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IWD: Who is your heroine?

TUC leader Frances O’Grady asks the men of the trade union movement


Len McCluskey

Female figures from history are virtually invisible. Think of the statues in London alone — where are the women? Not in Trafalgar Square, nor in Parliament Square. In fact, of the 640 listed statues in Britain, only 15 per cent are of women. In London it’s a measly 7 per cent.

One such “un-statued” woman is radical 18th-century thinker Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and pioneered education for girls.

The absence of a statue commemorating her is not an oversight — it’s a denial of her fight for equality, her influence on Thomas Paine, her work reporting from the French revolution, the inspiration she gave to the suffrage movement a century later.

Today the Mary on the Green campaign is setting out to raise funds for a commemoration on Newington Green, where Mary lived and started her school for girls.

In Glasgow there is a quest to celebrate another Mary. One hundred years ago this year, Mary Barbour led the rent strike against that city’s rapacious landlords. From a single end in Govan she commanded a grassroots revolt, spotlighting the hideous poverty amid the “second city” of the empire and in so doing inspiring the impoverished to become a labour movement.

The two Marys may be absent from national commemoration but their spirit is alive in the women fighting for justice today. When we hear Malala speak, who faced death to defend the education of girls, or admire Jade, the young mum fighting for decent homes for her community in east London, we are witnessing today’s Marys.

Build these women their statues, honour them and the hunger for justice and humanity that coursed through their veins. Let there be no more delay — in every square in every town in the land, let’s move over some of our marble men and make room for our Marys.

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite.




Mick Cash

My favourite heroine within the labour and trade union movement is Jennie Burden, a 19-year-old carriage cleaner who became the first known woman to officially join the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) on July 2 1915.

After that over 2,000 women joined in the next six months. Certainly women had worked on the railways for many years before 1915, but it took a world war to break through resistance within the railway unions to allow female membership.

The NUR was created in 1913 with an amalgamation of three trade unions.

At the point of amalgamation there was a debate as to the name of the union, with one trade union arguing for “railway workers” because the companies employed over 12,000 women and the new union expected to recruit them.

However the argument that using the word “railwaymen” would not stop women being recruited won the day.

It is important that we use this 100th anniversary, not just as a celebration but to encourage women and others to challenge discrimination that still lurks within our society.

Mick Cash is general secretary of RMT.




Roy Rickhuss

My labour movement heroine is Jennie Lee, a great socialist and the political architect of the Open University.

My first awareness of her came when a local school was named after her in Wolverhampton. It was later that I discovered who this inspirational woman was.

As somebody who has pursued my own education through the trade union movement I admire Lee’s passion and commitment to adult education, which drove her idea of creating a “University of the Air” — transformed into the establishment of the Open University in 1969.

“There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose,” she made clear in her 1966 White Paper.

This was the guiding principle upon which she delivered, in her words, a “university which does not insult any man or any woman whatever their background by offering them the second best. Nothing but the best is good enough.”

That message should provide ongoing inspiration to us all, especially within the trade union movement, as we deliver and demand the best learning and training opportunities for our members.

Roy Rickhuss is general secretary of Community.



Mick Whelan

Jennie Lee, daughter of a Fife miner, was elected as Independent Labour Party MP for North Lanarkshire in 1929 to become, at 24, the youngest member of the House of Commons.

She was a powerful and persuasive public speaker — her maiden speech was a coruscating attack on Winston Churchill, who she accused of “cant, corruption and incompetence.” Later she condemned Ramsay MacDonald for forming a national coalition government with the Tories.

Lee, who was inspired by people like James Maxton and Beatrice Webb, married Aneurin Bevan and helped create a popular front against fascism in the 1930s.

She was elected as MP for Cannock, Staffordshire, in the Labour landslide of 1945. As minister for the arts when Labour returned to power in 1964, she was responsible for creating the Open University — a lasting legacy which Harold Wilson described as the greatest achievement of his government.

Lee was a pioneer and a dissenter often at odds with the Labour leadership; a passionate socialist who worked tirelessly throughout her life to improve the lot of every man and woman in this country and a giant of the labour movement.

Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef.




Dave Prentis

Lucia McKeever is one in a million — a straight-talking, hardworking mother and grandmother from Northern Ireland, who left school with no qualifications and is now president of Unison.

An inspiration to working women everywhere, Lucia is proof that unions can and do make a difference. Her first job may have been as a junior nursing auxiliary but she now holds our union’s highest office.

