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Article by Sophie Astin | 4th March 2019

Women Of Substance: Celebrating International Women's Day

March is not only an occasion to honour the maternal figures in our lives on Mother’s Day (celebrated this year on the 31st), it’s also International Women’s Day (8th March) – when we champion women’s achievements while calling for a more gender-balanced world. As our nation’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman” – and that certainly seems true of the many strong, influential and inspirational women of Kent, past and present…

March is all about women – in fact 2019 is all about women. As the Spice Girls (minus Posh) prepare to tour again, the 8th Women’s FIFA World Cup takes place this summer in France, Britain is – at the time of publication – under a female Prime Minister – and history is made in the US as a record number of women are sworn into Congress and the Senate. This month is not only an occasion to honour the maternal figures in our lives on Mother’s Day (celebrated this year on the 31st), it’s also International Women’s Day (8th March) – when we champion women’s achievements while calling for a more gender-balanced world. In fact this year’s campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter – better the balance, better the world.

But while we’re all working to do everything possible to help forge a more gender-balanced world, there’s still more to be achieved. At the end of 2018 the BBC released a list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world, ranging in age from 15-94, and from more than 60 countries. Here, we look at women closer to home, past and present – trailblazers and everyday heroines who have, or continue to, make their mark on our local community, society and the world.

Making a name for themselves

Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry achieved success at a time when women were usually dependent on men for respectability and income. Born into a struggling theatrical family in the 1840s, Ellen grew up in theatres and moved to Kent in 1900, spending the rest of her life at Smallhythe Place near Tenterden.

One of the highest-earning ladies of the 19th century, Ellen achieved an independence denied most women of the time and declared herself an ardent suffragette. Both Ellen, and her daughter, Edith (Edy) Craig were members of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which sought to assist the other groups campaigning for women’s suffrage.

But it was in 1918 when women were granted the right to vote and one local woman played a key part in helping to secure this seismic shift in power. Campaigner for women’s rights, Amelia (Millie) Scott, was raised and lived for many years in Southborough on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. An active member of the town’s branch of the National Union of Women Workers, which she established in May 1895, Amelia was also an avowed supporter of women’s suffrage and became vice president of the Tunbridge Wells branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

In November 1919 Amelia Scott and Susan Power were the first two women to be elected to the Tunbridge Wells Town Council.

Amelia was active in all aspects of women’s work in Tunbridge Wells during the First World War, and was even awarded the Gold Palm Order of the Crown in 1929 – an extremely prestigious award – for her work with Belgian refugees.

Flying high

Another trailblazer, also born in Tunbridge Wells in 1910 and educated at Beechwood Sacred Heart School, was Pauline Gower, a British pilot and writer who established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the Second World War, and going on to become its first Commander. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Pauline was the District Commissioner for the London area of the Civil Air Guard and successfully argued for the need for a women’s branch of the ATA.

In December 1939, she was appointed leader of this new women’s sector and, in early 1940, revealed the eight female pilots she had chosen. Three years late, Pauline was appointed to the British Overseas Airways Corporation – and this marked the first time a woman had served on the board of a state airline in the UK and, possibly, in the wider world.

After the war, in the summer of 1945, she married Wing Commander Bill Fahie. Tragically, two years later she died, aged 37, after giving birth to twin sons. Pauline was awarded an MBE for her services in 1942 and received a Harmon Trophy award posthumously in 1950.

Today, there are more than 7,000 female airline pilots globally, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots – a huge advance from Pauline’s youth, but making up only 5% of the total number of airline pilots worldwide.

Like mother, like daughter

Kent businesswoman, writer, mother and evangelical mid-life runner, Siobhan Stirling was the only double winner at the 2018 annual Kent Women in Business Awards. As well as taking the PR and Marketing title for her work as Director of Sharp Minds Communications, Siobhan was also named Women’s Champion for her new movement, 50 Challenges.

“I came up with the idea of 50 Challenges after emerging physically and mentally stronger from what I call the ‘Foul Forties’. We are living longer, healthier, more active lives now and we should be enjoying this privilege,” said Siobhan.

50 Challenges aims to inspire those aged 50 and over to do more, achieve more and be more than they ever thought possible. “Not everyone wants to run a marathon when they hit 50,” she explains. “One member set herself the goal of walking unaided into her 50th birthday party, following a debilitating stroke. Another set about getting in contact with 50 members of his family over the course of a year. It’s all about redefining what 50 looks and feels like.”

• Visit 50challenges.org

At just 20, Iola Palmer-Stirling has some years to go before taking up her mother’s 50 Challenges, but meanwhile she has entered local politics in order to “make a difference in the community I have grown up in”. Currently Youth Secretary/Officer for the Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrat party, she is also standing for the Speldhurst and Bidborough ward.

While the current number of women MPs is the highest ever – 209 – it constitutes just 32% of total elected representatives in the Commons, this hasn’t deterred Iola: “I am concerned for the lack of representation in politics both for women and for those in my age group and I’m particularly interested in getting younger people involved in politics – it’s our future and we need to take responsibility for it. There is currently a massive problem in the UK of low turnout at elections, especially for those aged 18-25, and this needs to change. We need to engage young people in politics, possibly through lowering the voting age to 16.”

Image: Rebecca Miller

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