Blog: Harriet Morgan-Shami and Elaine de Fries

Two figures behind the Women's Words archive explain why they are asking women to write their experiences of living and working in Manchester

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Harriet Morgan-Shami, creative director, Wordplay Community Arts

Women’s Words came into my life at just the right time. In 2014 I gave birth to my second child and a year later took redundancy from a full-time job to start a new chapter developing my community arts project Wordplay. At around the same time my friend and colleague Tasneem Perry introduced me to the women at the Pankhurst Centre, Manchester Libraries and Soroptomists International, who were conceiving the ideas for Women’s Words, and we soon became part of the steering committee. It became clear that Women’s Words was going to be a special experience.

Wordplay is a collective of writers and artists who are interested in working creatively with communities often marginalised from mainstream cultural expression. We use life writing and other art forms to support people to explore their relationships with places, experiences and communities. We have worked with groups as diverse as people seeking sanctuary in an unfamiliar city and older people recording their memories of places and lives long since changed.

Tas and I could see the potential synergy that Women’s Words might have with our work. The project seeks to capture a moment in Manchester’s history, 100 years on from the Suffragette movement that was so rooted in the lives of women in our city. It acknowledges that although women now have the right to vote, our voices are not always heard or given the platform to influence. Women’s Words wants to hear what it’s like to be a woman living, working and growing in Manchester in 2017, and to value those experiences by creating a new archive of women’s life writing – to create a safe space for women to record their lives, their achievements and contributions.

Wordplay’s contribution has been to lead on the creative development of the project. Inspired by the protest activities of the Suffragettes, we have designed a workshop programme that works on two levels. My Own Story workshops (named after Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography) are open to any woman who has a connection to Manchester and who is interested in submitting a story. Led by life writers Michelle Green and Kate Feld, these workshops explore different life writing techniques and support individuals to identify stories they might like to share.

The second workshop programme, Words for Women, engages with three different groups of women who are, arguably, the disenfranchised voices of 2017 – women seeking asylum, surviving domestic violence and experiencing life on the street. Wordplay writers and visual artists will work with these groups to create new text-based artworks inspired by protest techniques such as the famous Votes for Women sashes worn by Suffragettes, printmaking, pavement chalking and form spoiling.

Our open workshops at Longsight and Crumpsall libraries attracted women from many different walks of life and inspired many emotional responses

At the end of the process, these artworks will be displayed in an exhibition at Central Library and the workshops documented in a new version of the Suffragette magazine, along with a selection of writing submitted to the archive. We have also commissioned three Manchester based writers to respond to the project and their pieces will be included too.

Our workshop programmes started towards the end of October and have already revealed a diverse wealth of stories and a tangible desire to share them. Our open workshops at Longsight and Crumpsall libraries attracted women from many different walks of life and inspired many emotional responses, allowing space for stories that might not have been told before.

We have also started working with women accessing support from Manchester Women’s Aid and asylum rights campaign group United for Change. Our initial sessions have focused on exploring the history of the Suffragette movement in the UK, leading to conversations about women’s rights in other countries and individual experiences in this country. Voting is still a right denied to most of the women we have met in these groups.

Since the project’s launch in August the response has been incredible. So many stories have already been submitted and we have been asked to visit and deliver workshops to groups as diverse as Lady Pedal Women’s Cycling Group, MCR Feminists, the Proud Trust’s Women’s Health Group and a joint Manchester Women’s Institute collective. We have received such a positive welcome from everyone and feel like we have tapped into a real need for women’s voices to be heard.

Perhaps it’s just that talking about the rights of women is currently a popular activity after the recent exposure of famous Hollywood producers and politicians’ exploits, but I hold on to the hope that, 100 years on from gaining the vote, women’s words will finally be recorded, remembered and reverberated around our city.

Elaine de Fries (pictured), operations manager, Pankhurst Trust

Women’s Words is something I am very fortunate to be involved with. Through it the women of Manchester will be given a chance to tell their stories and create a legacy for future generations.

This is a special time for the Pankhurst Trust as we plan to mark the 100th anniversary of the first women achieving the vote, and Women’s Words will be an important part of this.

It is my job to ensure that the Pankhurst Centre, the former home of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, is filled with women’s voices. I organise the events and activities that happen at this historic building in Manchester on a daily basis. Our small museum, which commemorates the Pankhurst family and is the birthplace of the Suffragette movement, is a central part of this.

The Pankhurst Centre also forms another very important role as the headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid and is a safe and supportive environment for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The weekly drop-in provides a hot meal, workshops and activities for those women who need their voices to be heard.

The women who inspire and enthuse me are the women and children who use our services, visit our centre and work and volunteer for the Pankhurst Trust. Our heritage museum is run entirely by a hardworking and enthusiastic team of volunteers who use the voices of the Pankhurst family to tell the story of the dedicated women who sought to gain the vote for women.

You don’t have to be a confident writer to take part. It’s your story that matters, not your ability or background

Women’s Words complements the aims and visions of the Pankhurst Trust, ensuring that the powerful story of the women who won the vote continues to inspire those who dare to challenge gender inequality and the violence and social injustice this fosters.

If you are a woman who’s 16 years or older, we want you to add your own words to a new archive of women’s stories about living, working and growing in Manchester. You don’t have to be a confident writer to take part. It’s your story that matters, not your ability or background.

The words of service users, staff and volunteers are also being compiled and as usual they inspire and humble. They will be part of an archive that will be held in the beautiful Central Library in Manchester as a constant whisper that will speak to all those who visit it. At a recent drop-in women read their stories they had recorded in their Women’s Words booklet and many stopped to cry, as did the volunteers and staff present. Then we all smiled, knowing these small booklets would contain those words and be a permanent record of their story.

In 2018 we will be marking 100 years of the first women achieving the right to vote in the UK. The launch of the Women’s Words archive at Manchester Central Library, which will be attended by our patron, Dr Helen Pankhurst, will be part of our celebrations.

Women living or working in Manchester are invited to share their stories with Women’s Words. These should be up to 1,000 words and take the form of a story, piece of poetry, list of notes, memories or thoughts and can be submitted until 24 November. For further details visit

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