Rebel Women Project

The Rebel Women of Sunderland is a project that shines a light on the lives of Rebel Women from Sunderland with specially commissioned artworks and stories.


The project was originally commissioned by Sunderland Culture for Heritage Open Day in 2019, in partnership with Open Heritage and Sunderland Heritage Action Zone and was inspired by the popular children’s book 
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls which has celebrated the achievements of women around the world. 

Nominations for Rebel Women of Sunderland were crowd-sourced through social media with over 100 nominations of inspirational women of the city.  

Fourteen women were  selected from past and present to represent the diversity of the achievements of the women of Sunderland.  

Sunderland creatives, illustrator Kathryn Robertson, a recent graduate of University of Sunderland, and writer Jessica Andrews, who recently won the Portico Prize for her debut novel, Saltwater, were commissioned to produce portraits and tell the stories of the women.

This project is produced as part of Sunderland Culture’s Great Place programme, funded by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund, and in partnership with Sunderland’s Heritage Action Zone and Open Heritage.

See the artworks and read the stories of each of the Rebel Women of Sunderland below:

  • Dr Marion Philips, first female MP in Sunderland

    Marion Phillips was Sunderland’s first female MP. She was elected as a Labour candidate in the first ever election in which men and women had equal voting rights. She marched down to the shipyards in her round glasses, demanding free trade and paid holidays for the shipbuilders. A salty wind blew up from the Wear and whipped her face but she wrapped her big coat tightly around her shoulders and stood her ground. The workers cheered and stamped their feet. She was a fierce feminist who wanted working-class people to enjoy their lives.

    Marion was born into a Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia. She won a scholarship and sailed across the world to London, where she read History and Economics books on the top decks of red buses. She became interested in the politics of poverty and wanted to help change the lives of the poor.

    She was outspoken and resilient and became the leader of the Women’s Labour League. She saw women at home sweating over stews and their children with snotty noses and sooty faces and she wanted to make things better for them. She believed that everyday life would be easier if people worked together. She campaigned for communal kitchens in social housing so that well-worn recipes and fresh gossip could be passed over soap-slicked sinks. She fought for libraries so that workers could escape into different worlds and she wanted to build concert halls so that people could twist and spin at the weekends.

    She was self-sufficient and independent and wanted women to know they had the strength to change society, even if the odds seemed stacked against them. She gave a speech to a crowd of local women in Hartlepool and her voice echoed across the docks,

    ‘There is still a lot of educating to do.’ She called over the water, ‘and we are going to begin by educating ourselves!’

  • Kate Adie, journalist and broadcaster

    Kate Adie was born by the sea in Whitley Bay and adopted by a family of pharmacists in Sunderland. She grew up among the clink of cough mixture bottles and the soft pop of chalky pills in foil packets.

    She went to Newcastle University and spent afternoons studying in Leazes Park, until she got her first job in journalism, researching local news for BBC Radio Durham.

    Kate headed South and switched to the glitz and glamour of national television. She wanted to be at the centre of everything and travelled across the country to march in the swell of protests and to dance at street parties.

    In 1980, when the London Iranian Embassy came under siege, Kate sat in a car below the embassy for 6 days, as gunshots rattled the terraces. When the SAS team entered the building through the upstairs windows, it erupted into orange flames and dark walls of smoke choked the street. Kate made a live BBC broadcast crouched behind her car door, interrupting the quiet of the World Snooker Championship. She was calm and composed before one of the largest live news audiences ever recorded, and became a household name.

    Kate has reported from conflict zones around the world. Her eyes stung in the aftermath of car bombs in Northern Ireland and she was covered in the blood of strangers in Tiananmen Square. She walked across the wreckage of the Lockerbie Bombing and slept in a camouflage tent in the middle of the Gulf War.

    In the time of the internet and fake news, Kate warns the world that journalism is under threat. She says that we have to fight for the right to speak and push back against censorship, in order to hold the world in a fair light.

  • Margaret Dryburgh, teacher and missionary

    Margaret was born on Nelson street in Monkwearmouth. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and through church she learned about music. She sat in the back pew and felt the tremor of the organ under her skin as her dad’s sermons echoed around her.

    She began teaching at Ryhope Grammar School, then moved to Asia to work as a missionary. She shone as a secondary school teacher and quickly became the principal of the Choon Goan School in Singapore. She took local children for picnics, cutting the crusts from sandwiches and laying soft blankets in the parched grass. She taught her students to sing and they raised money for local communities as crowds trickled coins into plastic buckets. She was known to buy milk for the poorest children, smiling as the cream got caught on their lips.

