Sisterhood in the Stone Age

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What was life like for our grandmothers one and a half million years ago?  How did they cope with (ahem, cough, cough) ‘women’s things’ in the days before Always With Wings and TV adverts made us believe that menstruating women suddenly turned into  rollerskaters and white jeans wearing disco dancers?  It wasn’t until I was asked at the last minute to prepare a talk on the subject of menstruation in the Stone Age recently that I thought I’d better do some reading around it…   The event, called ‘Women. Period’, held at Hove’s Regency  Town House, promised to reveal how our foremothers dealt with ‘the curse’.   It looked at attitudes towards (and some of the names given to)  Aunty Flo’s Monthly Visitor around the world, as well as showing a fascinating animated instructional film aimed at young women produced by Walt Disney in 1946, ‘The Story of Menstruation’.   Other delights included a look at some…. well, interesting gadgetry our Victorian sisters would have to struggle with during her ‘Lady Time’.   Harnesses?  Rubber straps?   It’s a good job rollerskates hadn’t been invented.  As, just the previous week, I’d seen a young woman in a shop visibly cringe while buying a box of Tampax  and wondered for the millionth time why, in the twenty-first century, while taboos drop like flies around sex and other bodily functions that used to raise a blush, periods should still be such an embarrassment, this fun and interesting event wasn’t before time.    Incidentally, since the event I’ve come across a fascinating article in the Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/menstruation-study-finds-over-5000-slang-terms-for-period-a6905021.html) , looking at some of the amazing euphemisms for the time-of-the-month from around the world.  Tops for me had to be ‘Der Er Kommunister I Lysthuset’ (‘There are communists in the fun house’ – Thank you, Denmark) and, oddly, from France, ‘Les Anglais ont debarqué’ (The English have landed’)

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Then there was me, an absolute Stone Age novice, trying to surmise how things went 2.5 million years ago.  I have to say a big thank you to my colleague at Brighton Museum, Su Hepburn, the original guest for the evening, who handed me her notes on this.  Su found out that the main difference between Stone Age women and us is that they menstruated far less.   Today’s modern, industrialised woman can expect a total of 450 periods in her life compared to perhaps 50 for our Stone Age ancestors.  One of the reasons was that girls started to menstruate much later.  It’s thought that menarche occurred at the average age of 16 rather than 12 today.  Women also gave birth earlier (at 19 rather than today’s early to mid 20s) and had more children (up to about 6 live births per mother).  Also, it’s believed that breastfeeding would continue until the child reached 5 (in comparison, the last NHS Infant Feeding Survey revealed only 1% of babies were being breastfed in this country after 6 months).  Of course, we can’t be completely accurate with facts and figures when we’re talking about people’s lives in 10,000 BCE, and the term ‘Stone Age’ covers over 3 million years during which time people progressed – in this country, at least – from being wholly nomadic to having the opportunity to live in relatively settled and more hierarchically organised communities, enjoying a more varied diet.  It’s generally thought, however, that our ancestors would have had less body fat and could have been deficient in things that keep us healthy today.

What’s certain, though, is that women’s lives were busy and often brutal.  Not only was there the average 6 children to think about, the relentless breastfeeding, and, with a typical life expectancy of 40, not so many grandmother figures around to help with childcare, their lives also consisted, according to Rosalind Miles in the ‘The Women’s History of the World’ (1989), of food gathering, hunting smaller prey, instructing children, making garments, cooking, tool making, possibly weaving grasses and other materials to make containers to store and carry food, erecting and pulling down living quarters as they moved to follow harvests and food sources.  Although the term ‘hunter-gatherer society’ puts the emphasis on the hunting part of the equation as the most important and difficult contribution made by men, the ‘gathering’, far from the passive picking at berries and leaves it connotes, required enormous skill and great knowledge of what was edible and what to do with it.  Ensuring that food was provided for the family every day, not just on the days when animals had been successfully hunted, required climbing trees, digging, grinding, travelling long distances and carrying things back.  And it’s thought that women did their share of hunting too, either in their own right or alongside the men.

So, although it probably didn’t come round on a monthly basis, how did our grandmothers manage all this while they were menstruating?  Grasses, animal skins, moss, leaves?  Practicality-wise, they must have come up with something that allowed them to roam long distances, climb trees, and do everything else necessary for survival.  Anthropologists from more recent times have observed hunter gatherer people easily fashioning slings and bags to transport children and foodstuffs.  Who’s to say our fore mothers didn’t come up with an early type of sanitary belt, of the type women who went to school in the ’70s and ’80s remember being shown in the sex education lessons as an alternative to the new-fangled adhesive pads?   (In my class two girls actually fainted at the sight of the elastic trusses we’d just been told we’d soon be wearing for most of our adult lives.  They saved the concept of tampons for another lesson completely)  For readers born later, this early Kotex advert shows what I’m talking about…

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These women would have had to figure out a way of transporting their babies as they worked, so why not use the same technology?  As Rosalind Miles says ‘it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the women capable of bringing the infant human race forward into the future could also have found the way to deal efficiently with their own bodies’.

