low Pay, and as you say focuses on just how many women were in the workforce at a time when the stereotype put most of them in the home, until very recently anyway. The curator is Dr Clare Rose, and we began by watching a film from the early 1950s.

Film voiceover, male: ‘Woman. Woman of 1950. Can she develop her individual talents? Or does she still look upon marriage as the sole purpose of her existence?’

Simon Jack:  So, I’m with Dr Clare Rose here. Tell us a little bit about the film we are watching.

Dr Clare Rose. Image: The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

Clare Rose: It was made in 1951 by Jill Craigie, who was the wife of Michael Foot, the well-known Labour politician. And she made it because she didn’t like the attempts after World War Two to encourage, or in some cases force, women to leave the workplace and go back to the household. And she points out that in 1951 which we think of as a time when (quote unquote) women didn’t work, there were actually seven million working women in Britain.

Film voiceover, female: ‘ If anyone dares to resurrect that old cliche “women’s place is in the home”, let them contemplate the sight of millions of women out of the home, earning their own living.’

Clare Rose: I think it really sums up one of the main points of the exhibition, which is that there’s this kind of amnesia about women’s work. People keep denying that women have worked, that women do work, and because there’s this collective denial it means that a lot of problems are never resolved and we have to keep reinventing the wheel.

The work that women did was not just a little bit of light typing and filing. It was really heavy, gruelling, physical work.

Simon Jack: And we’ve got some of the artefacts here: there are sort of hammers and chains. What is that depicting?

Clare Rose: That is a really really important group of artefacts from the women who made chains in their back kitchens in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands. And it reminds us that there is no job, no matter how hard or how industrial, that has not had large numbers of women doing it.

In the post-war period, women did not all go back to the home and start raising 2.5 children. Or if they tried that for a few
years, they actually then went back to work in all sorts of jobs, including engineering. And here we have the first issue of
the women’s newsletter for the Allied Engineering Workers’ Union. And we have a leaflet here arguing for equal pay for equal work put out by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, again from the early 1950s.

Simon Jack: These union leaflets, of course, recognising women’s role in sort of manufacturing and engineering. The trade unions weren’t all of one voice about what they thought about women working in situations like this.

Clare Rose: Very often women have pushed for things beyond what the male-led unions wanted.

Simon Jack: Why were some male members of trade unions against women in the workplace? It’s not something you would expect to hear these days.

Clare Rose: They felt that if women were in the workplace it would erode pay differentials, it would lead to de-skilling,
which would then hit their [men’s] wage packets.

Simon Jack: So essentially you’re saying that women would do it for less, and that would hurt them [men] ultimately.

Clare Rose: Yes

Film voiceover, female:  ‘Without them industry would be paralysed. So if any of those sentimental sort of fellows are around, shaking their heads at this state of affairs , we reply in this day and age “women work while men weep!”‘

Simon Jack: Dr Clare Rose, curator of the exhibition which as you say is at The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and it’s on until April the 4th.

Virtual vists case 3: Women’s Work – Working Lives

14 Dec

Time for another look at one of the cases in the All Work and Low Pay exhibition, I think! The Working Lives case explores issues women faced in the workplace, including the Marriage Bar and sexual harrassment.

The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

*Spoiler alert* These documents show the text and all the objects featured in the Working Lives case of the exhibition. Don’t look yet if you’re intending to visit and want it to be a surprise. *Spoiler alert*

Download Women’s Work – Working Lives introduction

Download Women’s Work – Working Lives

Introducing the team: Sofia Linden

23 Nov

The centrepiece of the All Work and Low Pay exhibition is a lovely hand-crafted table. It houses three of the exhibition cases, and is made up of various ‘work surfaces’. It was built by furniture maker Sofia Linden. Here’s what she says about her work:

I left my native Sweden a couple of years ago to do a Fine Woodwork Diploma course at the Building Crafts College, a full time course running over two years. There I was trained as a furniture maker/ designer, using both traditional techniques and modern equipment. During the course we regularly had lectures by and did projects for some of the most prominent furniture makers in Britain, all teaching us their special methods in this non exact science called woodwork. Since graduating this summer I have worked as a freelance furniture maker.

My involvement in All Work and Low Pay consisted of the production of a table to display some of the content of the exhibition. The nine metre long table is formed from a number of work related pieces of furniture, incorporating domestic items such as ironing and washing boards, to office and industrial furniture including a drawing board and a workbench.

I was delighted to participate in the All Work and Low Pay exhibition, since I used to be involved in the Women’s Movement in Sweden, and because I work in a male dominated field. I can happily say that even though I am often the only woman on site, I have never experienced any prejudice or discrimination, and I see that the number of women working in my industry is increasing. I am very aware that were it not for the efforts of many before me I might not have the opportunities that are available to me today.