Newham Family Tree Research: Gender

The gender root has been very interesting, though a little challenging when it comes to procuring ideas for stories. The main pitfall when discussing gender is focussing only on women’s history and ignoring men’s. While women have often been forgotten for their contributions to history, to counter this by conflating the study of gender with history of women is short-sighted. It reinforces an outsider status from mainstream enquiry, a realm dominated by stories of men, and confines them to a specialist subsection of history. While it is a step forward that there is greater importance placed upon the role of women, it also seems to keep history unnecessarily gendered and continues to ignore the interconnectedness of life. On the other hand, with the roles and contributions of women in history largely overlooked, it is important to counter this by promoting the impact they have had on shaping history in even the most sexist eras and societies. Balancing this tightrope between promoting the disadvantaged without further cementing the perceived difference that contributes to the imbalance is a challenge. The Family Tree Project, which aims to tackle and debunk insidious myths about people, seems an appropriate platform from which to celebrate the history of the marginalised. So while I endeavour to write stories regarding men and masculinity, I plan to have an imbalance in favour of stories about women.

With this in mind I have set out to find stories that deal with issues of women and men’s identities, the expectations of them and their position in society. Using the internet I have found a potential story about George Hilsdon, a West Ham footballer who could be a useful perspective to view the social upheaval of the First World War and the pressures on men to join the armed forces. I have also been trying to find out about Sarah Bonnell, a philanthropist who left money towards a school for girls in West Ham in the 1760s, a time when championing education for women would be seen as unimportant, or perhaps even revolutionary. Another story I found interesting was that of the Plaistow Landgrabbers, a group of unemployed men who attempted to set up their own vegetable patch on disowned land. While the conclusion to their efforts is not exactly positive (the police shut them down repeatedly and arrested the leader), there is now a communal garden project in Newham created by artists inspired by the landgrabbers. Other possible topics include munitionettes, VC holders from Newham, Daisy Parsons (the first female mayor of West Ham), Vera Lynn (East Ham born singer, the “Force’s Sweetheart” and record holder for oldest person to reach no. 1 in the charts), Elizabeth Fry and the effect of dock closures on traditional male and female roles.

I have found the following websites useful for researching stories:

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