Women’s history has always been ‘political’ but following the US Presidential election it has taken on a new significance, as campaigners for Hillary Clinton revived memories of American suffragists and the media sought comparisons with previous female presidential candidates. Former lawyer Katie Broomfield teamed up with fellow Public History MA student Emily Petretta to write this post about the effect the US election result had on them and a conference run by the First 100 Years campaign, which aims to promote gender equality by commemorating inspirational female lawyers.
Waking to a cold, rainy, November morning last week, many of us were hoping to hear that America had elected its first female president and despite losing, former lawyer Hillary Clinton certainly came closer than any woman before her. She was not, however, the first woman to run for president nor was she the first woman to seek selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee. Those honours fall to Victoria Woodhull, who announced her intention to run for president in the New York Herald in April 1870; and to the first black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 also became the first woman to contend (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Unsurprisingly, at a time when women were still denied the vote, in both Britain and America, Victoria Woodhull also failed to win the nomination of any major party. A prominent women’s rights campaigner and advocate of Free Love, she was known as Wicked Woodhull and spent election day in prison after having been arrested under the Comstock Laws for sending ‘obscene’ letters. Hillary Clinton faced similar media attacks and, following accusations that she should be in jail for her use of a private email server, was dubbed Crooked Hillary by supporters of Donald Trump. Many commentators have viewed these as misogynistic, and speaking in 1982, Shirley Chisholm was clear that she ‘met more discrimination as a woman than for being black’.
Panel, chaired by Dame Jenni Murray, discussing ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’ [Image: Katie Broomfield]
On the day of the election results a more positive outlook for women was presented at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference organised by the First 100 Years project with the aim of celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law. Starting with a video interview of Baroness Hale, the first and still the only female Justice of the Supreme Court, the overriding theme of the day was one of optimism and courage. A panel discussion on ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’ ended in spontaneous applause following a comment from the audience that Hillary Clinton should not be dismissed as a loser but celebrated for her courage, resilience and tenacity. She gave it a go and as Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC said this is the best advice for success. Sharing advice that she was once given Vanessa Davies urged women to have courage and remember that we have as good a chance as any and a better chance than many.
Speakers highlighted that by supporting each other women can achieve greater equality and diversity. Caroline Criado-Perez emphasized that she tries never to criticise other women on social media; Sarah Davis explained that by exerting their buying power women can and should support each other to force change; and Funke Abimbola emphasised how mentoring, coaching and sponsorship can provide mutual help and support. Of course, this does not always happen. On Tuesday, we assumed that the women pictured on twitter queuing to place ‘I voted’ stickers on the grave of suffragist Susan B Anthony were representative of broad female support for Hillary but, while New York State voted for her, over 50% of white women who voted, did so for Trump. This highlights the importance of women’s history and the need for more public role models, like the suffragists, to remind women what we can achieve when we work together.
Underlining why the First 100 Years project is so important, Katherine McMahon revealed that when she was researching her book The Crimson Rooms she found virtually nothing written about early female lawyers. In an attempt to rectify the absence of pioneering women from our public history, Caroline Criado-Perez, having already led a successful campaign for a woman (Jane Austen) to appear on a Bank of England bank note, outlined her next campaign to put the statue of a suffragist in Parliament Square in celebration of the centenary of votes for (some) women in 2018.
Liz Truss speaking at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award [Image: Katie Broomfield]
As public role models go, Liz Truss, the first female Lord Chancellor in 800 years, is surely high on the list. Although her appearance at the conference was overshadowed by recent events she certainly had some promising things to say about the judiciary, gender equality and diversity before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award to Keily Blair. Keily’s prize was a limited edition toilet roll in a presentation bell jar symbolising the alleged lack of female toilet facilities at law firms and legal institutions which was used as an excuse to avoid the employment of women. It is a striking visual representation of the barriers put up to women entering the legal profession; a reminder that these barriers can be overcome; and a demonstration that learning about women’s history can give us courage to overcome the barriers put up today.
Katie Broomfield (@KRBroomfield) and Emily Petretta (@EmilyPetretta) are both students on Royal Holloway’s MA in Public History