Bodies are not neutral spaces. To be completely free, we need to be able to make choices about our own bodies. How we look, how we are represented and what we (and others) do with our bodies – demanding the freedom to make these choices has been central to the fight for women’s rights.

We have included in this section on women’s bodies items that relate to:

  • Body image and fashion
  • Sexuality and gender
  • Sport
10th August, 2012. Image shows Dee Adams, the proud mother of Olympic Gold Medallist (2012), Nicola Adams, as she gives a formerly red pillar box in Cookridge Street a lick of gold paint. (c) Leeds Libraries,

Mary Merrifield, Dress as a Fine Art (1854)
Mary Merrifield was an artist, writer, colour researcher and amateur scientist. She used her extensive knowledge of art and science to promote fashion as a subject for serious, scientific study. Her approach challenged stereotypes as fashion was previously only regarded as a frivolous activity for women.

Dress as a Fine Art supported some of the more practical recommendations of the dress reform movement which proposed women wear more comfortable clothes than the restrictive ones popular at the time.  She criticised fashion trends that strapped women into corsets and believed they were dangerous for women and unborn children. She encouraged women to look critically at unrealistic representations of women in fashion magazines and advocated for dress makers to embrace the natural shape of women. This was in contrast to the fashion of the day which promoted tiny waists and corseted bodies. Although waists may have been smaller at the time, they may have never been the 14inches displayed in some of the magazines.

Merrifield later became an expert on seaweed and continued to publish papers in Nature journal. By the end of her career she had published work on a wide range of topics including art, local history, fashion and science.

Benjamin Orange, Fashion’s Slaves (1892)
This 32-page pamphlet published in 1892 by Benjamin Orange Flowers was an appeal for women’s dress reform. The corset was one of his main concerns and although there is not much evidence that it did have such a long lasting damaging effect on the organs, a tightly laced corset could reduce lung capacity, irritate skin, and weaken back and chest muscles used to being supported.

In 1881, the Society for Rational Dress was formed in London, opposing tight corsets, high heels, and unwieldy skirts. This was mainly because they were so restrictive and, with an increase in middle class women entering the workplace, clothes needed to be more practical.

Ada Ballin, The Science of Dress (1885)
Ada Ballin was a magazine writer and writer on health. She was an authority on baby and childcare, inventing the Ballin baby bottle and other products and insisted on rational clothes for children. She argued that children trained to wear proper clothing, ‘will not be likely when they grow up to endure voluntarily such sufferings and constraints as the corrupt fashion of the present day imposes upon their mothers and elder sisters’. Although not formally associated with the Rational Dress Society many of her arguments echoed others against tight lacing.

She later launched the magazine Womanhood, aimed at the ‘new woman’ of the 1890s. Ballin was a keen cyclist and dance enthusiast and many of her articles were on the importance of sport and exercise for women. Her intention with Womanhood being to make women think for themselves, ‘not in opposition to their male relations but in order to be able to be true helpmeets to them and not mere dolls to be looked at, admired and petted’, an argument reminiscent of Wollstonecraft’s in A Vindication a hundred years earlier.

Nicola Adams, Image from
Nicola Adams was born in Burmantofts, Leeds and is a double Olympic gold medallist in women’s flyweight boxing. At the London Olympics in 2012 she became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing. In 2016 she held Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles. She turned professional in 2017 and was unbeaten in 6 fights before retiring in 2019. She came out to her family as bisexual as a teenager and went on to top the Independent on Sunday’s ‘Pink List’ in 2012. Nicola was appointed MBE in 2013 and OBE in 2016 and has been included in the Powerlist of most influential people of African or African-Caribbean heritage.

The two post boxes next to the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, were painted gold to honour Nicola’s achievements.

Vesta Tilley, Image from Leeds Playbill Collection (1915)
Male impersonators challenged female stereotypes of Victorian and Edwardian England and they found a home in music halls across the country. Vesta Tilley was the most successful of these male impersonators and she performed in Leeds venues, such as the Hippodrome and the City Varieties, and visited the Pack Horse pub with other performers.

Impersonators took on the appearance and mannerisms of men, who were seen as the dominant sex, and undermined them with satirical songs and performances.  It is not a coincidence that Vesta Tilley’s story comes at a time when women were campaigning for their social and political rights and it can be seen that Tilley’s work contributed in some way to the challenging of gender stereotypes.

Lynn Daniel, West Yorkshire Queer Stories Project
Image from the collection of Lynn Daniel which was donated to us by the West Yorkshire Queer Stories project

This project collected 200 stories from LGBTIQ+ people across Yorkshire so that their voices could be captured and conserved as part of local history. Included in these stories were the experiences of lesbian, bisexual and trans women.

The interview with Lynn Daniel, in the virtual exhibition, and her donation of books, campaign material and badges, show how feminism, sexuality and politics could be interlinked and how Leeds was a centre of activism in the 1980s. Women like Lynn challenged preconceptions and paved the way for others to have the freedom to self-identify their gender and sexuality.  There have been many positive changes in society but the fight for equality has been harder for those who have also faced discrimination because of their class, sexuality or race. 

Hey’s Brewery Women’s Football Team, Image from the Yorkshire Evening Post (1921)
Hey’s Brewery Women’s Football team was set up in 1921. On the 22nd August 1921 Hey’s played Dick Kerr’s women’s team at Elland Road in their most high profile game to date. The attendance for the match was said to be around fifteen thousand spectators, a massive amount of supporters for a women’s football match, or any football match in the 1920’s. Click the link to read more about this story elsewhere on the blog.

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