There is the woman who dreamt of being a goalkeeper for Arsenal Football Club but was discouraged; the mother who was so short she had to sit on pillows to drive ambulances in the Second World War; and the bull-fighting grandmother who was born a maid, in a stately home.
These are just three of the real-life stories to be found on the new digital archive that is chronicling the lives of British women over the past hundred years. The Three Generations of Women project, launched by Broken Leg Theatre last week, is asking women up and down the country to share their experiences of growing up in the UK. It is the first time such a project has been undertaken.
The venture, part-funded by the Arts Council, was set up as a way to garner research for a new play that is due to tour theatres next year. But with more than 500 submissions already, it is thought that its legacy will reach much further. The website asks a range of questions from “When did you first become aware of your gender?” to “What is the best-kept secret held by a woman in your family?” Women of all ages are invited to submit as many answers as they wish.
The answers are a damning read. “I think the media has turned back the clock, and now massive pressure is put on young women to conform to sex-object status,” said one 61-year-old from the capital. A 40-year-old mother from Cornwall agrees. “Femininity appears to be more of a commodity now, to be sold and sold to. I worry more for my daughter growing up in a pink world of unrealistic images and expectations on women.”
As well as tales of bravery, there are already tragic tales of abuse. “I was raped throughout seven years of my childhood and adolescence. I know other women who have gone through very similar,” said one 27-year-old woman. “People who believe feminism is nothing or not needed must be somehow sheltered from all of this. Feminism is just as needed as ever and for me it means being able to live in peace free from violence or harassment, free from stigmas, and to be believed and given justice for these type of crimes.”
James Haddrell, artistic director of Greenwich Theatre, south London, who is supporting Broken Leg, said the website has “the potential to become a lasting record of the social experience of three generations of women, the transformation of personal oral history into written record.” He added: “[It will] allow public comparison in a way that I’ve not come across before.”
The project, founded by writers Alice Trueman and Anna Jefferson – both in their thirties – feeds into the surge in interest in women-curated projects, which until now focused mainly on the depiction of women in media.
Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, said the “exciting” new project “demonstrates how the current vital wave of women’s voices is making its way into the arts.” She added: “It’s wonderful to see this explosion of interest in women’s stories and experiences, told in their own words.”
The writers, who are keen to consider how life has changed for women in Britain over the past century, have also worked with groups of women from city councils, universities, midwifery hospitals and retirement homes. “We hope the Three Generations project will continue to grow beyond the development of our play and come into its own as a lasting collection of stories and an ongoing online resource,” Ms Trueman said.
The website also asks women to leave advice for future generations. One 28-year-old from London has the answer. “Don’t compromise your own life and happiness for anyone else. Also, don’t pluck your eyebrows – it doesn’t go well.”