International Women’s Day: Remembering Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Suffolk has a long and proud tradition of supporting Women’s equality. As the leader of the Labour Group on Suffolk County Council, this is a tradition I am proud to benefit from and proud to continue. Today, all across the world women are empowered to speak up and speak out. Although 2018 is less than 10 weeks old already it seems like a seismic shift in women’s rights has occurred.

Many of you will know the role played by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, but for those who do not know, in 1865 she was the first woman to qualify as a doctor, despite the many obstacles placed in her way by male dominated medical profession. In 1873 she was the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Council and she also helped establish the medical school at University College, London.

But despite all this it is her political achievements I want to focus on. In 1908 Aldeburgh and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became synonymous with gender equality in politics when she became the first female mayor in Britain. Some 10 years before some women got the vote she broke another glass ceiling.

And this incredible woman was a trailblazer so women like me can have the opportunity to participate on equal terms in politics, both local and national. This is something I am incredibly aware of and grateful for. But the journey has still so far to go.

Much is made of the gender imbalance at Westminster, how more needs to be done to promote women’s access to the corridors of power and change the culture and procedures of Westminster for that to happen. But whilst this is true the gender imbalance in local government is even more stark.

I am proud to lead a group of 11 Labour councillors, 6 of whom are women, more than 50%. This is a real achievement and something we can be proud of. But I look at the whole of the chamber. There are 75 councillors on Suffolk County Council, but just 22 of them are women, less than 30%. And this is the same across the whole of local government. Time for other parties to look at their representation?

This is something that has to change. There is little enough support for working age people to be able fully participate in local government, never mind support for women. The Labour Group consists of women who work full-time, have childcare responsibilities, who care for aged relatives, who are trying to balance careers outside of a political life, for most of the women in the Group they are trying to balance all of these.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson broke glass ceilings, she should have been the catalyst for a greater equalisation of political representation, but as I look across the council chamber at a sea of white, middle-aged men and listen to the language they use in the chamber it saddens me we still have a very long way to travel.

International Women’s Day is an important reminder of the journey women have taken and gives an opportunity for us to reflect on what steps are needed moving forward to support those women who will take up the mantle of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Councillor Sarah Adams

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