Lessons in Life, Love and Partying From Women Aged 18 to 80
What was it like to be the first female bouncer in Bristol? How did a single mum deal with divorce in the 1940s? Eight women from eight different decades share their life stories.
(Top photo: Mac Westwood)
What was life like for the first female bouncer in Bristol? How did a single mum deal with divorce in the 1940s? How does an anarchist punk daughter of the 70s feel about women's rights in 2016? We spoke to eight women from eight different decades – from teens to octogenarians – to find out how life has changed for girls in the UK.
Mac Westwood, 18: 'Until last year my friends were going to illegal raves where nobody cares how old you are'
I just finished my final year at an all-girl state school in London, where I was really lucky to meet a close-knit group of friends. The majority of us don't have boyfriends. We hang out with boys, obviously, but we've never seemed to depend on them in terms of needing a relationship. Last year I was sexually assaulted at a bus stop – some guy started wanking at me in broad daylight and no one did anything about it. It was traumatic but the experience has made me even more self-assured in myself. If anything like that happens again, I'll make sure to tell the pervert to fuck off.
My friends and I all look really young so we have never had any luck with getting served at off licenses or getting into clubs. Up until last year, most of my friends were going to illegal raves on the outskirts of London where no one cares how old you are. Getting an ID last year was amazing because suddenly it didn't matter that I had a baby face – I have proof that I am of age. In class we were never directly taught about feminism. But being surrounded by a diverse mix of girls has given me a sense of independence. I feel like we could achieve anything and everything.
Meltem Avcil, 22: 'I was locked up in Yarl's Wood for three months. That's when I started campaigning'
I'm from Turkey originally – Kurdish – and had to leave for political reasons, the same old story about any country that is at war with their own people. My mum and I arrived here in 2001, and were housed between London, Doncaster, Newcastle, Kent while the Home Office considered our asylum application. Six years later, eight immigration officers raided our house and took us to Yarl's Wood. We were locked up there for three months. That's when I started campaigning – people got angry when they found out a 13-year-old girl was locked up in a B-class prison for no reason.
After getting out, I had this broken sadness, like I was going to be locked up at any minute, but it's mainly affected me in a positive way. I value freedom more now, and can make friends wherever I go. I did two years studying mechanical engineering at Kingston, and partied pretty hard then. I'm much calmer now, I actually took up knitting recently, but sometimes the vodka lures me out. I switched to study psychology at Goldsmiths. I feel like there's loads of opportunities in Britain for women. I'm not in a relationship at the moment. Guys are scared of me. I can't really play stupid – I'm not saying I'm a genius, don't get me wrong, but I can't seem to find a respectful, cute guy. Apparently that's too much to ask for.
Susannah Webb, 30: 'We need to understand sexual and gender fluidity more'
My mum had me when she was 41, so I don't think I've ever felt the same kind of pressures other women my age might. Maybe they'll come on in the next five years, though. I still feel like women's choices surrounding babies, careers and being single are slightly more limited, or judged, than they are for men.
I like being a 30 year-old-woman all-round, but then I'm lucky that I'm in a job that I love, as a record label manager. I work in an industry where going out is part and parcel and I wouldn't do that if I didn't enjoy it. I still go out a lot, but my lifestyle has changed from my 20s.
I'd like to say that being gay is more accepted now, but it would help if everyone stopped being so worried about putting people's identities in a box. We all need to understand gender and sexual fluidity better and be a bit more easygoing about people finding their way. I still feel like there aren't enough gay women role models and in the music industry there are even fewer.
Esther Koroma, 49: 'My foster parents thought that as a woman, I needed a man'
I'm proud to be a woman – we're life-givers. Growing up, I wasn't happy. I was brought up in foster care and I never felt that my adopted parents really loved me. I got married when I was young because my foster parents were Muslim. They believed that as a woman, I needed a man and should be in the kitchen all the time. As I got older I came to see that so many things that happen in the world that affect girls more than the boys; look at the rape and dark things that happen to women in war. I converted to Christianity later in my life and left my man and my home. I'm happy now. I'm single and live by myself. I don't know if I'll get married again; sometimes I think I'd rather be alone because marriage is such a difficult commitment. It can be lonely, but if you have a job, you can take care of yourself. Then it's all up to you.
