National News

Women speaking up nothing new, but necessary

Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai

Yvette Cooper, The Independent

When good people are choosing not to stand again for parliament because of the poisonous state of politics, something is going badly wrong.

And this isn’t just about politics. Women journalists, scientists, sports stars, celebrities, royals and local neighbourhood activists often find themselves targeted with threats, abuse or organised trolling. Racism and homophobia make it worse.

Even five years ago, I could not have imagined any of this happening. I could never have imagined losing a friend and colleague to violence, as we did when Jo Cox was killed. Nor would I have dreamed that fellow human beings I have never met would call for me to be beaten, shot or strung up because they didn’t like something I’d said. The frustrating thing is that those of us out on the doorstep campaigning in the election know most people are as friendly and chatty as ever. Most of us care about and respect each other whatever our political differences. But a nasty and sometimes dangerous minority can poison democracy and public life for everyone.

We can’t let them. It’s time to start fighting back and drawing inspiration from the women who have done so before us.

Three years ago I started collecting the speeches and stories of women across the world and through the ages who have taken to public platforms and often faced a backlash for doing so. Most anthologies of speeches are full of men, yet for centuries, brave and bold women have used their voices to rally communities and crowds, to persuade, to teach and to inspire change. Too often those speeches and the strength of the women who gave them has been overlooked.

This week some of those speeches and stories are being published — from warrior queens to world leaders, teenagers to pensioners, celebrities to local community champions. Some of them are well known — Boudica, Emmeline Pankhurst, Michelle Obama, and of course Julia Gillard’s fantastic tirade against misogyny in the Australian Parliament.

Others are much less so. In 1968, at the time of the Ford Dagenham women’s strike, Irish trade unionist Joan O’Connell made a fantastic speech to the TUC conference on equal pay. It’s the inspiration for a scene in the film Made in Dagenham. The remarkable thing is that today, on Equal Pay Day more than half a century later, many of Joan’s arguments are as powerful and as relevant as ever.

As I searched for different speeches, I came across wonderful, inspiring stories which show how words can change minds and change lives. But I was shocked by how many of the women I’d found from across the globe and across the centuries who had made great speeches had also faced serious threats, abuse or violence for speaking out.

Boudica was attacked and her daughters raped because she dared to speak up against Roman authority. Josephine Butler, the Victorian campaigner for women’s rights, had to escape from a window when the barn she was speaking in was set on fire.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, who spoke out powerfully on women’s equality in Islam was assassinated by the Taliban. Decades later they also shot Malala Yousafzai in the head when she spoke up for girls’ education.Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist, was brutally beaten by the police for her peaaceful activism. Teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg has been the target of fierce online abuse.

The backlash against women who speak out isn’t new — even though social media has given it different form and shape. But nor, thankfully is the bravery of strong women who persist and overcome: Butler eventually changed the law on prostitution and child abuse; Maathai built a green movement; Malala’s foundation is now supporting girl’s education across the world. Thunberg, of course, has inspired a new generation of climate campaigners all across the world.

These women’s speeches and stories should be the inspiration to push back against the rising tide of misogyny and hate. Because now there are more of us who are willing to speak out. And there will be more still. We need women and men to stand firm together against each new wave of abuse, because the most inspiring message of all from the women who have spoken out before, is their determination and their optimism for a better future.

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