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Festival of Ideas Audience Rediscovers Women’s Stories


The annual York Festival of Ideas was celebrated at The Mount School on Saturday.  A panel discussion and research workshop looked at women’s stories in history and invited budding, amateur and professional historians to get involved in rediscovering women’s stories in York’s history.

The audience was in attendance in person and online for both events. This year’s York Festival of Ideas theme was: Rediscover, Reimagine, Rebuild.

Panel Discussion: Rediscovering Women’s Lives

Janet Few, family historian and founder of the project A Few Forgotten Women, talked about the project, what they are doing and why. She introduced some of the team and shared some of the ethical issues which arise when dealing with histories of women whose descendants are alive today.

Fiona Grimshaw, of the Rowntree Society, shared some of the insights from their recent project, looking at the lives of women who worked in the factories. She spoke of the more prominent Rowntree women, about whom relatively little is known compared with their more renowned husbands, sons, brothers or fathers. The Society is keen to learn more about the lives and stories of Sarah Rowntree (1807-1888), Julia Seebohm Rowntree (1841-1863), Antoinette (Tonie) Rowntree (1846-1924), Lydia Rowntree (1869-1944) and Mount Old Scholar Jean Rowntree (1905-2003).

The audience, both in person and online, was brimming with questions, including interest in stories about other minorities, such as former slaves or indentured labourers, LGBTQIA+ stories, migrant stories and those of people who had no voice. Kate Hignett of York HERstory, invited audience members to get more involved in their community history project to research and celebrate the ‘invisible’ women of York.

I found the talk fascinating especially as I’m researching my own family history for my EPQ, looking at causes of emigration. The question and answer session was very informative as both members of the audience and the panel had good advice on researching family history, and referenced useful archives which are free to use,” said Emilia (College II). See below for Emilia’s analysis of and response to the panel discussion.

The panel was chaired by Sarah Sheils, former History Teacher and Archivist of The Mount School, and author of Among Friends; History of The Mount School, York.

Research Workshop: Rebuilding Women’s Lives

On the same day the Few Forgotten Women and the Rowntree Society hosted a live history research project in the Main Library. A hybrid audience in the Main Library and online were given the 1901 census and could select to research either VAD Nurses or Mount School pupils and staff from the census.

They had access to online facilitators from the Few Forgotten Women project who had live access to newspaper archives, and genealogy databases and were able to share resources that would otherwise remain beyond the researchers’ reach.

After two hours of solid research and a delicious lunch from The Mount’s catering team, the workshop researchers were inspired to continue in their own time. Look out next year for an ISSP version for York school pupils!

Emilia’s Thoughts on the Panel Discussion

“I found the talk fascinating and very informative especially as I’m doing research for my EPQ on my own family history, looking at causes of emigration.
I learnt a lot about the role of women in the Rowntree chocolate business and how the business owners’ Quaker beliefs impacted the way they treated their employees, which was intriguing to hear as a pupil in a Quaker school. Fiona Grimshaw raised many interesting facts including that women were valued in chocolate making because their hands were thought to be not as warm as menmns!
I really enjoyed the Forgotten Women aspect of the talk. Janet Few discussed how women, especially those who had illegitimate children, or were of a different race, or were confined to mental hospitals, are often ignored in family history. This is often due to men being easier to research due to them making wills, and their surnames being passed down and recorded, as well as ancestry often being male-centric. This really made me think as my family history on one side was researched largely by a male great uncle who only recorded the names of the men, fathers and sons, and completely excluded the mothers and daughters.
The talk also made me think about my own approach to researching my ancestry. My main take away from the event was the realisation that I had neglected researching women in favour of men, even as a woman myself! For example, in my EPQ I looked at five men and only one woman.
In fact, the talk caused me to decide to focus more on female ancestry in the future.
The question and answer session was also very informative as both members of the audience and the panel speaking had advice on researching family history and referenced some very useful archives which are free to use.
The talk was both interesting and enjoyable and I was very glad to be able to attend it at school.”
– Emilia, College II
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