International Women’s Day is coming up on the 8th of March! This is an article that was published in the Esperance Tide celebrating some of the strong women who have changed history. Enjoy!
In 1917, a UK politician called Rowland Hunt was arguing against giving women the right to vote. He said, “There are obvious disadvantages about having women in Parliament. I do not know what is going to be done about their hats. How is a poor little man to get on with a couple of women wearing enormous hats in front of him?” Another MP, Frederick Banbury, argued that women’s emotional natures made them unsuitable for making decisions that would affect the nation. “Women are likely to be affected by gusts and waves of sentiment.” We’ve come a long way since those days. Women such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Julia Gillard have broken new ground for women in politics, and demonstrated such steady temperaments that poor Banbury would surely be confused. Enormous hats have somehow not even been an issue.
International Women’s Day is on March 8th. It was first celebrated in 1911. It is a global day which celebrates the achievements of women, and how far we have come in achieving equality for the genders. (Before anyone asks ‘what about the men?’ there is a Men’s day also. It’s on November 19th.) We would not have many of the freedoms that we currently have if it was not for the courage and determination of many women of the past. These days, at least for us in Australia, a woman has opportunities that her ancestors would envy.
The Suffragettes were women in England who fought for the right to vote. They led protests and marches, and interrupted politicians who were giving speeches. They were some seriously pissed off women. They set churches on fire, because the Church of England was against women having the vote. They attacked politicians, and even fire bombed their houses. They vandalised Oxford street, and chained themselves to Buckingham Palace. When they were arrested and put in jail, they went on hunger strikes. The Suffragettes stopped their campaign of violence in 1914 when World War 1 broke out, and supported the war efforts. In 1918, women over the age of 30, who owned or occupied property, were finally given the right to vote in the UK. Here in Western Australia, women were given the right to vote in 1899. The first female politician ever elected in Australia was also from WA – Edith Cowan, who was elected to state parliament in 1921. Unfortunately, these rights were not extended to all women. Aboriginal people in Australia were not permitted to vote until 1962. The first Aboriginal woman, Nova Peris, was elected to Federal Parliament in 2013.
While women have historically been excluded from participating in the sciences, many significant scientific discoveries through the years have been made by women. A chemist called Rosalind Franklin made the initial ground-breaking discovery of the structure of DNA, but her colleagues Watson and Crick won a Nobel prize for their research on the discovery, without crediting Franklin’s contribution. Neuroscientist Candice Pert discovered a receptor that allows opiates to lock into the brain while she was still a graduate student. Her professor took credit for her discovery, and won an award for the achievement. Several African American women such as Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson calculated trajectories for the early NASA space missions before computers were used. While their stories have now been told in the Hollywood hit Hidden Figures, up until recently their achievements were not widely recognised.
Malala Yousafzai became an activist at the age of 12. She lived in Northwest Pakistan, in an area where the Taliban banned girls from attending school. She began to speak out about her experiences, and advocate for girls having the right to an education. In retaliation, the Taliban attacked a school bus that she was on. She was shot in the head, but survived the attack, and after she recovered, she became an even more passionate activist for girls’ education. It is a significant issue, as two thirds of the world’s 774 million illiterate people are female. Globally, 31 million primary school age girls are not attending school. There are 33 million fewer girls than boys attending primary school.
Here in Esperance, we often celebrate the achievements of male explorers, pastoralists, and settlers who made our town what it is today. Women from our history are often overlooked. Sarah Brooks, who came to Esperance on foot from Albany, with her mother and brother, was one of the first settlers east of Esperance. She made a significant contribution to classifying the plants of the Esperance area, with two local plants named in her honour. Caroline Hannett was also one of the first settlers to arrive in the area, traveling on horseback from Northam while pregnant with her first child. She raised eight children, ran her own household as well as helping out at the Dempster homestead, and also nursed the Aboriginal explorer Tommy Windich in his dying days. Her ancestors still live in Esperance to this day. Another significant woman was Julia Sinclair, the first midwife in Esperance. Amongst the business of early life in the small settlement of Esperance, and acting as a nurse and midwife when needed, Julia also raised nine children.
This International Women’s Day, let’s remember the women who have paved the way for us in so many fields. Politicians, scientists, activists, sportspeople, and women in a range of other fields have accomplished incredible things, often with little recognition. Without them, there is no doubt that our lives would be remarkably different to what they are now. This March 8th, let’s celebrate strong women. Let’s raise our daughters with the courage to change the world, and undoubtedly, they will.