WEST YORKSHIRE WOMEN: HOW OUR HERITAGE HELPS TO INFORM, INSPIRE AND INNOVATE…
“You’re not listening to me,” no I am just no longer doing what I am told. “Don’t get emotional,” I have a right to be upset. “Wear a nice dress. You can add your pretty self to perk up the meeting,” No I can bring my skills to the table and I will wear what I want to wear. “Why do you wear that?” Because I want to.
I am from a long lineage of strong women, those who have sailed the seas for weeks on end to live globally, others who have shunned the ‘norms’, not to mention now with my own added Yorkshire grit
But whilst my history helped to shape my strong sense of social justice and feminist campaigns for others, I recently found my own voice to stand up for myself after realising I had subconsciously absorbed society’s lineage of unconscious bias towards women.
From the subtleties of demonising language to the historical misogyny of a lack of blue plaques commemorating women, whilst I have been advocating women’s voices as soon as I discovered words. My life-long passion of journalism is built on giving unheard communities a platform, yet when it came to myself, why was I so passive? Why didn’t I speak up for myself? Worst still, why didn’t I realise when I too was being shunned?
I had amazing feminists at home, men and women, as well as in the community yet as women in the wider world, we are surrounded by years of inequality, often fuelling our own unconscious bias.
But thanks to campaigners, who themselves have experiences which stem from their own battle to be heard, we are seeing women’s historical fight be brought to life, one plaque at a time by modern-day role models, many of whom are in West Yorkshire.
One of those is Sarah Cobham who not only noticed the lack of blue plaques but is taking action to recognise the powerful ‘forgotten women’ who have never been recognised until now.
Sarah not only fundraises to ensure that local women of our past are remembered through blue plaques and history projects but she also organises heritage events to empower women from all walks of life to share their own stories.
One of those was last weekend in which she curated and brought together – Civic Society, Historical Society, Historic England & Forgotten Women Abolitionists which will recognise women who lead the way in the anti-slavery movement all based in the Westgate area of Wakefield as part of the Heritage Action Zone.
Finally, Elizabeth Dawson & Sarah Parker Remond (who had their blue plaques unveiled) stories’ were recognised in this special event combining story-telling in a variety of ways from vlogging to static art work.
Blue plaques, heritage facts and the studying of history had never resonated with me until Sarah and the likes of Wakefield Civic Society brought to life the importance of engaging with such campaigns and consuming stories not just on digital, in turn empowering me to address my own internal rhetoric.
Sarah also has her own unique story of liberation, here it is in full, importantly, in her own words:
Read more Women’s Stories at Sparkleupnorth.co.uk and sparklecommunications.co.uk / https://www.mamamei.co.uk/2021/09/08/social-housing-stigma-flying-the-flag-of-grow-your-own-garden-parties-community/
Growing up ‘voiceless’ to Curating Collective Voices and celebrating HER STORY
“We’re privileged to have the space, platform and time to share our stories of other women’s lives. Not everyone is fortunate enough to,” explained Sarah who has built a community of people all investing time, spirit and soul to ensure that no one of past and present continues to be ‘forgotten.’
Here she shares her own journey…
By Sarah Leah Cobham
Growing up in Australia was a contradiction. My parents were ambitious and held the belief that anyone could do anything they put their mind to, no matter their gender. I’m afraid sexual orientation or other kinds of difference such as colour was not something that was even acknowledged, easily done living in the long shadow of a ‘white only’ policy that only started to be dismantled in 1973.
Continually, I was told I could do anything I wanted and that being a girl would not be a barrier. The contradictions were incredible and took until my early 30’s to figure out and understand. Mum HAD to leave work when she got pregnant (it was the law) with me and that, combined with archaic Victorian attitudes within the home meant siblings were treated differently. My brother was served bigger portions, (with meat) and was never admonished for making cruel sexist and sexual comments. He revelled in the entitlement that being a white male brings, and still does.
All this meant from an early age I had no idea of who I was but was told continually to ‘be myself’. What they meant of course was they wanted me to be the ‘self’ that fit their world view. An awakening of what was happening coincided with puberty, and I started to ‘kick off’. I certainly didn’t have the emotional intelligence, the language, or the ability to express this awakening in any other way than being ‘bolshy’. I also developed the skill of quick intellectual humour that can be cutting, and cruel. To this day I have to reign that in. This was in response to knowing, with absolute certainty that no one was listening because any opinions I held had no value and that any awareness of something being wrong was ‘all in my head’. By the time I was 11 I knew I had no value and that my voice was worthless.
