I was honoured to be invited to speak this week at the policy launch in Birmingham for the Women’s Equality Party. I made sure to namecheck a bevvy of wonderful Sheroes! Below is a transcript of my speech (with hyperlinks added for further info.)
“When I was first asked to give a short talk this evening and share the stories of some inspiring Sheroes of history many women came to mind. Should I talk about a woman who rallied for social change, as we are attempting to do, like Emmeline Pankhurst or Margaret Bondfield? Or maybe I should speak about a great historical female leader like Boudica or Cleopatra?
Maybe a revolutionary freedom figher like Bhikaiji Cama or Queen Zenobia. Perhaps I should focus on some great women in politics, seeing as that’s what we’re getting ourselves into here – Mo Mowlam or Indira Gandhi, or tell you about one of the less well known sheroes who have featured on the blog, Yennnga or Princess Pingyang? There are just so many to choose from!
Nut none of these felt quite right, and after thinking for a while I realised why.
When researching, writing and speaking about the many Sheroes of History I’ve featured on the blog I always try and think about not just what they did, but how they did it and what I can learn from it today.
One thing which I always come back to is that very rarely did these great and inspiring women act alone. They got back up, they organised, they stood shoulder to shoulder with other women and they found their strength in numbers.
So instead of speaking about individual women tonight, I’d like to briefly remember a few occasions when women got together and, quite simply, changed the world.
There seems like an obvious place to start – at the moment everyone is talking about the new film Suffragette which has ignited a renewed interest in the suffrage movement and started a conversation about women’s rights. Although a few key names stand proud and are celebrated, the Pankhursts, Annie Kenney, Emily Wilding Davison it was about much more than these individual women. It was a movement of thousands. Across Britain, women (and men) from all walks of life who though that something had to change, and believed that they could be the ones to make it happen.
When 300,000 suffragists gathered in Hyde Park on 21st June 1908, in a sea of white, purple & green it made a clear statement. And they were only just beginning.
If one lone woman had raised her voice demanding the vote it wouldn’t have been heard. But many women, acting together – whether through more violent means as the suffraGETTES did, or in more peaceful ways as the suffraGISTS did – no one person was acting in isolation.
If we move a little closer to home we learn about the Cradley Heath Chainmakers Strike – another amazing example of women coming together to create change. In 1910 there were approx. 3,500 chainmakers in Cradley and Cradley Heath – two thirds of them were women. They were paid next to nothing, working 55 hour weeks but barely earning enough to feed themselves or their families.
Eventually they had enough – they unionised and went on strike. For nine weeks 1000 women refused to work. The local community supported them – giving donations so they wouldn’t starve while on strike (including George Cadbury!) Their employers eventually gave in and recognised a minimum wage of two and a half pence an hour. This made chain-making the first industry in Britain to introduce a minimum wage.
If we look further afield we find the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Here the women galvanised in a mass action for peace that eventually brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War. Distraught at the ongoing war that had claimed so many of their husbands and sons the women said ‘enough’. It started with a small group of women gathering at the fish market to sing and pray together, every day they gathered – dressed in white – for months on end. It led to thousands of women from across the country staging a sit in outside the presidential palace in Ghana where peace talks were being held. They blocked all the doors and windows to stop the politicians from leaving until an agreement had been reached.
As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a fourteen year civil war and later helped bring to power the country’s first female head of state (in fact, the first female head of state anywhere in Afrcia), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
There are so many others examples we could look to; the women of the Dagenham Ford Factory whose fight for fair pay led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, or the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, where thousands upon thousands of women gathered – holding hands to form a fence around the perimeter of the RAF base in a protest against the nuclear weapons it was holding.
History, or should we say ‘HERstory’, is full of courageous women who have gone against the tide, who have fought often insurmountable odds and faced not only being mocked and ridiculed, but who have often been victim to physical violence and imprisonment for taking a stand.
But did this stop them? No it didn’t. The lives we enjoy today are testament to the fact that they kept going to win for us the rights and liberties they were denied.
And so here WE stand today, on the shoulders of giants! Not a new happening, but the next chapter in a story that has been unfurling for centuries. And the really exciting thing is that right now WE are the ones making history.
It doesn’t really need saying that there is still so much more to do – you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already realise that – but how wonderful that WE are raising our hands, stepping forward TOGETHER and saying ‘WE’ll do it’.
So, here is to us and to making history together!”