Women’s history month

Mary Ann McCracken, Ulster radical and social reformer

March has been designated as women’s history month and is a chance to celebrate the lives of women all too often forgotten by the history books.

This March will also see the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8 and there will be lots of events up and down the country to celebrate.

While many people may have heard of women such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie there are many other significant women who have not been remembered.

Mary Ann McCracken, an Irish social reformer with close ties to the United Irishmen is just one example of a women who was influential during her lifetime but has now all been eliminated from the history books.

Jospehine Butler, who campaigned for rights of prostitutes in the 19th century, and Mary Anning, who made hugely important fossil discoveries are also not as well recognised as they probably deserve.

Social campaigner Josephine Butler

Fossil hunter Mary Anning

There are some interesting sites profiling women:

  • Just for women’s history month, a blog has been set up to detail events and give further information on women’s history
  • During women’s history month left foot forward are going to be profiling famous women at the weekend
  • Blogger Mairi Gordon looks at some of the lesser known women who have contributed to the history books

If you can think of anyone you think has been unfairly forgotten by history why don’t you leave a comment and tell everyone about it!


Egypt: The oppression people aren’t talking about

Picture by Nick Bygon

The Egyptian political crisis seems to  be drawing fewer headlines now the campaign to remove President Mubarak has lost some of its momentum, though protestors are still camping out in Tahrir Square, determined to force a change of government.

But the oppression nobody seems to be concerned about is the ongoing one which is carried out against young girls every day.

Female Genital Mutilation [FGM] is still performed on millions of girls every year. Its prevalence in certain parts of Africa are shocking, above 90% in Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, northern Sudan, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In most of these countries the practice is illegal.

Senegalese hip-hop star Sister Fa spoke to the Observer on Sunday.  She is part of the campaign to eliminate the practice, and though some prevalence rates have been reduced [in Egypt it has fallen from 97% to 91% over the past decade] there is still a long way to go.  She told the Observer:

“Cutting is still here, a lot of women are in prison, but cutting is still here, nothing is changing, there are a lot of laws to punish people, but it’s prevention we need.”

She also spoke about the ineffectiveness of NGOs in Africa, because they lack the cultural sensitivity to tackle the issue.

In this area the human rights project is limited, perceived as inherently western and seemingly patronising towards African culture.

So perhaps human rights organisations are not best equipped to deal with the problem, but acknowledging this fact does not mean accepting FGM as a part of African culture.

Violence and mutilation should not be swept under the carpet as a part of life, wherever that life exists.

Sunday was international day against female genital mutilation.

No FGM symbol. Picture by Blatant World

The full interview with Sister Fa can be read here

Why is Baroness Hale a “woman judge”?

The UK Supreme Court


In a recent article by the Daily Mail the headline reads:

“Shout at your spouse and risk losing your home: It’s just the same as domestic violence, warns woman judge

There are three things wrong with this headline.

Firstly, its not really an accurate summary of the Supreme Court’s decision and if you’re interested why there’s a good post on it here.

Secondly, the decision came from the Supreme Court, rather than a single “woman judge” as suggested by the Mail.

And thirdly, it was completely unnecessary to highlight Lady Hale’s gender as her single most important defining feature.

And yet it is so often the case that when a woman judge makes a decision her gender is almost inevitably mentioned, as though of crucial importance.  By contrast a male judge is only ever a judge.

By qualifying a judge as “woman”, her authority is inevitably undermined and her judgments questioned.

When the Mail challenged Baroness Hale’s decision by calling her a “woman judge”, they decided not to challenge her legal judgment purely on the merits of her argument, but instead chose to make her gender part of the criticism.

And this is not an isolated example of this sort of gratuitous labelling. If you search “woman judge” in the Daily Mail search the first three results are

  • “How a top woman judge dragged her neighbour to court over a pair of Dobermans and landed him with a £20, 000 bill”
  • “No mercy: Woman judge jails Czech sham wedding bride who is pregnant with third child”
  • “‘It’s a f****** travesty!’ Woman judge’s foul-mouthed outburst after being convicted of failing to control her Alsation.”

And the Mail is by no means alone in using these sorts of unnecessary prefixes on a regular basis.  But everytime it happens, the female judge is labelled as different.

This is surely dangerous in a society where difference in our judges is not acceptable.

The Sky Sports Sexism Saga

This week the media has been engulfed in the drama surrounding the sexist comments made about lines woman Sian Massey and the subsequent sacking and resignation of pundits Andy Gray and  Richard Keys respectively.

The topic even made it onto Question Time on Thursday night, where business woman and former contestant on The Apprentice Katie Hopkins caused her own controversy by suggesting women could not take equal treatment.  She  said:

“I think Sky Sports has completely lost its sense of humour. I think as a nation potentially we have lost our collective sense of humour.

“I think people like Karren Brady, who have appointed herself patron saint of all things equal, does not speak on behalf of all of the sisterhood.

“I think women actually don’t want equal treatment, they couldn’t handle it if they got it, quite a number of them. It’s a tough world out there.

“I think the art of banter is something we should be proud of as a nation. I worked for a while in the military and our forces, the best in the world, in my opinion, they survive in banter. I think we need to keep that, we need to look after it.”

But does the sacking of a sports commentator, who incidentally is paid 1.7 million for the pleasure, really constitute Sky Sports losing its sense of humour?

For a start it is  questionable whether the comments made by Gray and Keys should even constitute “banter”, which surely is more than just being rude, and not to mention clichéd.

