Floella Benjamin on trouser suits, pioneering pregnancy at work and fighting for gender and race equality

As recently as 1981, Floella Benjamin was a trailblazer at the BBC. It wasn’t the done thing to be pregnant and be a tv presenter. She did it. In a fascinating speech in the Lords on Monday, she talked about her life and various careers and campaigns. I actually can’t believe where she started off her working life. Enjoy.

My Lords, I rise to speak in this important debate and declare an interest as a woman who, like other noble Baronesses speaking here today, has had a long journey to reach this Chamber. Many of us, as we stand on the summit of life’s mountain looking down at the valley of experience, think, “Who would have thought?”.

In 1966 I started my journey as a lowly clerk in the chief accountant’s office of Barclays Bank, a place dominated by men in grey suits and bowler hats. At that time it was my ambition to become the first black woman bank manager in the country. Sadly, it did not take me long to realise that there is a difference between ambition and fantasy. I did, however, cause uproar when I dared to go to work wearing a trouser suit instead of the obligatory skirt. Many of my female colleagues soon copied me, much to the consternation of our male counterparts.

In 1981, at the height of my career as a regular presenter on BBC children’s programmes, getting pregnant was considered a serious error of judgment. In those days it was almost certain that it would be the end of your career, as you were expected to disappear gracefully, with babe in arms, to a life of wifely domestic servitude. Pregnant women were certainly not to be seen below the waist on television when their pregnancy started to become evident. Fortunately for me I had a visionary producer, Cynthia Felgate, who at one time was in the Guinness book of records for producing the most television programmes in the world. She allowed me to continue working and presenting until I was eight months pregnant. This was unheard of and made national and international news. I was seen by millions of viewers fully pregnant, and once I even stopped mid-dance to declare, “I can feel the baby kicking”—the children watching loved that moment. Other female presenters were grateful for this pivotal moment, because they, too, could become pregnant and carry on working onscreen throughout their pregnancy.

It was around 1968, living through the civil rights movement and the race riots here in Britain, when I started to become conscious that more women’s voices were needed in politics. So I organised political meetings and events for fellow Caribbeans in London who felt excluded from society—something that the legendary Claudia Jones had earlier fought against by establishing the West Indian Gazette and the creation of what we all know now as the Notting Hill Carnival. Because of these influences, over the years I began to speak out more and more: I wrote letters to political leaders and campaigned on issues such as seat belts on school ​buses, diversity in publishing and in the media, and, for 20 years, for a Minister for Children—until we finally got one. It is such a shame that that position has now been downgraded from a full ministerial post. I hope that the Government will reconsider this change and correct this short-sighted mistake.

There have been many women who have been motivational to others and acted as mentors. One in particular for me was the late inspirational and visionary Marchioness of Lothian—Tony Lothian as she was affectionately known. She influenced thousands of women’s lives. She was a journalist, a writer, a benevolent force for good and the founder of the Women of the Year lunch. She was awarded an OBE for services to women, which she treasured and considered her greatest achievement. She believed in bringing women together from all over the world, from all creeds and classes, and from all social, religious and financial backgrounds. She fought for liberty, peace, fairness and equality.

She set up the Women of the Year lunch to highlight the efforts of women who were changing the world and making a difference and to recognise the contribution that they were making to public and political life. But in 1955, when she decided to celebrate professional women’s achievements with a lunch that would raise funds for the blind, she was told condescendingly that she would be lucky to find 50 women to attend. She found 500 and the lunch has continued to this day, with thousands of women from all walks of life being acknowledged.

Many occupations and professions that were closed to women simply because of their gender are now annually celebrated. Among the guests are pilots, train drivers, engineers and of course Prime Ministers—a position women could only dream about back in 1955, when women were not even elevated to the peerage here in this Chamber. Women leave the lunch feeling that they want to inspire others and to press the reset button for change.

But it is sad to think that, 63 years on, an event such as the Women of the Year lunch is still necessary because that resistant glass ceiling still exists, especially for women of colour who, as they progress up the ladder of society, are often asked, “What are you doing here?”—or they get “the look”. Women of colour know that look. It is the look that says it all. A few years ago, when I put myself forward for a board position, I was told. “Who do you think you are, rising above your station?”.

Do not get me wrong: things have slowly changed over the last 100 years and we are gradually reaching a state of equality nirvana. It is great to see so many women now being propelled into high-level positions in public and political life, at local level and here in Parliament. That includes women of colour, too—but not enough.

One of the many challenges that women sometimes have to contend with when they reach new heights is that they are so often judged differently from men and have to work harder to prove themselves. Opportunity is what we all need to make progress, to be all-embracing and not to be tribal, defensive and protective. I always get excited when I see real progress, so I was thrilled ​that recently two of our public service broadcasters appointed female chief executives. I hope that they are paid equally to their male counterparts.

Many women have banged on the doors of inequality and continually tried to break down barriers. We have been told to shut up or we would never work again, to back off and know our place—but that has never deterred us from fighting for equality and fairness. My mother was a housewife and did not have the chance to have a career in public life, but had she lived in today’s world she would have made it right to the top. She was a determined and remarkable woman. So we must never underestimate the value of women of her generation, who nurtured, guided and influenced their girl children to reach for the sky, and made huge sacrifices in doing so.

We can all personally do our bit to inspire, motivate and pave the way for future generations by encouraging young girls and women to experience environments such as Parliament by inviting them here to visit this Chamber to see for themselves the differences being made by women in public and political life. We need to write books about our personal experiences—or at least keep diaries so that future generations can measure progress.

One of the most extraordinary women of our times is Her Majesty the Queen, a woman dedicated to duty who is a record breaker on several fronts. No other monarch, male or female, has achieved or will ever achieve what she has—at least not in the next 100 years. I am an optimist, so I look forward to the day when matters such as the struggle for equality and lack of diversity are looked on with a degree of bemused nostalgia, and when the contribution of women in Parliament, business and public life in general is regarded as entirely normal. That day is fast approaching and, as I reach the age of 69, I am so pleased, proud and privileged to have lived and worked through an era when huge changes have taken place in women’s rights. I hope that I survive long enough to see the day when sexism, misogyny, gender inequality, sexual harassment and violence against women are consigned to the dustbin of history where they truly belong.

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2 Comments

  • I am married to a woman who, throughout her long life, has never accepted limits imposed on her sex…I can identify with anyone battling ‘limits’…
    In short, A great article

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Feb '18 - 3:07pm

    I am a regular supporter and admirer of Floella’s and know these stories from her speeches and autobiographical works.

    She is an absolutely terrific person and this party should utilise her more.

    Why is she never in the Shadow team and on tv for us because of it other than parliament channel.

    Wake up Tim and Sir Vince, even Nick did better as he put her in the House !

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