On International Women’s Day, and in the centenary year of women (though not all Women) getting the vote, it feels right to reflect on how I arrived at where I am, on this day.
I owe much of my outlook on life to my parents. Living on ‘the breadline’, in a beautiful, but isolated Suffolk village; my family lived alongside, was supported, and in turn supported our neighbours. I grew up ‘helping out’ as it was called then. I also, at eighteen lost my Dad to leukaemia, and became part-time carer to my Mum. So, I learnt early on to be organised, to put others first, and to just get on with what had to be done.
My Dad introduced me to engineering; he had had a WWII RAF career involving radar, then the new 1950’s television technology. And I was fascinated. So I found myself in 1984 as only the second female trainee highways technician Suffolk County Council had employed. On my first day it was clear, some adjustment was needed. The wall-to-wall posters of naked calendar girls in the offices and site buildings took some getting used to. Making the tea for all the male engineers whilst my fellow male trainees did not. I put up with it for a while, along with the constant sexual jokes and innuendo until I began to stand my ground, all 4’11” of it! Because what I learnt very quickly in that wholly male environment, was that I was as intelligent as my male counterparts, and by refusing to be caught out by the office banter, I became part of the team and gender did not set me apart. It was the beginning of a brilliant 28 year career, using my highway knowledge to solve problems in towns and villages across Suffolk.
Specialising in traffic management I became a rare woman Fellow of the Institute of Highway Engineers in 1997 and was the Council’s first Lorry Management Engineer for fourteen years, Project Leader of town centre improvements in Framlingham and Stowmarket. Here I am undertaking a survey of the A134 using a theodolite, back in the late 1980’s. Check out the hair!!
So how did I get into politics? By 2009 I had achieved a Masters Degree in Public Sector Management, and I had a clear idea of the role of politics in everyday life and the certainty that I was a socialist to my core. It was a childhood helping out, and the sense of duty from years of visiting town and parishes as the public face of the Council, that set me on the path to becoming a Councillor. And then the cuts to services started, and I could not be part of a council cutting services, of not being able to ‘help out’. I left the council and joined the Labour Party. I campaigned across Suffolk for a woman Labour Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, and Jane Basham won the first round by 1,600 votes. Against the odds. Just as, against the odds I had become a successful highways engineer. Anything can happen if you try hard enough. I stood in the 2013 County Council elections, returning to Suffolk County Council eight months after I had left, but now there on my terms, with a 47% majority to serve Rushmere residents. I felt, as the result was declared, as if I had been in training all my life for that moment.
Politics requires personal strength, belief in yourself and commitment. And, if you are a woman the determination to succeed. Against the odds.
Councillor Sandra Gage