My initial reason for visiting the Women’s Library, asides from my general busman’s holiday-like love of visiting archives and libraries, was to view a film which was co-sponsored by the NUWT. To Be a Woman was made by Jill Craigie in 1951 and is a very effective piece of propaganda outlining the reasons for ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ – as the NUWT slogan ran. There is some basic information about the film on IMDb – always my first stop when looking for information on a film – but there’s no plot synopsis so maybe I’ll need to add one. To find the film in The Women’s Library catalogue use their Archives & Museums catalogue.
I seemed to go through a phase of coming across references to Jill Craigie, the film, and NUWT efforts to raise money to fund the film. All these references intrigued me enough to spend a bit of time on google! When I found out just got me more interested and determined to see the film. I enquired with the BFI Archive and they have a copy. The BFI charge for viewing (not that I’m complaining about this – they have to make money somehow!) so I thought I’d have a look elsewhere first and my first thought was – the Women’s Library. I was in luck as they have a copy on VHS so I made an appointment to go and view it.
When I got there I was set up in a nice wee room with a TV, video recorder and headphones. I watched the film right through twice as even though it is short, at 18 minuets, there was a lot to take in, and a lot of notes to write!
The film begins with the male narrator, Julien Sommers, asking if women can create the society they want, asking ‘what does it mean to be a woman?’. The film shows shots of women in various types of workplace with the female narrator, Wendy Hiller, giving statistics on the number of women in the workplace – in 1951 this was 7 1/4 million women.
Then we get prominent women talking about what they think it means to be a women, and what they think needs to change. The women appear very stilted but it was so nice to see women whose names I’ve seen in correspondence and papers from the Collection, including Miss H. K. Allison, the President of the NUWT that year.
The narrators then get into a discussion with Julien Sommers saying things such ‘surely all she wants is marriage’ and similar comments. This is followed by shots of women in positions of power, such as Dr. Sharp, the Director General Doctor for London County Council and Nanette de Valois, founder of Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company. There is some great footage of WSPU marches linked to Wendy Hiller talking about women’s vote and women’s influence on policy. The film explains that equal pay is one of the reasons why women fought for the vote. I think that overall the film would have worked well as an advertisement for the cause of equal pay, though I’m not so sure it would have worked to convince sceptics, so much as being used to preach to the converted. I’d love to find some contemporary reviews of the film to see how it was perceived at the time.
A colleague very kindly pointed out to me, without making me feel too stupid, that we actually have the film in the Library here – yes, that will be the library where my office is, the library with an online catalogue which I never even thought to check, oops! The film is on a BFI issued compilation ‘Shadows of Progress’ (which also includes several Lindsay Anderson films for any fellow fans out there). You can find it on our library catalogue here and can take it home to watch at your leisure or you can watch it in the library – the benefit of this being you could also visit us in the Archive! Alternatively you could make the trip to the Women’s Library like I did and enjoy the other resources they have on offer as well!