It was my very good friend Kathryn Apanowicz who first spotted her at a pedestrian crossing in Wellington, New Zealand. Instead of a little green man signalling it was safe to cross it was quite clearly the figure of a woman, dressed in hat and historic dress, guiding the way.
A quick search on the net told us the woman in question was Kate Sheppard, New Zealand’s most prominent suffragette who had emigrated from Liverpool aged 21 and led the way to that wonderful country becoming the first in the world to give women the vote, 25 years before we did. And they are immensely proud of that fact. In New Zealand Kate is a heroine. It is her face that adorns the ten dollar bill and every year Suffrage Day is celebrated on September 19 as a major day in New Zealand history.
We in this country finally got our act together with the unveiling of a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square last week. And not before time. But what really hit home for me was the fact that as well as 55 women celebrated on the plinth there were also the names of four men who had supported the cause of equality, because it’s a battle which, like it or not, we can never win alone.
Which is why I roll my eyes at women-only gatherings, the new fad for women’s networking events, all-women parliamentary candidate shortlists, in fact any situation where a company says this is a job for a woman or indeed best suited to a man. If the powers that be fail to recognise that which is proven, that an equally-balanced workforce is a more successful one, then they deserve to fail.
Positive discrimination doesn’t work in my book. And while we are on the subject, equal pay and equal opportunities are pretty easy concepts to grasp. Success should never be because of gender. If it’s deemed it’s a man who is the best candidate for the job, he should never be paid more than if he were a woman, just as a woman should never be expected to accept less than if she were a man. Pity that 80 per cent of companies still don’t seem to recognise this even though it’s almost 50 years since that Northern powerhouse that was Barbara Castle demanded that they do with the Equal Pay Act. And if you think inequality isn’t alive and kicking, what about the massive £200,000 in back pay it’s reported that actress Claire Foy is set to receive, because she was paid £10,000 an episode less than Matt Smith, her co-star in the hit Netflix drama The Crown? The clue is in the title, for goodness sake. It was a series about the Queen, a woman.
Even the great Emmeline Pankhurst had the support of husband Richard and together they established the National Society for Suffrage and later the Women’s Social and Political Union which led to the Representation of the People’s Act which we celebrate this centenary year. That very Act not only brought about the rights of women to vote but also enfranchised all men too.
I love the fact that the movement which brought about the most momentous change for women began on the back streets of Manchester. That the lesser-known Pankhurst daughter Adela based herself in Sheffield and took the message out the length and breadth of the county, beginning in Whitby. And that Doncaster provided a safe house for suffragettes on the run. That the first ever demand on Parliament for the vote came in a petition from a group of Yorkshire women is worth celebrating, as is the fact that two of the biggest rallies, of more than 100,000 women, took place on Shipley Glen and on Woodhouse Moor in Leeds.
Also, realising they needed the support of the men in Parliament to achieve their goal, two suffragettes hid under the stage at St George’s Hall in Bradford to protest as Winston Churchill took to the stage. He was eventually persuaded after seeing the efforts of women during the First World War, having previously declared that women were well represented in the House by their fathers, brothers and husbands.
There is much still to be fought for across the world, but we shouldn’t go it alone. Shoulder to shoulder means just that, not one in front of the other.
A statue in a sea of men is a start, but the battle is not yet won. Deeds Not Words may have been the mantra for the Suffragettes but it should be a mantra for today. And, as women we can start by voting in tomorrow’s local elections After all, our sisters died for that privilege.