Mary Gawthorpe
Photograph of Mary Gawthorpe 1908. Source LSE Library
3 mins read

Empowering exhibition celebrates women’s place in history

Inspirational women who have blazed a trail through history are being celebrated in an empowering new exhibition in Leeds.

A Woman’s Place? opens at Kirkstall’s Abbey House Museum this weekend and marks the centenary of the first British women getting the right to vote as well as celebrating the quiet heroism of ordinary women.

Among the influential women whose stories the exhibition shines a light on is that of Leeds Suffragette Leonora Cohen, who became a famously passionate and militant campaigner in the early 20th Century.

A true firebrand in the struggle for women’s rights, in 1913 she was arrested and jailed for hurling an iron bar through a showcase at the Tower of London in front of a crowd of startled schoolchildren.

The fascinating stories of four unsung Leeds heroines are also honoured as part of the exhibition with the help of imaginative new ceramics, specially-created by Yorkshire-based artist Katch Skinner.

The 1940s all-female jazz band leader Ivy Benson, born and bred in Holbeck, Morley cycling champion Beryl Burton, Leeds Suffragette Mary Gawthorpe, and Edith Pechey, one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom, who practised in Leeds during the 1870s-80s have, all been immortalised in the new ceramics, which will become a permanent fixture in the Leeds collection.

Among the more modern exhibits on display are a boxing glove worn by the city’s Olympic gold medal winning boxer Nicola Adams and a Lego Women of Nasa set, which depicts prominent women astronomers, scientists and astronauts.

Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of social history, who has been putting the exhibition together said:

“Each of these women has played their own unique and important role in challenging and changing perceptions of what women can achieve, in turn helping to inspire subsequent generations.

“What also unites them is a refusal to accept gender-based boundaries or constraints and a determination to reach their goals in the face adversity, societal pressure and even arrest.”

She added: “Today the struggle for women’s rights and equality is more prominent than ever and, while we doubtless still have a long way to go, we have women like those we are celebrating here to thank for paving the way.

“We hope this exhibition and their stories will encourage women and girls who visit to believe in themselves and to never let their own ambitions and achievements be limited by their gender.”

Also on display as part of A Woman’s Place? are illustrations by Jacky Fleming and a series of photographs of contemporary Leeds women, each holding a sign saying what their job is to illustrate the breadth of industries in which modern women work.

Younger visitors can also dress up as engineers, doctors and police officers.

Councillor Brian Selby, Leeds City Council’s lead member for museums and galleries said:

“There are some captivating and moving stories, images and objects in this exhibition which combine to illustrate the many different ways that women through the ages have defied expectations and achieved some truly inspirational things.

“Celebrating their remarkable legacy both commemorates their important role in history and inspires us to all to strive to be a society where women and girls can truly believe that anything is possible.”

A Woman’s Place? opens this Saturday, January 20, and runs throughout 2018, alongside a programme of talks, study days and schools workshops.

The Leeds heroines given a permanent place in the city’s museum collections with new commemorative ceramics:

  • Ivy Benson: Born in Holbeck above the Malt Shovel Pub in 1913, Ivy rose to fame as an all-female jazz band leader during the 1940s. She started her band in 1939, wanting to prove that female musicians could be just as talented and hard-working as their male equivalents. The band became one of the BBC’s resident bands and performed until 1982. Ivy was once as famous as Vera Lynn, although she is less well known today. Ex-Spice Girl Melanie C made a documentary about her in 2015. See film footage of her band on You Tube:
  • Beryl Burton (1937-1996) was a record-breaking champion cyclist. Born in Halton, she lived in Morley for most of her life and was introduced to cycling by her husband Charlie. Within two years she had won a medal and she went on to win over 90 domestic championships and set over 50 records.
  • Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973) was dubbed a ‘pretty suffragette’ by the Leeds Mercury, but she was in fact a determined campaigner for women’s rights. Born to a working class family, she became a teacher and then a full-time organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), working alongside the Pankhursts. She was an active campaigner, giving speeches and involved in demonstrations – shouting at Winston Churchill on one occasion –resulting in her imprisonment several times. She moved to New York in 1916.
  • Edith Pechey (1845-1908) was one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom. Born in Essex, she became one of the first seven female undergraduates to study medicine. After the university refused to award the female students a degree, she gained her MD in Dublin in 1877. After qualifying she chose to work in Leeds and spent six years in the city, where she also campaigned to improve women’s health education. Edith later worked in India and then became part of the women’s suffrage campaign on her return to England.

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