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EqualiTeas for women

PUBLISHED: 13:53 30 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:53 30 August 2018

Women's Voices, Women's Votes members (l-r) Jean Driscol, Fiona Loader and Pauline Henry enjoying a cup of EqualiTea, Picture: Women's Voices, Women's Votes

Women's Voices, Women's Votes members (l-r) Jean Driscol, Fiona Loader and Pauline Henry enjoying a cup of EqualiTea, Picture: Women's Voices, Women's Votes

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Jean Driscoll has been running a series of “equaliTeas” in Suffolk which hears the voices of women who otherwise go largely unheard.

Local Residents enjoying floristry at  the EqualiTea supported by Realise Futures at the Waterfront Community Centre. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's VotesLocal Residents enjoying floristry at the EqualiTea supported by Realise Futures at the Waterfront Community Centre. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's Votes

We meet in a pub at lunchtime where Jean Driscoll, in keeping with the brief, has a cup of tea.

Ipswich-based Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes (WVWV) is marking a momentous year in women’s history with a range of local initiatives aimed to give women their voice.

It is, of course, 100 years since the Suffragette and Suffragist movements finally got a result. Women got the vote − or, more correctly, some women got the vote. It would be another 10 years before all women aged 21 and over were enfranchised. In some ways, the limited nature of the 1918 changes is reflected in, what many women might consider, the limited nature of the freedoms they have won since.

For example, pay equality − the gap between men and women has narrowed but not closed. It is just one of the many topics that women have been discussing in a series of “equaliTeas” that have been held in Ipswich and the surrounding area. Born of an idea from UK Parliament and taken up by WVWV, the teas are for women to get together and talk about issues that concern them over a cup of tea and cake and sometimes, craftwork.

More Than Mum group members preparing the Tea. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's VotesMore Than Mum group members preparing the Tea. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's Votes

The cost is covered by funds raised by WVWV and sponsorship.

Jean, who was among the first women to achieve an MA in Women’s Studies and has had a career in social work in Suffolk, says: “Leading suffrage organisations used tea shops to discuss tactics and ways to raise money. The Equaliteas recognise the important role that tea houses such as Lyons and ABC played − they were the only places where women could easily meet.”

“We took the (UK Parliament) concept and developed it.”

What do women talk about?

EqualiTea at Cumberland Towers in Ipswich. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's VotesEqualiTea at Cumberland Towers in Ipswich. Picture: Women's Voices, Women's Votes

“A lot of it is about voting... linked to the centenary. There are women, particularly younger women, who really don’t know how to go about voting and have been deterred by hearing myths such as that the reason we write on the ballot paper in pencil is so the cross can be rubbed out and replaced by a vote for a different candidate. Of course, this is completely untrue but the rumour undermined confidence in voting for one group of young women who were part of the EqualiTeas”

The venues for the teas are chosen to take in all ages, religions and backgrounds. Lighthouse, the women’s charity that supports women who have been or are at risk of suffering domestic abuse, was one group venue. Others in Ipswich have included the International Women’s Group, Girls Where You At, and Cumberland Towers’ residents and there are several scheduled in the next few weeks.

As well as talking about voting and learning about the history of the women’s suffrage movement, the Equaliteas have highlighted the concerns that many women share. Jean says there are three issues that have been raised again and again. These are:

• “Slut-shaming”: this is the unpleasant term used to describe how young women have become the targets of abuse among men for, allegedly, “sleeping around”. The slurs follow the women around even when they often have had no more than one relationship. Jean says: “It shows double standards in relation to sexuality. One older women who spoke about it said: ‘Men describe themselves as studs but there isn’t an equivalent for women.’”

• Discrimination at work: This encompasses the lack of affordable childcare, harassment at work, issues around pregnancy. Jean says women felt strongly that there is a need for different models of working: “Women should be able to work at home.”

• Voting: “What came out of the teas was a lack of knowledge and a confidence about voting. They didn’t know what particular parties stood for and wanted to see more information for example in schools. We have also been raising awareness of local suffragettes – including Ipswich suffragette Constance Andrews’ serving time in prison in the cells at County Hall, in St Helen’s Street.

To date the Equaliteas have been a great success and have achieved their goal of bringing women together and finding common interests. Jean says: “What’s wonderful is that we have got a lot of other women involved and taking part in the centenary projects.

“Another positive outcome is the friendships that have been evident in the Teas, friendships across ages and cultures.”

• Centenary celebrations will culminate on October 6 with a festival at the University of Suffolk. Details at https://womenwomensvoiceswomensvotes.wordpress.com

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