In the weeks preceding International Women’s Day 2018, it’s important to remember the role of BAME women and some of the trailblazers who have pressed for progress on behalf of all women of colour.
Although often relatively unknown, history has provided us with numerous stories of leadership, courage and strength from admirable women of colour. Here are a just a few of the many BAME women who made strides into challenging and changing the societies we live in.
Mary Seacole became a much loved figure with a reputation to match that of Florence Nightingale. Born in 1805 and skilled in African and Caribbean herbal medicine, Seacole raised funds in order to travel to the front line of the Crimean War and feed and nurse injured soldiers fighting in it. This was despite her applications to the War Office being refused. She went on to create the British Hotel, where she nursed sick and injured solders, using her own resources. A statue of her was erected outside St. Thomas Hospital in remembrance of the work she did.
After Hidden Figures premiered worldwide in 2016, mainstream discussion about Katherine Johnson heightened. Hidden Figures introduced many to the work of black women who calculated and analysed the flight paths of many space crafts, in order to send astronauts to the moon. Johnson worked for the US Space Programme for more than three decades; her work was crucial in sending the first US astronaut to space and putting the first three men on the moon. Before the movie, most people would likely have been unfamiliar with Johnson and her colleagues, so it is great to see these women now being recognized for the progress they achieved.
Civil rights activist, Olive Morris was a trailblazer in antiracist activism and squatters rights in South London and Manchester. Morris co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and the Black Women’s Group. Her significant contribution to black communities was all achieved before she reached the age of 27. Described as fearless by many, Morris went on to establish Black Women’s Mutual Aid and the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op, campaigning throughout her short life for equality and seeking to educate and empower the black community.
Publishing her first book at the age of 24, Zadie Smith is an extremely successful author. Smith’s writings (‘White Teeth’ and ‘Swing Time’) to name but a couple, engage in the discussion of gender, race and class as seen from her own personal experience. Smith has achieved literary prizes for her novels, essays and short stories and continues to be regarded as a leading literary voice of her generation.
The contribution and achievements of BAME women are starting to be recognised. I read an enlightening interview with the novelist Joanna Traynor. She suggested that when we look at our past through a different lens, everything changes. It is often only on reflection that our progress can be truly seen. When we look through the ‘lens’ retrospectively it is clear that much progress has been made professionally, educationally and culturally for women of colour. There is still some way to go but it excites me to think about the progress yet to come.
So how do we press forward for progress?
1) By remembering the progress that has been made by other influential women of colour;
2) By building both the historical and contemporary achievements of women of colour into our daily dialogue, thereby cultivating environments that promote discussion about BAME issues and communities;
3) By creating our own communities, our own social circles that are mutually inclusive and support the evolution of the gender-race agenda; and
4) By educating one another with stories of our own history and encouraging each other to strive for individual progress so that we too can become influential women in our generation.
This blog was by Vivienne Wokoma, Paralegal in the Regulatory Team.
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.