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Camden New Journal - by ROSE HACKER
Published: 5 July 2007
As women, we still have to work for greater equality

AT a mere 100 years old, it has had great impact. None the less, it ought to have had more.
Last month I attended a City Hall celebration of women councillors past, present and future, marking the centenary of the 1907 Act of Parliament permitting women to stand as local councillors.
Many excellent speakers came from all over the country, including one 19-year-old. Some had gone on to become Members of Parliament; others were there from the House of Lords.
First-rate speeches preceded wide-ranging debate on how difficult it can be for women to be active in public life.
One woman said her husband “co-operated well” and “let her work actively in politics”. This made me very angry. So little progress had been made since all those years ago when people used to say to me: “Does your husband let you go to all these meetings and conferences?”
When that legislation was passed 100 years ago, did anybody seriously consider the barriers there would be to women really participating in and contributing to elected public life? Have things changed since then?
By the time I entered elected politics I was already a grandmother so I never had to face the challenges of balancing childcare and council work.
By contrast, when my friend Millie Miller was elected to Stoke Newington Council in 1945, nearly 50 years after that vital legislation, at 23 she was then the youngest councillor in the country. Just over a year later she had her first baby. Councillors were not paid, her husband was a student, they were both poor. There were no childcare facilities for councillors’ children and although her sister and mother looked after the baby whenever possible, neither could do it full-time. So she caused a furore by taking her baby to council and committee meetings.
In 1972, one excellent member of our local Labour Party – a young woman named Maureen Robinson, who worked as secretary to a Member of Parliament – was nominated as a GLC alderman. When she married and had a baby shortly afterwards, she made history by bringing him into County Hall in a carrycot, as Millie had done in her local council chamber nearly 30 years earlier.
In all that time there had been no improvement in childcare facilities available to women – or men – in the council.
If women are to exercise equal working rights we need: crèches and nurseries for younger children with free care, in or close to the workplace; schools within walking distance during the hours that women work, and leisure and activity centres for older children. They need places to play outdoors; instead, playing fields and playgrounds are being sold off.
Many parents today do a splendid job but at enormous cost, working so hard that they have little time to enjoy parenting with leisure. A lot of women work at night, cleaners, especially. Single parents have an even tougher time. We need a major debate on how to reconcile the conflicting needs of working parents and their families. There must be some way to ensure mothers’ and children’s free time coincide so they can spend real time together.
One really progressive step was the creation in the 1960s of the Open University. This allowed mothers who had missed out on higher education the opportunity to study free at home for university degrees while bringing up children.
When we had free education in polytechnics, mothers could study while their children were at school. My daughter-in-law went to college while her children went to school; they left the house together and came home at the same time. Now these studies are expensive.
It is shocking that years after women were empowered to take public office, society has not evolved to help them by giving modern man the freedom to take pride in housekeeping and enjoy parenting skills, part or even whole-time, while women work.
Men are still only valued in terms of their earning power and society doesn’t value women’s parenting and housekeeping skills as highly as men’s money-earning skills.
The 1970s Wages for Housework campaign tried to change attitudes with little lasting success. I don’t see why money should be the only value we care about but I fear that advertising in schools promotes this attitude further.
Some councils (and private employers) set up their own crèches. Most have now closed or been privatised, usually for financial reasons.
We need to break the glass ceilings and eliminate the obstacles women still face around maternity leave or taking time off when a child is ill.
What about women who enjoy their careers, and then at 50 find they’ve missed out on babies and parenting and regret it, thinking they face a lonely old age?
Childcare doesn’t have to be private or public. What became of parent co-operative nurseries? We really haven’t solved these problems. We’ve hardly addressed them.
Without clearing away barriers to women’s full participation in elected public life we are not worthy of the Suffragettes’ hard work and sacrifices.

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