The most inspirational women are closer to home than you might think…

As part of the www.100deeds.co.uk project, which celebrates the memory of suffragette  Emily Wilding Davison and asks ‘what is gender equality today?’, I decided to post an edited version of a talk I gave on International Women’s Day.

Edith Garrud cartoon (in Punch)

Edith Garrud (reproduced from Wikipedia)

I was asked to give an inspirational speech for International Womens’ Day in March – and was wracking my brains for ages and came up with a list of inspirational women to tell the audience about. But then I thought I’d just start with my own story – because I don’t think that it is unique or unusual, and I don’t think that women achieving things should be regarded as unique or unusual. It’s more that sometimes you have to look a bit harder to find women’s stories – so my talk ended up being about discovering women’s stories, and making women’s voices heard.

My name is Sam Hall. I set up 17Percent in 2009.

I am a writer, primarily a playwright, but formerly a journalist and editor of a trendy local magazine. I had always liked plays and when I was at school, I won a competition to write one, but I fell in with the student journalism crowd at university, stopped writing plays and carried on with journalism after for several years.

But about ten years ago, I started to get a hankering to write plays again, and after doing a short course at The Royal Court I did an MA in Plays and Scripts. It was while I was doing these and various other writing courses that it began to seep in that there was an overwhelming majority of women in the room. Maybe this inequality can simply be explained by learning styles. Perhaps women prefer to learn by going on a course, whereas a man might just jump straight in and do his creative endeavour – the ‘reading the instructions first vs. just putting it together’ argument.

Anyway, this started me thinking, that with all these women learning how to write plays, I should be being able to see lots of plays by women. But looking around in London where I lived at the time, I noticed that it tipped the other way. I could usually see about 5 modern plays written by men to every play by a woman. (And I’m not counting Shakepeare, as that makes the figures even lower.)

So I discovered that the percentage of plays on in UK theatres written by women since about 2000 has remained at about 17%. I decided to start an organisation to support and promote female playwrights called 17Percent. And with a limited amount of resources, I think so far, I have achieved quite a bit. I have a YouTube channel and blog where I interview male and female theatre practitioners, to offer advice and act as inspiration to other female playwrights. I’ve spoken on panels and given talks about female playwrights, including Aphra Behn – the first British woman to make her living from writing. For the past year and a bit I have also run a showcase night for female playwrights where over 30 playwrights have been showcased. I am currently investigating ways to develop this showcase.

So, really, with not a huge amount of time or resources, I think I’ve added just a little bit to the whole equal opportunities in theatre debate. And that is my first inspirational nugget – that one individual – can make a difference, can make their voice heard. So in whatever field you work in, whatever your passions are, whatever your situation is, don’t ever think that you can’t make a difference.

One of the major issues about women in all walks of life – is that they are sometimes not very good about publicising their achievements, so their achievements get forgotten – we were taught from an early age that a nice girl doesn’t shout, doesn’t act bossy, doesn’t play up. Also that, we do live in a society where history is mainly written by men, so their stories tend to come to the fore. Just like when most drama is written by men, the male stories tend to dominate in history.

So – and this is my second inspirational nugget – one of the major things we should do to start to address this inequitable vision of history, and also in society, in life, is to seek out women’s stories – and for the writers among us, to tell women’s stories and make women’s voices heard. It’s the only way that young people are going to be able to change the status quo, and let’s face it – it is the next generation who are going to change things, aided by us. They might learn about it at school – but don’t count on it, the story of Mary Seacole was nearly ditched from the curriculum as she didn’t quite fit in with current government thinking on the type of person kids should be studying, alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale, as examples of people who had a significant impact on Victorian Britain.

In fact, it is the children we HAVE to share these inspirational female role models and stories with if we don’t want to slip back into that Victorian era.

I just wrote a play inspired by The 1001 nights. There is an invocation at the beginning which says “The annals of former generations are lessons to the living: a person may look back upon the fortunes of his predecessors and be admonished; and contemplate the history of past ages and be purged of folly…” So go to the library, or the internet, or your local history society, and look for the stories of women, past and present, contemplate the histories of past, and CURRENT, ages.

I saw an item on The One Show about Laura Ashley. Her son was talking about his memories of her first shop and how she started what is now a multi-national business, and one of the most famous UK brands, out of her flat in Pimlico.

According to David, her son, Laura was first inspired to make the screen-printed patterned scarves that became the company’s signature, by watching Roman Holiday. She admired a scarf worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film, but being unable to buy one like it anywhere she made a version of her own.

Her husband Bernard built the screen-printing machine and printed materials and Laura made the material into scarves, tea-towels, napkins, and table mats.

They moved to Kent in 1955, and 6 years later moved to Wales, where they had a shop, then expanded so set up their factory, and the company really took off internationally, employing a large workforce. Laura died in 1985, but her legacy – the company which took her name, lives on.

One of the reasons often suggested as to why women only make up less than one fifth of the top jobs – is that a lot (not all, but generalising wildly,) a lot of women are not prepared to shout about their achievements; and are also shy to put themselves forwards. It’s that conditioning from childhood again. We are told not to walk home alone, not to talk to strangers (good advice but hardly empowering) – not to be seen as a ‘bossy boots’ or a ‘ball breaker’.

Thinking about Laura Ashley got me thinking about women in business, and that I actually know loads of female entrepreneurs / business women / freelances / call-us-what-you-will.  I can think of writers, a magazine editor, photographers, artists, jewellery-makers, crafters, designers, a theatrical agent, a therapist, a yoga-teacher, a graphic designer, freelance marketing specialists, a film-maker, playwrights, theatre company managers, web designers. I could go on…

Often through redundancy over the past few years, or through personal choice, women have decided to ‘Do it for themselves.’ I applaud you all for it. Talk about it though. Boast about it. Exchange business cards. Don’t be shy. Employ other women entrepreneurs, or do a skills swap if you’re a start-up with no budget. British people, in general, are bad about shouting about their achievements. We are taught it’s not lady-like. But it is 2013, what is lady-like anyway, and who cares?

