The dustbin of history

Illustration by Jacky Fleming of women being rescued from the dustbin of history

Researching women in the past is not always easy. Few women had their lives recorded in detail and the lack of opportunities afforded to them meant that fewer women than men were in roles which gave them lasting fame. Find out how we research the women of Quarry Bank.

The majority of women left scant records such as birth, marriage and death records. Those who didn’t marry left even fewer. Even when women did extraordinary things, they were rarely credited.  Elizabeth Rathbone played a key advisory role to Liberal MP William Forster when drafting the 1870 Elementary Education Act, yet we only know of her involvement because of a personal letter Forster wrote to her son some years later. 

The Quarry Bank archives are a very special resource for gender historians because they contain records of women’s work, the jobs they did and the wages they received for doing them. There are photographs of women who lived and worked in the village and oral history accounts of people’s lives. This has been exciting and frustrating at times as we have caught glimpses of women’s lives and stories that are incomplete. Nancy ‘Stonewall’ Johnstone was one of these women. Oral history accounts suggested that she was a real character, inspired by the American revolutionary Stonewall Jackson, and was instrumental in setting up the cooperative store in Styal. Yet the records of the store name only men and finding out more has so far proved difficult.

Illustrator and author Jacky Fleming refers to this as the dustbin of history – the activities and behaviours that had an impact on people’s lives in the past and yet are unknown to us today. The A Woman’s Work is Never Done exhibition aims to retrieve women from this dustbin of history. We have been able to pull a few women out but there are many more left to be discovered. You may even have had a few of these women in your family.