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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative 5:13 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, there cannot be many speeches in the House of Lords which begin with a mention of disposable nappies—this may be a first. I do so today because it helps to illustrate the theme of my speech.

I became aware of Valerie Hunter Gordon only when she died in October last year. She had been an army wife in suburban Surrey in the late 1940s. She had two babies and a third on the way—she went on to have six children—and was borne down by domestic drudgery. In those days, the old-fashioned towelling nappies had to be soaked in chlorine, washed, dried in a mangle and ironed. She did the maths: seven nappies a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year meant about 2,500 soiled nappies for every baby. Then she had her light-bulb moment. She created her own nappies: a disposal pad inside a waterproof garment. It was a success for her and her friends and created a great demand for these disposable nappies. She went to commercial companies to try to interest them, but they showed no interest at all. One has to ask how is it that these companies showed no interest and that in America, the land of inventiveness and enterprise, no one had thought of inventing disposable nappies. The answer is simple: in those days companies were run entirely by men who had never changed a soiled nappy before.

As I said, I only became aware of the name of Valerie Hunter Gordon when she died in October last year. Four days later, another remarkable woman died in Japan, Junko Tabei. She had wanted to be a climber, to conquer the highest mountains in every country in the world, but in Japan women were told they had to stay at home. However, she was not having it, and somehow managed to join an all-male climbing club. Many of the men refused to climb with her and so, in 1969, she set up a ladies climbing club and, six years later, she climbed Mount Everest.

This brings me to another lady who died recently, Margaret Pereira, another remarkable woman who conquered her own metaphorical Everest. She was a brilliant forensic scientist who joined the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory. She became an expert in the analysis of blood—crucial in investigating criminal cases and vital before the introduction of DNA analysis—and was involved in many famous and notorious criminal cases. In those days women did not go to court because it was thought unsuitable for women to be involved in sordid cases. She said that she wanted to go to court and was told, “You cannot. Women do not do that kind of work”. She dug her heels in and she did go to court—she was involved in many cases, including the Lord Lucan case—and she went on shattering glass ceilings. She became head of the Forensic Science Service and president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences.

I wish to mention just two other extraordinary women who have died recently. One was the intrepid journalist Clare Hollingworth. It was her brilliant scoop in 1939, spotting German troop movements on the Polish border, which, in effect, announced to the world the start of the Second World War and gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “breaking news”.

The other person, who was referred to earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, is our former friend and colleague in this place, Rachael Heyhoe Flint. Let me read to you the opening paragraph of her obituary:

“When she was a young girl, Rachael Heyhoe was playing cricket in the middle of the road, with dustbins for wickets. Suddenly, the police rolled up and everyone scattered. ‘They hauled my brother and all his friends out from behind various hedges and wrote down their names’, she recalled. ‘Then I came out and said, “Do you want my name, please, because I was playing cricket as well?”’ And the policeman said, ‘Oh, no, girls don’t play cricket’”.

In the end she took on the cricket establishment, hitting it for six. She was a pioneer of women’s cricket, captained England and got the MCC to admit women.

All these women, in their own way, broke through the glass ceiling for others to follow. They show us how tenacity and determination can break down barriers of prejudice and discrimination, whether of gender, race, sex, religion or disability. They were and are great role models.