Is this a century for women? It’s been good to see so many women taking centre stage lately. With more female candidates in the running for the Labour leadership than ever before, the Women’s World Cups in football and cricket, women athletes being talked of as a matter of course and even Katie Hopkins providing so much material for comment and outrage, we could be forgiven for thinking that the 21st is a ‘Women’s Century’. Even Theresa May offers low odds on becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party.
It’s all part of the current culture. As for football and cricket … well … amazing things have happened. The skill has improved immeasurably, the spectacle is enthralling … and millions have watched or tuned into these tournaments. We have become used to post-match interviews with women, women who know what they’re talking about when it comes to their sport. Browse a list of TedTalks and you’ll find it highly populated with women. Women now commentate on all manner of things. We have arrived.
But is this actually as ground breaking as it might seem? Was the 20th Century really so devoid of a woman’s voice? We know, don’t we, of women down the ages. We know about Boadiccea, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth 1st, Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher (and yes, I know there are many more), but what do we know of the women who, along with keeping house and home together, actually created change?
A Century for Women
I meet lots of families in my work and I get to hear about lots of 20th Century women who lived everyday lives, created and nurtured families and yet were also remarkable for their voices. Lately, for instance, I’ve come across several women born in the 1920s who would become shop stewards or union activists.
All of these women were born into poor families, went to local schools, got married and lived with their new husbands in rooms or with parents, managed to get a house and had children … but when those children were at school, these women went back to work and took on roles of a different kind. I heard about one who campaigned for equal pay in the plastics factory that employed her, and would not rest until she got it. I heard of another regular wife and mother who would think nothing of going down to London and addressing conferences of 3000 people during a massive communications takeover. And most recently, I read of a daughter/wife/mother and card-carrying Communist who took on union duties wherever she worked, right up to retirement. It wasn’t just Dagenham, then, that saw female emancipation in the workplace. I’d dare to say that it was going on in most cities to some extent.
So yes, this may be a century for women, and it is certainly refreshing to realise we’re no longer surprised when a woman takes centre stage, but dig a little and we might learn that it’s been going on for much longer than we think.
Author Julia Wilson