My grandfather was staggered to learn that as a young trainee journalist I earned the same as the male trainees. ‘Why shouldn’t I?, I asked him, genuinely surprised at his reaction to my £21 a week pay packet. ‘Well, women shouldn’t earn as much as men.’ he said, matter-of-factly. One of the few times in my life I was truly speechless.
Fortunately I have always worked in an equal pay environment, and as far as I know, I’ve never been discriminated against, and certainly not to my face – though harassment is a different matter. How difficult it must have been, then, to work in an environment where it was the norm for a boss to tell a woman that, actually, love, we want a man for this, so off you run and paint your nails.
Yorkshire lass Sheila Bownas (b. 1925) was a fabulously talented artist and textile designer whose genius was only really recognised after her death in 2007. Her designs were bold, colourful and clever, inspired by her Yorkshire surroundings and a general post-war cheering-up.
She’d won a scholarship to the prestigious Slade art school and had several paintings accepted by the Royal Academy for its Summer Exhibition. She worked as a freelance designer for Liberty and Marks and Spencer, but was not able to secure a permanent job. She had more than 100 rejections from the mid 1950s to late 1960s, but the one that capped them all was from Crown Wallpapers who were OK with paying for her freelance work, but told her that any permanent position would be filled by a man. Policy, you see.
These rejections can’t have robbed her of her muse, she carried on her freelance career, selling to top manufacturers. She lived alone, never married and evidently didn’t have a television. When she died her beautiful designs were auctioned off and destined to be dispersed.
Thankfully Chelsea Cefai, a gallery professional from the Midlands, stumbled across some of her work. She brought it together into one of the most charming and sympathetic exhibitions I’ve seen. Noel and I spent a happy hour or so at Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery thoroughly enjoying the curation of her designs.
I wonder if things would have been different if she’d secured a permanent post? Maybe her creativity would have been compromised by having to toe the corporate line. She should at least have been given the chance.