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Suffragettes 100: ‘Promoting equality and empowerment’ woven into fabric of South Hampstead

“Promoting equality and empowerment” remains at the forefront for an independent school celebrating 100 years since women were first able to exercise their right to vote.

To mark the centenary, and 50 years since the eponymous 1968 sewing machinists’ strike at the Dagenham Ford factory, South Hampstead High School students performed Made in Dagenham The Musical last week – “to rave reviews”.

The play is based on the strike that was influential in the passing of the Equal Pay Act, an issue still very much in the headlines in today.

The first guest for this year’s monthly Speaker Series saw Dame Stella Rimington, speak to an enthralled audience about how she reached the pinnacle of a male-dominated world as the first woman director general of the security services, MI5.

Championing womens’ rights has clearly always been part of the fabric of South Hampstead.

South Hampstead’s second headmistress, Mary Benton – who served between 1886 and 1918 – was a loyal suffragist and sympathetic to the suffragette actions of her staff, including one colleague who spent time in Holloway prison.

School magazines from the period report that South Hampstead alumnae held numerous vital roles such as “the rigging of aeroplanes, women constables and patrols, munition workers, doctors, and active work abroad among refugees.”

Today the school has a thriving feminist society, run by sixth formers, as well as a ‘womanities club’, exploring the role of women in literature and culture.

Headmistress Vicky Bingham said: “There are no factory settings here – girls are encouraged to be themselves, to try new things, to develop and express their own opinions, to stand up for what they believe in.”

Other recent events to celebrate the centenary have included a group of Sixth Formers independently performing two suffrage short plays. Last week also saw special suffrage-themed events and assemblies, including a mufti day, raising funds to support the school charity, Sharing Hope for Communities, providing education and leadership development for women and girls in Kenya. The school also welcomed social historian Jane Robinson into speak to the girls about the history of the suffragettes.

Article first appeared in Ham & High, February 2018

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