Cardsharp: The Greeting Card Sisterhood

As yesterday (March 8) was International Women’s Day, it is a great opportunity to share a recent Cardsharp article, entitled from Progressive Greetings…

Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

As Cardsharp perused the pictures of the recent winners of The Henries, in what has been an historic year for both the awards and our trade, he reflected on what was a timely triumph in female supremacy. Adding extra poignancy, the television was on in the background and was screening the historical epic, Mary Queen of Scots. Cardsharp was more than happy to tap into his feminine side and acknowledge a proud surge of oestrogen.

Above: The 2018 Mary Queen of Scots film details the first female ruler of Scotland.
Above: The 2018 Mary Queen of Scots film details the first female ruler of Scotland.

In a dramatic scene in the 2018 Mary Queen of Scots film, John Knox, the father of Scottish Protestantism, railed loudly and violently against the poor (and the later to be beheaded) Mary, as being part of a ‘Monstrous Regimen of Women’. Mary was the first female ruler of Scotland while over the border, the English monarch was Elizabeth the First, then the second ever female ruler of England. In the 16th century, even an ‘enlightened’ protestant reformer like John Knox, thought that women were inferior to men, capable only of domestic chores and childbearing.

Above: John Knox’s 1558 blast of the Protestant trumpet was initially targeted at Mary Tudor, England’s first ever female ruler.
Above: John Knox’s 1558 blast of the Protestant trumpet was initially targeted at Mary Tudor, England’s first ever female ruler.

Jump forward to the early 20th century, not much more than a long lifetime ago, and suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst were being imprisoned for their battle for women’s right to vote. And if that led to equality of the sexes, you had another thing coming.

Women were still kept firmly in their place. Even in the UK it was only in 1948 that women could be awarded a degree. Up to then the best they were given was a ‘Diploma’, and then even only if they recorded higher marks then the men.

Cardsharp recalls it was not until the late 1960s that a prolonged strike at the Ford Factory in Dagenham that led to Barbara Castle (who was also the first women to hold a very senior cabinet position in government) introducing the Equal Pay Act, which gave legal protection for women doing similar roles to men to be paid the same.

Above: Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and Annie Kenney, campaigning in 1908.
Above: Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and Annie Kenney, campaigning in 1908.

So, why the Cardsharp history lesson? Well, it occurred to him that despite of how far women have come in terms of achieving equality since John Knox’s tirade, there are certain sectors where there is still a lot of work to do. Top positions in Footsie companies and the UK’s largest plcs are still dominated by men. Karen Hubbard, until last June, ceo of Britain’s largest greeting card retail chain, Card Factory, was a notable exception, as was Kate Swann, when she was running WHSmith (now chairman of Moonpig). And there are many sectors like construction, engineering, the military and sports administration, where there are virtually no females in any relatively senior positions. But as Cardsharp continued to browse his PG, just as poor Queen Mary was about to face the executioner’s axe, the realisation struck that thankfully the same cannot be said of our greeting card industry. We should be proud of industry’s role as a pioneering one for women in the UK.

Cardsharp just had to look at the recent Henries’ winners to see this. Of the 18 new product award categories, some 15 of those who proudly brandished the resultant trophies were female. And of these, most were not only the designers, but the managing directors and indeed the owners of the publishing companies that scooped the awards. And some of female publishers not only bagged one prestigious award, but the likes of Rosie Made a Thing, Louise Mulgrew Designs and Paper Salad (if you count their licensed Glick giftwrap range) scooped two! And they were joined by other female-owned publishing companies, like Cherry Orchard Publishing, Belly Button Designs, Jess Hogarth, Raspberry Blossom and Dandelion Stationery. Added to these are Wendy Jones- Blackett and Five Dollar Shake, both wife and husband combos, but it is Wendy and Beth who firmly make their companies’ respective creative footprints.

Above: Rosie Harrison, founder and md of Rosie Made a Thing with her two Henries 2020 trophies.
Above: Rosie Harrison, founder and md of Rosie Made a Thing with her two Henries 2020 trophies.

And indeed, reflected Cardsharp, it was fitting that this year’s Honorary Achievement award was given to Cath Tate, founder of the eponymous company, whose whole career has included fighting inequality.

