Northern Women Will Laugh in the Face of Future Hard Times- as Usual #IWD

Saying that my current touring show “Where There’s Muck There’s Bras”  is about forgotten Northern women, makes it sound as if the amnesia is just historical- but, as one of my characters, Mother Shipton (who was really Ursula Sontheil, resilient daughter of a fifteen year old single mother) says “In order to be able to see the present we need to be able to see the past”. The forgotten women are also women of now. The women of the Northern of England are most badly hit by austerity, by London’s economic dominance over the country and, soon, by Brexit. 

Cultural discrimination against Northern accents (now recognised as part of a “class ceiling” impacting on those from working class backgrounds) comes in a context of the social and economic struggles faced by Northern women. Austerity has hit the North of England harder than any other part of the country, with cities and towns facing on average twice the level of cuts as councils in the South of England (Seven out of ten of the hardest hit cities and towns are in the North). Research also shows that austerity has hit women hardest- with 86% of the burden falling on them. So it is Northern women who are experiencing the greatest cumulative impact.  

The North will be deeply affected by Brexit too- with the North East the most badly hit, facing what would be a devastating 16% reduction in GDP in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and up to 9% in the event of leaving the single market. In all the post-Brexit scenarios modelled, London would suffer the least. All these statistics are likely to impact even more deeply on women in the North who are further marginalised by ethnicity, disability or sexuality.

Surely, however, it’s never been a better time to speak up as a Northern woman – what with influential figures like Lauren Laverne, Angela Rayner, Maxine Peake and Sarah Millican (and a Northern female Doctor Who!)? However, in general, for a mixture of the social and economic reasons outlined above, it is significantly harder for women based in the North of England to become journalists, academics, lawyers and politicians.

It’s hard enough to become actors, when drama schools discriminate on grounds of Northern accent and background as Jodie Whittaker has said recently to a Commons committee. (MP Tracy Brabin and Gloria de Piero’s Acting Up report shows the strong class bias in acting, my own PhD research into stand up performers argued that there is also a cultural bias I called the “Northernness Effect”- 

MPs like South Shields’ Emma Lewell Buck, mocked for her accent in the Commons itself, have highlighted this prejudice; along with journalists like BBC Breakfast Business Correspondent Steph McGovern who was once told by a BBC boss that her accent made her sound stupid. 

What can you do in the face of miserable and terrifying statistics like these? So often, if you’re a Northern woman, you laugh. You laugh in the face of the crap and the absurdity and the uncertainty and the trauma.You laugh, as marginalised women have the world over, because what on earth else are you supposed to do?

Geneticists now say trauma is passed on in our DNA- I think the ability to laugh at it is passed on too, if not in your DNA then in the way generations of your family have dealt with the crap they’ve had to- whether as working class immigrants from countries like Pakistan or Poland looking for a better life in the North, or a line of families moving from the countryside to the cities to find work that aged or killed them prematurely, but gave them a living in a country whose establishment often used the “Barbaric, backwards” North trope to define itself as the “Progressive, rationalising” driver of the country. “Eeh, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry”. I say in my show that those in the centres of power in the South East need to keep caricaturing Northerners as funny and tough so they don’t feel bad about our higher death rate and council cuts, and the lower spend on our housing, transport and arts. 

A recurring figure in my show is the music hall and sitcom star Hylda Baker (most known for playing Nellie Pledge in seventies sitcom Nearest and Dearest, as well as her roles in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Up the Junction). She wrote, produced and directed her own shows (including an all-female revue during the second world war), designed the sets and once stepped in to conduct the orchestra when a bandleader didn’t turn up. She was a pioneer. Her “Cynthia” routine in which she harangued a tall, silent man dressed as a woman with her signature mix of malapropisms (“I can say this without fear of contraception”) and surrealism inspired Victoria Wood’s Kimberley sketches. But she ended up in a nursing home with only seven people at her funeral and one-liner obituaries in newspapers despite her stature as one of the country’s biggest music hall, then sitcom stars. 

She stands for me as a symbol of how Northern women’s achievements are often overlooked and minimised (the usual double whammy of class and gender), and as a trickster figure who can still make us laugh at our own ridiculous aspirations (“I need electrocution lessons!”) and those who use the weight of tradition to justify our continuing marginalisation (“I see you sat there in your fine hysterical buildings”). In times to come we’re going to need to remember Hylda’s spirit more than ever.

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