One of the joys of retirement is finding new interests – and having the time to rekindle old ones. It will be 40 years this summer since I completed my undergraduate degree in history and, although occasionally useful for enquiries in my career as a librarian, history was never again a big part of my life until I finished work. I quickly became a volunteer History Detective with Glasgow Women’s Library, and a couple of years later I took on a similar role with Maryhill Burgh Halls near my home. I enjoy researching women’s history, and presenting it in tours and talks: it’s been life-enhancing.
So how visible is women’s history in Glasgow? Twelve statues stand in George Square in the city centre. Only one is of a woman – Queen Victoria. I imagine most British cities have a statue of her, though at least ours is a youngish, lively Victoria, sitting side-saddle on her horse, and not the unamused, elderly widow more commonly seen.
There are just two other statues to named women in Glasgow: Spanish Civil War heroine La Pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri), who raises her arms by the Clyde with the motto “Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees”, and philanthropist Isabella Elder (1828-1905), the only native Glaswegian of the three, in Elder Park. Among the things Isabella funded were a library and the first college in Scotland to offer higher education to women – she’s my favourite! Look her up in Wikipedia and you’ll be reading an article written by me, and I’ve also played her in a pageant to celebrate International Women’s Day a few years ago.
A fourth statue – to Mary Barbour who organised rent strikes in World War One – is due to be unveiled in March. (Rapacious landlords thought they could charge anything they liked when the men were away fighting: Mary’s campaign resulted in a law being passed fixing rents at pre-war levels.) But there are ways, other than statues, to remember history. For example, the whole area of Maryhill is called after the woman who owned the land in the 18th century before the government purchased it for the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal. We have a Suffrage Oak, planted in 1918 when the first women in Britain got the vote. The names of 29 women who were killed when the façade of Templeton’s Carpet Factory collapsed in 1889 are carved nearby. Friends tell me that they have walked past these memorials without noticing them, hence my title: Hidden Histories.
Sometimes we just need to open our eyes a bit more. As readers of The Glasgow Gallivanter will know, I’m happy when I come across any aspect of women’s history on my travels. So what would I find if I came to your town? And if you don’t know – I challenge you to find out!