When the family returned to the UK in 1981, my ‘rebellious’ streak was set. Unfortunately, in the UK, like in Australia, the unconscious bias about women, their role in society and expectations about their roles were entrenched and, despite Thatcher having been the first female prime minster and peddling the patriarchal narrative that ‘women can have it all’, the stark reality was, they couldn’t. Thwarted by a school system and enabled by a (male) tutor and parents who didn’t think I was clever enough to do Physics – I wasn’t allowed to. Instead, Rural Biology was offered as an alternative option. (if you want me to show you how to pluck a chicken just shout out) Not having physics meant, of course, I was unable to pursue my dream of becoming a vet and those ‘science’ doors closed – forever.
Disempowered at 16 career wise, I entered, by age 17 the terrifying world of ‘relationships’. Having been told boys were only ‘after one thing’ and that no one would want to marry me if I was ‘spoiled goods’ and if I came home ‘pregnant’ I would ‘have to have an abortion’ those formative ‘relationship’ years were fraught. I was lucky. After a disastrous ‘first go at it’ where the boy ‘finished with me’ on a family holiday and I was made to a) feel it was my fault and b) I was making too much of a fuss about the circumstances my first ‘real’ boyfriend came from a vibrant family of activists. His mother was political, vocal, and an ardent feminist and over the year or so of beautiful personal, intellectual, sexual and sensual liberation with him, Catherine, over cups of tea and chats about great literature, simultaneously enabled an awakening in me that was so powerful it changed my life and put me on the path I am on now. I’ll never forget that ‘Thatcher’ lightbulb moment. Asparagus was on the menu and as always, the conversation around the dinner table was feisty, fiery, passionate, respectful, alive. Nothing like the stilted beige conversations at home. I thought I was so clever, contributing with half-cut ideas and trying to play devil’s advocate by putting some regurgitated Tory trash from the Daily Mail forward about the ‘good’ Thatcher had done for women. Catherine cut through my crap like a shot and boy did it smart. I am so grateful for her raised voice and how she challenged me. I wasn’t good enough for that family that day and as a result, by the end of the same day I had pretty much, intellectually and emotionally, left mine.
Going to Teesside Polytechnic to study a general Humanities Degree was in itself fraught with gender contradictions but, with the freedom that comes with leaving ‘home’ came space to think, and to act. I had wanted to join the Greenham Common Women whilst still living at home. I was laughed at for that and then threatened with being kicked out if I did. At uni, I was active, attended marches, was vocal and specialised in Feminist Literature. I wore men’s clothes as a ‘look’ inspired by the music of the 80’s and began to feel valued and valuable. I became powerful. Compromise was something I realised I just didn’t want to do and was enjoying the power that came with learning from more powerful female voices. I travelled, took risks, lived. Sculpted myself out of the stone I had become as a child and learnt an emotional language that allowed me to range through and explain the entirety of who I was.
And then my dad died. And then I got married. And then I had a baby. And then the husband had an affair. So, I got divorced. And then I was lost. Again. I was teaching at the time, having decided working in insurance in the early 90’s was not for me and blagged my way into an Oxford college to get a teaching qualification clearly suffering from imposter syndrome.
Teaching was great. Until it wasn’t. Too much compromise, not enough creativity. Not enough empathy. I didn’t want to be part of a system that perpetuated unconscious bias and gender conformity. I needed to be free to explore and empower others who ‘felt’ but often couldn’t articulate how they felt. I needed to give myself a voice. I needed to feel, grow, learn. I needed a ‘Catherine’ to shout at me and cut through the crap I had built up as a protection and survival strategy but there wasn’t one. There was only me. So, I waited. And then I travelled. My son had gone to university, so I went back to Australia. To Uluru. To talk to the dreaming people about things like spirit, and soul and dreaming and purpose and identity and reasons. And to challenge myself.
Then I came back.
Dream Time Creative is very much about a collective voice for those who do not prop up a patriarchy which is happy to supress all ‘other’ voices. A collective that changes in response to situations and works with emotions, creativity, silence and suffering. We don’t play the corporate game and we do things without compromising. We know our own worth and value and we enable other humans who identify as women to do the same. It’s hard. But it’s the lesser trodden path and it keeps a clean and honest space within all of us. The Forgotten Women strand literally invites opportunities for us to learn about ourselves from the amazingness of women from our past and helps us to navigate an increasingly hostile and dismissive world that reinforces toxic patriarchal behaviours. I am surrounded by amazing people and places and that’s what keeps me motivated. We keep things fresh because we challenge us every time things start to feel stale or settled. And, most of all, I’m not frightened of saying ‘No, I/we/us are worth much, much more than that so no thank you, we won’t work that way, or we won’t compromise on that.’ It’s not worth losing the clean space inside, and money always comes. Not a lot, but enough.
So, why do I do this? Because I am incredibly privileged, and I can. Because if my light is shining and I am strong, passionate, articulate and dedicated and have more positive feelings than negative ones, then I can make a difference, not just to my life, but to others. I want women to be SEEN. There is that saying, it’s not what you ‘do’ that people remember you for – it’s how you make them ‘feel’. I want women to feel their voices are strong, powerful, represented and valued. That’s why I do it.