On the Saturday before last, millions took to the streets in organised Women’s marches. It is no coincidence that these marches took place a day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the Unites States, his election is being seen as one of the biggest threats to equality in recent times. In fact I could probably write a whole series of assemblies on Trump and his actions since he seems intent on making his mark on history even before he completes his first month in office.
These marches have a precise and quite humble origin. On the night Donald Trump was elected President, a retired grandmother called Theresa Shook was frustrated that a man with such publicly offensive views could be elected US president. Living on a remote island in Hawaii she reached out to others who felt the same in a private Facebook group called ‘pantsuit nation’. She simply posted the suggestion “we should march”. She asked her online friends how to set up an event, giving the date of 21st January and went to bed. When she woke, ten thousand people had responded stated they were interested in attending. The event quickly snowballed to be about issues well beyond Trump, attracting mainly women but also many men and many groups campaigning for those on the margins of society.
As usual there was a slightly disruptive ripple through social media, especially Twitter. Why are all these women protesting? Surely they have never had it so good? Who is sticking up for men’s rights? It is the same kind of malcontent that occurs on days such as international womens day. Why is there no international mens day? Actually there is, it is on November the 19th.
If we look at things from a very narrow perspective then yes women have never had it so good. Women are no longer barred from certain professions, I can take for granted that my young daughter has a choice to become whatever she wants, whether that be a nuclear physicist, the head of MI5, or a hairdresser. Some of you might think I would be better off if she did become a hairdresser! Girls achieve higher GCSE and A-level results than boys, they win more places at top universities. For the last 40 years around 60% of students admitted to medical school have been women, by the end of this year there will be more female than male doctors in the UK. It seems boys that the academic odds are somewhat stacked against you.
If we scratch just a little below the surface though, things are much less clear. The gender balance strongly favours men at the very top levels. Women hold only 16% of directorships at the UK’s 100 largest-listed companies, only 14% of university vice chancellors are women and 13% of senior judges. Even in teaching, an overwhelmingly female profession, only 37% of headteachers are women.
There are many subtle and less subtle clues about how society views women. A high profile example of this was the descriptions of female athletes at the Rio Olympics. In addition to the discussion regarding the length of Helen Skelton’s skirts, female athletes were invariably referred to as ‘girls’, a gymnast from Uzbekistan was criticised because her leotard didn’t match her skin tone and Hungarian swimmer’s gold medal, world record achievement was entirely credited to her husband. A recent study by Cambridge University analysed millions of words relating to men and women and Olympic sports. The study revealed common word combinations for female athletes included aged, older, pregnant and married or unmarried. In contrast, top word combinations for male athletes included fastest, strong, big and great. It also found that the language around women in sport also focussed disproportionately on appearance, clothes and personal lives. Perhaps women have something to protest about afterall?
Protesting over women’s issues is not a new thing. Those of you who are keen students of history may know a little about the fight for women’s suffrage. In the nineteenth century women had no place in national politics. They could not stand as candidates for Parliament. They were not even allowed to vote. It was assumed that women did not need the vote because their husbands (or fathers) would take responsibility in political matters. A woman’s role was seen to be child-rearing and taking care of the home. Women began to protest about this in the late 19th century with the most famous campaigners, the suffragettes resorting to a form of domestic terrorism. The vote was eventually granted to all women over the age of 21 in 1928.
An interesting and very different womens protest happened more recently in Iceland. The UN proclaimed 1975 a Women’s Year and a committee with representatives from five of the biggest women organisations in Iceland was set up to organise commemorative events. A radical women’s movement called the Red Stockings first raised the question: “Why don’t we just all go on strike?” This, they argued, would be a powerful way of reminding society of the role women play in its running, their low pay, and the low value placed on their work inside and outside the home. The idea was finally agreed to by the committee, but only after the word “strike” had been replaced with “a day off”. They decided this would make the idea more palatable to the masses and to employers who could fire women going on strike but would have problems denying them “a day off”.
On October 24th 1975 90% of Iceland’s women took a day off. In Reykjavik an estimated 25,000 women gathered to listen to speeches, sing and discuss matters. This is an huge number considering that Iceland’s population was then just under 220,000. The women were from all walks of life, young and old, grannies and schoolgirls, from all social classes and political parties.
The atmosphere at the rally was incredible. One of the speakers represented the trade union for the lowest paid women in Iceland, the laundry women and cleaners. Reading her first public speech now sends a chill down the spine. “Men have governed the world since time immemorial and what has the world been like?” she asked. Answering herself, she described a world soaked in blood, an earth polluted and exploited to the point of ruin. A description that seems truer now than ever.
Meanwhile, Iceland’s men were barely coping. Most employers did not make a fuss of the women disappearing but tried to prepare for the influx of excited children who would have to accompany their fathers to work. Some went out to buy sweets and gathered pencils and papers in a bid to keep the children occupied. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand that the shops sold out. Children were heard playing in the background while newsreaders read the news on the radio and many husbands ended up bribing older children to look after their younger siblings. Schools, shops, nurseries, fish factories and other institutions had to shut down or run at half-capacity. The bank tellers who saw their positions filled by male superiors took special pleasure in going to the bank and keeping them busy. It was a moment of truth for many fathers who were exhausted at the end of the day, the day was later referred to by them as “the long Friday”.
But what did Icelandic women gain by all this? For many it was a wake-up call.
In November 1980 Iceland elected a divorced single mother as its president. She was Europe’s first female president, and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Many Icelandic children grew up assuming that being president was a woman’s job, as she went on to hold the position for 16 years – setting Iceland on course to become known as “the world’s most feminist country”.
Despite this the gains have not been sustained. Today Icelandic women earn on average only 64% of men’s wages. This is the same in Britain, despite the Equal Pay Act 46 years ago, women still earn less than men. The current gender pay gap means that women effectively stop earning relative to men on a day in November. This day is referred to as Equal Pay Day and varies according to the actual pay gap each year – in 2016 the Equal Pay Day was the 10th of November. This is only one day later than the previous year.
Of course you could sit here feeling quite smug, afterall you are men or soon to be men and therefore you will reap the benefits of the gender gap that still exists. So what do I want you to take away from today’s assembly? I hope that a little of what I have said has helped you to consider both the past and the future from a different perspective than your own male one. To think and perhaps to question when you see shortlist for awards or line ups of guest speakers containing only men.
To steal a phrase from one of the womens march placards, “quality men have nothing to fear from equality”.
Have a good day.