Teach our kids about Millicent Fawcett and Ed Sheeran in schools

Liz went in search of the suffragette spirit in Aldeburgh

Liz went in search of the suffragette spirit in Aldeburgh - Credit: Archant

It’s 100 years since women got the vote. It’s time our schools started teaching our kids about the Suffolk women who helped make it happen, says Liz Nice

I had lunch with a friend in her ‘60s the other day who was telling me about the first time she tried to buy a house.

“I was 25 and the man said, ‘You’ll obviously have to get your husband to sign’. When I told him I didn’t have one, he nearly collapsed. I don’t think he had ever arranged a house purchase for a single woman before.”

My friend explained that she had had the same problem when she tried to buy a car.

“What does your husband think?” she was asked.

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“I have no idea,” she replied. “I haven’t met him yet.”

That this happened as recently as the 1970s, I find shocking.

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Only 40 years ago, women were still viewed as inferior citizens?

How can that be, when only yesterday, my friend Wes told me, ‘”It’s mad that they ever thought women shouldn’t have the vote. Without my wife taking charge of everything, I’d be hopeless.”

This year, this newspaper is planning lots of activity around the 100 year anniversary of women getting the vote, and so it was that on Friday, I visited Aldeburgh to make a film about two remarkable women who played a part in that story.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first qualified female doctor and a suffrage supporter.

Her sister, Millicent Fawcett, for whom the campaigning Fawcett Society is named, was a prominent suffragist and advocate of female education.

‘I cannot say that I became a suffragist,” Millicent once said. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all…”

As you do, I decided to walk down Aldeburgh High Street, dressed as a suffragette to ask if the people there knew anything about their hometown suffragettes (or ‘suffragists’ as one man kindly corrected me.)

I wasn’t optimistic: I imagined Aldeburgh not to be a very friendly place, yet, as ever, I was proven completely wrong.

From the vicar, to the local history expert, to the lady cleaning the church, to the man in the high street with a Help for Heroes shirt, I have rarely been anywhere so welcoming.

Most of the Aldeburgh residents did know about the Garrett sisters as it turned out, which was rather gratifying: ever since I came back to East Anglia to live again, I have been continually amazed by how many brilliant, inspiring, historical women hail from here, none of whom I ever learned about in school.

I hope, during this 100th anniversary year, that the children in our local schools today are getting a different experience.

The Key Stage 1 curriculum names nurses Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale as significant women; queens Elizabeth and Victoria and, cheeringly, campaigners Rosa Parks and Emily Davison.

But I hope we are also focusing on our local women of note.

Just as my sons are doubly inspired by Ed Sheeran because of his local roots, so I feel certain our young women ought to know about the Garrett sisters and indeed, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, our Nobel Prize winning chemist who hailed from Beccles, artists Rose Mead and Sybil Andrews and many more.

Small town life can be oppressive to dreamers, but it needn’t be.

Knowing that there were women from here who overcame remarkable odds to excel in their respective fields and help to win the arguments for female emancipation will surely help even the most unconfident child to believe there is virtue in believing in the seemingly impossible and never giving up.

We still have a way to go when it comes to full equality but how encouraged I was when the man in the Help for Heroes shirt on Aldeburgh High Street told me, ‘Actually, my wife is more equal than I am!”

And, I have always felt that the story of suffrage is really the story of all time.

The women said it; they kept saying it, eventually some men listened and agreed, and ultimately all the men realised that the women had been right all along.

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