Third inspirational nugget – employ female entrepreneurs if you can. If you are a female entrepreneur – get talking to people. Shout about your achievements. Don’t be afraid to fail and start again.

Of course, other factors such as women often being the principal carer in a family, lack of affordable childcare, and taking time out from careers to have children is undoubtedly a factor. But so is not having a decent childcare, or a returning parent policy enshrined in our working policies. The Houses of Parliament would be a very different place if mothers took their babies to work with them, like the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has done at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. What happened to all those work crèches they used to talk about?

According to a recent report, British women are increasingly being excluded from politics and public life. The report says:

“In 2010, 35 years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, Britain lay in 60th place out of 190 countries in terms of female representation in the democratic system, a startling drop from 33rd in 2001. Of western countries only Italy and Ireland have a lower percentage of female legislators than the UK.

(…) The proportion of female MPs in Westminster has increased by only 3.9% since 2000, while the percentage of women in the cabinet has decreased by 4.3%.” (from Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? By Counting women in http://www.countingwomenin.org/)

Two-thirds of public appointments go to men, 90% of chief constables and police and crime commissioners are male, and two-thirds of local councillors are male.

“It is simply scandalous that in 2013 men still outnumber women four to one in parliament,” said Ceri Goddard, chief executive of campaigning charity the Fawcett Society. “The number of women in the cabinet is at a 10-year low. Failure to increase the number of women around the top table of politics sends a message to the next generation that excluding women from positions of power is acceptable.”

It’s not all bad news though – I don’t want to end on a negative. There have been some really big steps forwards in just the past couple of years.

Last years’ Olympics and Paralympics introduced us to a range of fantastic, different female role models and medal winners – and for the first time in Olympics history every country included women – though sometimes they were on the ‘backstage’ team. And we’re seeing more women experts getting their own TV shows – in history, science, art and natural history. Representation and visibility of women in some places is really improving. I was even interviewed this year on the BBC’s Inside Out about Aphra Behn, on a programme where the four commentators and interviewer were all female.

So, in the spirit of the Olympics I want to introduce a fascinating and inspirational woman called Edith Garrud – aka the Ninja Suffragette, one of the western world’s first female martial arts instructors – if not the first – in the early 1900s.

Edith was the trainer and part of the Suffragette ‘Bodyguard’, which was set up to prevent the frequent arrest of top suffragette protesters.

She trained them in jujutsu at secret locations in London, and also taught them how to use wooden clubs, which were concealed in their dresses and used to defend against the truncheons of the police. The Bodyguard would protect the top suffragette speakers at demonstrations and help them to get away, often fighting with police.

“We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men.

“Don’t come to meetings without sticks in future, men and women alike. It is worth while really striking. It is no use pretending. We have got to fight.” Sylvia Pankhurst.

Edith died in 1971 and had a plaque placed to commemorate her, on her old house in Islington in 2011.

I went to Dublin at New Year, and one of the things that really struck me was the number of blue plaques and statues in that city. But the more I looked, the more I looked at blue plaques and statues of men who had made some contribution to, or had some link to Dublin. The only statue of a woman we were able to find was a fetishized version of Molly Malone, whose skimpy blouse was barely covering her ridiculously ample bosom, looking for all the world like she’d stepped straight off Page 3.

Weren’t we all disgusted that there are massive companies like Starbucks not paying tax in the UK? I don’t go into Starbucks anymore and thousands of other individuals don’t either. It will start to hurt them. If only in bad PR – which can kill a company.

So what has Starbucks got to do with a porn-version of Molly Malone? If you object to the everyday sexism by the objectification of women, on page 3 for example, then hit them where it hurts – in the pocket – don’t buy the paper, think about buying your TV channels from someone else. We don’t need to take the action that the Ninja Suffragette and her colleagues took 100 years ago. The nature of protest has changed.

Individually, we can collectively hit them where it really hurts – their profits.

Think about the change you can make – just by seeking out and sharing women’s stories, shouting about your achievements, or not being afraid to try things out, fail and start again. One of my favourite shops, Lush, a company that sells delicious smelling handmade bath bubbles was first set up in the mid ‘80s as Cosmetics to Go – a mail order company. That didn’t work as a business model for them and they went bust. But a little while later, still making the same ‘lush’ smelling cosmetics and bath bubbles, they re-opened the shop in Dorset as ‘Lush’ – and there are now shops all over the world.

Have you seen Made in Dagenham? Just 187 women at the Ford plant in Dagenham made a huge difference by striking against getting less pay than men, and it lead to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

It’s like a little trickle of rainwater coming off a field. If we each make small changes, those small trickles will grow into a stream, then all the streams will join up into a river, then you’ve got a big change, and then that river of change will meet up with other rivers and become a sea of change.

Your one trickle will make a massive change.

I just said you shouldn’t be afraid to fail. But my final inspirational nugget is don’t be afraid to succeed. Success can be a really scary, but look it in the eye and just go for it.

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About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
This entry was posted in 17 percent campaign, Comment, Debate, Discussion, Inspiring + Interesting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The most inspirational women are closer to home than you might think…

  1. Lucy Kaufman says:

    Thank you for this. I agree completely we should support each other in our endeavours. Talking of which, thanks south for coming to my reading the other day. Now I don’t feel so bad for shouting about it and publicising myself! I agree we women are not encouraged to do that and it still feels very alien. I appreciate the support.

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