Women’s Voices in the Crowd

Vicki Caren reflects on some of the women’s voices she has catalogued so far…

I am the Cataloguing Manager for the North West Hub, based in Archives+, Central Library, Manchester. My role involves carefully documenting each collection, from looking at the physical items (reels, cassettes and MiniDiscs) before digitisation to describing the recorded content in more detail once we have digital copies.

One of the first collections we decided to work with was the BBC Radio Manchester broadcasts. This material consists of a range of documentaries, news and interviews covering popular culture, history and politics. In the mid-1970s local producers and broadcasters, Alex Greenhalgh and Eric Purnell, created Voice in the Crowd, a series of short interviews with people from all walks of life; from aged 5 to 91.

Voice in the Crowd booklet

I was keen to see how women were represented and whether their interviews would reflect the gender stereotypes of the time. To some extent they did; such as make-up girl and model. However, there are interviews with women who ran their own business (for example marriage bureaux and fish wife) and interviews with those who worked in what was seen as male dominated professions, such as the probation officer and educational psychologist. Both talk about how the job has changed over time.

I enjoyed listening to the interviews with women who were perceived as leading different lifestyles from the ‘norm’ (whatever that means) and their attraction to their chosen way of life. The pearly queen not only gives an insight into the history of the pearly culture, but also recounts their charitable donations. While the fairground woman describes her caravan and its interior decoration, along with the gold leaf and paint used on the fairground rides. Not forgetting the interviews with those who have simply followed their passion, flying in the face of popular convention; quite literally in the case of the trapeze artist. I was fascinated in hearing how a young teenage girl left home to join the circus and start aerial training.

How trapeze artist got her job (RMAN/1140 © BBC Radio Manchester)

One of my favourite interviews comes from the other end of the age spectrum. The flapper recalls the birth of this rebellious movement after WWI as a reaction against authority. These revolutionary young women sent shockwaves through society for both their looks (shorter haircuts, clothing and jewellery); as well as their behaviour, including pranks such as decorating statues in Piccadilly, London. The latter reminded me of more modern day political protests, although such behaviour is clearly not new.

Description of the birth of the flapper movement as a reaction against authority (RMAN/1198 © BBC Radio Manchester)
Flapper describes the wild behaviour of her contemporaries (RMAN/1198 © BBC Radio Manchester)
Reels, including interview with Flapper, from the BBC Radio Manchester collection

With recent commemorations of the Representation of the People Act 1918, giving some women the right to vote, I was excited to see a suffragette included in the list of interviewees. She talks about how she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union after hearing about the treatment of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The interviewee describes how she became more politicised and wanted to learn more about issues surrounding the campaign of votes for women. She talks about attending street corner meetings, and meetings in Deansgate.

What made interviewee join the suffragette movement (RMAN/1133 © BBC Radio Manchester)
What the the suffragette was fighting for (RMAN/1133 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Around the same time that I was listening to and cataloguing these interviews climate change protests were taking place across central Manchester, including in St. Peter’s Square. On a number of Friday afternoons throughout March and April students would gather in the square, which is located just in front of Central Library. These rallies saw groups of young people and families gathering with homemade placards and banners urging political leaders to tackle climate change and hear their voices.

For me there was a parallel with what these students were doing and what the suffragette was describing in her interview. I was also reminded of the flapper and the groups of young women who were keen to continue working and did not want to return to their pre-war life. That spirit of rebellion, defiance and a sense of justice is as alive today as it was 100 years ago. I would like to think that the news and social media coverage of the recent climate change protests will be preserved for future generations to look back at to see the feisty, fighting spirit of their ancestors.

Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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