Women who make the world go round, writes Lynne Mortimer
- Credit: Archant
International Women's Day gave us a chance to reflect on the women who have changed the world but they don't have to be famous to be inspirational, say Lynne Mortimer.
Women dominated my early years.
Both my grandmothers were widows, when I was a small girl my father was rarely home because he was ill and so I was surrounded by women... a monstrous regiment? Sometimes.
Nanna Jeffries, known as Dolly, was an indomitable character. Her husband Reg was killed during the evacuation of France in 1940 and she was left with four children.
He wrote often, sometimes twice a day, from northern France where he revealed he was stationed near a racecourse... it might have been Deauville. But his letters were usually about the housekeeping and managing money – he had the mind of a cost-conscious accountant whereas nanna tended to be more of a free spirit when it came to money. Later in the war with one daughter, June, working on a farm in the Land Army, a second daughter, Joyce, working at the local cigarette factory and my mum and her older brother still at school, nanna worked at the local Co-op, measuring up the butter for the rations.
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In the 60s, at the local social club, nanna was known as 'The Duchess' because she always wore a picture hat. Even on excursions to play bingo in Felixstowe or Yarmouth she would exit in full regalia, dress with matching hat, gloves and handbag.
Until my mum, widowed in the early 60s, remarried I was looked after in the school holidays by my other nanna (a confectioner and cake-maker), minded by a woman who lived nearby who had lots of children, or tended by an older lady who was in the Salvation Army and would regularly take me to the Citadel for services. I didn't mind them because there was lots of singing. Two elderly sisters who lived next-door-but-one would invite me to afternoon tea – a deadly event that required me to sit still for about an hour, alleviated only by fairy cakes.
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I was aware of the existence of men but had limited contact with them. (a position that was quickly rectified when I hit my mid-teens).
Fast forward to the all-girls' grammar school where there were a number of bachelor female teachers – the headmistress, deputy head, head of biology, head of chemistry, head of English. There were also married women and a couple of token men (maths and geography) but it was the single women who made the biggest impact on me, apart from the PE teacher who sent us out to play hockey in the depths of winter in shorts, socks, aertex shirt and jumper while she wore trousers, a big, warm jacket and a scarf.
As 11-year-olds we inherited back stories for all the unmarried teachers. These were handed down from year group to year group through the ever-rolling intake of girls. The legend was that each of them had been engaged to a British pilot during the war and that their fiancés had died in battle and thus none of the women was ever to marry, forever mourning their lost love. I don't know if it was true. It was not until many years after I left school that it occurred to me the headmistress had a sense of humour and conceded that my English teacher was right about my anarchic approach to syntax. But I never quite forgave Miss Short (biology and later deputy head) for putting me in detention after I led a rowdy rendition of the National Anthem in the classroom. In detention I had to write a treatise about the value of self-discipline.
In the early years of the 20th century, my husband's grandmother, Charlotte Hines, was a nurse at Ipswich hospital – a professional, working woman at a time when women didn't even get to vote. The truth is, many women worked.
In recent years, I have spoken to a number of WIs in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex – now there's an organisation. So often tagged 'Jam and Jerusalem', it is true they often make jam and sing Jerusalem (with varying degrees of success!) but WI members are not only at the heart of their local communities, as a group they are an effective campaigning body which has taken on many causes. Proposed resolutions for this year include calling on governments and industry to develop ways to halt the accumulation of microplastic fibres in our oceans. Not so much the 'monstrous regiment' of women described by religious reformer John Knox but a reforming regiment.
There are many inspirational women whose lives have been led in the public domain and while we celebrate all of them on International Women's Day, each of us will have a personal roll of honour for all the unsung heroines: the teachers, the mothers, the siblings, the medical professionals, the neighbours, the friends who have touched our lives.