Yesterday was International Women’s day which included an equality march in London by hundreds of Women, including the Great-Granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst the leader of the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. It seems incredible to me that almost one hundred years on from the pioneering work of these Edwardian women that gender equality has still not truly arrived.
Along with the coverage on the news, I also watched Amanda Vickery’s new programme, Suffragettes forever! I have been a fan of Amanda Vickery’s work for some time, ever since I read her book a Gentleman’s Daughter over 15 years ago while at University. In the first programme she explores the role of women in politics from the 18th Century, noting that there were no women in the House of Lords until 1958. You may be thinking where is he going with this, but, I am about to get to my point. That woman, the first to sit in the House of Lords, was the founder of the WVS, Lady Reading.
There were 4 women sworn in that day, but she was chosen to be the very first, a testament to her contribution and achievements. She is probably one of the ten most important women in the 20th century, along with such well-known names as Emmeline Pankhurst , Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks, but very few people have ever heard of her.
There is not time in this short blog to List Stella Reading’s achievements and sadly no biography has ever been written about her, but through the WVS/WRVS and her other work she changed the way in which women were perceived. During WWII she created the largest women’s organisation in history with over one million members and spawned copycat organisations all over the world. Her idea changed the perception of Charity, from something which was dispensed by the rich to being an everyday action of helping your friends or loved ones. Volunteering became an activity for all and an opportunity to show in a society, where they were still marginalised, what they were capable of. I do not think it is an understatement that without the WVS and the vision of Lady Reading, much like it was in Germany, the war on the Home Front would have been lost.
The role women played in the Second World war can be argued as one very pivotal step in the slow narrowing of the gender gap and the WVS had impact far beyond the end of the war, with hundreds of thousands of women giving their time up to help their communities, whether that be assisting women prisoners in Holloway Gaol or providing flatlets in cities across Britain for young professional women in the 1950s and 60s.
Lady Reading, despite being a larger than life character was always the first to shy away from claiming any accolade or applause for her achievement. Unlike many of the greatest leaders in history she would never take the honours for herself, always crediting her ‘ladies’ with the triumph.
Posted by Matthew McMurray at 00:00
Monday, 09 March 2015.
International Women's day,
Stella Reading ,
House of Lords,