Lucia struggled in school, owing to her dyslexia, which in those days was rarely identified.

But it was union support and encouragement that helped her to stop seeing it as a barrier to getting on.

From then on there was no stopping her. For more than 25 years she’s campaigned tirelessly on behalf of healthcare assistants, trying to win a better deal for them at work and to protect health and social care from the worst of austerity.

Lucia’s never afraid to say when something is wrong. She’s also the voice of logic and reason — she helps us keep it real.

She’s very supportive of other women, encouraging them to put themselves forward — not to let their educational background or where they’re from hold them back. And that’s why she’s my heroine.

Dave Prentis is general secretary of Unison.




Mark Dickinson

My heroine is Victoria Drummond (1894-1978) — the first woman to qualify as a Merchant Navy engineer officer, and someone who is honoured by our union with an award in her name that is given to mark the achievements of female seafarers.

Drummond displayed remarkable determination to overcome prejudice and discrimination to pursue her career choice. She often struggled to find work at sea during her 40-year career, despite glowing references.

Her determination was displayed by the fact that she sat — and failed — the British chief engineer’s examination more than 30 times.

She was awarded the Lloyd’s Bravery Medal and an MBE for heroic actions during WWII when her ship, Bonita, was attacked in the mid-Atlantic in August 1940. Her actions were described as an inspiration to the ship’s company, with her devotion to duty preventing more serious damage to the vessel.

The ship had never before exceeded nine knots, but — alone at her post — Drummond somehow managed to get it to 12.5 knots, with the captain using the extra speed to change course sharply and avoid being hit by enemy aircraft.

Shipping remains a male-dominated industry, but Drummond’s achievements remain a powerful inspiration to everyone and we are proud to remember her with our award.

Mark Dickinson is general secretary of Nautilus.




Paul Kenny

GMB women, epitomised by Grunwick strike leader Jayaben Desai (below), union founder Eleanor Marx and our indomitable president Mary Turner, are formidable and you get yourself on the wrong side of them at your peril.

Throughout my membership of GMB and the different roles I have performed for our members, I have seen GMB women in action. They are unstoppable, redoubtable and thoroughly ruthless when it comes to the defending their members. They are too numerous to mention by name. So take my word for it — don’t upset GMB women.

Paul Kenny is general secretary of GMB.




Steve Murphy

A woman I have always deeply admired is Anne Scargill. I watched her in action during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

Scargill was a leading figure in the Women Against Pit Closures campaign. It is easy to forget how important this campaign was in helping the families of striking miners in every pit community in the country. This was certainly the case in my hometown of Chesterfield.

Scargill and others in the campaign worked tirelessly to make life for these families a little more bearable. Without her work and the work of other miners’ wives, life would have been even bleaker for many families.

Steve Murphy is general secretary of Ucatt.




Ronnie Draper

Trying to nominate a heroine for International Women’s Day is on par with buying the winning lottery ticket. I could name the obvious choices of women who have risen to the top of their respective organisations or led high-profile political campaigns, but would that be the mark of a heroine?

Instead I will nominate the millions of women shop stewards, health and safety representatives, learning reps and passionate activists, who on a day-to-day basis make benefiting their members, society and their communities a priority of the highest degree.

Solidarity with all our trade union sisters around the world on International Women’s Day, and thank you for the difference you are making to securing a better world for us all.

Ronnie Draper is general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union.




Ian Lawrence

Recently retired from public service but still involved in membership engagement at the Benenden Healthcare Society, Gwenda Binks is an inspiration. She was one of the first women of my generation to break the mould in terms of female representation at the highest levels of the movement.

We were part of the the mid-’70s intake of younger trade unionists who had been recruited into the ranks of the then Inland Revenue Staff Federation (IRSF) — one of the precursor unions to today’s PCS.

Gwenda quickly broke through from branch activity onto the NEC where, as a member of a minority section in a hugely white male-dominated leadership, she brought a refreshing perspective and alternative thinking to the stereotypical debates that took place around that time.

Gwenda’s role in the Civil Service dispute in the ’80s helped to bring her prominence as a leading voice in the movement, and when I followed her onto the IRSF NEC I was enthused by her work ethic, dedication to the aims of the movement and compassion for others.

After that we followed broadly similar paths in the movement. We were both IRSF national vice-presidents and valuation honorary secretaries, and we served for many years together at NEC level.

Gwenda went on to become IRSF president and a member of the TUC general council and was active in the voluntary community.

Ian Lawrence is general secretary of Napo.


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