She was one of England’s great leaders. She led the resistance against the invading Viking hordes and, as first Lady of the Mercians, was revered for her bravery and skill. Yet few know the name of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, it’s time to remember Aethelflaed’s importance to Cheshire — exactly 1,111 years since she founded modern-day Chester.
This year also marks another notable date from history: the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which first granted to the right to vote to women over the age of 30. It would be another ten years until women over 21 would be given equal voting rights to men.
Cheshire is hosting a celebration of female endeavour this year with a programme of cultural events. It was launched at a recent lunch at Chester’s Storyhouse to highlight how Cheshire companies support the progression of businesswomen in industry and professional services. Senior representatives of Lloyds Banking Group, McCann Erickson and Bentley Motors were in attendance.
The launch follows a recent report by the accountancy firm Grant Thornton, which found that companies perform better when they have at least one female executive on the board. The report, Women in Business: the value of diversity, identified the UK’s share of the forfeited returns as £49bn, or about 3% of GDP.
“I spent 30 years in the motor industry but still remember my first union meeting when one of the men said, ‘Get her back behind the kitchen sink’,” says Christine Gaskell, chair of the Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and one of the attendees.
“When I worked with young, female graduates, I used to say to them, ‘Look at the scars on top of my head. That’s from when I broke the grass ceiling for you’,” she adds. “It’s important that these centenary events give credit to the brave young women who lead the way for us all.”
The Northwest is closely linked to the suffragette story after Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Local characters associated with the movement include Hannah Greg, the wife of Samuel Greg of Quarry Bank Mill fame. It was Mrs. Greg who pioneered healthcare and education for the workers in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
Ada Neil Chew was a working-class activist whose letters to the Crewe Chronicle highlighted the poor treatment of her fellow textile workers. Frodsham’s Harriet Shaw Weaver was the editor of the early feminist magazine, The Freewoman, and a friend of Dora Marsden, an Altrincham headmistress who hoisted herself into the rafters of Southport’s Empire Theatre to heckle Sir Winston Churchill at a political rally. Winnie may be celebrated on screen in Darkest Hour but the bulldog Prime Minister initially opposed the vote for women.
“When I started my career in accountancy, based in Chester, in 1984, there were very few females at partner level. However, gender was never a barrier for my career progression within professional services,” said Jill Jones, RSM UK’s regional managing partner in the North West and an attendee at the lunch.
Cheshire-based Jill manages five offices across the North West, including Chester and Manchester. “We now live in a very different world with more flexibility and consideration of work-life balance. For young women going into the industry, they can expect progression based on merit and more diversity at senior levels,” she added.
Times have changed but issues around equal pay and boorish behaviour continue to make the headlines. “It’s too early to say the battle is over. But we are on the right track and moving forward,” says Christine Gaskell.
“Blue chip companies are now gender blind. I look forward to the day opportunities are open to all young people — men and women,” she adds. “Ultimately, everyone should be treated with respect.”
David Atkinson is a travel writer but always returns home to Chester; more from atkinsondavid.com.
Cultural events around Cheshire to mark the centenary:
* Storyhouse hosts a weekend of think-ins from April 27-29 based on last year’s Women of the World Festival; the full festival returns in 2019. More: Storyhouse.com
* The Chester Mystery Plays return to Chester Cathedral from June 24 to July 14. Based on the biblical plays acted out on the streets of medieval Chester, the plays are being reinterpreted by the playwright Deborah McAndrew. More: chestermysteryplays.com
* The Sandstone Ridge Festival, running May 16-20, takes female suffrage as its central theme this year. The line up includes the one-woman show, Grasping the Nettle, based on the music and letters of the composer
and suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth. More: sandstoneridgefestival.co.uk