What are we? Why do we act the way we do? Women’s rights in a male dominated world have always been important to me but until recently, I never understood why I am so determined to change things. I’d like to introduce you to two ladies. The first is Maria Bedworth who was born almost two hundred years ago, around October 1812 in Birmingham, the daughter of Thomas Bedworth and Ann Jeffries and the second introduction is to her daughter Selina Millard, born in Birmingham in February 1855. Their phenomenal struggle to survive the perils of Victorian England is the reason I write; without them I would not exist at all, as Maria is my great-great-great grandmother following the direct female line, and Selina my great–great-grandmother. She is seated in this photograph taken around 1926, with my mother on her lap.
Family historians often follow the male line of descent, to find the origin of the family name but I was especially curious about the women who led to my existence. My mother taught me what she had learned from her mother, who in turn had learned from her mother and grandmother – women’s ways that I pass on to my daughters. Perhaps they taught us how to hang the washing out, feed the babies or sing nursery rhymes. Perhaps they taught us how to nurse the sick, deliver babies and how to cope with juggling work while caring for children too. I will write more about Maria and Selina another day, but for today I will just tell you that they lived in abject poverty, where they were often deserted by men, saw many babies die, lived without homes, lived in insanitary conditions where disease was rife and they worked daily in dangerous industries. How they survived I cannot imagine, but there is no doubt it has left a personal strength and determination within me, which is intrinsic to my character. We have all heard stories of Victorian Britain. Apparently it was a golden age, or so our current government wishes us to believe. For some of us Victorian costume dramas are not merely agreeable ways to while away Sunday evening but enactments of our inner fantasies … “I don’t think there has been a better time in our history.” said Michael Gove Guardian (Feb 24, 2011) (3). Clearly Mr Gove’s history is quite different to mine, and to the vast majority of people living in the UK today. The Guardian article adds:
David Cameron had stated that his goal is to defund and deconstruct the welfare state, to “dismantle big government and build the big society in its place”. His ambition is radical in the purest sense of the word, for it is a conscious attempt to turn the clock back to the historical period for which he feels the greatest affinity: the 19th century.
Victorian Britain was a land of laissez-faire capitalism and self-reliance. Government regulation was minimal and welfare was left to charity. With little tax burden and low labour costs, industrialisation turned Britain into the workshop of the world and created a thriving middle class. The state helped promote and safeguard trade through a bullish foreign policy that created a consumer’s empire. In 1839, we even went to war with China to force the Middle Kingdom to lift its ban on imported British opium.
The awful living conditions of those, such as Maria and Selina, led directly to development of the Labour movement and socialist groups in Britain (Tribune (4)). As a result, the path of my life has followed a very different path to those of my forbears. I am lucky. I was born and have been cared for under a National Health Service. I have had the benefit of a quality comprehensive school education leading me to a university degree funded by a grant. I have Socialist Labour to thank.
This photograph has the name Hospital Street chalked upon the wall. The irony is of course, that the institution referred to is not a hospital as we have come to know because of Labour’s NHS but a workhouse, in which Selina’s mother, Maria had lived, had given birth in and eventually where she died. How wonderful it would be to end to my story by reporting healthy, well fed children with bright prospects, living in comfortable homes, communities living in harmony, and full employment, in inner city Birmingham where Selina and Maria lived.
However, according to a recent report in the Birmingham Mail (5), (May 18th 2011):
More than one in three children in Birmingham are living in poverty with thousands believing they will never achieve their goals in life.
A new, disturbing report from youth charity The Prince’s Trust revealed that in Ladywood alone around 49 per cent of youngsters lived in poverty – one of the highest figures in the UK. It highlighted the growing gap between the city’s richest and poorest with one in ten young people believing they will “end up on benefits for at least part of their lives” and 17 per cent feeling that “few” or “none” of their goals in life were achievable with those growing up in poverty more likely to feel that way.
The Women’s Budget Group of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation consulted with women living in such poverty to determine what would help meet both their practical and strategic needs. Many ideas emerged from the consultation. Woman and Poverty (6)
Some of the most popular suggestions included:
- increasing benefit income in order to improve the lives of women living in poverty and support their families’ well-being
- providing free and accessible childcare, to enable women to work and reduce their isolation*
- developing a Women’s Act that would enshrine women’s rights in policy-making and implementation.