    During WW2, Margaret was afraid and boarded a ship to escape Japanese soldiers with other missionaries, but they were captured at sea and taken to a Prisoner of War camp in Sumatra. The camp was cruel and the women who lived there were weak with hunger, but Margaret helped them preserve their dignity. She set up a magazine where she copied out recipes she remembered from home and diligently drew crossword puzzles with a ruler and pencil. She organised fashion shows and dances and the women almost forgot they were prisoners, for a couple of hours.

    Margaret met Norah Chambers in the camp, who was also devoted to music and longed to hear the melodies from her life back home. They set up a vocal choir, using the different timbres of their voices to mimic the smooth cadence of violins, violas and cellos. Margaret wrote the music for Debussy, Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven from memory. The choir brought the women together because they could communicate without sharing a common language. The soldiers came to watch the concerts, astounded that Margaret had managed to fill such a hopeless place with light.

    The women in the camp said the songs saved their lives. Being in the choir gave them a sense of worth and purpose, even as their bodies were deteriorating through lack of food and sleep. Margaret wrote a song called ‘Captive’s Hymn’, performed by the choir at a concert to mark their 2nd Christmas in captivity. It is still sung today, in memory of her ability to grow joy in the heart of terror.

  • Ida & Louise Cook, activists who smuggled Jews out of Nazi Germany

    Ida and Louise Cook were born in a red-bricked terraced house with bay windows in Millfield. They moved to London to work as typists for the Civil Service, where they visited the red velvet heart of the Royal Opera House. They fell in love with the gold-flecked ceiling and the lamps that blazed from the seats. They watched women in furs press painted nails to lipsticked mouths and peered through silver-rimmed binoculars.

    Ida stayed up late in their shared attic room, scratching her feelings onto paper by the light of a waning candle. She discovered she had a flair for romance and began to write novels for Mills and Boon. Over her lifetime, she wrote 112 romance novels under the name Mary Burchell. She lived a whole secret life in the candle-light.

    When WW2 broke out, the sisters were friends with Viorica Ursuleac, an Austrian Soprano singer who told them about the persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Using the money Ida made from writing, the sisters boarded a boat carrying as little as possible, winking at the soldiers who asked for their documents, claiming to be opera fanatics travelling to see a show. On their return, they draped themselves in feathers and furs and filled their trunks with jewellery belonging to Jewish families. When the sisters helped the families escape to the UK, they would use the smuggled items to meet the financial requirements of the British immigration system, so they could begin new lives as legal citizens,

    Ida and Louise saved 29 people from Nazi Germany. To avoid suspicion, they stayed at a hotel where Nazi officials spent their lunchtimes drinking sharp whiskeys in their stiff military boots. One afternoon, a Jewish man telephoned the sisters and told them he would be driving past their hotel in a taxi. He asked if they would run out and jump into it, to help him escape. The sisters risked their lives right in front of the soldiers, to save people they had never even met.

    ‘The funny thing is,’ Ida said, years later, ‘we weren’t the James Bond type. We were just respectable Civil Service typists.’

  • Hope Winch, first head of the University’s pharmacy department

    Hope Constance Monica Winch was strong-willed and full of big ideas. She arrived in Sunderland in her long white coat, mixing tinctures, stirring medicines and rustling folders crammed with plans to set up the finest pharmacy department in the North East.

    It was a daunting job, but Hope set about organising meetings and arranging classrooms at Sunderland Technical College, which later became Sunderland University. Her first students were two women and 25 ex-servicemen. They all squeezed onto a double-sided bench in the Chemistry school, shifting around in their seats as chemicals fizzed and smoked in the glare of Bunsen burners. Hope taught the entire course herself and treated all of her students as equals, narrowing her eyes at rude jokes and making space for everyone to speak.

    By 1930, Hope’s pharmacy department was a big success. All of the pharmacy teaching in the region was moved to her lab, and it became known as the best place to study. Students came from all over the country to look at the shifting surfaces of cells shimmering through microscopes and to understand the composition of compounds coursing through the human body.

    Hope’s legacy helped the university grow into the excellent pharmacy department that exists today, and students still flock from across the country to understand the substances that hold our world together.

