CELEBRATING WOMEN – 100 YEARS OF SUFFRAGE
Hello. I was honoured to be asked to speak this afternoon and I want to straight away thank Charlotte Parkin and the team who have organised this event and indeed Charlotte Dring who arranged for the flag to come to our home town.
Where do I start talking about inspirational women? How did we get to this stage in the march towards gender equality? To use a favourite quote, ‘by standing on the shoulders of giants’ and by this, I mean this slow progress has been made possible not only by celebrated figureheads but by the masses of ordinary women doing extraordinary things, seeing further and discovering the truth. I was brought up to believe anything was possible regardless of gender and my mother, Edna had definite ideas of fairness. My two grandmothers, Annie and Emma, born in the 19th century had shown courage in their day to day lives. Annie, with 5 surviving children, having lost 3 others in one week to a diphtheria epidemic, was the neighbourhood midwife, so necessary before the NHS when calling a doctor was unaffordable and the other, Emma bringing up 8 children, for four years alone when Grandad was fighting in the First World War. I was surrounded by politically aware and strong women, many of whom worked, others ran households while their husbands were at sea, in a part of Grimsby, the West Marsh, which helped shape me and fuelled my sense of self worth and purpose. I particularly remember Ada Hill, a family friend who belonged to the Co-operative Movement and educated me in a political sense. However, growing up in the fifties and sixties still meant for most women that they would be, after a modicum of education and a few years of working, wives and mothers only. Well, thank goodness we know now that we can do both!
How did we reach this plateau we are standing on now? I say plateau because we haven’t reached the top of the mountain yet, only then can we fly the flag. Rapidly going through history, we learn mainly about those women who were able to contribute to society helped by wealth and status and, prime example, not under the yoke of marriage. Can you believe when I got married in the 1970’s I couldn’t get anything on credit without my husband’s consent? But I digress. The rumblings of wanting to be equal to men, enjoy the same professions and have a say in the democratic running of the country began in the 18th century and finally gained momentum at the beginning of the 20th with the country wide movement of the Suffragettes, the activists, and the Suffragists. The Suffragettes, led by women like the Pankhursts, were so organised, even having branding with the colours green, G for -give, white, W –for women, violet, V –for votes Give Women Votes! on everything from posters to sashes and badges. Their activism, their bravery and their sheer doggedness have been well documented. How proud they must have been to welcome the 1918 Representation of the People Act giving the votes to women over 30 with property, which had been surely hastened with the work done by women keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk were needlessly slaughtered on the battle field in World War 1. But how sad it is that so many women and men do not use that precious gift of franchise today. So, how many of our local women took part in the struggle? We do know that some shinned up telegraph poles and cut telephone wires between Grimsby and Immingham, they disrupted meetings held by men who were speaking out against the movement and held meetings of their own. A local figure Ada Grant, later Croft Baker was an educated middle- class woman of means and an active suffragette. She became the first female magistrate in Lincolnshire and was elected to the County Council in 1919. She had 5 children too (though I suspect she had an army of servants which must have helped). She remained a bit of a rebel, refusing an MBE later in life, and was a benefactor giving her house, ‘the Mount’ in Cleethorpes to the area with the proviso that it became a maternity home, which it did and many local women were grateful for its existence.
Moving rapidly through the decades, the heady twenties, the hungry thirties, the war-torn forties, women all over had jobs, families, became better educated, saw the possibilities of parity in the home and work and by the fifties were laying down the foundations for a secondary wave of action. By the sixties we could see better things on the horizon. Becoming aware of possibilities encouraged women to think about how this could come about and by the Seventies the Women’s Movement was world-wide – unfortunately not everywhere, and indeed the subjugation of women continues to this day in parts of the world. But we did what we could globally, nationally and locally. I joined Grimsby Women’s Group in the 70’s, working towards gender equality – at that time called Women’s Liberation, which for some it was. Shrugging off the lovely names we were called – womens’ libbers, man-haters, bra burners – and they were the nice ones, we were aged 18 -50 and we were teachers, nurses, students, carers, charity workers, mothers and dare I say housewives. We were proud feminists and had a fervent desire to improve the lot of women, all women but particularly those subjugated by social pressures, accepted behaviour and violence. So, we talked about the general raising of awareness of issues, women’s health, contraception and abortion rights, equal pay, wages for housework and – domestic violence. We campaigned for all these things, and we took especial notice of the Women’s Refuges springing up all over the UK. We wanted one for our area. We decided to make this our goal for as long as was necessary to see a refuge established here.
We started in 1975 with formal approaches, the then Grimsby Borough Council and Cleethorpes Council. We had public meetings, drew up a petition and had meetings with councillors. We garnered support, Humberside Police, the Probation Service, Social Services, CAB, WRVS, the Samaritans, the Marriage Guidance Council as it was then, the Standing Conference of Women’s Organisations locally, chaired by Wyn Davey, details of whom you can see in the display. And all the time we looked on as women, and children were either forced to stay in violent homes or risk being homeless with no support network. No organisation or body of people would take responsibility, we were, like the women we wanted to help, pushed from pillar to post with no hope on the horizon.
So, like our sisters before us we decided on direct action. We had espied a perfect property for our needs in Cleethorpes that had been suggested by the Cleethorpes Housing Committee as a site for a refuge, but they had been over-ruled by full council. This solid Victorian pile had been bought by the council in 1970 and had been shamefully, left empty ever since. We walked into that house at 8am on 9th February 1976 and began making it liveable. Although we had no electricity, no gas, no running water, and it was freezing cold, we opened up fires, brought in furniture from home, constructed a rudimentary kitchen and I brought our chemical camping loo. Well- wishers donated food, fuel and money. We attracted local and national media attention continued with our meetings and campaign, as we continued with our own lives, jobs and families. More importantly we housed and helped several women and learnt first- hand what women were going through on a daily basis. It wasn’t to last as we were warned that Cleethorpes Council had gained a court order for repossession and so we moved out our remaining mum and family and on 23 March at 8.30 am a dozen bailiffs smashed down the doors and carried the last of our group out bodily.
Our action combined with the media attention, public support, agency support and some sympathetic local councillors became the foundation of a steering group after Grimsby Borough Council conceded the need for a refuge in the area with their offer of a building, the old children’s home. The Refuge, still on the same site, opened in 1977. Today with the vision of Denise Farman and team and an amazing refurbishment, it continues to go from strength to strength, the only sadness is the need for its facilities.
I later helped start Victim Support locally, working there for 20 years as Manager, and laterally and voluntarily within the criminal justice system chairing a local Crime Prevention Panel. Then chairing the first county wide Community Safety Partnership. After the dissolution of Humberside, I chaired the NE Lincs partnership, was a member of the Police Authority for 4 years and sat on the National Council of Victim Support, amongst other things. It was at this time I met and became friends with Muriel Barker who played such an important part in the emerging North East Lincolnshire and she was generous with her support and advice.
And that, finally, is what it is all about. Helping one another, being tenacious and working for what you believe in. This is evidenced by the many inspirational women we have in North East Lincolnshire now. Those in the charity sector, prominent business leaders, educationalists, health workers, police officers, council officers, councillors, women and girls in sports and the arts. And of course, our MP Melanie Onn who is the first woman and a Grimsby girl to boot, to hold the post since the 13th century – its been worth waiting for! I hope we can continue to inspire and support one another and who knows we may yet reach the top of the mountain. Thank you for listening.