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Swansea plaque for Emily Phipps

2013 November 24

Plaque to Emily Phipps in Orchard Street, Swansea.
Thanks to Avril Rolph for the photo

This week a plaque was finally erected on the site of the school where feminist campaigner Emily Phipps was headteacher. An English woman, she worked for many years in Swansea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A short summary of aspects of her life was included on BBC news for South West Wales  webpage that does not do her justice. Emily was not only a feminist and headteacher and suffrage campaigner but also a leading trade unionist. A one time executive member of the National Union of Teachers in 1915  she became disillusioned over the union’s failure to support the vote for women or to campaign appropriately  for equal pay. She campaigned for a women – only union, the National Union of Women Teachers, in which she played a leading role, as president, editor, executive member and eventually, barrister.

I wrote about her in my book Deeds not Words and lobbied for her inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and then contributed her entry. She was one of my ‘favourite’ suffragette teachers not primarily because of her achievements but because of her apparent bad temper particularly towards those members of the NUWT she thought were insufficiently active!

It’s good that Avril Rolph and the Women’s Archive of Wales were able to convince Swansea council that Emily was worth remembering publicly.

5 Responses Post a comment
  1. November 30, 2013

    Many of us on the left in Swansea are delighted that there’s now a plaque commemorating the life of Emily Phipps, but it’s a shame that the inscription is so bland. The term “inspirational campaigner” exemplifies the sort of cod-celebratory boilerplate in which our council seems to specialise. Recently, Swansea made an unsuccessful bid to become Britain’s City in Culture in 2017. For several months our councillors exhorted everyone in the city to “Cwtch the bid”. (“Cwtch” is Welsh slang for “cuddle”.) I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t regard that as one of the most toe-curling slogans in human history.

    • November 30, 2013

      The wording for the plaque was suggested by Women’s Archive of Wales so blame us, not Swansea Council. Sorry you don’t like the words Philip, but we tried to say something about Emily Phipps in a few words, which included the fact that she was an inspirational campaigner.

      • November 30, 2013

        Many thanks for your reply, Avril. I’m grateful to you for correcting my mistake. But I think my point about the current administration’s use of language still stands. When councillors speak only in the language of the touchy-feely mission statement, their bland example tends to rub off on everyone who has dealings with them. On this occasion it’s the Women’s Archive of Wales which seems to have fallen into line, notwithstanding the fact that it’s otherwise doing a lot of terrific work. It seems to me that the inscription would have worked better if it had contained a bit more historical information. Perhaps “Feminist, militant suffragette and campaigner” would have placed Phipps more effectively in her historical context than “Feminist and inspirational campaigner”.

        The people of Swansea owe a big debt to the Women’s Archive of Wales (and to you in particular) for ensuring that there’s now a plaque commemorating Phipp’s life. Keep up the good work.

        • Hilda Kean permalink
          November 30, 2013

          Thanks for your comment, Philip. However, your own suggestion for the naming would still overlook other aspects of Phipps’ life. As I said in the original piece (and in the various things I have published about her in the past) Emily Phipps was also a trade unionist activist. The National Union of Women Teachers had many wonderful feminists in its ranks and they certainly saw this activity as important as their work on, say, curriculum issues.

          • December 1, 2013

            Thanks for your reply, Hilda. I agree with much of what you say. But the fact remains that it’s precisely because plaques can’t contain much information that vague, fashionably feelgood terms like “inspirational campaigner” should be avoided. It’s rather astonishing that the plaque fails to make it clear that Phipps’s support for the Suffragettes was one of the main expressions of her feminism. Personally I’d have preferred “Feminist, militant suffragette and trade unionist” but I retained “campaigner” out of respect for the Women’s Archive of Wales!

            If I were being provocative, I’d say that the other problem with the plaque is that its pointless Welsh translation severely limits what can be said about its subject. But that’s another matter entirely. Cyfarchion brawdol, Dr Kean.

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