On July 8th, 2020 I had the exciting – and nerve-wracking – opportunity to explore what technology was capable of in this extraordinary time of lockdown.
After the crushing news that the 100 First Women Portraits Exhibition had to close a mere month after opening at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery due to Covid-19, it has been uplifting to see how the images can still inspire, via electronic means.
After the launch of the online version of the exhibition, Margaretta Jolly, Director of the University of Sussex’s Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research created, ‘First To Do It!: Celebrating Pioneering Women Through Portraiture and Biography.’ This was to be an online seminar using the video conferencing platform, Zoom.
I was invited to cover the portraiture angle and my ‘biographical’ expert counterpart was the wonderful writer and historian, Dr Kate Murphy. Kate has been researching mainly historical firsts for 30 years; particularly within broadcasting at the BBC.
Together, our aim was to transmit our enthusiasm, discuss our First Women projects and tell our stories to anyone who wished to join the Zoom Room. Our crew of four was completed by another great woman involved with the Brighton exhibition team, art historian, Dr Alexandra Loske, curator of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.
My excitement grew at the same rate as the Zoom audience! By the time we began, we had 100 attendees online and ready to tune in from all over the world from Texas to South Africa to Malta.
Margaretta kicked things off with an engaging introduction. She explained that the best information and historical documentation available is often from personal records: diaries, journals and letters. They are, she elucidated, much less subject to censorship and political rewriting.
The Subject Matter
Then to Kate and myself. The main focus of course, was our passion for female pioneers; why we felt it was important to shine a light on them, and how it had become our life’s mission to make sure that they were never again forgotten. Kate has spent 30 years searching and securing a place in history for women who were never recognised or had their glory stolen due to their gender and the bias of social systems.
An emotional topic for us both was the relationships we had formed with the subjects themselves and their families. We agreed that it was deeply gratifying that grandchildren and children, nieces and nephews, spouses, partners and siblings were able to see their beloveds finally being celebrated and claiming the recognition that they rightly deserved. Especially potent for those families whose loved ones had passed away.
Whereas Kate must always research and cross-reference information on her subjects, my approach could not differ more. I never want the media or popular view of the woman in front of my lens to influence the image I take. I want that woman to show herself to me on her terms in that moment, standing on the architecture of our mutual trust, lighting, angles and rapport.
This seminar was educational and political. But a celebration too. First Women who had never been heard of or who were known only in their small field of expertise, Kate and I endeavoured to bring them onto a wider stage, to have their achievements noted and to facilitate them becoming an inspiration to future pioneers in similarly restricted or specialised fields. It also created a space for the Firsts in which mutual appreciation forged stronger bonds of sisterhood, encouragement and validation.
Enter The Firsts
We were delighted to have six of the First Women from my project there in the flesh. I never cease to be amazed by the commitment and support so many of the 100 so consistently demonstrate! First up; the formidable Jill Pay, who gave a brilliant talk on how the project had brought feelings of inclusion and collaboration. She remarked that my photograph of her pulling on her gloves had captured her spirit exactly. ‘Very, come on, lets get on with the job,’ she said. ‘That is me!’
Next we were joined by Dr. Jean Venables OBE; who has been and still is courageously frank about injustices within the civil engineering world. It took 200 years since the inception of the Institution of Civil Engineers for Jean to become its first female president.
Major Judith Webb followed in the Zoom Room. Judith joined the army as an officer cadet in 1967, aged 18 years and served in the British Army for nearly 20 years. Commissioned into the Women’s Royal Army Corps, she subsequently worked as a linguist with the Intelligence Corps. Finally she was gazetted into the Royal Signals where she became the first woman to lead an all male field force unit in 1982. She had put off having children until she was 37 years of age because of the Army rule at the time that she would have had to leave within three months once she fell pregnant. 10 years later, changes in favour of gender equality, would have enabled her to continue serving and possibly to have become the first woman general in the British Army…
Nan McCreadie wondered how her charitable work for vulnerable and neglected children would be expressed in her image. UK law meant I couldn’t picture children in her portrait taken at the ‘Kids Out’ event in 2013, when she was the first woman president of Rotary Club (RIBI) – hence my depiction of her holding a baby goat (the symbolic kid) in her arms!
Broadcaster Louise Goodman ironically had telecom problems when she Zoomed into the seminar, but had a chance to express – as many of the Firsts have done – absolute awe of all the achievements of women, and her humbleness at being able to sit beside them.
And last but not least, Sally Kettle. Alexandra Loske – co-creator of this event – commenced by telling an extraordinary story, in which 16 years ago, her two year-old stepdaughter was saved from drowning in a swimming pool by a female stranger.
Alexandra’s husband who was there at the time, didn’t have a chance to meet this heroic, unknown female. She had already departed without leaving her contact details. She had left, it turned out, to set off across the Atlantic, because that stranger was none other than First Woman rower and adventurer, Sally Kettle!
Alexandra went on to share that Sally had attended the opening of the Brighton 100 First Women Portraits Exhibition in February and had finally met that little girl’s dad, 16 years after the event. For the first time since she had saved his daughter’s life, he was able to give her a thank you hug. A fantastic and uplifting anecdote to close the seminar.
It was a joy to participate in this event – not only due to the slick organising of Margaretta and Alexandra – but for my connection with kindred spirit Kate. Her enthusiasm and passion reflected mine and reminded me that I was not in it alone. That it was important to keep recording, not just the firsts but also the second women, and the third; that honouring the collective and creating a community of support was essential.
My passion is photography, I will try and reach as far as I can with my art form. And I am reassured by events such as this that whatever is beyond my reach and remit there are other people: artists, historians, organisers, writers, speakers and activists, with the same passion for change.
My appreciation again to all those who joined us for the Zoom seminar and anyone who has been or is planning to see the 100 First Women Portraits exhibition.
Despite being closed in the ‘flesh’ as it were, all portraits are available to view online here
You can also sign up to our mailing list in order to receive the First Women newsletter, detailing all the upcoming project news, online events and other happenings. Including of course when we can re-open to the public!
Finally, my thanks to all those who tuned into the Zoom call on the 8th – it is the audience that makes the event, whether it be in a gallery or on a screen. At this critical time for the arts, every show of solidarity for education and inspiration is an important one.