Courage calls to courage everywhere – the most influential women campaigners of the past century

By Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve

This morning I was on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme talking about the most influential women campaigners of the past century.

My top pick was Millicent Fawcett, a brave and pioneering feminist who was highly influential in the passing of Britain’s 1918 Representation of the People Act – the law that gave women the vote for the first time 100 years ago.

Flying back to London from Pakistan last night, I reflected on the achievements of my top five, and considered their influence as campaigners – their ability to pinpoint the injustices of their time, their drive to create change for the better, their passion, strength, dignity and practicality.

That Reprieve is an organisation of so many courageous women campaigners, lawyers and activists is in no small part thanks to the work of these heroes.

My other picks: Doreen Lawrence for her courage in facing down an establishment that wanted to keep her quiet, and incredible achievements in exposing institutional racism. Helen Bamber for confronting the worst human rights abuses of the past century in her work with holocaust survivors. Jasvinder Sanghera for her courage in turning personal pain into positive action, and skill in bringing forced marriage to the top of the political agenda. And Beatrice Webb for railing against the prevailing thinking of her, mostly male, colleagues and planting the seeds of the Welfare State.

Here are my top five most influential women campaigners of the past century

1. Millicent Fawcett

In too many countries around the world – many of them countries in which Reprieve works – women still do not have the vote. The lesson of history is that civil rights protection begins with political representation. This is why we owe so much to the determined, brave, pioneering feminists who secured our democratic rights 100 years ago, and why they continue to inspire campaigners around the globe. Millicent Fawcett, my top pick, was one of those.

In 1887, she founded one of the major Suffrage societies and was hugely influential in forcing the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918.

This year, almost ninety years after her death, Millicent will become the first woman to have a statue in Parliament Square, designed by the first woman to have her work displayed there. Turner Prize-winner Gillian Wearing has chosen to depict this hero of the suffrage movement holding a placard which will read “courage calls to courage everywhere”.

These words were a testament to the bravery of Emily Davison, who died in the fight to get women the vote. Millicent’s solidarity with sisters in the movement is reflected on the plinth of the statue, which bears the names of other courageous women who fought for female suffrage.

This monument tells us that heroes are part of movements, and the power of any movement is rooted in collective belief and action. At Reprieve, we know that, without thousands of people around the world standing up for what they believe in, we would be nowhere.

2. Doreen Lawrence

When a personal tragedy strikes us in our lives we can choose to let it break us or to stand up and refuse to be beaten. Doreen Lawrence is an example to all of us of how to fight back.

When her son Stephen, a young black man, was murdered in a racist attack in 1993 she refused to accept that the men who killed him should walk free. She faced down an establishment that wanted to keep her quiet and protect themselves. After six years of campaigning a public inquiry finally confirmed what Doreen knew all along: the Metropolitan Police had failed Stephen because they were “institutionally racist”.

Many people Reprieve assists come up against a system that discriminates against them. Whether on the grounds of race on US death rows, religion in Guantanamo Bay, poverty in Pakistan, or nationality in the Middle East. We must keep exposing injustices like these.

3. Helen Bamber

From the age of just 20, Helen Bamber confronted the worst human rights abuses of the past century head on. In 1945 she went to work with survivors of the holocaust in the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, supporting them through five years when many had to remain in the place they had experienced torture and murder because no country would take them in.

As she explained later, her purpose then was “to find meaning for their survival.” She continued to help survivors of torture and human rights abuses find that meaning for the next 70 years, standing up for their rights and defending those who society had shunned.

Every day I see cases of people tortured and abused by government around the world – whether that be the 41 men who are still incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial, or the young protesters in Saudi Arabia who are tortured into confessing “crimes” and executed. What many of these people have in common is that they are the least powerful in society, the marginalised, the poor, the hated.  Making it all the more easy for powerful governments to justify their abuse.

4. Jasvinder Sanghera

Much of life is about hard choices. Jasvinder Sanghera made what might be one of the hardest at the age of just 14 when she chose to leave her home, parents and sisters rather than accept a forced marriage to a man she didn’t know and couldn’t love. She did it to save her children from having to go through the same thing, as she put it, “someone had to opt out, however hard it was; and that someone was me.

Jasvinder turned her personal pain into positive action. She broke the silence around forced marriage in the UK with a bestselling memoir Shame and is credited by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, with bringing the issue to the forefront of the political debate, culminating in forced marriage becoming a criminal offence in 2014.

Every day at Reprieve we strive to turn abuses of power into campaigns that change the legal and political landscape and Jasvinder stands as an example to all of us.

5. Beatrice Webb

A decade before the centenary we will shortly be celebrating, of women getting the vote for the first time, Beatrice Webb was already having an impact that would last until the present day. As a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws in 1909 she went against the prevailing thinking of her, mostly male, colleagues and authored The Minority Report, planting the seed for the Welfare State to be established 30 years later.

The revolutionary idea of Beatrice Webb was one we as a society still struggle with today: that the poor are not responsible for their own situation. She recognised that to lack money was not a weakness but rather a consequence of failings across the whole of society that we share collective responsibility to correct.

This compassion and practicality is something I see in my fellow campaigners who fight against the injustices of the death penalty and human rights abuses around the world today. We can find solutions if we correctly identify the problem.

 

You can listen to the Today Programme here (skip to 2:24:30).