Inspiring women, changing lives

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
11 Mar 2011

Neither International Women's Day nor Ash Wednesday usually have any great significance for me. The Quaker belief that all days and times carry the sacred within them is usually sufficient. But this year, I am moved to consider it possible that I may have been mistaken.

It is easy to take one's own experience for granted and to forget that things were not always as we find them today or are everywhere the same as in our own small area of the globe. When I compare my life with that of my mother and grandmothers, I find much upon which I need to reflect and for which I know I must learn to cultivate a keener sense of gratitude.

The lives of both my grandmothers were hard in many ways. One was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis from an early age and in a time when good medical care was beyond the means of poorer people. The other endured an unhappy marriage with grace and resignation. Both lived very modestly, without cars, telephones, televisions, or – for a good part of their married lives - electricity or running water.

Whatever their dreams and aspirations - and of these I know nothing - they followed the way of most working class women in the early years of the last century. They left school when not long into double figures and worked briefly as domestic servants before marrying young and bearing children in quick succession. Both of them had a child that died before before their ninth birthday and both families endured the harsh environment of industrial northern England during the years of the depression. Both women had to contend with husbands damaged by the 1914-18 war and neither ever travelled far from their homes. Holidays were almost unknown and a Bank Holiday trip to Grange-over-Sands or Silloth was about as good as it got.

My mother was permitted to stay at school until she was 16. This was all but unheard of in that stratum of society where children were expected to enter employment and contribute to the family budget as soon as possible. Those extra years of education gave her the desire to become a doctor and there was no doubt that she had the intelligence and application which would have made this possible. But girls from the West Cumbrian coalfield did go to medical school in the 1930s.

The war deformed the lives of my mother's generation. Her fiancé, a merchant seaman, was lost in the North Atlantic Convoys and it was not until four years after the end of the war that she met the man who was to be my father.

His early death left her a young widow and her stoic determination to keep a roof over our heads and to battle through her loss without self-pity or bitterness remains an inspiration to me.

None of these brief life stories are in any way remarkable in the sense of being unusual. But they are extraordinary in that they seem so far distant from the experiences of my generation and cohort.

I was educated from the infant class to post-graduate level at the expense of the state. I have been a beneficiary of a free health service and of a time when a young graduate could get on the property ladder in their twenties. My life and relationships have not been eaten into by the dislocation and loss of war. I have travelled and been exposed to cultures which were the stuff of fiction to my grandparents. I am sustained by a non-married relationship without shame or the need for evasion or dissembling. Should we have chosen to marry and should that marriage have failed, I would have faced neither social disgrace nor penury.

I have experienced very little by way of exploitation or bullying in either my professional or personal life, I have not experienced overt unfairness in employment or remuneration and the occasional inevitable manifestations of male chauvinism have not troubled me greatly. The confidence which comes from a good education and the support of like-minded friends of both sexes is a sure defence against those who seek to belittle. If I had a daughter, this is the life experience I would wish her to have.

But for many women, experiences similar to that of my mother and grandmothers are still far too common. Those of us who have been able to make the most of the social and economic developments of recent decades must not permit ourselves to become blinkered or made complacent by our own good fortune nor to imagine that the playing field is now level.

Violence against women is widespread and in the global south, it often flourishes in a culture of impunity. Women bringing up children alone face real hardship, both here and in less economically developed countries. Their employment opportunities are hit first and hardest by economic downturn and the low pay, casual and part-time nature of so much work done by women is an injustice about which we should not be silent.

Far too much power – economic, social, political and spiritual – is still concentrated in male hands. Power composes the rationale for its own continuation. It has become adept at writing women out of the narrative and although both men and women of good faith are beginning to challenge and change this, centuries of sclerosis and self-interest have very deep foundations.

If Lent is to have any meaning for me, it must be about the stimulus to consider how my life can be simplified. 'Giving up' this or that has no intrinsic value and can easily become a self-congratulatory exercise in will power or a shallow asceticism. To live with simplicity and discernment in a culture of over-consumption is essential if injustice and inequality are not to be strengthened. Lent reminds me of the vigilance I must exercise if I am not to slide into complicity with the exploiters and the self-serving.

The Quaker Testimony of equality dovetails with Friends' reluctance to pay particular heed to days or seasons designated to a purpose. But this year, the latter has given me a sharp push in the direction of the former. I am grateful.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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