It feels like the 1980s all over again in Birmingham. In 1985, Britain’s second-biggest city was embroiled in some of the worst unrest in its history, which left two people dead. Last Thursday, Birmingham residents laid to rest three young men who died during the rioting and looting earlier this month.
The unrest of the 80s was caused by a recession that triggered the city’s economic collapse and an unprecedented surge in unemployment. The credit crunch may be over, for now at least, but figures released last week showed that unemployment has started to rise again across the country.
Birmingham is feeling the pain as much as any other city – and in line with the rest of the country, women are bearing the brunt. Nationally, the number of jobless women has reached 1.05 million, the highest level since 1988. The unemployment rate among men remains higher, but the Office for National Statistics reports that much of the recent increase in redundancies has been among women.
It is women who have been affected by the cuts of the Coalition government more than any other group. A higher proportion of women work in the public sector where cuts are being made. The cost of childcare is prohibitive and women are prevented from working because of the lack of affordable childcare. Think Left’s A Bold Approach to Childcare makes out the case for free childcare to provided for those who need it in order to work to avert child poverty, and to allow women to work. It is vital that women are given a voice by which they may become empowered in order to make a change to the system which has forced many women and families to live an unfulfilled life in poverty. Women as Voters and MPs by Think Left presents the inequalities in political representation which cannot be justified in a modern world.
Harriet Harman’s 2010 Equalities Act, since amended by Theresa May (7), must be reinstated and strengthened to address the inequalities of women, of ethnic minorities and of other disadvantaged groups. These disparities in life chances are unacceptable in a civilized society. The Labour Party must reject the Neo-Liberalism which it continued to apply from 1997 onwards, taking on Thatcher’s mantle. The Labour Party must return to the socialist principles and policies which made a difference to the lives of people in Britain, and do so much more. The Labour Party must reach out to the people of this country, in the midst of unemployment, riots, poverty and homelessness. What we are facing is worse than we have known since the Victorian Times which David Cameron loves so much. That prospect must not be allowed to happen. Those who can speak up must now do so, and quietly grumbling just will not do.
Labour must show it really means
Every Child and every Person Matters.
Please go to http://think-left.org/ and you can find Pam on Twitter @Earwiggle
REFERENCES and FURTHER READING:
Maria: July 1st 1812,
1. Baptism records: St Philips, Birmingham February 22nd 1813, birth (error on date must have been previous July)
2. Selina : 2a. Birth 7 Feb 1855, St George, B’ham BMD Mar qr. 1955 6d, 199 (Birmingham)
1955: Birth 1855 in the District of Ste George, Birmingham in the County of WARWICK
Seventh February 1855 33 Court Tower Street:
Selina, Girl Father William Millard: (Spoon Polisher, Journeyman)
Mother Maria Millard, late Woodhall, formerly Bedworth
Informant Maria Millard, Mother 33 Court, Tower Street, Birmingham, registered 17th March 1855
2b. Baptism records : 6 Jan 1856, St George, B’ham
Error on date of birth compared with birth certificate
3. Guardian Article: February 24th 2011
4. Tribune article , May 28th 2011 Origins of Socialism and the Radical Species
5. Birmingham Mail May 18 2011 One third of Children living in Birmingham are living in poverty
6. A study on _WomanandPoverty Experiences, empowerment and engagement Women’s Budget Group
A project to empower women in poverty to take part in the policy-making process. Joseph Rowntree Foundation
ISBN: 978 1 85935 637 1
7. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/17/theresa-may-scraps-legal-requirement-inequality Theresa May, Reversal of Inequality Act (Nov 2010)
8. Daily Mirror, August 2011 Women’s unemployment.
9 Guardian August 2011 Women’s unemployment .http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/aug/21/women-bear-the-brunt-as-birmingham-hits-hard-times-again
10 A Bold Approach to Childcare : Think Left, (Julian Gilbert August 2011)
11 Women as Voters and MPs : Think Left, (Pam Field July 2011)
12 Women in the commons Factsheet about women in the House of Commons
13 Why Neighbourhoods remain Poor Deprivation, Place and People in Birmingham . Barrow Cadbury Trust
14 Unravelling equality Effect of Poverty of the women of Coventry(A Joint Report of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice, University of Warwick and Coventry Women’s Voices)
By Mary-Ann Stephenson and James Harrison