  • Kenickie (Lauren Laverne, Marie Nixon and Emma Jackson), one of the most famous female-led bands to come from Sunderland

    Named after their favourite Grease character, Kenickie stormed stages in the early 90’s, knocking the Britpop boys off their pedestals in platform wedges and PVC miniskirts.  Sunderland schoolmates Lauren Laverne, Marie Nixon and Emma Jackson had enough of the charmless men topping the charts and released their first neon pink EP, Catsuit City. Lauren ordered young women everywhere to, take what you can, eat of the man, wear high heels and get a record deal in what would become her celebrated north-east accent.

    They strummed guitars in sequins and glitter on Top of the Pops and slid across the stage in their wellies at Glastonbury. They opened for The Ramones at Brixton Academy and drank beer with Courtney Love in New York. ‘I hope those raw-boned northern girls will be huge,’ Courtney said, ‘so there will be a planet run by women, the way I want it.’

    The band broke up when they got tired of eating chips at service stations and sleeping on strangers’ floors. They were famous for their quick quips and sharp wits, and Lauren started a spangly career in TV and radio, covering gigs and festivals and later hosting her own show on the BBC. Marie became the Chief Executive of Sunderland University Student’s Union, fighting for social change through creativity and education. Emma works as an urban sociologist and ethnographer at Goldsmiths University, reading, teaching and exploring belonging, public space, class, inequality and ethnicity.

    Kenickie were clever and wild. Don’t pretend you’re nice, they screamed in fur coats and slip dresses. They were a lip-glossed antidote to the male-dominated music scene of the 90’s and they refused to come pre-packaged or conform to expectations. They are still punks and radicals, believing in the power of art to create social change.

  • Elizabeth Donnison, founder of the Donnison School

    Elizabeth Donnison lived two different lives in Sunderland. In the first, she was married to a man called Charles Guy, and was known as Elizabeth Guy of Sunderland Near the Sea. They went for walks along the beach eating cockles from brown paper bags until Charles died unexpectedly, and Elizabeth was left with her heart split open.

    After time had passed, she began a romance with James Donnison, a Sunderland butcher. He came home with sheep’s livers and pig’s hearts wrapped up in newspaper and pressed their warmth into the palm of her hand. James and Elizabeth decided to get married. A remarried widow stirred gossip, so the couple tried to conceal their identities at the altar. 45 year-old James claimed to be 31, and 54 year-old Elizabeth said she was just 25.

    ‘It is evidently a lie,’ wrote a witness, ‘and I fear the coy widow is no better.’

    James came into a great fortune and became the owner of the freehold estate in Farringdon. He and Elizabeth lived well for some years and were known for their generosity among the local people. Elizabeth wanted to help those less fortunate than her, and when she passed away she left a large sum of money in her will with instructions to set up a free school next to the workhouse.

    The school took in 36 little girls with dirty feet and angel faces, and they were taught to read, write, sew and sing. At Elizabeth’s request, they were given two new sets of clothes and shoes a year. They learned how to keep houses and look after themselves. Elizabeth’s legacy took the girls out of poverty and gave them safer, brighter lives.

     

     

  • Abbie Robinson, Team GB paraclimber

    Abbie is a British paraclimbing world champion. As the first blind woman ever to represent Britain in a climbing competition, she travelled to France and Austria to compete with paraclimbers from around the world. She came home with two gold medals hanging from her neck, glinting in the sun as it set over the Wear.

    Abbie started going to Sunderland climbing wall when she was 13 years old. She slotted her feet into intricate shapes and felt held by the people who stopped her from falling. As she got older, she began to find it difficult to see the boulders in front of her. The bright colours of the holds began to fade. She went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition causing the gradual loss of her central vision. Abbie was afraid, but she loved climbing and vowed not to let anything stop her.

    In 2017, she joined the British paraclimbing team. She climbs with a guide wearing a headset who describes the size, shape and placement of each hold that Abbie encounters. Abbie puts her trust in her body and relies on her memory and spatial awareness to pull herself to great heights. She translates her guide’s descriptions into shapes in her imagination, which help her move her body through the world.

    Abbie loves climbing because of the ways it brings different kinds of people together and helps them to grow strong. She is working towards representing Britain in the Paralympics one day.

     

  • Emeli Sandé, musician and University of Sunderland Chancellor

    Emeli’s father travelled across the earth from Zambia to study at Sunderland Polytechnic, where he met Emeli’s mother. When Emeli was born, her parents played her Nina Simone records. The deep ache of the tuba spun gold from the speakers and the rich melancholy of Nina’s voice wound its way around Emeli’s tiny body.

