We are getting to March 8th again: the day on which the UN calls on women across the world to celebrate how far they have come towards breaking the infamous glass ceiling! Some countries can look upon themselves with pride because of the fact that they gave women the vote before others did; others need only hang their heads in shame and say ’we’ve made a lot of progress’.
What is progress in the context of women’s rights? Is having a vote enough, particularly in the context of corruption in politics? Looking back over my childhood, I can remember specific things I was told about women’s franchise. Apart from the history lessons about the Pankhurst women; the difference between suffragists and suffragettes; and so on and so forth, there were other anecdotes that stick in one’s memory.
My father had memories of himself and his siblings sitting under a large dining table in his grandfather’s house on the day votes for women over the age of 21 were declared in 1928. This meant my parent was 13 when women supposedly became equal with men. The large dining table was covered with a plush velvet table cover, with fringes that afforded cover to the cousins sitting underneath and listening in to the adults, until they were found out and an adult declared ‘Little pigs have big ears; shoo the lot of you!”
There was heated discussion among the men.
“ I suppose they’ll have to ask us how to vote.” The elders of the family posited.
A clatter of pots came from the kitchen as the women prepared lunch. This was the weekly clan get together. The women too were discussing the new Act in voices loud enough to be heard – both over and under the table.
“ It’ll just be the same in another hundred years”, my great grandmother, an ardent suffragist, declared.
The younger women expressed the fervent hope that this would not be so.
My father, the 13-year old ‘master spy’ heard his mother say that it was
‘Up to them to get involved’. He also remembered that when the first Election took place, the men of the family waited in vain for the women to come and ask their advice. It didn’t happen. Thousands of women had risen before the polling booths opened and voted before the men realised they had gone. Many had been urged on by older women who told them that the menfolk wouldn’t realise they had gone until they were hungry.
So now we are a little over a decade away from the 100 years that my great grandmother had declared to be unchangeable in the long run for women. Yet, things have improved for some women. The male-dominated media is forever holding up examples of women who made it. Here, in Nepal, we have a woman President, a woman Speaker, a woman Chief justice, women judges, and so forth. We have to support them with all our will and force, even if they sometimes seem to err in judgement or falter along the way. I have never been more serious in my life!
In the 1950s I went to one of the great Northern universities in Britain, only 3% of the students were women and, the small group of us who ventured to the Student Union were ragged by rough, tough engineering students.
“ Women have no place in universities like this one, they said. Try Nursing College or Art School. Go on get out.’
Incredible that Northern Britain hadn’t caught up it seemed with the so-called ‘winds of change’ after a quarter of a century!
I swear the majority of women were preparing to get up and run, the fellow was such a hulky bully, but one willowy blond woman from the south of the country ordered them all to stay where they were. Sometimes instinct leads you where you shouldn’t go. I was just about 18 so was celebrating with a heretofore forbidden glass of Guinness, quite bitter and undrinkable in retrospect. The bully made as if to thrash the blond girl and instinctively I threw the contents of the glass in his face and down his trouser front. His roars brought other male students around BUT, instead of being annoyed at us, they dragged him off for what they told us would be a ‘dusting off’ that would ensure he never abused us again.
Heretofore I had never witnessed violence against women. I had heard the gossip and legends of drunken husbands and the damage they inflicted, but fortunately I had never had to witness such antics. Throughout the years, however, as a ‘Protection’ Worker for the Government of Ontario, I witnessed a great deal of violence against women by their husbands, against children by their parents; and behind every incident of a mother abusing her child would be a man abusing the mother. On one occasion, while on night duty, I was called in by the police to a case that was not in my jurisdiction. The police explained that they couldn’t find the worker and, since the area was principally mine, they had called me.
A complaint had come from a house in a row of terraced houses. A husband and wife were fighting and there’d been the sound of glass shattering from inside the house. I insisted the police came with me as I attempted to enter the house and I rang the bell – only to receive an abusive expletive telling me to - - - - off. So I instructed the police to break in. I had a warrant and they were disobeying it, it was 3 in the morning and I was tired. In we went. The wife had a carving knife held in front of her to ward off the man (presumably the husband) who was high on what afterwards turned out to be cocaine. The wife was sobre but battered it seemed, and slumped on their wrecked sofa was their legitimate family worker, knocked right out!
Later when police reinforcements arrived and the couple were carted off, we revived their worker and questioned her about the incident.
“Have you seen their baby?’ she sobbed. We hadn’t, as it happened, the baby was locked in another room. It lay there, a little girl –maybe 2 months’ old- dead, choked on milk from a feeding bottle that had curdled in the heat of a summer afternoon, while the mother gadded around town, thinking that locking her child in with a feeding bottle propped up on a pillow would keep her safe. When the social worker arrived she remonstrated with them, only to beaten by the father and lose consciousness.
Ever since that time, I have feared violence more than anything else. When people begin to shout and rage it’s as if a repeat of so many things flashes into my mind. I fear violence for what it does to families and societies. Misogyny is everywhere, no more so in one region than another. That is why we have to support the women professionals and crafts women among us who are reaching out against the glass ceiling. Otherwise, like that poor baby long ago, we will all be covered in ‘shards of glass’