The term “banter”  covers a multitude of sins.  It seems you can call anyone anything, cover it with a veneer of humour and call it banter, no matter how nasty or unpleasant the underlying sentiment.

The fact is that male dominated work industries can be sexist and bullying towards female members of staff.  And even when its labelled a joke, its hard to deal with being constantly undermined on a daily basis.

In these sorts of industries it is important to question whether perhaps bullying may simply have been re-labelled as banter.

If this is the case, it is simply not acceptable.

Today, the most read story on the Daily Mail website is

Sky Sports sexists made my life hell, says woman worker who lost her home after being reduced to a nervous wreck

In it, Vanessa Bridger, former employee of Sky Sports told the Mail:

“Sexism and bullying is a culture which can be found throughout Sky Sports,

“When you work there, it’s so accepted that you think it’s normal. But it’s damaged so many people, and it has to stop. Maybe now it will.”

If women are ever going to achieve equality in the work place, cultures where sexism is perceived as normal will have to be tackled.




Early abortion – should there be a change in the law?

The British Preganancy Advisory Service [BPAS] is challenging current abortion laws to allow women seeking early medical abortions to be allowed to choose where they complete their treatment.

Currently women who are less than 9 weeks pregant can take two sets of pills to induce a miscarriage.

Though there is no medical need, the pills must be taken in a hospital or clinic, which makes it more difficult for a woman to control where she has a miscarriage.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS said:

“This is about making it as easy as possible for women who are entitled to an abortion to have that abortion, it does not make it easier for women to obtain an abortion.”

86% of women would prefer to medically induce miscarriages in the comfort and security of their own homes.

In what way is it logical for authorities to make legal abortions more uncomfortable than they need to be?

Yet there has been an outcry from Pro-Life and conservative commentators.

Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP, said any change in the law will send out the message that abortion can be used as a contraceptive, while the charity Life said:

“BPAS’s intention is to increase access to abortion yet further, by making it little more than a pill-popping exercise”

But does making the process easier really mean women will suddenly cease to care about the act itself?

Current abortion law under the Abortion Act of 1967 only allows women to end their pregnancies if she is at risk from suffering “grave permanant injury” to herself, her existing children or if the child would be severely handicapped.

In all other instances, abortion is technically prohibited.

For an abortion to be legal, the women must suffer.  By the logic of the 1967 Act abortion should be difficult, uncomfortable and punish the offending woman.

If it does not do this, the fear is that the life of unborn babies will cease to matter at all, that women will sink to new depths of promiscuity and motherhood will lose its revered status in modern society.

Should this conservative scaremongering really continue to influence abortion law?

New women’s mental health survey

A survey published yesterday by newly-renamed charity Platform 51 [formerly YWCA] shows high levels of low level mental illness among women.

Shockingly, 3 in 5 [63%] of women suffer from problems such as depression, low self-esteem and stress.

The research found:

  • Almost half [44%] of women with mental health problems took time off work while one-in-four takes off at least a week a year
  • almost a third (28%) lose friends
  • more than a quarter (27%) regularly drink to get drunk
  • One in five (21%) build up debt
  • 13% self-harm. This goes up to 35% for women aged 18 to 24.

In Wales the statistics are even more worrying; 22% of women have self-harmed and 33% have lost friends as a result of their issues with mental heath.

Penny Newman, the chief-executive of Platform 51 said:

“Millions of girls and women are not getting the support they need. Women are often the linchpins of their families and their communities, and if three in five of them aren’t functioning at their best they lose out, their family and friends lose out and so does wider society.

“Working with girls and women every day for over 150 years we have seen time and time again how often mental health can hold women back.

“Policy-makers need to act now to address this unseen crisis in women’s mental health and provide a range of effective interventions. We must put an end to the dependency culture that has built up around prescription drugs, giving women more choice and control over the support they receive.”

Women, quotas and positive discrimination

A former bank chief, charged with the task of increasing the number of women on company boards has said he is unlikely to recommend the use of quotas.

Lord Davies of Abersoch, who was employed by the Government to conduct a report into the subject said he was “not  convinced” that quotas represented the best way forward.

Writing in the Guardian’s Comment section he said:

“Quotas have proved successful in some countries but many of the women I have spoken with are against these. I have not ruled them out as a recommendation but at the moment I am not convinced that they are the right method to encourage progress.”

The main problem with quotas is that those appointed under them are often regarded as less capable than those who aren’t, regardless of how good they really are.

But expecting things to change by themselves is perhaps naive.  Women have been a significant part of the workforce since the first world war, and yet most high level jobs are still male dominated.

Currently, just 12.5% of directors in FTSE 100 companies are women, but this surely does not represent the ability or talent of today’s business women.

Lord Davies added:

“Female executives need to be recognised for the talent and skills that they possess. I know there is a multitude of women ready for board appointments, but from the conversations I have had it seems the root of the problem may be accessing this pool of talent.”

A key problem facing women is the selection process itself.

Historically is has been the case that employers tend to reproduce the status quo.  When application processes are informal and opaque, these tendencies are enhanced.

This makes it very worrying indeed that the Higgs report of 2003 found that just 4% of non-executive directors had had formal interviews.

Making the application and selection process open and accountable is surely the first step to increasing gender diversity at the top levels.

But there is a very real possibility that it will not be enough.

If this is the case, quotas may be the only remaining option.