Photographs by Imogen Freeland.
Rutland is a little known landlocked county in the East Midlands. Its only real tourist attraction – and as local teenagers tell me, the main place to drink, smoke and hang out locally – is Rutland Water, a massive artificial lake in the middle of the county. If you Google image search "Rutland" all you get are photos of the beloved expanse of water and the chapel perched on its edge.
Oakham, Rutland's main town, scattered with Georgian houses and charity shops, is terrifyingly quiet. This is a market town for people in the later stages of life. There are multiple butchers, barbers and chippies, but no McDonald's. The only shop I could spot aimed at a younger market was a completely empty branch of Fat Face.
Yet recently Rutland held the title of the happiest county in Britain. Only last year it was named one of the best places to live in Britain by the Sunday Times. Mysteriously, it is also the place with the lowest proportion of young women in the UK.
Finding young females in Oakham meant marching up and down the streets for a full day, but eventually we managed to track a few down, to ask them about womanhood, feminism and life in a town dominated by men.
"You'll never see women around here – the only ones that exist come into the flower shop. Being a florist is definitely a job you'd find mostly women doing, too – except at the really top level, like with being a chef. My nan was a florist and she'd teach me to make bows and wrap presents when I was little, and when I was a little older I'd help her do single roses for Valentine's Day. I'm the closest with her out of all my family, so it's nice that she's handed down the trade to me. One hour you could be doing christening flowers, the next hour you're doing a funeral; if you stay in the same shop you could go through the life stages with someone and their family. I'm getting married myself this year so I've been spending a lot of time with the women in my life. My sister is one of my bridesmaids; we've gone through phases, as most siblings do, when everyone is growing and finding their roles. Maybe one day I'll do flowers for her."
"Shoe repairing keeps me busy. There's something to show for it at the end of the day, sort of thing. I don't just work in this shop – I go all over the place, really: Coventry, Rugby and Peterborough. It's early mornings, but I like it. When you think of a cobbler you think: old boy. Old, typical, tradition sort of thing. People do come in saying that they don't expect to see women in here. It's quite refreshing for them sometimes. Especially when there's not many women in this town. I don't think there's any difference between men and women, boy or girl; everyone is different, you find your own way of doing things. Just because you're a different gender doesn't stop you from being as hard working or anything. It's just finding a way that suits you best."
"I've always been local. My favourite thing about working in a café is seeing our regulars every day. Being part of a community, because everyone knows everyone, which is lovely. And working, chatting and eating – they just go hand in hand, don't they? Are men and women different? I know when I get home I think about all the jobs to do, whereas men might think, 'I'll read the news, I'll watch the telly.' They're not really wired up the same way. I suppose that's sexist, isn't it? They're just a bit more blasé and laid back I think. There's an emotional side to being a woman, whereas my husband is very much like an iceman. I'd like men to feel emotions as deeply, just to know what it's like. If something bad happens to someone we don't know, I'd be upset, but the men I know would say, 'You don't even know them.' I'd like for one day for men to experience that feeling instead of going, 'Oh well, nothing to do with my life.' I would quite like to be a man, to give it a go. I think life would be a lot easier."
"Rutland is a weird place to be a young woman because nothing goes on. All we can do is go to Leicester, Rutland Water or house parties. People here are posh, so I feel a lot of divide. On top of that, the boys and girls at school were really divided. I don't want it to be like that. For me, I don't think there should be a fundamental difference, but I've noticed myself using my gender as protection. If I do something like be clumsy or forgetful, I will sort of be like, 'Oh it's fine, I'm a girl,' but I shouldn't. I like doing art and philosophy. I'm not into science and engineering stuff, and I always wonder if I'm not into that because I don't feel like I should be a boy. Pretty much everyone in my music class is a girl. I think that's because we think we all want to be free spirits and do creative thinking and stuff. It's partly because I don't want to do a boring job. That's for boys; they can do all the banking and stuff. I don't like the class and gender divide here, but I really appreciate the countryside. I'll miss it when I go."
"I've always lived here, but many of my friends moved away. There is nothing here. I've worked in the Post Office for 16 years, just delivering letters, being a postie. There are a lot of men in this industry, and even just in our Post Office hardly any of the workers are women. Some people say, 'Oh, we've got a lady postman!' I never wanted this job; I was unemployed and the Job Centre made me apply. I love it now, being out and chatting to people. I walk about 10 miles a day. I've got a little girl, too. She's very independent and strong: willed but kind. She does whatever she wants to do; she plays football and goes to kickboxing classes already. My childhood hero would be Stuart Pearce, the footballer. I grew up with two older brothers, so I was always into football and probably more laddish things, but laddish things with a pretty dress and makeup on."
"I went travelling for a year and am now back in the area. I'm a bit of an undecided person at the moment, to be honest. My mum is a single mum who has always just got on with everything. We've never had stereotypical gender roles in our house because she'd be mum and dad. The only thing I wish men would understand is that just because things don't matter to them, it doesn't mean they don't matter to everybody else. They could listen more. I don't think men understand what goes on in women's heads, feelings wise."
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