Queens of Industry is a small but fascinating exhibition focusing on the women chosen to represent the industries of coal, wool, cotton and the railways as “queens” between the 1920s and 1980s. It would be easy to dismiss the whole concept as merely a sexist anachronism, but that would be to miss a more complex picture and dismiss the experiences of the women themselves.
The decision to have “queens” was made in the context of the economic situation in each industry at the time. In the case of wool, a large number of workers were needed in the wool mills at the end of the Second World War and, in the words of the exhibition blurb, “the election of annual Wool Queens became a powerful public relations tool and reached thousands of potential workers”.
In some industries the queens were existing workers, but Coal Queens were drawn from the families of male miners. The queens were deeply attached to the communities they came from. Deborah Barry is quoted: “I don’t have blood in my veins, I have coal dust.”
There is archive footage and interviews with several former queens. The film acknowledges the sexism of the competitions; one was judged by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock and a leading trade unionist.
It also enables the former queens to explain the positive affect that representing their communities had on them and the pride and fondness they still have for their roles.
Although they did take part in ceremonial activities, such as the queen who switched on the Blackpool Illuminations in 1936, they also travelled — one Railway Queen went to Russia in the 1930s, met Stalin and attended a meeting of railway workers — lobbied politicians and visited workplaces.
Some also demonstrated a more radical side. Railway Queen Lily Dumelow sent a message to a Derbyshire Disarmament Demonstration in 1931: “Regret cannot be present. Urge on Derby importance of abolishing war before next generation forget what war is like.”
The competitions to choose these Queens of Industry all ended by the 1980s. The role of women in the coal industry became very different during the miners’ strike when they played a leading role in fundraising and campaigning. Most interesting is the link the exhibition makes with women workers today. In the film a young woman train driver, who drives one of the fastest trains on the network in a male dominated industry, is interviewed. She is proud to be a role model and sees a link to the industrial queens of the past.
There is a panel with details about the number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) today and an encouragement for young women to consider these careers.
This fine exhibition takes on important issues and is successful in teaching young women and men about their significance.