On Saturday the 5th of March Hat Works hosted ‘Sylvia vs the Fascists’, a one-woman play about the life and work of Manchester born suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.
The play was written and directed by Rob Johnston and performed by Emma Laidlaw. The stories of influential women from history are often unnecessarily saturated with information about their romantic relationships and family life. Refreshingly, Johnston’s play touched on neither. Rather it delved deeply into the nitty-gritty of Pankhurst’s political ambitions as a Communist and passionate defender of women’s and worker’s rights. Laidlaw depicted her as an endlessly courageous, resilient and witty woman, steadfast in her beliefs despite spending eight terms in prison for her activism.
The play took place on the Factory Floor, which we are currently renovating. Our freshly painted walls, new information panels and revamped shop had their debut. The Factory Floor was the perfect location for the performance as our vast and vibrant collection of hatting machinery loomed behind Emma as she performed. It served as a reminder of the work Pankhurst dedicated herself to: protecting the livelihoods of working-class people, particularly during WW1. In a highly impactful moment of the play Laidlaw shouted angrily at the figure of an invisible prison guard, exclaiming that it is the rich who benefit financially from war whilst the lives of ordinary people are shattered.
Although Pankhurst was born over a hundred years ago her experience of sexism resonates with the way women are often treated today. Johnston chose to show us moments of Pankhurst being ridiculed and patronised by men as well as completely ignored in male-dominated spaces. Female narratives from history are too often lost amongst male voices. During Hat Work’s closure we’ve been working on repositioning women of the Stockport hat industry as leaders, campaigners and entrepreneurs.
‘Sylvia vs the Fascists’, in all its feminist glory, was the perfect event to kickstart the partial reopening of the Factory Floor in a few months’ time. It was wonderful to have visitors back in our museum and engaging with the politics surrounding gender equality and worker’s rights, politics that are bound in the history of Wellington Mill.
Written by Lily Ball, Museum Project Assistant, Hat Works