Unfinished Business: Women and the Politics of Language (The Language of Politics)

This article by Librarian Antony Ramm forms part of our series to mark the launch of the British Library’s Unfinished Business exhibition. Leeds Central Library is hosting a virtual version featuring inspirational local women past and present, events that have shaped the experience of women in the city and items from our special collections that connect to the wider history of women’s rights.

You can hear more on this subject in a talk from our Librarian team on Friday November 6 at 1pm. Tickets still remain at the time of writing.

1.

We start with Elizabeth Elstob – born in 1683 in Newcastle upon Tyne and a pioneering scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies.

In particular, Elizabeth was an accomplished translator, including of the English-Saxon Homily on the Nativity of St Gregory in 1709, a copy of which we hold at the Central Library. Elstob was part of a flourishing ‘republic of letters’ among antiquarians in the early 18th-century, frequently collaborating with major names such as Humfrey Wanley and George Hickes.

In fact, one antiquarian she was associated with was Leeds’ very-own Ralph Thoresby – the author of the Ducatus Leodiensis, the first written history of Leeds. In his diary, Thoresby records visiting the home of Elstob and her brother William in 1712. We know this because Thoresby writes of visiting at “her brother’s, Mr. Elstob’s.”

Ralph Thoresby

But how did Thoresby refer to Elizabeth, this significant scholar of Anglo-Saxon antiquities? Well, as you can see here, in the image below, he dubs her “the Saxon Nymph,” a phrase it is said that Thoresby coined.

While scholar Greg Waite has argued that the term confirms “the high esteem with which [Elstob] was regarded in antiquarian circles,” – certainly ‘nymph’ does not have intrinsically negative connotations – we might prefer to interpret this as a demeaning and patronising defining of a contemporary by her gender rather than her achievements. It is notable that Thoresby never uses such nicknames with male members of his circle in his diary, or his letters. It’s also notable that Elstob herself wrote in the preface to the English-Saxon Homily:

It will be said: what has a Woman to do with Learning? This I have known urged by some Men with an Envy unbecoming that Greatness of Soul which is said to dignify their Sex.

Quoted in David Douglas, English Scholars: 1660-1730 (1951), p.75

2.

The same story – that same process of wielding language to define and control the discourse shaping the identities and lived experiences of women – plays out in the image below, from our collection of 19th-century Political Cartoons. This cartoon is from the 1874 parliamentary election for Leeds and shows a group of women attempting to meet with two Liberal M.P.’s for Leeds, Edward Baines Jnr and Robert Meek Carter.

We know exactly why this meeting took place as there is a contemporary newspaper record of its occurrence: in February of 1874, women from Leeds factories and workshops, along with middle-class supporters – such as Alice Cliff Scatcherd, a social reformer, champion for women’s rights, two-time Lady Mayoress, animal welfare campaigner, teacher, organiser and public speaker, whose scrapbook of newscuttings about her campaigns we hold at the Central Library – asked for the support of Baines and Carter in challenging the Nine Hours Factory Bill that proposed to limit the time women and children could work to nine hours a day. Their opposition focused on the limit the bill put on women’s right to work and earn as much money as men.

At the end of the interview, a woman called Lucy Wilson remarked “that the best way of arriving at a solution of such questions as they had pressed would be by giving women a voice and vote in the Government of the country”. 

Again, similar to the challenges faced by Elizabeth Elstob, the cartoon shows some of the condescension women engaged in these kinds of political struggles had to face from contemporaries: the women are portrayed, once more, in a patronising if not outright-offensive manner, with caricatures of their positions, while the men are casually fobbing them off, seemingly paying them very little real heed.

The only surviving image of Alice Mann

We don’t know who printed this cartoon but, interestingly, other political cartoons and handbills around this time were printed by one Alice Mann.

Mann was a printer and bookseller, well-known, indeed centrally significant, in Chartist and Radical circles in Leeds. On the death of her husband James in 1832, Alice took over the family business, balancing her commitment to Radical principles – she was arrested and convicted of selling unstamped newspapers in 1836 – with a no-less political commitment to supporting her young family, through the publication of mainstream books and cartoons portraying a political world that excluded and patronised women like herself.

3.

This narrative, this context, of power in society defining women’s lives through language and representation, repeats again in another item from our collections at the Central Library.

The image above shows a page from the papers of James Armitage, of Armitage and Wight, family butchers of Leeds. Amongst other documents in his collection are pages of notes against women having the vote. Here, Armitage displays a deep-rooted fear of women becoming ‘masculinised’ and how feminism could eventually disrupt the entire social order by undermining domestic life. Armitage uses typical anti-Suffrage arguments such as the biological differences between men/women and says that the leaders of the suffrage movement ‘shrieked and raved hysterically’ in contrast to how he believes women should behave in public. 

Armitage’s arguments reveal some of the horrendously tough context for women fighting for the vote in Leeds. Those women included Alice Cliff Scatcherd, who we have briefly met, as well as the woman below, Maud Dightam.

Maud’s is a name that should be more central to the story of Leeds. As the joint-first woman elected as a Councillor in Leeds, Dightam should perhaps be as well-known as Alice Bacon. Active in the local Suffrage and Socialist movements, Dightam was elected as a Labour Councillor in 1922, alongside Gertrude Dennison, elected for the Conservatives. Maud’s interests were in sanitation and child services; she served on Council committees for both and was a popular speaker and community activist, though she did not stand for election again due to ill-health. Sadly, Maud died in 1932, aged just 56.

4.

Of course, as well as navigating, negotiating and trying to live alongside sexist language, women have also actively fought against such discriminatory representation and discourse – as you can hear in this clip from 1979.

That was Delta 5, a mixed-gender post-punk band who formed in Leeds during the 1970s, and part of a scene of art-school iconoclasts that included their more-famous friends Gang of Four; both bands mixed punk and funk with radical gender politics, cultural Marxism and a fierce commitment to anti-racist activism.

The record we heard was their best-known single, ‘Mind Your Own Business,’ a stinging attack and deconstruction of how power in society seeks to define and control women’s lives: “Can I interfere in your crisis? No! MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS…

The broader context for the scene Delta 5 emerged from was a swirling current of left-wing, radical activism meeting an-equally strong barrage of far-right violence in 1970s Leeds. Much of that violence was directed at women. This was the era, of course, of the Yorkshire Ripper – but beneath that headline name were frequent assaults on women, including by the neo-Nazis that attacked Delta 5 outside a pub in Leeds, verbally abusing one member of the group, Ros Allen, as a “Communist witch”, as we learn on page 156 of cultural critic Greil Marcus book In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk, 1977-1992.

Local women struck back in the late 70s, with their art and, perhaps most famously, with the Reclaim the Night marches that began in Leeds in 1977, and the activism of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminists Group and the Women Against Violence Against Women march in November of 1980.

Leeds Other Paper, November 1977

The organisers of the latter march put out a series of statements to the press that seem like a fitting place to end, reminding us of how important it is to reclaim and retell the often-hidden history of women and other marginalised groups. The march organisers were demonstrating against “…the ways men control women”; they stated that “The country should realise women have stopped being passive,” and they put the discourse of power on notice that “All over the country women are ANGRY and determined to take ACTION...”

Unfinished business, indeed.

*****

To learn more about any of the items from our collections referenced above, please contact our Library Enquiries department on 0113 37 85005 or at LibraryEnquiries@leeds.gov.uk.

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