The Millicent Fawcett 150th Anniversary Memorial Lecture

15th July 2016

With thanks to the Fawcett Society for hosting such an inspiring conversation about gender equality and the history of the female voice.

On 6th July the First 100 Years team was delighted to be able to attend the first memorial lecture of the Fawcett Society, celebrating 150 years of it’s tireless work campaigning for gender equality. A fascinating talk led by Amanda Foreman and chaired by Charlene White led to a thought-provoking discussion of the issues faced by women today. Amanda spoke with wit, passion, and wisdom on the history of women being silenced by patriarchal societies. History, she argued, has spun a narrative that women have never had anything to say. Women must now rewrite themselves back into that history.

Dr. Foreman presented the audience with an example of idyllic gender equality. The Stone Age Catalhoyuk settlement in Turkey is shown by osteology to have been remarkably egalitarian in terms of physical labour and diets. However, the dawn of agriculture began to transform power structures to deal with the new phenomena of surplus and ideas about ownership. As civilisations grew in size and complexity, writing evolved to facilitate bureaucratic transactions e.g. deeds of sale, and to codify the laws by which large societies wrote for themselves.

King Urukagina, a Mesopotamian usurper-ruler in the city-state Lagash, was the first person to write laws that actively targeted the rights of women. In 2,400 BC he decreed that:

If a woman to a male has spoken bad words that exceed her rank, onto her teeth will a baked brick be cast.

And thus, Dr. Foreman argues, the freedom to speak became inextricably linked to male privilege. From Perikles in BC490, who linked the honour of Athens to the invisibility of women, to Louis Desnoyers in the Nineteenth Century: ‘Silence has been given to woman the better to express her thoughts’, theological and philosophical justification was given to the eradication of the female voice. And today, women’s voices are not clearly heard in the public arena. In the recent EU referendum women spoke considerably less than men throughout the debates, when they did speak it was for a shorter amount of time.

Beyond tracing the history of women’s voices, an analysis of women’s activity in the economic sphere revealed a fascinating connection between a country’s economic growth and female freedom. The purchase power of women is a force to be reckoned with; forecasters predict that by 2028 two thirds of consumer spending will be controlled by women. Furthermore, the role of women as generators of wealth is beyond doubt. 20% of the growth seen in the United States over the past 50 years has been attributed to the removal of ‘talent barriers’ in employment, which led to the incorporation of women to the workforce. Dr. Foreman also cited a study that demonstrated that a 14% per capita increase would be experienced by all Russians if the pay gap in Russia were remedied. Gender equality is therefore in the interests of a strong and prosperous economy.

How to improve gender equality? This part of the talk provoked some particularly interesting questions. Better systems to meet childcare duties were widely acknowledged as a necessity for achieving gender equality. Care for the elderly was another area that was identified as a problem for women, and one that requires a solution. The questions raised are clearly not easy to solve. But an absolute prerequisite to solving the problems is the presence of female voices in the discussion. Their experiences, needs, and ideas are part and parcel of understanding the problem and finding the solution. One hopeful tangent of the discussion suggested that with the prospect of a number of incoming female global leaders, we will move closer to achieving gender equality.

As Dr. Foreman said, only through understanding our past can we become our true selves. Learning about, and therefore connecting with, the lives and experiences of women throughout human history, is an invaluable tool of insight when understanding the challenges faced today. Rewriting women into history allows female potential to be truly unlocked.

Courage calls to courage everywhere and its voice cannot be denied.
Millicent Fawcett, speaking after the death of Emily Davison, fellow WSPU member, who was fatally injured at the Epsom Derby in 1913.