Kate Cox, 51: 'My own kids discuss sex openly, which is nice'
I think the biggest change in my lifetime has been people's attitude towards sex. I was grew up at a time when people's attitudes to marriage were changing. When I was growing up, if I took boyfriends home, they weren't allowed upstairs to my bedroom. My dad was a solicitor and did the conveyancing on the first one-bed flat I bought with my husband, my then-boyfriend. He refused to go into the bedroom, he couldn't bear to acknowledge the fact that if there was one bed, my boyfriend and I were sleeping together in it. I've got my own kids now – they're 18 and 22 – and we discuss sex quite openly, which is nice. I also work as a body painter. So many women of my generation, once they got married, that was it. But now we've got more opportunities, we don't have to stay in dead-end marriages. I keep reinventing my life about every 10 years, but women would have been considered irresponsible for living like this when I was growing up. I went from qualifying as a horse riding instructor – very middle-class – to doing face and nude body painting. My parents would've seen my job today as nonsense, and when I show my mother pictures of the people I paint naked she pretends not to be too shocked. There are still more men than women in nude body painting – I wonder why?
Helen Harrison, 62: 'I was confident at breaking up fights'
I was the first female bouncer in Bristol. I started working at the Alexander nightclub in 1976 and I was employed to clear glasses, empty ashtrays and keep the place tidy. They needed somebody to work with the doorman Doug. Me and him were just starting a relationship, so I got the job. He went on holiday for a couple of weeks and I made a success of working the door on my own. Not long after this, when I broke up with Dougie, he decided we couldn't work together and said to the owners of the club, "It's Helen or me, and they said 'Helen'."
Female bouncers are far less unusual now, I think I probably found success by virtue of being a novelty. I was pretty confident breaking up fights. In all the years I worked there I was only hit once. He left me with bruised ribs, but luckily the police turned up in time to get him. It's definitely more dangerous for women now. I used to walk home on my own at 4am down alleyways, but I'd never let a woman do that today. I work with Street Pastors now, working with churches in Bristol city centre to offer care late on Saturday nights. I've been looking after drunk people for 40 years, and really it's the same blokes I was kicking out of clubs that I'm now helping in taxis. Nothing really changes that much.
Gee Vaucher, 71: 'Women used graffiti to change the messages everyone was faced with'
The feminist movement of the 70s was, of course, very vibrant. I attended a few talks by some of the American heavyweights who were touring around Britain at the time. I can't say I was impressed. What has always been more important for me is the liberation of everyone from where they see themselves and others. The early feminist movement was too "us and them", too hateful, too many women carrying victimhood like a cross. But it was of course the continuation of a journey started by the suffragettes and it was important.
I grew up in Dagenham and left school at 15. If you were working class you were told to know your place and don't get above yourself. But unlike most kids, I knew what I wanted to do, which was art, so I did [Dee was a member of Crass who made some of the most iconic punk rock artwork ever in her Essex commune Dial House].
One of the most obvious and successful forms of confronting sexism at the time was the attack on sexist adverts. Women started using graffiti to change the messages everyone on the street were faced with. It was in your face and really made you think. It was great 'advert' – especially for young kids coming home from school. Along with the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, it was another example of women working together to bring about change in a simple way, and it did. Most women now are more aware of their rights, but I still don't think it has had a deep shift for the majority of women. Certainly tits and bums are back in force again.
Rose Burge, 80: 'I got married at 22. I didn't know him well enough; he was no good'
I was born in a country town in Wiltshire. My father died when we were all small and there were six of us. There was no family allowance or anything back then but we managed. My mother worked hard, always cleaning and scrubbing. I left school at 15 to work at an egg-packing factory. I always wanted to be a nurse, really, but never got to do it. I did end up working as a home carer, going around to old people's places, so I found some satisfaction in that. At 22, I got married. He lived miles away in Yorkshire and I didn't know him well enough. He was no good. We had a child but I couldn't stay with him – I didn't want to end up with six children and no help. I came home to my mother, went to work and got someone to look after my son in the day. It was a hard time.
These days a marriage breaks up and nobody thinks anything of it. But you'd never risk having a baby out of marriage back then. You'd be frightened stiff of bringing the shame on your mother and father. There was no contraception, girls didn't even go into pubs unless they were with a husband or boyfriend. It's a world of difference to be a girl now, so much freedom. When I went to church after my divorce, I felt so awkward, I felt really that I'd sinned. But luckily I met my second husband and he adopted my son. We had a lovely little life together. You learn by the ups and downs. It's never going to be roses.
Interviews by Hannah Ewens, Amelia Dimoldenberg, Angus Harrison, Olivia Marks, Helen Nianias and Tshepo Mokoena.
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