The invisible women

Women have always played a significant role in the life of our villages, towns and cities. The shame is, that their role is largely forgotten and consigned to history.

As a Liverpool councillor, I had the opportunity to redress the balance a little and give ordinary women, who had made a real difference, both a face and a place in our lives.

In Liverpool, the Blitz Memorial Statue depicted a woman and a child. It was based on the true story of a survivor of the Durning Road shelter bombing in the Blitz. Women worked in munitions factories, as nurses, taking the place of men who were called up for service. They kept going when bombs dropped around them and often, as in the case of this survivor, when war robbed them of their children.

Kitty Wilkinson was a woman who landed as a child on the Liverpool shoreline. Her story was passed down from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. She was a working class women whose ideas changed her world, and ours.

Kitty believed that cleanliness was essential to being healthy. During the great cholera epidemic that killed thousands in the city, not one person in her street died. Kitty allowed them to use her copper to keep bedding and clothing clean.

Doctors thought she was mad, but then some realised what was happening. That she was right. Eventually they supported her and Liverpool Corporation, as it then was, built public launderies and provided clean water. Even Queen Victoria knew of her and sent her a silver tea service.

She saved thousands of lives and affected public health and medicine across the globe. But, as a lowly working class woman, didn’t deserve a piece of commemorative art.

She has it now. A marble statue in St George’s Hall, which children from across the city ask about and through it, can understand that they too can make a difference, whatever their background.

It’s time to redress the balance. Throughout the country, women are largely ignored or forgotten, or airbrushed from being significant players in our history. The girls and young women who live there know little of them. Cheltenham is about to bring about change. Women who lived here have influenced the world and acknowledgement is ling overdue, but it is beginning to happen. There are a number of women who should be commemorated; one immediately comes to mind.

Josephine Butler is one who should be remembered publicly and a project so to do has now been started. She was an amazing woman. At a time when women, especially vicar’s wives, were to be seen and not heard, she spoke out, took action and drew others to her causes. Fighting sexual exploitation, battling the Contagious Diseases Act and combatting the ignorance that kept women out of higher education, were areas where she took on the establishment, and won. She changed the lives of women in Victorian England and her work has resonance today.

Recognising this, Cheltenham Council has allocated some £38k, from Section 106 public art contributions, to kick start a fund raising effort to raise the cash for commemorative art to acknowledge the role of women in the town. Josephine Butler will be but one. Dorothea Beale will also figure as will the Women of Cheltenham who worked in the Great War. All planning authorities receive section 106 cash, which can be used for these purposes. Given the lack of commemorative art that features women, perhaps other councils could also help redress the balance and feature women from their area who made a difference to the lives of all.

* Flo Clucas OBE is the President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network and former President of the ALDE Group on the EU Committee of the Regions. She was a councillor in Liverpool City Council for 26 years.

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