A clue to how women may have been seen at this time could come from the many so-called ‘Venus’ statues dating from the period found by archaeologists in Europe.  These figures, as shown in the image at the top of this post, appear to be representations of women.  Around 150 of them have been found, mainly around areas thought to have been occupied by Stone Age settlements, both open-air sites and in caves.  They’re usually small – the most famous one, found in Willendorf, Austria in 1905 (below), and dating from 25,000 BCE, is only four and a half inches tall.  Most are lozenge shaped and have scant facial features, yet large breasts, big bellies, and sometimes prominently displayed genitals.

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Many suggest that they could have been painted red originally.   As obesity wasn’t commonplace at the time, it’s been suggested that the full bellied figures represent pregnancy with the red colour perhaps symbolic of menstrual blood or childbirth.   Their purpose is unknown.  Maybe they were made as an appeal to, or celebration of, fertility.  Maybe they symbolised abundance and hope for longevity, survival, and success.  The statues suggest, however, that the people investing time and resources to their creation understood and had awe and respect for this side of womanhood.  Or could they have been made by women themselves?  In the days before mirrors, the statues could have been a good attempt at self depiction.  Women readers, the next time you’re naked, look down at your body and you’ll recognise the sloping of the breasts and the tummy, as well as the lozenge shape as your body tapers to your feet.  Could they even be some of the first examples of women’s art?

More information about these figurines can be found here: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/venus-of-willendorf.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines, http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/play/3d-models/venus/

Here in Brighton we have one of Britain’s earliest Stone Age monuments in the Whitehawk Camp, dating from 5,500 years ago (predating Stonehenge by 1000 years).  There’s lots of information on the Brighton and Hove City Council website here:  http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/leisure-and-libraries/parks-and-green-spaces/whitehawk-camp

And here’s a link to the 10 minute film ‘The Story of Menstruation’ produced in 1946 by Walt Disney.  It was commissioned by the International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberley-Clark).  It was part of a 1945 to 1951 series of films that Disney produced for American schools.  Inducted last year into the American National Film Registry due to its cultural importance, it’s believed to be (according to Wikipedia) the first film to mention the word ‘vagina’, and, as part of its advice, urged women not to shower in water that was too cold or too hot and to ‘avoid constipation and depression, and to always keep up a fine outward appearance.’

 

 

 

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Hove’s Animal Lover

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Lord and Lady Dowding and friends.

Happy birthday to the Bodyshop, a female-fronted, local company who, this year, is celebrating its 40th year. Started in 1976 by Littlehampton born Dame Anita Roddick, its first premises was a small shop in Brighton’s North Laine, from where it didn’t take long for its ethically produced skin and beauty products to carve a niche for itself, as well as fill every teenager’s bedroom with the scent of coconut hairgel and Dewberry perfume. Although the company was taken over by L’Oreal in 2006 ,Anita Roddick is rightly remembered as a fearless entrepreneur who brought fairtrade and products not tested on animals into the mainstream and showed that business can have morals.

But 20 years before our high streets started to be populated by those well-known green facades, another company was prioritising animal welfare, and at the helm, another pioneering woman with Brighton and Hove connections.

Beauty Without Cruelty, a company still supplying cruelty free cosmetics today was founded in 1963 by the trustees of an animal welfare organisation of the same name. The original driving force of the cosmetics arm was Kathleen Long, an animal welfare activist who, with Noel Gabriel developed the first line of revolutionary cruelty-free products. When Kathleen died in 1969, one of the trustees, Lady Muriel Dowding, who in her later years relocated to Hove, came to the rescue and, under her energetic leadership, the company grew and flourished.

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Muriel Dowding, born in London in 1908, was an intriguing, committed woman, who according to her obituary in The Independent newspaper in 1993, ‘didn’t allow anything that might help the plight of animals escape her attention’. At one time she was vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. At the helm of the Beauty Without Cruelty campaigning organisation, she worked tirelessly to make people aware of the unsavoury, animal derived ingredients in their everyday products – whale oil in lipstics, for example, and civet in perfume. Hard to imagine in our better informed days, but in the 1950s and ’60s most consumers would have been unaware of the ingredients in their everyday face soaps and shampoos. Muriel’s work to increase awareness created an unprecedented demand for an alternative. The Beauty Without Cruelty cosmetics brand, like Bodyshop, offering people an easily obtainable and cheap alternative to the mainstream, enjoyed a particular heyday in the 1960s when the colourful nail varnishes and eye shadows gained celebrity followers such as popular model, Celia Hammond. Similarly, at a time when a fur coat was the must have fashion statement for the wealthy, Muriel would organise fake fur fashion shows to demonstrate, as her brand outlined, that cruelty need not be a by-product for beauty.

