Archive | March, 2011

Women and the 1911 census

28 Mar

If you’re in the UK,  did you fill in your census form this weekend?  I did,  and it made me think … about how much my life has changed in the last 10 years (I got married,  moved to my current house, have done all sorts of things in work terms) and also about what stories my house could tell if it could talk.

It was built in 1909 (here’s a rather wonky photo of the street from an old book of the era)  and so the house would have been quite “new” at the time of the 1911 census.  I wonder who lived here then and what they did for a living? How many people lived in this house and how did they keep warm? What did they wear, what did they eat?

Of course,  assuming that there were female residents,  one thing they couldn’t then do (or, indeed do for between the next seven and seventeen years) was to vote,  given that women were then denied that right and the UK was in the grip of the suffrage movement. My friend Rachel shared a link to this fascinating article from The Times,  published back in the glory days of 2009 when access was free,  which details how some 1911 women used the census forms to make a protest, as part of a coordinated boycott over their continuing lack of the right to vote.

“The documents show how women refused to fill in their names and left comments in the margins. One suffragette taking part in the boycott arranged by the Women’s Freedom League wrote: “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper.”

“Another glued a poster over the form stating: “No votes for women, no census.” A piece of paper stuck to the form suggests that the women stayed away from households where the census was taken to attend a protest in Trafalgar Square.”

As I often do when considering history, progress and change, this has made me reflect upon the privileged era in which we live. How lucky we are today that we can use the 2011 census form as just that – a tool to capture socio-economic data about the world in which we live.

What’s on my mind?

27 Mar

Facebook are always exhorting us to share, with the question “what’s on your mind?”

So here,  in no particular order, is what’s on MY mind.

Thought for the day … is the concept of dressing for success only a female thing?

I’m currently doing some interim in-house corporate communications work around connecting the employee engagement and diversity agendas.  Part of this has entailed helping the company to set up a women’s network, which launched earlier this week (hence, no blogging).  At the same time,  we’re also working to plan some events for the rest of the year and debating what they may be and who best to involve.  One suggestion has been that we co-create an event with the community affairs and philanthropy team,  and perhaps do something together which will benefit a women’s group or charity.

Now obviously,  I love this idea and am looking forward to the meeting where we can discuss this a bit more.  Another suggestion has been that we do something around the concept of “Dressing for Success” and do something for or with the charity of that name … and that made me wonder if such a concept even exists for men?

DfS (who I think are fabulous and do great work,  by the way – I’m not having a pop) was “set up by women to help other women get a job and become financially independent”.  But in all my years in the corporate world,  I’ve never seen anything similar for men – have you?

Imagine it:

  • a poster campaign in the lift and around the office
  • - which asks men to donate their unwanted suits and ties.
  • Men providing other men with interview advice

Is this because men don’t need this help,  don’t want it or some other reason?  Is the help in question perhaps provided more casually?

* * * * *

Also on my mind … an article from last Sunday’s Observer, which has been circling around and around ever since I read it. Dr. Abhay Bang’s programme to reduce infant mortality in Maharashtra has achieved dazzling results but they -

“.. owe little to the orthodoxy of western medicine and everything to his team of neonatally trained rural women.”

Click here to read more.

* * * * *

I went to hear Sonia Gandhi deliver the Commonwealth Lecture in central London a few weeks ago.  The theme of her talk (and of this year’s programme of Commonwealth activities) was “Women as Agents of Change”, which celebrates women whose work has made a positive difference to the lives of others and emphasises the message that, by investing in women and girls, we can accelerate social, economic and political progress around the world.  My big “wow” moment from the talk – which you can read here – was to learn that 60% of all women in the Commonwealth are in India.

* * * * *

And finally … when I was in Mumbai in December,  I met a very interesting man called Abhi Naha,  who is working, through his company Zone V,  to develop a mobile phone for use by the blind.  Abhi told me that over two thirds of the 415 million blind and partially sighted people in the world are women, which is why he is so passionate about empowering blind women through mobile phone technology.  Zone V‘s motto is:

Imagine a world where lack of sight does not mean lack of vision”

- and Abhi certainly doesn’t lack vision,  in any sense of the word.  A few days ago,  he texted me and asked – “If you could have an ‘empowerment button’ on your mobile phone for women in developing countries, what would you make it do?”

I replied:

“I’d use it to educate the 62 million girls around the world who don’t even get to go to primary school.”

How about you – what would YOUR empowerment button do?



“Feminism is the unfinished revolution …”

13 Mar

- declared Natasha Walter in The Guardian earlier this week,  in her column about the centenary of International Women’s Day. Meanwhile,  back in my spiritual home of India, Dr Elizabeth Menon‘s piece in The Hindu reminded us that equality for some is still very elusive.

For me,  IWD was all about spending the day at a university,  at which I spoke and chaired an event called “Breaking Glass”.  I heard about the glass ceiling as it exists within academia and learned,  not altogether surprisingly,  that the issues faced by female staff at universities (reasonably high numbers at entry level, falling away at a career mid point,  subsequent difficulties in progressing to the top tier) mirror almost exactly those faced by their sisters in the corporate world.

I used the centenary of IWD to structure my talk around the way in which the world has changed for women since 1911 and the key events and people who have made those changes come about.  My brief had been to “make it light”,  so I peppered my slides with a few key quotations – some of which I share now.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women …”

– Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, 1997 – 2001

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what a feminist is.  I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

– Rebecca West, writer, 1913

“Well behaved women seldom make history …”

– Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor at Harvard University

“I wanted to work there because I wanted to become a writer. I was quickly assured that women didn’t become writers at Newsweek. It would never have crossed my mind to object … It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be the exception to the rule.”