    Emeli always knew she wanted to be a musician. She wrote her first song for a primary school talent show when she was 11. A strange silence settled over the school hall when she got up to sing. The words poured like water from her mouth and the teachers blinked in wonder at the complex melodic structure she pushed from her tongue.

    When she was 16, Emeli took the train to London, where she sang gospel in the shiny MTV Studios, stumbling down Camden High Street afterwards, dazzled by the bright lights and glittering promises. She was offered a record deal but turned it down because she wanted to study neuroscience at university, claiming that she needed a backup, in case her music career didn’t work out.

    Citing Frida Kahlo, Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys as some of her influences, Emeli has since performed at countless glitzy concert halls, festivals and awards ceremonies across millions of flickering televisions, including the London 2012 Olympics. Her silky soprano won her 4 Brit Awards and an MBE. She believes in the power of music to promote social justice and uses her platform to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS and breast cancer.

    She wrote ‘Mountains’ about her parents living in Sunderland in the 80’s, trying to build a better future. I’m going to have a bed with lots of pillows, she sings, and we’re going to build a house with lots of windows, and when we have kids we’ll tell them to remind we, of where we were now so we never get lazy.

  • Steph Houghton & Jill Scott, England footballers

    Steph Houghton and Jill Scott perfected their technique at their local Sunderland football club, dribbling balls and running circuits around the Stadium of Light when they were teenagers. They braved biting wind and mulchy fields in the mornings, goosepimpled legs streaked with mud and grass.

    Steph played in the under-16 team at 9 years old and Jill played for a boy’s team when she was 7, where she won the Man of the Match trophy. ‘They wanted to change the inscription to Girl of the Match,’ she said, ‘but I kicked up a fuss and didn’t let them change it – I didn’t want anyone to think I’d won because I was the only girl on the team.’ She got teased for playing football when she was young, but she tightened her boots and stormed onto the pitch, her ponytail swinging with the force of her strides.

    Both women went on to play for Manchester City, training through the days in their sky-blue shirts. Steph was a top goal-scorer in the 2012 Olympics, and played in the European Championship 3 times. They tackled their way to the top and played for England in the 2019 world cup, defending their team through the musky French summer. Steph wrapped her Captain armband tightly around her bicep and led the Lionesses into the semi-final.

    Both players support young women who dream of playing football. They want to help them break down barriers and defy convention in the sporting world. ‘My role models were Kevin Phillips and David Beckham,’ said Steph, ‘and now girls can look up to female footballers and aspire to be them, and try to follow in their footsteps and be even better than us.’

  • Ellen Bell MBE, Sunderland's first female councillor and champion of public health

    Ellen Bell lived in a red-brick tenement house on Bede’s Terrace. While her husband spent his days fixing fractured bones and broken hearts as a surgeon at the local hospital, Ellen gave her life to fighting the inequality she saw around her.

    In 1919, she became the first female councillor in Sunderland’s history, when she was chosen to represent Hendon. During her 23 years of service, she knitted tiny hats, warmed bottles of milk and taught women to test bath water for their babies at the first welfare centre for mothers and children. She improved cleanliness and care in the maternity home on Mowbray Road, giving newborn babies a safe, warm space to grow.

    She sat on the committee of district nurses, helping them to visit the sick in their homes with cool, clean hands and starched white uniforms. She taught a bible class for girls at St. George’s Church where she rustled the pages of psalms and revelations and ran a youth group in the East End, teaching young women to sew dresses and bake sponge cakes to help keep them off the streets.

    She championed artists, giving them spaces to paint, sculpt, glue and draw, planning exhibitions and hanging their pictures in neat rows in the town hall.

    Ellen’s life was proudly political and she worked for the Sunderland Ministry of Labour, helping to improve employment opportunities and working conditions for local women. She was secretary of the Women’s Conservative Association and represented the North at national meetings, holding her own with groups of men in polished and carpeted meeting rooms.

    In 1939, she travelled to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen pinned a shiny medal to her smartest jacket, as she received an MBE for her lifelong dedication to the people of Sunderland.

     

     

  • Nadine Shah, musician and activist

    Nadine grew up in Whitburn and carries the sea inside of her. She started out as a jazz singer, wrapping her lips around rich, complex melodies, but her own dark and brooding music grew out of the violence she saw in the world around her.