Muriel was also no stranger to unconventional ideas in her personal life. A committed spiritualist she met her second husband, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, one of the architects of the Battle of Britain, when, knowing he shared her views, she asked him to contact her first husband, Jack Maxwell Whiting who had gone missing in action over Denmark in 1944. Following their marriage in 1951, Sir Hugh, already a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist joined Muriel in her work to prevent animal suffering. Apparently, the house the animal loving pair shared in Tunbridge Wells, became a sanctuary for stray animals and the two became notorious for putting on lavish Sunday lunch parties to show people how tasty vegetarian food could be. Muriel’s obituary published just after her death in Hove in November 1993 notes that she was ‘ a warm, open-hearted character with a larger than life personality and sometimes uncompromising opinions.’ It paints a picture of a committed woman who threw herself wholeheartedly into the cause she believed in. She remained director of Beauty Without Cruelty until 1980.

I suppose you could say that, coming to live in a Hove nursing home towards the end of her life, Muriel only qualifies very slimly for a place in the Brighton and Hove Historical Women’s Hall of Fame, but as our city’s past is bursting with women who pioneered new ideas and stood up for their views, however unconventional, Lady Muriel Dowding, has found the perfect home.

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The Queen of the Australian Gold Fields who made Hove her Home

NPG Ax5458; Alice Ann Cornwell (later Mrs Stannard Robinson) by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by  Eglington & Co

by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by Eglington & Co, carbon print, published 1889

One week to go before my first ‘Notorious Women of Hove’ walk and I’m still marvelling at the incredible number of Hove related women who’ve made their mark on the world. Given that I’m supposed to be planning a nice one and a half hour amble rather than a full day’s trek, I’m having to make hard decisions about which of the pioneering doctors, surgeons, educators, suffragettes, poets, singers, social campaigners and plain, old-fashioned trouble-reapers to include and which I can only give a cursory mention to? One woman I definitely want to tell people about is Alice Ann Cornwell (above) who came to live in Palmeira Square in the early 1900s. Hardly a house-hold name, Alice’s list of achievements is impressive: industrialist, gold-miner, entrepreneur, newspaper proprietor and, ultimately, the originator of the Ladies Kennel Association.

Born in Essex in 1852, Alice spent most of her childhood and teenage years in New Zealand. She returned to England in 1877 and showed great promise as a musician, training at the Royal Academy of Music and composing music and songs. Finding out that her father, now a gold prospector in Australia, was in financial trouble, however, she abandoned her music career in order to help him. Once back in Australia, Alice took a practical course of action: she decided to study geology and mining. Unafraid to get her hands dirty, Alice often rolled up her sleeves up and got involved in the hard and dirty work of mining itself. Women weren’t as rare in the mid to late nineteenth century Australian goldfields as you might imagine. The 1854 census of the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria, where Alice worked, revealed 4,023 women compared to 12,660 men living on the ‘diggings’, with five percent of them single.

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Whether these women were wives of miners or mining themselves, it was far from being an easy life. Intensely hot summers, freezing cold winters, lawlessness, little, if any, infrastructure or facilities, the remoteness and lack of transport meant that in some of these communities minor illness or pregnancy could be death sentences. A woman by the name of Ellen Clacy wrote these vivid observations of life on the Victoria goldfields in 1852: Night at the diggings is the characteristic time: murder here-murder there- revolvers cracking-blunderbusses bombing-rifles going off-balls whistling-one man groaning with a broken leg…..Here is one man grumbling because he brought his wife with him, another ditto because he left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum. […] In the rainy season, he must not murmur if compelled to work up to his knees in water, and sleep on the wet ground, without a fire, in the pouring rain, and perhaps no shelter above him more waterproof than a blanket or a gum tree…..In the summer, he must work hard under a burning sun, tortured by the mosquito and the little stinging March flies…..” Despite these hardships, Alice worked hard and struck gold. So much gold that soon she was able not only to sort out her father’s hardships but make an excellent living for herself too. With her business-mind swinging into action, Alice quickly established a company that was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Fantastically wealthy, shrewd, and with a big personality to match, Alice was soon a celebrity, dubbed the ‘Lady of the Nuggets’, even, in 1888, inspiring a novel, ‘Madame Midas’ by Fergus Hume.

