International Women’s Day: Breaking the Bias with Our Special Collections

On International Women’s Day 2022 the Rylands reflects on what Special Collections can tell us (and what is left to discover) about the women who changed Manchester forever

On this year’s International Women’s Day, we are all invited to #BreakTheBias and to ‘imagine a gender equal world’, ‘free of stereotypes and discrimination’. The Special Collections held at the University of Manchester and the John Rylands Research Institute and Library preserve the legacy of many women who strove to bring about a more equal world. It is our responsibility to keep their memory alive and discover which stories from our archives have not yet been told and why. In this blog we have asked our curators which women represented in the University of Manchester’s Special Collections are particularly significant to them, and which ones are yet to receive the recognition they deserve.

Who Were the Women Who Shaped Manchester?

The 2018-2019 Rylands exhibition ‘Women Who Shaped Manchester’ served as a reminder of the immense contribution made by women to the history of our city. From the Suffragettes to Britain’s first female Minister of Education Ellen Wilkinson, Manchester’s tradition of female activism is well-known. The University of Manchester’s Special Collections offer plenty of examples of remarkable women. However, some of them are still clouded in mystery. While researching members of Manchester Geographical Society (MGS), Map Librarian Donna Sherman recently came across these names: ‘Miss Becker’, ‘A. H. Wood’ and ‘Fanny Rutherford’. ‘Miss Becker’ was none other than famous suffragist Lydia Ernestine Becker, who was admitted as a member of the provisional committee of MGS in 1884.

Front page of the Women's Suffrage Journal, where Lydia Becker is named as the editor
Excerpt from an issue of the Women’s Suffrage Journal, edited by Lydia Becker (Source: The University of Manchester Library, R56249)

With the election of Lydia Becker, A.H. Wood and Fanny Rutherford, MGS became the first geographical society to include women in its governing body. But who were these women and why do we know so little about them? ‘Cultural institutions such as libraries, archives, museums and galleries act as society’s memory’, Donna Sherman comments. ‘Our rare books, manuscripts, maps, archives, photographs and works of art tell us about historical attitudes, behaviours and values and how the past has shaped the present. But too often, there are voices which are absent and stories which are not told. Finding these experiences and revealing different viewpoints is what makes investigating under researched archives so important and so thrilling.’

Lydia, A. and Fanny are not the only women we wish we knew more about. Let’s look at more examples from the Collections.

Women Activists from the RACE Centre Archives: Anwar Ditta

The collections at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre and Education Trust (AIU RACE Centre) are incredibly rich in examples of women of global majority heritage who left their mark on our city. One of them is certainly Anwar Ditta, who, after a six-year long legal battle, successfully overturned a Home Office decision denying her Pakistani-born children the right to be reunited with her in the UK. As Collections Access Officer Maya Sharma writes,

The AIU Race Centre collections offer a great deal of information to counter and challenge some of the outdated (or discriminatory) attitudes towards migrant women and women of global majority heritage in Greater Manchester. For example, there is a persistent stereotype that women of South Asian heritage are passive and oppressed by their own communities, unwilling or unable to act/advocate for themselves. Women like Anwar Ditta led their own anti-deportation campaigns, speaking at large rallies and public events both for their own cause but also in support of other people’s campaigns and for a fairer immigration system. The collections that document these histories challenge the stereotype of passive and oppressed South Asian women.  

There is no doubt that the RACE Centre archives are a great place to start to #BreakTheBias that still affects women of global majority heritage in our communities. You can read more about Anwar Ditta and other incredible activists in this blog.

Breaking the Bias in STEM: Catherine Chisholm and Beatrice Shilling

Today the University of Manchester proudly takes part in the celebrations organised around International Women’s Day. This would hardly have been possible, however, without the contribution of many women who fought tirelessly to gain the respect of academic institutions. A remarkable example is certainly Dr Catherine Chisholm, the first woman to graduate Manchester Medical School. As Dr Peter Mohr, who conducted extensive research on Dr Chisholm and wrote an article about her for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, argues:

‘Dr Chisholm was active in feminist politics and was mainly responsible for founding the Women’s Students Athletics’ Union (1899) and the Medical Women’s Federation (1917). After graduating in 1904, she worked at the women-run Clapham Maternity Hospital and in 1906 she set up practice near the University drawing patients from female students and women in the area. However, her ambition was to specialise in children’s diseases; she was active in the Infant Welfare Movement and was the Medical Officer for the Manchester High School for Girls and adviser to the Manchester Child and Welfare Committee. In 1914 she founded the Manchester Babies’ Hospital (MBH) for infants with malnutrition, and subsequently expanded it to include cases of rickets and surgical problems. In 1935 the MBH was renamed the ‘Duchess of York Hospital for Babies’ and Dr Chisholm was awarded a CBE for her work.’

In addition to her contributions as a paediatrician, Dr Chisholm was also the author of ground-breaking research on menstruation, as shown by many items from the University of Manchester’s Medical Collection.

CBE medal awarded to Dr Catherine Chisholm
CBE medal, awarded to Dr Catherine Chisholm in 1935 (Source: The University of Manchester Library, Uncatalogued)

Another (and perhaps less known) important figure is electrical engineer Beatrice Shilling, born on what is now International Women’s Day. According to University History & Heritage Assistant Grant Collier:

‘Beatrice defied expectations throughout her remarkable life. She studied engineering at Manchester University in 1929, the first year that women were admitted, as one of only two female students. During the Second World War Beatrice invented a fuel-limiting device that was integral to the aerial performance of Spitfires and Hurricanes, and was awarded an OBE for her contribution to the war effort.’

Together with the first female members of Manchester Geographical Society, Beatrice Shilling is certainly another woman from the archives that deserves more attention.

There is no doubt that there are still many more surprises to uncover about Beatrice and the many impressive women that populate our Special Collections. Will we do our part to #BreakTheBias?

Cover Image: Women students at Owens College (Source: The University of Manchester Library, UA/9/2/89)

Further Reading

AIU Race Relations Resource Centre and Education Trust: Women’s Activism in Our Archives

Beatrice Shilling – Revolutionising the Spitfire | Women at War | Kenley Revival

International Women’s Day 2022 (

International Women’s Day: The Inspirational Beatrice Shilling | University Archives & Special Collections Blog (

Maddrell, Avril, Complex Locations: Women’s Geographical Work in the UK, 1850-1970 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Nigel, Theodore, Brown, Leslie, The History of the Manchester Geographical Society, 1884-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971)

Medium: Men and Women Who Shaped Manchester

Williams, Joanna M., The Great Miss Lydia Becker: Suffragist, Scientist and Trailblazer (Yorkshire; Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022)

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