Review: Chi Onwurah on the Angels of the North
In a refreshing contrast to the multitude of androcentric histories of the North East, Chi Onwurah finds Joyce Quin & Moira Kilkenny’s engaging book 'Angels of the North' full of extraordinary tales of the lives of frequently overlooked, yet inspirational, women
I grew up in Newcastle, brought up by a proudly Geordie and passionately feminist Mum. I attended local primary and secondary schools where the majority of teachers were passionate both about the region and social justice. I loved reading, spending most of the time with my head ‘stuck in a book’. And yet, of the 40 ‘Angels of the North’ profiled in this new book by Baroness Joyce Quin – ex MEP and MP – and retired Headteacher Moira Kilkenny, there is only one I am sure I could have named as a child: Grace Darling.
Neighbours who share an interest in history, Joyce and Moira set out to match the collections of famous men like Richard Welford’s Men of Mark ‘twixt Tyne and Tweed or Lawson’s Tyneside Celebrities. They have done much more than that. They have succeeded in feminising our regional history which has for too long been both explicitly and implicitly male. And they have given engaging narratives to lives, achievements and connections too often ignored by the rest of this deeply unequal and often divided country.
As a child I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie Syndrome – the inability to name more than one female scientist or engineer. I knew I wanted to be an engineer and having only one example with which to refute the playground bullies still left me something of a freak. What then I would have given to be able to name Newcastle’s own Rachel Parsons, the first female navel engineer who founded the world’s first all women engineering company, as well as the Women’s Engineering Society.
Or Gertrude Bell, the Explorer, Archaeologist and Scholar who travelled all over the Middle East mapping its culture, history and geography and established the Iraq Museum of Antiquities in June 1926.
Both Gertrude and Rachel were born into prosperous families and benefited from private educations. But Joyce and Moira have not taken the easy option favoured by so many, including most of our national media, of overlooking working class voices. I was struck by the life of Catherine Cookson, a writer who I knew to be the most loaned author in the public library system. I did not know she was illegitimate, scavenging for coal as a child, who went to work at 14 in the local workhouse laundry.
And I had never heard of Margaret Bondfield the tenth child of eleven in the family of an artisan lace maker, in and out of work. As a shop assistant ‘she particularly detested the living-in system whereby shop girls were given low wages for long working hours and were confined to cramped living quarters with inadequate, poor quality meals. The girls were not allowed out without permission and usually had little privacy in their dingy, badly ventilated dormitories.”
How that description brings to mind the situation of so many in the casual sector today. Margaret joined the Shop Assistants’ Union and eventually became the first Woman Cabinet Minister in 1929.
There are many more political Northern Angels such as ‘Our one and only Mo’ – Mo Mowlam – also a Cabinet Minister and most famous for her role in helping bring peace to Northern Ireland. Others include Ellen Wilkinson, the leader of the Jarrow March and Emily Wilding Davison the suffragette who died under the hooves of the King’s Horse and whose grave in Morpeth has increasingly become a destination for today’s feminists.
Northern feminist activism has long, long roots. The first feminist writer was from Newcastle – Mary Astell (1666-1731) with her ‘Proposal to the ladies for the advancement of their true and genuine interest’. She first used the phrase ‘If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?’.
There are many lives of surprising courage and interest – such as Ida and Louise Cook, two ‘ordinary girls’ from Sunderland whose obsession with Opera led to them traveling the world and, following a chance conversation at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1934, securing the safe passage of 29 German and Austrian Jews from Nazi Germany. And Mary Eleanor Bowes Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne whose life proved that then, as now, domestic violence is not limited to any class or social grouping, and who, by succeeding in using the existing entirely male legal process to regain her freedom, wealth and children from her husband, effectively struck a blow for women’s rights.
History is written by the victors. That is why it is all too often hisstory. Angels of the North brings us her stories, often lived in the margins of discrimination and oppression, but glorious nevertheless. In telling the lives of these 40 women Joyce and Moira have inspired me – but also left me wondering at all the other voices which we have not heard and whose silence shapes our political discourse. This is a book which should be in every library, on the shelf of every TV and radio producer and studied by everyone who seeks to know our nation.
Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. Angels of the North: Notable Women of the North East is published by Tyne Bridge Publishing