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Back in London with her fortune, Alice turned her mind to other business opportunities. In 1887 she bought the ailing Sunday Times and, installing her fiance, Frederick Stannard Robinson, as editor, managed to quadruple circulation. In 1894 she founded the Ladies Kennel Club. This organisation, still going strong today, describes Alice as ‘formidable’ on their website. She set up the organisation ‘in defiance of the gentlemen of the Kennel Club of the day’ with the aim to put on dog shows ‘run by Ladies for Ladies’. Unusual for the day, its offices were staffed entirely by women. Cats got a look in too, as Alice later became involved with the National Cat Club, as well as the International Kennel Club. Widowed in 1902, Alice settled in Hove where she bred pugs until her death in 1932. Despite making huge strides in worlds only sparsely populated by women, a New Zealand newspaper, the Otago Witness, chose to focus more on her looks in an 1889 profile: ‘Miss Cornwell is, if not a prepossessing woman, at least not unhandsome. Her face and features somewhat irregular and undefined, it is true, harmonise well with her symmetrical and well defined picture.‘ I’d like to think that ‘formidable’ Alice Cornwell was too busy to let this bother her.

Notorious Women of Hove – guided walk during the Brighton Fringe Saturdays 30th April, 7th May, 14th May, 28th May, 4th June at 10.30 a.m from the café in St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove.  Thursday evening 12th May, Tuesday evenings 17th May, 31st May at 6.30 p.m from the same place.

 

Brighton’s Cross Dressing Music Hall Star

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OK, so this post might be a bit late for panto season but it’s always a good time to think about the magnificent Vesta Tilley, music-hall star and one of the most successful male impersonators of the late Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall, later resident of Hove. Below is the only slightly changed article I wrote for the Brighton and Hove Independent newspaper, published in early January 2016.

Christmas means it’s almost panto time again. As a host of pantomime dames and girl-boy heroes prepare to tread the boards, it’s a great time to remember one of the most famous cross-dressing performer who delighted Victorian and Edwardian music-halls, such as Brighton’s Hippodrome, before retiring to Hove. Vesta Tilley- real name Mathilda Powles – was born in Worcester in 1864. With her father a comedy actor and music-hall chairman, she appeared on stage dressed as a boy from the age of three and was so successful she was the family breadwinner by the age of eleven. By the time she was an adult Vesta was drawing crowds with her drag act, performing songs and sketches dressed as one of many – usually poorly behaved or morally dubious – male characters. During the rowdy golden years of music-hall an act would be sharing the bill with anything from acrobat-trampolinists to escapalogists to comedy pianists to illusionists. Performers who hoped to have staying power were the ones who had nerves of steel and could stand out from the crowd. The sight of Vesta, who never tried to hide her womanly singing voice, a woman swaggering confidently on stage in trousers was notorious enough to send a frisson through the audience without straying too far from the boundaries of the double-entendre ridden, saucy music-hall world. One of Vesta’s most popular characters was ‘Burlington Bertie’, a well-dressed yet idle toff about London who lays in bed until late in the morning and spends his inheritance ‘Along with the Brandy and Soda Brigade’. As ‘The Seaside Sultan’ Vesta poked fun at the pretensions of male office clerks on seaside holidays, ‘a flannelled fool from an office stool’. Audiences lapped it up and, all through her career, adoring fanmail arrived from both men and women. For men, Vesta was a fashion icon and many men would take her picture to their tailors demanding a suit ‘cut like Vesta’s.’ Unisex fashions were a long way in the future and I wonder how many women sitting in the audience in their long frocks, unending layers of petticoats, corset and padding underneath, envied the freedom of Vesta’s masculine clothes. Vesta wasn’t to everyone’s taste, though. Apparently, during the 1914 Royal Command performance, Queen Mary and the women in her entourage preferred to look away rather than watch the shocking sight of a woman in trousers. They were in the minority, however. By then Vesta was the highest paid female performer on the British stage, regularly making £50 per week. During the early days of the First World War Vesta, dressed as a soldier, put her act to the service of army recruiting. Singing songs such as ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, sometimes urging men to come onto the stage and join up there and then, she became known as ‘Britain’s Best Recruitment Sergeant’.
In 1919 Vesta decided to hang up her trousers for good. The proceeds from her farewell tour, which lasted almost a year, were given to different children’s charities. She made her final performance at the London Coliseum at the age of 56. Her husband, Walter De Frece, ex music-hall entrepreneur and one time co-owner of Brighton’s Hippodrome in Middle Street, had been knighted for his efforts for the war effort. He was soon to become Conservative MP for Blackpool. As the very feminine Lady De Frece, Vesta spent the rest of her life until her death in 1952 between Monte Carlo and her flat in St Aubyn’s Mansions on the Hove sea-front. Vesta wasn’t the only cross-dressing female music-hall star. Bessie Bellwood, the American Ella Shields, Hetty King and Millie Hylton also enjoyed success.

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Vesta’s – or should that be ‘Lady de Frece’s’ – former residence, St Aubyn’s Mansions on Hove sea front, has been commemorated with a blue plaque.

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