Web poll: Combating inequality by remembering famous women in town’s history

Eleanor Rehahn is the newest member of The Fawcett Society.
Eleanor Rehahn is the newest member of The Fawcett Society.

Who does the cooking and cleaning in your household? Why do married women change their title from Miss to Mrs while a man’s remains unchanged? Why are men more likely to hold positions of power in society? These are just some of the questions asked by feminists like Eleanor Rehahn.

At the age of 17, Eleanor adopted the title of Ms and, when she later married, she did so in a civil ceremony to ‘avoid some outdated traditions,’ including being given away as ‘property’ by her father to her husband.

“I definitely live by my values,” said the 42-year-old.

Eleanor is a mother of two from Bury St Edmunds and a teacher at County Upper School, where her specialism is gender politics.

Her attitude may appear militant but, sitting in her home in Springfield Avenue watching her prepare dinner for her sons, I realise that she is not so different from the rest of us.

Her views are not at conflict with her roles as wife and mother. Instead, for her, it all boils down to choice rather than expectation and awareness rather than ignorance.

She said: “There’s two simple questions: Are men and women equal? No. Do you think they should be? If the answer is yes then you’re a feminist.”

Three years ago, she joined The Fawcett Society, a national organisation which campaigns for equality between men and women.

A report published this week by the Centre for Women & Democracy, on behalf of a group The Fawcett Society is involved in, revealed that women’s participation in UK politics and public life is plummeting.

The Sex and Power 2013 report exposed a lack of women at senior levels of government, police, judiciary, armed forces, education and health organisations, as well as the arts, media, sport, world of finance, even in major charities and professional bodies.

Eleanor was not surprised by its findings but that has not stopped her from being concerned by it.

She said: “It stops girls aspiring to those positions because they think they’re men’s roles. So it perpetuates inequality.”

“I think a healthy society is one where there’s equality - everyone suffers when there’s not and everyone benefits when there is,” she added.

In January, Eleanor founded a Bury St Edmunds Fawcett branch, which is already gaining momentum.

Currently the group’s focus is on street names in the area.

In Bury, it has been unable to find any streets named after famous women.

In Mildenhall, they know of only one - Amy Johnson Court - named after Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.

Eleanor said: “The perception is that if you only see men in a job, only men are capable of doing that job. So, if you only see streets named after famous men, you think only men are famous.”

On Stowmarket’s Chilton Hall Estate, streets are named after male artists, writers and musicians, including Laurence Stephen Lowry (Lowry Way) and William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Road), but none named after women.

To correct this imbalance, the Bury Fawcett Society hopes to gain support for naming streets in new estates after famous women, with an emphasis on local women.

Millicent Fawcett, the suffragist after which the national society is named, was herself born in Suffolk, while Mary Beale, from Barrow, is considered one of the most important portrait painters of the 17th century.

Rose Mead, from Bury, was a portrait painter known to encourage young women who posed for her not to marry and to find fulfilment in a career, while printmaker Sybil Andrews was also from Bury.

Work by Beale, Mead and Andrews feature in St Edmundsbury’s publicly owned fine art collection, which is managed by the heritage service on behalf of the borough’s residents.

Quaker Margaret Kemp is credited with keeping Bury’s Meeting House open until it was refurbished in 1952.

She has a room in the building named after her and was remembered recently through a play at the venue.

Norah Lofts, a successful author who lived in Bury, has a plaque marking her life in the town on her former home in Northgate Street.

Likewise, there is a fountain memorial to Bury-born author Maria Louise Ramé, who penned under the pseudonym Ouida, in Vinery Road, Bury.

Eleanor is keen to find out about other famous women in history who have a connection with Bury.

She said: “These women are, I’m sure, just the tip of the iceberg and it would be great to find out about any others, as well as who your readers think are most deserving of having streets named after them.”

On Thursday, in celebration of International Women’s Day, which is marked each year on March 8, Eleanor has organised a party at Benson Blakes, in St Johns Street, Bury.

Starting at 7.30pm, it will be attended by people involved with local women’s groups, from girl guides to women’s refuge, and there will be a quiz.

Anyone with an interest in The Fawcett Society, and any Suffolk members who would like to get involved with the Bury group, are encouraged to go along.

To contact the group, search Bury St Edmunds Fawcett Society on Facebook.