Sunday 26 January 2014

Pioneering women’s motility: Aileen Preston/Graham-Jones

This week you can hear from a pioneer of women’s mobility, in her own voice. AILEEN GRAHAM-JONES (Aileen Preston, before she married an Oxford doctor) was the driver for suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in 1911.
BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour this week (22 Jan 2014) played an archive recording of her talk for that programme in 1962.
Aileen Graham-Jones explained very forcefully how she came to mobility just over a hundred years ago. She took a motor mechanics course, became the first woman to qualify for an Automobile Association certificate in driving, and proceeded to seek work at the wheel, despite the astonishment of males in this very new industry.
Typical of many women pioneers breaking through into deck and engine work on ships from 1970s onwards (and to a lesser extent Victoria Drummond, the first woman marine engineer, who began training just eight years after Aileen), she found that once men discovered she was serious most of them were helpful in assisting her progress.
Aileen drove for the Women’s Social and Political Union Wolseley (donated by motor heiress Mabel Dodge) for six months.
Afterwards she went on to directly help more women become mobile. Professor Krista Cowman explained that in 1913 in Kensington Aileen opened up a motoring school for women where they could learn how to change a wheel and fix a vehicle. In WW1 she became a VAD.


She had counterpart in another WSPU chauffeur Vera (Jack) Holme. (see pic, driving Emmeline Pankhurst)

Now a heroine of some feminist lesbians, ‘Jack’s’ papers at the Women’s Library include this poem, The Home is her Sphere. By SM George, it highlights mobility:
A women may travel if she be so inclined
It is even supposed it may broaden her mind
Spend the spring at Biarritz and the winter in Rome,
But she never can vote, for her place is the home.

Of course, the women’s suffrage movement as a whole also led to women’s increased mobility and motility (the sense that one can indeed be mobile) because of its confident assumption that women’s place was everywhere, not just at the hearth.
It was too early to imagine that women would one day be at the helm of big ships, not only the small pleasure boats they were just beginning to use. But by employing ‘lady chauffeuses’ the WSPU certainly paved the way.
Pioneering women like Preston and Holmes proved that women could travel confidently, not just as passengers but with technical knowledge of the vehicles they commanded. They are the foremothers of today’s women captains, such as Inger Klein Olsen (see pic) celebrated in other entries in this blog.

You can hear it Aileen Graham-Jones’ recording on

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