Today marks International Women’s Day and as we are asked to call out gender bias and inequality, I thought I might share the story of an incredibly strong women who helped to shape my own story.
Her name is Mary she was born in 1912, the second child of a young unmarried mother. Her father was thought to be a local aristocratic landowner, for whom her mother worked as a Governess. After she was born, Mary and her older brother Ronald, were brought up by their Grandma, both believing her to be their mother. Her early life was not without challenges but although she had little she was loved. She often told me stories of her ‘brother’ who would really have been her Uncle, returning home shell shocked having survived the horrors of the First world War. When she was 9 her Grandmother died and Ron and Mary were forced to move in with their mother, her new husband and their children.
As a small child, hearing her stories, I often pictured Mary as a kind of Cinderella character, there were many similarities – forced to ‘wait’ on her new siblings, always hungry, sleeping with her brother on a ‘pegged rug’ on the scullery floor, no birthday or Christmas gifts and beaten if she dared to speak or complain. (I know that Ron, although small and under nourished suffered beatings far worse than Mary.)
Aged 13, she left and went into service as a kitchen maid in a grand house in Scotland. She always described the scenery as a place that only God could have created and these vivid memories of wild Glens and streams instilled in me a enormous passion for the great outdoors. Finally aged 17, on a rare visit home, she met her future husband, an 18-year-old scrawny coal miner named John.
They saved hard and got married, renting a small house that would be home until just a couple of years before she died aged 92. Possessions never figured highly in Mary’s life as John always sent a proportion of his wages home to his mum and younger siblings having become the family bread winner aged 9 following the death of his father in a mining accident. In later years he left the mines and worked in factories where during the 50’s and 60’s he supervised a team of men who had moved from the Caribbean and Indian to start new lives. Mary and John’s house was often full of people for whom home and family was many miles away. The colour of someone’s skin, the type of clothes they wore or food they ate was never an issue. Mary always said that each person was somebody’s child, and whilst their own mother was unable to be close by she would do what she could.
This amazing lady was my Grandmother – she taught me that all people are equal no matter where we come from. She suffered from gender bias and I know she was discriminated against and shamed for being born to an unmarried mother, yet she stood as a beacon in both my family and the community, refusing to remain silent when she saw or her heard inequality. She never used age as an excuse and even though it has been almost 10 years since she died I know that if she was here today she would be demanding a fairer and more equal world, I can hear her rallying cry #BreakThe Bias.