I wrote this poem when I sat with my mother as she approached the end of her life. She had dementia but remained feisty and determined to make a difference, right to the end. The inequity she faced as a woman must have been stifling, and yet she managed to instill in me a sense of power and agency. As we approach 8th March, the designated day for International Women, I invite you to think on my mother’s story and then read a little about what more needs to be done to support ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.’
I never thought ‘til now about her era,
Of how men denigrated and dismissed,
In the year that she was born came equal franchise
But alongside men ‘twas hard to coexist.
The privy council classed this lowly status;
Not perceived in her own right til she was one.
Abuse was not a violation til she was over sixty-five,
Inequity for her was just begun.
At twenty-one, there was no other option,
A baby now to nurture and to raise,
Perhaps the wedding more than just a forethought?
A union that would help her pay their ways?
No privilege of lofty education…
No relatives or ancestors of worth…
What chance to chase life filled with pure emotion?
Stamped with this designation by her birth.
Despite the choice to vote for what she wanted,
She couldn’t even earn an equal wage.
For, that prize did not exist ‘til she was forty;
‘Gainst this injustice women round her raged.
She toiled to raise four kids with stoic wisdom!
She fought to give them something she’d not had!
Would they appreciate her dedication?
And understand her choices were not bad?
She was not at the forefront of public suffrage,
She was too young to be called up for conscription,
But she knew her place as mother of her children
And loved them to the ends of all conviction.
She knew she was constrained by patriarchy –
A prodigy of times when women served.
She wrangled with the judgements of society
When offspring’s choices made her feel unnerved.
For she battled twixt the instinct just to love them,
To cushion them and guard them against hate.
No choice but sweet surrender to convention,
Striving to support and influence their fate.
Her lifetime’s seen her through emancipation –
Though prisoner of her mind’s restrictive bars.
I hope she realised her own ambitions,
And felt so proud of all those battle scars.
It is because of her that I have freedom.
And for the world she was no suffragette…
But she laid foundations for a kinder future
And this is her time-honoured epithet.
Although things have moved on since my mother’s era, we have not moved far enough! With our most recent history, I can’t say with any conviction that the human species gets better and better all the time. In fact, I think we are often in a reverse spin. I saw something last week which so strongly endorsed that feeling; it shook me to the core. It was an image of the Munich Security Conference lunch of CEOs, presented on just about every social media platform that I can think of and each time, it was accompanied by the novel suggestion that even the presence of just one woman could reduce the tension and hostility that we have seen escalate beyond what is thinkable for the 21st century.
Rather than becoming embroiled in speculation, let me present you with something less hypothetical to make this most important point: we really do need to look back at history, in order to make the changes that are essential to securing our future. And we really do need more than a whole month to celebrate the history of women.
Icons was a brilliant TV programme shown just three years ago as an eight-part history series for BBC Two and it celebrated the achievements of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century. At the time, I was captivated by finding out about some of the heroes who changed the shape of the world, making it safer, guiding us through changes and challenges brought about by war or shifts in cultural values, and making great advancements in science and technology. The eventual worthy winner was Alan Turing, nominated for deciphering the Enigma machine and aiding the allied victory in World War II.
Prior to the final, an hour-long documentary argued the case for nominees representing different fields of human excellence – Leaders, Explorers, Scientists, Entertainers, Activists, Sports Stars, Artists & Writers. The criteria were: positive achievement and legacy, a degree of recognition for a British audience, and a spread of individuals across the century. Expert panels then met to decide on a shortlist of iconic pioneers for each category and eventually the viewers were asked to vote for favourites to decide the greatest icon of them all. The live final was shown on the 5th of February 2019.
Not one woman reached the final!
The panels who shortlisted the nominees were asked to think about legacy, achievement, impact, influence, contribution to the field, and their profile or iconic status. There is no doubt that there are many women who have left a powerful legacy, demonstrated significant achievement, and who have influenced and contributed to the positive transformation of our world. But it is that last category which feeds the continuing, and quite huge inequity where women are still not fully or fairly recognised for their contribution. Our profile and iconic status…
Clare Balding, who was part of the celebrity advocates, offered her thoughts on why women weren’t represented. She described the 20th century as “the history of men told by men” and observed that women were only just starting to be recognised now. She added that you can’t be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight. I think its true to state that women have, in the face of enormous challenges and discrimination, had to fight a long way through shadowy dark wings and blackened auditoria to find any light on the world stage, in order to help not only themselves, but the whole of humanity, to flourish.
We are still having to fight our way through to find the light!
I’d like to include Planck’s principle on science and use it to help illustrate why it is important to focus on pioneering women in history; it gives me hope that we can continue to change the world for the better. He took the view that scientific change does not occur because individual scientists change their mind, but rather that successive generations of scientists have different views. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Think about that! If we can encourage our growing generations of children to be familiarised with equity, diversity and acceptance (not to mention peace and collaboration and love) from the beginning of their education, we can really change the world. Besides our youth activists like Malala and Greta we have more and more examples to show that the secure future of the world lies with an unbiased, informed and critically thinking youth with a firm focus on the efforts and power in all of us – women and girls too. With each generation we can choose to get better and move further and further away from the history or inaccuracies and wild thinking that created the challenging situations that we now face. With each child born, there is an opportunity for a new way of seeing the world. Make sure children recognise their power in it by celebrating women’s history month and learning about the women who changed our path..