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Shirley Tart: Momentous century of change - for women and society

By Shirley Tart | Opinions | Published:

Veteran Shropshire Star reporter Shirley Tart has been a working woman for 60 years. In this very personal article, 100 years after women first won the right to vote, she explains how attitudes have changed.

The wheel has turned in the space of a century. Some may say progress has been grinding along – and certainly it has not come without its challenges.

Exactly 100 years ago this week, some women, those aged 30 and over and who also owned property, were the first to be allowed to make their mark, as they secured that precious right which so many of both sexes shamefully scorn today – the right to vote in their own land after so many years of campaigning, punishment and often highly dangerous activities.

Shirley in June 1966

Take a moment then to salute the great Emmeline Pankhurst and her colleagues whose commitment to their cause was paramount. Though it is also right to recall that far from being revered by all, the Suffragettes were treated with disdain by some who actively disliked and disapproved of them.

These pioneers championed women’s entry into a world that until then had been run by men, most of whom still couldn’t for the life of them see why wives, mothers, sisters could possibly become active parts of communities. Unless it was drudging away in a factory or similar, of course, earning the odd pittance before their men took the money from them at the gate.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary time and in all the years since then, the great Suffragette movement was rising, never to be truly at rest again.

The cause has of course had many different names. And indeed in the search for what has been loosely labelled for more than a century as equality for women, there have also been some sinister moves. Indeed ironically we see the very democracy they fought to establish and protect, appear in the guise of nastiness and aggression in the name of fairness.

Shirley today

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We as a society owe it to all those who fought for freedom – the same freedoms that were enjoyed by men and the better chance of opportunities for all, especially children being given the same chances the world over. It was Utopian stuff.

Yet what a fine example we have had for most of that time as our 91-year-old Queen reached 66 years as our monarch.

While this week, progress of women in power was illustrated as Prime Minister Theresa May took centre stage for what was surely one of the pictures of the week, flanked as she was by more than 100 women, all current Members of Parliament.

That’s how long it has taken since women got to vote, then got to be elected as MPs and slowly but surely took their place in the mainstream of our nation as they became involved in life at every level, yes, even shaking up the boardroom!

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In my time alone, from a mere handful, I’ve seen women rise up and take their place in the Westminster story and of course, seen our first women Prime Minister as Margaret Thatcher took her place in political history.

Former Speaker Betty Boothroyd on the campaign trail in 1973

I interviewed her formally four times and met her on many occasions. Whatever their views, few could fail to be impressed. The same of course went for Labour MP Betty Boothroyd and what a privilege it was to be in the Commons on the day that particular lady took her seat as the first female Speaker.

Many years later at the unveiling by the Queen of the memorial to the women of the Second World War, I got my final word with the then Baroness Thatcher. With memory a bit of a problem by then, I reminded her of a couple of our meetings and with a smile, she replied: “Yes and thank you for being there.”

It was a priceless memory when you do the job I’ve done for so long.

In our recent history, women have made an enormous difference to our country.

Eglantyne Jebb founded the Save the Children charity

Shropshire’s Eglantyne Jebb of Ellesmere, and backed by members of her family, was a vital part of the Fight the Famine movement, and jumped in the deep end by dispensing information about what was happening in Europe at such a crucial time across the world.

It was not an easy road to travel but one that helped change the face of communities across this land and beyond and became the precursor of the transformation of a nation. But for most people, Eglantyne’s greatest achievement was founding the Save the Children charity in 1919, as the Great War had come to a close after four horrendous years. Never had a charity been more needed and it survives today with pride and commitment in Eglantyne’s name and with the Princess Royal as its long time president.

Yet her story speaks of the difficulties women often faced when speaking out. Eglantyne was arrested for distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square that bore shocking images of children affected by that famine across Europe.

So where are we now on this long and winding road?

Theresa May joins female members of both houses to mark the 100th anniversary

Well let’s lighten the story of progress and welcome our fabulous actress, Dame Judi Dench. She has already played the character M in no fewer than eight Bond films and was even tipped by some to actually be the next James Bond. But no, not for Judi. She believes that the legendary secret service agent should always be a played by a man.

Duck, great Dame, before the dissenters catch you.

Because as we teeter on the cusp of wonderful success stories, we find ourselves still in a very modern gender debate – women’s pay, how women are treated in the workplace and the sensitive area of trans-gender politics and how to respect people’s right to choose how they lead their life.

Getting it right and not offending, indeed supporting change for the better, does take time. Every generation wants transformation and, we hope, change for the better.

And how much of that in our time and maybe in our parents time is focussed on us? On women?

In a year in which we mark 100 years of the female vote, controversy still rages on equal rights. The BBC debate about men apparently pocketing a good deal more than women doing the same job is ironically dominating the 10 O’Clock News. It has led to moves to equalise pay – not by upping women’s wages but by taking cash off the men.

So what in the last century, is still waiting for ground-shaking change? Where are the mightiest rows especially those involving women, going on?

Well let’s have a look. Another current crisis quite rightly surrounds the shameful allegations that so many women across the world (with USA and UK prime candidates) have been abused over the years, mostly by powerful men.

And while few would disagree that investigations must take place, many do wonder why it has all taken so long for the ‘victims’ to come forward.

The general feeling seems to be that young and far from powerful women could at the time have risked losing jobs and reputations. Does it take more than 100 years then for even a young and vulnerable girl to escape the seedy attentions of seedy men? And if at that distance, the allegation is proved flawed, just think of the damage that has been done to innocent men who will be labelled with the stigma of unwanted attentions anyway.

Fine example – Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for 66 years

What’s more, on the back of a minority of very nasty behavioural instances with women people are becoming scared to have a little light-hearted fun, pass the odd innocent but perhaps cheeky remark.

Fresh from the Big Brother House, the irrepressible Ann Widdecombe might have been away from it all for a month but that doesn’t water down her feelings on pretty well everything.

I know Ann and have often said how I admire her straightforward views while not agreeing with her in every case.

But one thing she voiced as she surfaced back into real life on the planet again was that we were in danger of stifling cheerfulness altogether.

Get the balance right

Quite right. Please don’t let the glum and cheerless ones paint everyone a dull and dismal shade of fawn. Not necessary.

But do get the balance right. In my time as a journalist (nearly 61 years) I have seen momentous changes in behaviour, in expectations, in things that were acceptable half a century ago but would be viewed with horror today.

Like, for instance, the Miss Shropshire competition, with which we were heavily involved, as a panel of worthies judged the best looking girl. I cringe at the reaction from some nowadays even as I write that.

Then there was the Miss World competition, run in this country by husband and wife team Eric and Julia Morley. When Eric died, Julia kept it all going and I recall spending many a weekend in London as they set everything up for the big contest. Not now.

There’s no going back. And we do want to move ever onwards. But on the back of this great week for women, let’s do it with fun, good spirits and thankfulness.

Shirley Tart

By Shirley Tart
Associate Editor (Shropshire Magazine) and Senior Writer

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