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Pop-up protest inspired by radical suffragist Ada Nield Chew takes place at Manchester Met

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By Andy Turbine


To mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the vote for the first time in the United Kingdom’s history, the Local Youth Engagement Project took over Manchester Metropolitan University’s Arts and Humanities building to stage a pop-up protest inspired by radical suffragist Ada Nield Chew.

Nield Chew was a women’s trade unionist and author who campaigned throughout her life for the rights of women in the workplace. Her career as an activist began in 1894, with a series of protest letters to the Crewe Chronicle complaining of the conditions in the Compton Brothers clothing factory where she worked as a tailor.

Writing anonymously in her ‘A Crewe Factory Girl’ letters, she demanded a living wage, not the “lingering, dying wage”, which women at the factory were being paid. The reaction was mixed: the letters garnered the support of men’s trade unions and Crewe’s local MP, but bosses at the factory dismissed Ada when her identity was revealed.

Thankfully, the Independent Labour Party offered her work, and by the end of the year, Ada Nield Chew was elected as one of the very first working-class female Poor Law guardians.

The University of Chester’s Shelley Piasecka adapted these letters for the pop-up protest, which she directed and scripted in collaboration with Kirsty Bunting and Orlagh McCabe – senior lecturers at Manchester Met and the researchers behind the Local Youth Engagement Project.

West Yorkshire based actor Jessie Harris took on the role of Ada Nield Chew, delivering an impassioned performance as the factory girl turned campaigner.

“If we be quiet, be silent, sit still, we will never be heard or noticed, and consequently never served,” she told those gathered for the show’s two performances.

More than a century on from the letters that made Ada Nield Chew’s name, many of the words she wrote remain remarkably relevant, not only to the suffragettes and suffragists that fought for women’s voices to be heard, but for those still protesting for women to be treated fairly in the workplace.

Dr Kirsty Bunting is also organising an event later this term commemorating the radical, crusading women who marched in the Women’s Peace Crusade in Manchester and East Lancashire from 1917 to 1918. Both events have been organised with Research in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Metropolitan. For more information on upcoming RAH! events, visit mmu.ac.uk/artshumanities/rah/

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