    She believes that a platform should be used to lift up others, and her first album, Love Your Dum and Mad, delved into the barbed world of male suicide and mental illness after two of her close friends took their own lives. She often speaks about the importance of talking and looking after each other, in her role as an ambassador for mental health charity CALM.

    Her third album, Holiday Destination, was nominated for a glittering Mercury Prize. She named it after a television report on the European migrant crisis, where sunburnt Brits berated migrants fleeing civil war in Syria for arriving on Greek beaches and spoiling their summer holidays. In bold, velvety tones she sings about the lack of empathy towards those in need, as well as Trump’s presidency, the EU referendum and the role of the media in politics. She says, ‘I think artists need to document the times they live in and what I wanted to do was to humanise the dehumanised by narrating first-hand testimonies. I wanted to give people a voice who don’t normally have one.’

    The daughter of a Pakistani father, Shah draws on her own experiences of moving through the world as a Muslim woman to push back against the racism she sees strung through the core of society. She is honest about how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated music industry, and speaks openly about gender pay gaps. She uses interviews to give space to urgent issues that feel bigger than her own.

    ‘I am just someone who wants to speak out about anyone who is in a situation where they are suffering,’ she says. ‘I am telling other people’s stories because they are important and they need to be heard.`

  • Florence Collard and the shipyard women

    During World War Two, when men joined the army and went away to fight more than 700 women stepped into their big steel toe caps, pulled on their oil-stained overalls and got to work. Sunderland was once known as ‘the largest shipbuilding town in the world’ and the ships built by women during the war were vital in carrying food and fuel supplies to Britain. America’s shipyards rusted and languished without men to run them, and people across the world looked to the fierce women mending, hammering and storming Sunderland’s docks for inspiration.

    Florence Collard was living in Plymouth when her husband was called up to fight. She did her best to carry on as normal, until her house was blackened and broken into pieces by a bomb. She returned to her home in Sunderland, where she joined other women on the shipyards as they unfastened their aprons and rolled up their shirtsleeves.

    The women drove cranes, welded metal, fixed rivets, painted and laboured in the freezing wind and sleeting rain. They worked 12-hour days, then went home to peel potatoes, sweep hallways and read bedtime stories to their children. They tingled with fear as the threat of bombs loomed over them. They thought of their husbands and brothers, who might never come home.

    Florence worked as a welder at Bartram & Sons shipyard and she was the first woman ever to be granted membership to the Boilermakers’ Society union. One morning as she drank a cup of tea before work, she heard a terrible explosion. The walls of her house shook and the ceiling began to fall in. Her kitchen was filled with thick black smoke. She began to shake all over. A neighbour appeared to tell her that her house had been bombed again, and led her safely out of it. Trembling, Florence looked down her street at the blitzed buildings, pulled on her coat and said, ‘I’m going to be late for work.’ She turned up for her afternoon shift at the shipyards as though nothing had happened, laughing and joking with the other women as they held the city up with their blistered hands

  • Aly Dixon, long distance runner

    When Aly Dixon was 11 years old, she joined Sunderland Harriers running club. She pounded the pavements during crisp, white mornings, not because she loved to feel the wind in her lungs, but because the club had planned a trip to Flamingo Land, and she was desperate for the crash and thrill of the rollercoasters. She loved to feel her body stretch and burn and she turned somersaults at gymnastics, learned to dolphin kick in her local pool, clashed hockey sticks and shot netballs, before finding that she loved athletics most of all.

    At university, she flew over the finishing line at the British University Championships, and was quickly snapped up to run for England at national level. She raced her way across the world, speeding past the ocean at the 2016 Rio Olympics while her parents cheered her on beneath palm trees. In Romania, she snapped on her Lycra and flashed through the Brasov streets until her thighs burned and became the 50k world champion holder. Days later, her muscles still raw from the race, Aly joined the Great North Run and sped from Newcastle to South Shields dressed as Wonder Woman. The sun caught her gold crown as crowds lining the streets screamed her name and she shattered her second world record in a week.

    Aly runs with the Sunderland Strollers and trains regularly along the salt-wracked coast or in Herrington Country Park, beneath the quiet gaze of Penshaw Monument. She is an ambassador for St. Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland and has raised thousands of pounds to help them support others. Her motto is, ‘Respect the distance, but don’t fear it,’ which she finds useful during marathons and in her ambitions and dreams.