The Weaker Vessel

weaker_vessel_01This exhibition based on the Willett collection of popular pottery looks at three areas of women’s lives throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: their roles at work and in the home, in the production of ceramics and as reformers.


Women at Home and at Work

‘Mans work ends at setting sun
Yet womans work is never done.’

Until the 19th Century girls could be married at twelve years of age. Before leaving home they were expected to learn all the practicalities of housekeeping and assumed the responsibility for upholding family morals. Before the agricultural and industrial revolutions most forms of work were undertaken by both men and women. In fields and in mines, workshops and markets women contributed to the family income by working alongside their men, replacing them in their absence or after their death. Inevitably they were paid less in17th – Century England male labourers earned 8d (the equivalent of £2.70 today) and females 6d (£2.00) while male reapers earned 5d (£1.65) and women 3d (£1.00), with meat and drink.

On the farm women also drove the plough, shepherded the sheep and fowl, processed the dairy products, tended the kitchen garden, spun, wove and sewed the flax and wool, sold the produce at market and kept the household accounts. In addition, women had special responsibility for brewing ale and cider in Northern Europe (where women were frequently licensed publicans), and wine in the South. Women often made a great success of businesses they inherited from fathers or husbands. The great champagne vineyard of Veuve Cliquot was named after the widow of  M. Cliquot.

With the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from country to town and from home to factory, women lost much of their previous flexibility and control of their work. Jobs in factories were generally low-paid, low-grade and repetitive. The alternatives were shop-work, nursing and midwifery, going into service or, at worst, prostitution. At first considered as bad as the brothel, the theatre offered a variety of creative opportunities for performers as singers, dancers or actresses. Two of the most celebrated actresses of whom ceramic souvenirs were made were Kitty Clive in the mid 18th Century and Madame Vestris in the early 19th Century.

Better educated women could become teachers or governesses while a few earned their livings as writers. In the 17th Century Aphra Behn was the best known, the author of plays, novels and copious poetry. Equally famous in the late 18th Century was the radical historian Catherine Macaulay, whose eight-volume History of England was controversial for its Republican bias, and the celebrated playwright Hannah More, who later devoted herself to writing moralising religious tracts. Both Macaulay and More were included in Richard Samuels majestic group portrait of The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, (1778), now in the National Portrait Gallery.


Women in Ceramics

In the last thirty years, extensive research has been conducted by design historians to rediscover womens contribution to the design and manufacture of ceramics in Britain. Women have always been involved in ceramic production and in the last hundred years have made up half the workforce. At first they worked in unskilled jobs carrying and wedging clay and assisting the men to whom they were subcontracted. Sylvia Pankhurst visited the Staffordshire Potteries in 1907 and noted:

“Women turned the wheel for throwers and trod the lathe for turners.
In each case a woman was employed by the man for whom she toiled
she was the slave of a slave.”

From the late 19th Century, however, women began to be employed as skilled paintresses. Some, such as Hannah Barlow, the star decorator at Doultons Lambeth Pottery from 1871 to 1913, designed the decoration they applied. In the 20th Century womens opportunities in the pottery industry multiplied. Clarice Cliff rose from paintress to head the design studio and effect a marketing triumph at the Royal Staffordshire Pottery while Susie Cooper was an independent designer and manufacturer.  Grete Marks came to Britain from Germany in 1936 after her successful company, the Haël Werkstätten, was taken over by the Nazis. Here she worked successfully as a freelance designer before setting up her own pottery.


weaker_vessel_04Women in Revolt

Women have been vigorous campaigners for social and political reform for more than two centuries. They are known to have played an active but discreet role in the first campaign which employed ceramics as propaganda, namely the Abolition of Slavery. Middle and upper class women held tea parties in the 1800s, at which Anti-Slavery literature was distributed and tea-wares decorated with appropriate images and inscriptions were produced.

In the 20th Century a number of important feminist campaigns have been commemorated in ceramics. The Womens Social and Political Union was formed in 1903 by the feminist reformer Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Their main aim was to recruit more working-class women into the Suffragettes struggle for the vote. By 1905 the media had lost interest in reporting their meetings and publishing their articles and letters so the WSPU embarked on an increasingly violent campaign of destroying public and private property. Vandalism and arson led to prison sentences but the women responded by going on hunger strikes. By the summer of 1914, 1,000 Suffragettes had been imprisoned. The WSPU suspended hostilities for the duration of World War I. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act finally granted the vote to women householders over the age of thirty.

One of the most publicised campaign of recent years took place at Greenham Common. In 1981 it was decided to site Cruise Missiles (guided nuclear weapons) in the UK. A group of women marched in protest from Cardiff to Greenham Common Air Base near Newbury, Berkshire. They set up what became known as the Womens Peace Camp and, for the next two years, blockaded the base and persistently cut through the wire fences. In December 1982 more than 30,000 women joined hands around the base. Despite their efforts the first Cruise missiles arrived in November 1983 although protests continued throughout the 1980s. In 1987 the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. This paved the way for the removal, between 1989 and 1991, of all missiles sited at Greenham. The Peace Camp finally disbanded in 2000.

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