At the first assembly of 2019 this morning, I reflected on some of the key events of the preceding twelve months, celebrating 2018 as a year in which women really found their voice.
January, as some of you will know, derives its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus had two faces, one looking backwards and one looking forwards. And it’s traditional for me in this assembly to look back at the year that we’ve said goodbye to and anticipate some of the events of the year ahead. We are living through a new wave of feminism, hence my focus on women.
One weekend in January saw marches in 34 cities across the world, dubbed the Time’s Up marches, calling time on gender inequality and sexual harassment. In London the event was kicked off by none other than Dr Helen Pankhurst, academic and great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. We were lucky enough to host Dr Pankhurst at South Hampstead recently, where she talked about her book Deeds Not Words: the Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now.
On 6th February, we marked 100 years since women in the UK gained the vote. The Representation of the People act allowed women to vote for the first time in UK elections, as well as all men over the age of 21. Women had to be aged 30 or over and be married to have the vote, so it was only a victory of sorts. The women campaigning for the vote are traditionally divided into the Suffragette and the Suffragist movement. The Suffragettes, led by the Pankhurst sisters, are perhaps better known, largely because of their attention-grabbing and sometimes violent techniques. But it was the leading figure of the quieter, but ultimately more persuasive Suffragist movement, Millicent Fawcett whose statue was unveiled in April last year in Parliament Square. Fawcett, who entrusted the education of her only daughter to the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), first presented a petition to parliament on the issue in 1866, just a decade before South Hampstead was founded as one of the first GDST schools.
Looking ahead, Artificial Intelligence is almost inevitably going to play a greater part in our lives in the future. Robots can already fly drones, drive cars and carry out life-saving surgery. In March, a life-like robot called Sophia showed that robots can also make speeches when she delivered a speech to a United Nations conference on technology in Nepal. I selected her for my list because it’s interesting that so many robots have female names and voices – Alexa, for example. And people have complained that this reinforces the stereotype of creative male geniuses who code the robots, and subservient women who carry out their commands. Anyway, on a less serious note, here is Sophia talking to Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain.
In April we saw the publication of the gender pay gap statistics from all UK companies with over 250 employees. In 78% of UK companies, men are paid more than women. There are a number of reasons for this – women are far more likely to work part-time, and they are also less likely to hold senior roles. Statisticians calculated that women in the UK effectively work for free from 10th November every year because of the gender pay gap.
On 19th May, those of us who like a fairytale romance were treated to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I’m not sure that a woman who is chiefly known for what she wears should be a feminist icon, but Meghan Markle has commented on the empowering effect of single sex schools for women and she has also provided the tabloid papers with much amusement by breaking Royal protocol at regular intervals. She sometimes refuses to wear tights! She has worn off the shoulder numbers for official events! And she has worn skirts above the knee!
June saw football mania return with the World Cup. And in Iran, for the very first time, women were allowed to spectate in the stadium along with their male counterparts. In another very conservative Muslim country, Saudi Arabia, women were finally given permission to drive.
An increasing number of world leaders are women and one who made headlines in July was the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacina Ardern. She had not just had a baby whilst in office but even took maternity leave! This would be perfectly normal for any other new mother but for a head of state it was positively ground-breaking. Once back at work, her husband accompanied her on overnight trips with the baby so she could continue to breastfeed.
2018 was a very challenging year for the retail sector. Toys R Us went under in February as did the electronics company Maplin, outcompeted by Amazon. And in August, House of Fraser would have gone into liquidation had it not been bought out by Sports Direct. Debenhams has seen equally challenging times. This matters to women because a disproportionate number of jobs on our High Street shops are held by women and these are under threat because of the radical shift in our shopping habits.
The MeToo campaign against sexual harassment continued apace in 2018 and in September the world was gripped by the case of the US psychology Professor, Christine Blasey Ford, vs Brett Kavanagh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the US Supreme Court. Professor Blasey Ford accused Mr Kavanagh of sexually attacking her when they were teenagers in an interview with the Washington Post. She was the victim of death threats and her family had to move out of its home. She was also the victim of criticism by Mr Trump who said that if her allegations were true she would have reported them at the time. In the end Mr Kavanagh was confirmed as a member of the US Supreme Court.
In October, Dr Donna Strickland became only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics for her work with lasers. Her work has myriad applications, including in medicine where it can be used for eye surgery. Despite her groundbreaking work, she did not even have a Wikipedia page until shortly after she was awarded the Nobel Prize. And here I turn to one of our very own South Hampstead alumnae, Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London, who has made it her mission to champion women in STEM, writing at least one Wikipedia entry per day for a female scientist.
In November we saw the publication of Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. Barack Obama allowed her to go first to tell her story – his account of his time in office will follow. Her story, which I have nearly finished reading, is honest, down to earth and often funny. I recommend it to you.
Our December calendar woman, PM Theresa May, made headlines throughout the year. December was an especially challenging month for her as she faced unprecedented revolt amongst her MPs, and she had to face a Vote of No Confidence. If she had lost this she would have had to resign as PM. Luckily for her she won the No Confidence Vote but had to agree to not putting herself forward as the Conservative Party Candidate in the next election, due in 2022. Whatever we may feel about Brexit and about Theresa May’s deal, she does seem to have won a modicum of sympathy from some people in the latter part of this year. She has shown resilience (some would say inflexibility) and if there’s one thing she’s not, it’s a quitter.
2019 promises to be equally eventful. One woman I would like you to look out for is a woman in the cinemas right now. She, like Brett Kavanagh, is a judge on the US Supreme Court and her name is Ruth Badger Ginsburg. She is a huge figure in American public life and affectionately known as the Notorious RBG. She was one of only 9 women out of a class of 500 at Harvard Law School in 1957 and she has been quietly changing US law since the 1960s to ensure equal rights for men and women. She was appointed as a judge on the US Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, only the second female member of the Supreme Court. At the age of 85, she continues to work punishing hours on the most critical legal cases in the country. A hugely inspirational woman – go and see the film. Or I should say films – as well as the RBG documentary, which came out on Friday, there is also a film coming out in February called On the Basis of Sex which is about her years as a young lawyer fighting for women’s rights. Go and see them both.
These are exciting times for women and girls. While 2018 was a celebration of what’s been achieved, some of the events above also serve as a timely reminder of change still to come. The challenges of female empowerment are different but the mission remains the same. Whatever lies ahead, I know that South Hampstead girls will be the ones to step up and make a difference, for the benefit of everyone. Welcome back and Happy New Year.