Women still have to fight inequality

International Women's Day was celebrated this week and, as always, it was an occasion that had a special significance in Morpeth because of the town's ties with suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 16:19
Some of the school pupils in front of the congregation at the Northumberland County Councils celebration of International Womens Day, organised with Emily Inspires!, at St Marys Church, Kirkhill, Morpeth that as ever honoured the memory of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. Picture by Jane Coltman

Regrettably, because of Parliamentary duties I was unable to attend the service at St Mary’s Church in Morpeth, the last resting place of a brave lady who stood up and fought for what she truly believed in — the right for women to be equal in society.

The issues Emily and her fellow suffragettes campaigned for were very different to the ones women face today. In Emily’s day, it was the fight for women to have the vote.

More than a decade after Emily’s tragic death when she stepped onto the track during the 1913 Epsom Derby and was fatally injured by the king’s horse, women were granted the vote in the UK. Had Emily lived, no doubt she would have been overwhelmed, but I think it would have also been a certainty that she would have moved on to other issues where she felt women were being discriminated against, many of which are still very relevant today.

Let’s look at just a few examples.

Men are consistently paid a higher rate than women, and more part-time jobs are held by women than men in this country. More women are also likely to be on the National Minimum Wage than men. Around only a quarter of the top boardroom jobs are held by women, along with just 191 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Mind you, that has dramatically increased since 1945 when there were just 24 women MPs.

Then there’s the rising cost of child care, which often makes it impractical for women to even think about going back to work when their children are very young.

Another contentious issue surrounds the State Pension. The Government is launching a review of the State Pension age, headed by John Cridland, who will be assessing whether the current system is fit for the long-term.

There are stories that many of us will have to work until we are over 80 years old to enjoy the same standard of retirement as our parents. Whatever happens, anyone under the age of 55 could be impacted by changes brought about by the review, which will consider what the retirement age will be from April 2028. The current State Pension age for men is 65, and 60 for women, but this is due to rise to 66 for both by 2020, and then 67 between six and eight years later.

Experts are predicting that the review could even consider scrapping the universal State Pension age and replacing it with a system based on different groups of workers, or even regional living standards, which could mean some manual workers in different parts of the country being able to claim their pension earlier than ‘white collar’ workers. Nothing has been decided yet, of course.

What is a certainty is that women born in the 1950s have faced repeated increases to their State Pension age, which critics say have been poorly communicated, leaving women insufficient time to make sure they are adequately covered financially. This has been brought to light by the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign.

Had she lived, I have no doubt that Emily Wilding Davison would have continued to be a vociferous campaigner for women’s rights.

Three years ago Morpeth was at the forefront of remembering the contributions Emily made to a cause she was prepared to suffer the consequences of the law for, and the brutality of incarceration in prison.

I was proud to be involved in the events to mark the 100th anniversary of Emily’s death, which not only drew attention to her involvement with the suffragette movement, but many believe told the true story of the Epsom tragedy.

One outcome of the wonderful Emily Inspires campaign was to have a plaque placed at the side of the track at Tattenham Corner to record her commitment to the cause, and I am sure there will have been flowers placed there this week.

It is also fitting that Emily was again remembered this week in a town in Northumberland that held a special place in her heart.