In Our Lifetime

‘Equality’ and ‘Feminism’ are words being bandied about quite frequently. Everywhere you go there is either talk about it, press about it or someone complaining about it. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns gathering pace internationally have caused a stir and challenged many out of their comfort zones. All things female and feminist regularly come up as topics of conversations with my friends, the majority of whom share my frustration at the general stagnation of progress in the century since the first votes were finally given to (selected) women in the UK following the campaigning of the suffragettes.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

The #MeToo campaign encouraged us to share our own stories and try to grasp how pervasive and commonplace antiquated and sexist attitudes and behaviour towards women still were and, scarily, considered the norm. We shared our experiences of being patronised, side-lined, disregarded, harassed and even assaulted. None of these stories were new, most had happened years previously, but we had never sat down and spoke about them and actually focussed on the idea that we deserved better than the assumption that as a woman these things may happen to you. Feeling frustrated by merely talking about it, my friend SJ suggested we join the March4Women organised by Care International.
The annual event, organised to coincide with International Women’s Day (8th March), is a march retracing the steps the suffragettes took a century ago, up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. The diabolically cold and violent start to spring, courtesy of the aptly named ‘beast from the east’ weather system, had thankfully lifted and 7000 us braved the seemingly imminent rain to congregate in front of the Houses of Parliament.

Gathering crowd

Layering on the clothing was the most preparation SJ and I did before the event, but we enjoyed reading a variety of poignant and hilarious signs brought along by fellow marchers as we made out way into the crowd. Being herded further onto the sectioned-off road away from the congested pavement we were both suddenly struck by a brief wave of emotion. In an instant the notion became real that it was still necessary in 2018 to march for equality, but also that we weren’t alone in our discontent. Surrounded by thousands of like minded people of all genders coming together for positive change was almost overwhelming. It was a wonderful tangible realisation that we weren’t alone. 

Small sampling of signs

A small stage had been erected which we could see the side of, but nothing on the stage itself. The sound was thankfully effective, but for the throngs of marchers behind us I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as clear. Brief introductions from representatives across most major parties began which were warmly received, although the Minister for Women, Amber Rudd, mentioned the Prime Minister which received a very frosty response, and even a few scattered boos. Dawn Butler, Labour MP, however stirred us all by declaring she was marching for the ‘hidden history’, for those who couldn’t be there and because she wanted equality in her lifetime. Speakers included Sandi Toksvig, who lead a big cheer for the third anniversary of the Women’s Equality Party which received much criticism when it was formed. She added her intention was to paint the bottom of her shoes in order to mark the route we were about to embark on with footsteps which elicited another cheer from the crowd. 

Last to the stage was long-time activist Bianca Jagger who rattled off very scary statistics regarding violence against women. She called us all to join her in a non-violent revolution and spoke to the men in the crowd saying we were not fighting all men, but fighting the oppressors and aggressors that seek to do us harm. Massive cheers erupted as she powerfully shouted ‘we will prevail’, which made me feel very proud to be there.    

With Jagger’s call to march for all women ringing in the air, along with some drizzle, we began shuffling forward in the direction of Whitehall. David Bowie’s Suffragette City began playing over the speakers and a few of us had begun to dance a little as we slowly inched toward the start.

What she said

As the crowd made its way up through the city it was hard not to notice all the gawping tourists standing flabbergasted on nearby pavements, as well as the amount of camera crews amongst us. A few interviews were happening nearby when SJ and I decided to work through the crowd towards a vocal bunch who were chanting slogans. Lead by representatives from Lean In, a women’s support and mentoring network, SJ and I joined in their calls for ‘Strength, Solidarity, Sisterhood’ among other phrases. We could also hear drumming somewhere else in the crowd which created a festival atmosphere.

Reaching Trafalgar Square, an even larger stage had been erected and we all gathered between the fountains as the rain started coming down. A packed programme of speeches and music followed keeping us all huddled together in the square for a couple of joyful hours. Master of Ceremonies was the hilariously on form Sue Perkins who enjoyed teasing the sign language interpreter, Jack, on the corner of the stage in between appearances.  

Sue Perkins
Anne-Marie Duff

Anne-Marie Duff began proceedings by emotionally reading from Emmeline Pankhurst’s famous Freedom or Death speech. Other speakers included Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Faeeza Vaid, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Michael Sheen and an encouraging video message from regular marcher Annie Lennox

Self proclaimed proud feminist Sadiq Khan

Michael Sheen

In between the speeches were brilliant performances by Sophie Ellis-Bexter and Biffy Clyro. Poet Salena Godden gave us two brilliant works, the second called Pessimism is for Lightweights felt like a battle cry. The final speaker of the afternoon was Helen Pankhurst, great granddaughter of Emmeline. Together we pledged along with her to keep the suffragette cause going, to be resilient and continue ‘until the job was done’. The finale was a fantastic, and again emotional, performance of ‘You Don’t Own Me’ sung by the Urban Voices Collective Choir accompanied by the electric string quartet Bond.

Helen Pankhurst

A spontaneous chant quoting the suffragettes slogan ‘Deeds, not words!’ erupted from the crowd as the stage cleared. The screen in the square indicated it was time to disperse, but SJ and I could only hug each other for a few moments. We had both felt like the day’s events were profound and incredibly important. We both agreed with the messages in the speeches, that equality benefitted everyone, that society cannot succeed if half the population is held back and the celebration and promotion of intersectionality and inclusivity throughout the day.

Men at the march were asked to bring another male friend along with them next year, trans and non-binary participants were welcomed and applauded as well as participants of all colours, creeds and abilities. We were indeed making noise, as Pankhurst’s speech had encouraged 100 years ago, so much so my throat was a bit scratchy on Monday morning. I was proud of it though. Proud to have marched to make the change we wanted to see in society, and motivated to do whatever I could in my immediate environment to promote fairness. Female rights are human rights, and if we are all equal, we all win. 

Until the job is done

2 thoughts on “In Our Lifetime

  1. Pingback: Suffrage Was Only the Beginning | Redhead Ramblings

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