All of these female-led card publishers, as their Henries 2020 trophies testify, have been responsible for the myriad of best-selling and innovative new ranges that have sold so well in the last year or so. However, it goes further than that in our industry. Amanda Fergusson is ceo of the GCA and the trade association’s president is Rachel Hare (founder and leader of Belly Button Designs). The UK ceo of global giant Hallmark, Amanda del Prete is on the Council among other notable females, including the latest additions Tineka Smith of Huetribe and Adriana Lovesy of Mrs Lovesy, who also rightfully reflect the need for diversity to be properly represented. And further bolstering the strong female line up on the GCA Council is Jakki Brown, joint owner and editor of Progressive Greetings for 30 years. It has been a long time coming, but the Greeting Card Association in the UK is not only headed up by a woman, but the Council is now a rightful balance of the sexes.

Above: The GCA shared its centenary in 2019 with Nancy Astor becoming the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. (Left-right) Amanda Fergusson (GCA ceo), Geoff Sanderson (of Celebration Nation who curated the association’s centenary exhibition), Ceri Stirland (customer and channel director of UKG, and GCA president 2017-2019) and Rachel Hare (md of Belly Button and reigning GCA president) at the association’s conference and AGM.
Above: The GCA shared its centenary in 2019 with Nancy Astor becoming the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. (Left-right) Amanda Fergusson (GCA ceo), Geoff Sanderson (of Celebration Nation who curated the association’s centenary exhibition), Ceri Stirland (customer and channel director of UKG, and GCA president 2017-2019) and Rachel Hare (md of Belly Button and reigning GCA president) at the association’s conference and AGM.

However, perhaps the greatest accolade the UK greeting card industry can claim, is that this position of equal opportunities has not been achieved by any positive discrimination or employment quotas. No, it has been achieved organically in a highly competitive industry where it is quality of design that counts.
Service and logistics are of course important, especially as companies grow, but the ultimate course to success is product. And it would seem in this department in recent years, women have not just been equal of men, but superior.

One could say this is because 85% of greeting cards are bought by women, so it is not surprising that women are so strongly represented. But it was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s there was barely a woman in a senior position in the card trade. Back then the greeting card industry was very manufacturer-orientated, so it was not really surprising that men dominated. In the 1980s more creative-led publishers like Simon Elvin, Kingsley Cards, and Andrew Brownsword came to prominence, (while the latter two’s principal creatives were women), these publishers were still owned by great male entrepreneurs, namely Jeff Bottomley, Simon Elvin (albeit with Janet Elvin a breath away) and Andrew Brownsword. The ranks of the GCA council were exclusively male then and as far as Cardsharp’s recollections go, the first woman did not appear on the Council until the 1990s. The first woman GCA president was not appointed until the late noughties and yet now both the present and previous incumbent have been female.

Above: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, recorded in 1985 by the British pop duo Eurythmics and American singer Aretha Franklin immediately became a feminist anthem.
Above: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, recorded in 1985 by the British pop duo Eurythmics and American singer Aretha Franklin immediately became a feminist anthem.

It really was when ‘Sisters were doin’ it for themselves’, to quote the Eurythmics/Aretha Franklin feminist anthem, that these changes really started to occur. Talented creatives realised they really had the ability to make a good business for themselves and not just for a publisher employing them. The original trailblazers were the likes of Louise Tighe, owner of Paperlink and the aforementioned Cath Tate, but a whole raft of today’s successful publishing female-owned names have followed…Belly Button Designs, Cinnamon Aitch, Cherry Orchard, Holy Mackerel, Paper Salad and Wrendale Designs to name just a few.

Cardsharp also poses another question. Is the generally civilised and friendly nature of competition between because of the lack of alpha male machismo in the industry? Is it the absence of ‘out of control’ testosterone which helps make up the famously social nature of the greeting card trade?

If so, Cardsharp concludes we have yet another reason in the greeting card industry to be thankful for what that 16th century reformer John Knox called that ‘Monstrous Regimen of Women’!

Above: A Belly Button Designs card design which celebrates female friendship.
Above: A Belly Button Designs card design which celebrates female friendship.

Top: Women, quite rightly, have a strong presence in the UK greeting card industry.

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