– Nora Ephron – writer, novelist, film director [on starting her career in 1962]

My favourite quotation,  which I didn’t use because I hadn’t then read the originating article,  comes from Mariella Frostrup in The Observer,  who,  in a blistering and truly excellent piece of journalism, reminded us that the struggle is far from over and that,  within the closed world of UK politics:

“… there are more blokes called Dave and Nick in government than there are women MPs. Women continue to hover at a steady 19% in the chamber, put off perhaps by a testosterone-fuelled climate where the last two prime ministers’ wives have given up high- flying careers to support their husbands or simply to satisfy the perceived demands of middle England.”


Check it out – one of the best and most impassioned articles on feminism you may read.

On the centenary of International Women’s Day …

8 Mar

… this very short film, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, voiced by Dame Judi Dench and starring Daniel Craig,  tells us so much about where women are in 2011.  We’ve come a long way, baby – but there’s still so far to go.

Cleo in Wonderland

6 Mar

Today is my last day in Goa; tomorrow I fly home via Mumbai,  after another month in this beautiful, heartbreaking, bewitching, chaotic, colourful, frustrating country.

It’s been a busy week, with a mixture of freelance writing, charity work for Educators’ Trust India and, unexpectedly,  a sidebar trip to Chennai.

Monday saw me spending the day working on the “Volunteer with Us” section of their website,  and hammering out the framework by which ETI can take on around 20 volunteers for the 2011/2012 tourist season.  We also identified 20 children who are in need of monthly sponsors and talked about how that model will work … feel free to email me if you’d like more details.

On Tuesday I went back to the slum with the Morning Light project and spent five hours there, washing the children, handing out samosas and being in charge of Operation Underwear.  Two Swedish supporters,  Jane and Bjorn,  donated a large shopping bag full of assorted pairs of differently sized knickers … so we had a system going whereby we washed the kids,  treated their hair for nits and they then lined up in order to receive a new pair of pants.

(Over which they then re-dressed themselves in their filthy old clothes.)

Jane also provided each child with a Mickey Mouse toothbrush,  so we had an “up and down, side to side, rinse and SPIT” teeth brushing lesson in the open air.

Two children were particularly affectionate this week; brother and sister,  they came running over as soon as they saw me and then attached themselves to me for the duration of my visit,  each one clinging to a hand. Diego translated for me and I learned that the lady with them,  whom I had assumed was their mum,  is in fact their nanni – they are the children of her son and she is raising them,  as their mother died a few years ago.  I was so sad to leave them – lots of hugs all round and they cried when we drove away.  I wonder if I’ll ever see them again?

On Wednesday I spent a long, dusty and above all HOT morning at Anjuna market;  until this trip,  it’s just been the place that I visit to shop and sightsee and take colourful photos,  but this time,  I spent the morning working with Diego on the ETI fund raising stall.  I gave out leaflets,  explained what we do (“we run schools for slum children” – how about that for an elevator pitch?) and took donations of clothes, toiletries, books and money.  Some very clear national divides emerged between the passersby: Indian tourists walked straight on,  Russians stopped to look and then barked “No!” or even,  charmingly, “F*ck off!” if you offered them a leaflet; Americans were friendly, interested but usually backpacking, so had very little money to offer but always managed around 100 rupees (c. £1.40) as a donation,  with an apology that it couldn’t be more; northern Europeans from places such as Germany and Scandinavia didn’t want to chat but always stuffed a generous donation into my collecting box before walking on.

Most of the money came from the British tourists,  who were uniformly friendly, positive, supportive and generous – it gladdened my heart to meet so many lovely people,  who gave so freely of their time and their possessions. I only did four hours there and was knackered at the end of it – and there’s poor Diego,  doing a 12 hour day week in, week out, every Wednesday.  What a star.

Thursday saw a complete gear change for me;  I cobbled together a vaguely “smart” outfit from things in my traveller’s wardrobe plus some borrowed shoes and flew to Chennai on the other side of India for a business meeting-cum-interview.  After three weeks in the universal melting pot of Goa,  it felt strange to be on a plane where I was the only woman aside from the staff and the only westerner – everyone else was a dark skinned business man with a laptop and a bushy moustache.  Upon arrival at Chennai airport, I saw a billboard welcoming the England cricket team and a sign saying “hello Thompson mr”  and was then whisked away to the Sheraton hotel,  courtesy of my hosts.

TV! Hot water! Room service! A vibrating massage chair … what a contrast to the start of my week.

My “Alice down the rabbit hole” feeling continued the next day,  when I managed to have an interview, meet the England cricket team (obtaining some autographs for my taxi driver Satish in the process – he is now “Top Man in Goa”, apparently), chat to the Sky Sports camera team and meet my friend Priya from Bangalore for lunch … before flying back to Goa to head up the ETI team in a pub quiz – which we won!

Yesterday I rested,  before going to a wedding in the evening.  I knew neither bride (Feliciana) or groom (Romeo)  but was invited as a guest through my friend Renee; her landlord is the bride’s uncle (or something). So Satish drove us through the twilight to a huge, open air wedding venue,  where we joined around 500 other people in celebrating their marriage. Fireworks, confetti, party poppers, spray string, fabulous food,  Bollywood dance moves and a free bar …

Today I’m blogging, packing,  saying goodbye to my friends (although quite a few people have already left for home;  this is the Big Exodus weekend) and then heading out to a concert by the ETI children – they’re performing some dance moves – like this – at a local restaurant and we’re hoping to raise a few more donations from it.

I’m leaving on a jet plane,  don’t know when I’ll be back again – but I hope it’s soon.

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