In praise of Disorderly Women by Tina Jackson

Posted by Fahrenheit Press on

Disorderly women have always been my tribe, ever since I was a teenager at the back of the school bus, part of a gang of girls laughing their faces off, pulling faces and much worse at lorry drivers through the window. I love them - the women who ask why, and why not, and do what they want, and not what they're supposed to do. The witches, the hags, the divas, the cackling crones. The rebels. The gobby ones. The ones who burn bright because they're too much, and are too loud, and go too far, and either don't want to fit in to whatever polite society expects of them, or the idea of what a woman 'should' be, or quite simply just can't, because they living the truth of why they are, which is to be themselves: vivid, and alive, and glorious.

And that's part of what I wanted to explore with Spirit Burns, which looks at three types of disorderly women at a pivotal time when, in the face of being stonewalled by the government in their fight for the vote, some suffragettes abandoned any notion of ladylike tactics in favour of covert, radical insurrection.

That's just a part of what Spirit Burns covers. But I wanted, even whilst conveying how harsh and unfair the price of stepping out line might be, to celebrate disorderly women then and now, and perhaps, because it's a ghost story too, give some of them a voice their real-life counterparts may never have been allowed.

That voicelessness. Perhaps in part thanks to too many period dramas where everyone is spotless and women, especially working-class women who are usually shown 'knowing their place' are softly spoken and well-mannered, we collaborate with that conventional received narrative, don't we? There's an idea that's what people in other periods of history than our own were like. But it 'others' them, and it's part of the way women's stories have been erased from history. And we should never forget that there's been a vested interest in keeping it that way.

And it's not true. And understanding that and acting on it is, in its own way, an act of resistance.

But the idea that women can only be acceptable when they're decorous has cast a very long and damaging shadow.

A lot of what fed into the book that would be Spirit Burns came about when I was researching a non-fiction book about women's struggle for suffrage in my home town, Leeds. It was about working-class women from backgrounds like those of my own family – women who worked in textile factories and sweatshops. One 19th century report that stuck with me clearly involved the dismay of a textile factory owner at the behaviour of the young women workers as they left the factory: laughing, rowdy, raucous. Making the most of their break. Having a large time with their mates. When my own grandmother told me stories of her young days, it was all about laughing. These were women who had to be strong, because life was harsh. The scraps of time when they could let rip were what kept them going.

I read other stories in that research, about working women's lives as they fought and scrapped and messed up and burned brightly not just through the everyday struggle of making do and poverty, but prison, the workhouse and more. One image was indelible: an Irish immigrant woman, arrived in Yorkshire (like some of my own ancestors) in the wake of the Famine – a wraith with flaming hair. All these stories haunted me as I began to create the stories of the interwoven lives of the women in Spirit Burns.

And these would have been the lives lived in the backdrop of the struggle for the vote. I read stories of real-life suffragettes like the arsonist Lilian Lenton – like me, a dancer. In one of her most audacious escapades, she escaped from the police when she was held in a house just up the road from where I live now. How could I not be drawn into wanting to understand how she, and other suffragette women, those from backgrounds of privilege, were not just incensed by injustice, but became radicalised so that they'd commit the kind of crimes that were considered so far beyond what was acceptable for a woman that they had to be undercover operations?

Maybe all historical stories are, in their way, ghost stories – voices from the past trying to be heard in the present. I hope you enjoy the company of Madge, Ellen, Stella and Eilish – each in her own way a rule-breaker; a disorderly woman. Perhaps their voices will haunt you, a little bit, like the stories of women from the times they lived in did me. Because they're not that different from us, are they? And even if we're on the outside, when we find our tribe, we need to stick together.

Tina Jackson, Leeds, March 2023

Tina's new book Spirit Burns is available now, click here for more details.

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