The remarkable women breaking down barriers

Suffragettes
Suffragettes

A century since women won the right to vote, we talk to the amazing and inspirational modern day Suffragettes in our county.

One hundred years ago today British women won the right to vote.

Boxer Jane Couch

Boxer Jane Couch

Although far from the end of the struggle, February 6 1918 marked a huge milestone - and the culmination of decades of passionate and sometimes violent campaigning.

Over the next five weeks the Blackpool Gazette will celebrate the fighting spirit of the remarkable women who became suffragettes and show how their courage continues to inspire women to break down barriers.

Our Today’s Suffragettes series has brought together some of the most incredible women in the county today and will give a voice to these amazing, inspirational, diverse, passionate and pioneering women who continue to break down barriers across the social spectrum.

From one of the first women to be ordained as vicars to the young BAE engineer touring schools to get girls more interested in taking up science, we see how far women have come in the last 100 years.

Shappi Khorsandi

Shappi Khorsandi

We also examine the battles that still need to be fought today, from the gender pay gap to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, we sit down for an exclusive interview with Fleetwood boxer Jane Couch, who had to fight long and hard to take her place in the sport she loves.

For most boxers, the fight only starts once they get in the ring, but Jane Couch faced a gruelling six-year legal battle before she even allowed to compete in the UK.

Jane, known as the ‘Fleetwood Assassin’ among boxers, was the first licensed female boxer in the UK, blazing the trail for women in sport everywhere and facing vicious slurs and abuse as she did so.

To nominate an amazing woman your local area visit www.amnesty.org.uk/suffragettespirit

To nominate an amazing woman your local area visit www.amnesty.org.uk/suffragettespirit

With a gritty fighting spirit that would have been familiar to the early Suffragettes, she ploughed a lonely furrow and eventually became the five times world champion.

Today, high profile female fighters like Katie Taylor, Nicola Adams and Alejandra Jiménez are reaping the rewards of Jane’s hard work.

She said: “What I went through was terrible, it took my six years to bring the case to court and even after I won everyone was still against me.

“The newspapers reacted like I was some kind of devil woman. These days I get loads of people coming up to me and saying thanks, that it was a good thing that I did, but back then hardly anyone supported me.

“There were a couple of good men and good trainers, but I would say 90 per cent of people were hostile to me.”

A relative latecomer to the sport, Fleetword girl Jane only started boxing at the age of 23 after seeing a documentary on women in the sport.

At that time it was not legal for women in the UK to hold a professional boxer’s licence.

The British Boxing Board of Control argued – apparently in all seriousness – that PMS made women too unstable to box.

She said: “I started going along to a gym in Fleetwood. The trainer there didn’t care about the rules so he used to sneak me in to the gym after everyone had gone and taught me the basics.

“He was great, but he was having to do it in his own time because I wasn’t allowed to be in the gym at the same time as everyone else.

“Then when people found out I had to stop going there and I ended up moving to Bristol because there was a gym there that could take me.

“It was the same gym that Lennox Lewis went to so it was a really good standard and I trained with all the men because there were no other women there.

“I think that’s how I got so good because I was fighting with the men all the time.

“When I first started going a lot of the men said they didn’t want to spar with a woman, but as I got good they just started treating me like everyone else.

“They were really good, they just got to know me and treated me the same as everyone else.”

But while she could train, it was not legal for Jane to fight in the UK, so she had to travel abroad for fights, some in the USA where the women’s boxing scene was well developed, and some in Germany.

She said: “I went to the USA for a bit, and women’s boxing there was so much more advanced, there was so much more funding and some really high profile women and good fights. It was light years ahead of the UK, but in the end I just got really homesick so I came back.

“But I’m still lucky that I was able to go, I had no kids, I wasn’t in a relationship at that time so I could just up and go.”

But at the same time as honing her fighting skills in the ring, Jane was embarking on a battle of a different kind, taking on the British Boxing Board of Control, the medical professionals and the might of the British media over their blatantly sexist attitude to women’s boxing.

At the time, the Board of Control would not give licencses to women, and argued that PMS made women too intrinsically unstable to be licencsed as boxers.

She said: “I did an interview in 1992 about how I wasn’t allowed to box in England and a barrister saw it, Diana Rose, who took on the case for me.

“In total it took six years to launch the court action, raise the funds, get all the medical evidence together and then do the actual case.

“And of course as an athlete you’ve only got a limited shelf life, especially as I didn’t start until I was 23.

“Some of the things the boxing people were coming out with in the court case were just ridiculous, the judge asked one man if he would agree to be flown by a woman pilot if he was going on holiday and he said ‘Not if she was on her period’.

“Even after I won the case all the media were against me, people were asking if I was mentally fit to box or if I was insane, I remember there was a debate on Richard and Judge ‘should Jane Couch be allowed to box?’

“Within boxing itself some people were helpful, but I would say 90 per cent of them were hostile to the very idea of women boxing.

“When I went to America it was very different, they had several really big names and the women were making loads of money, more than the men in some cases, and then I would come back to the UK and it was so behind the times.

“Things have changed since then, of course, we’ve come a long but there is still a hell of a long way to come.

“When I see the boxers now like Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams and Stacey Copeland I think it’s great for them, but I so wish that I could have had the support that they have had.

“I think Katie Taylor is a great role model, she gets a little bit forgotten because she’s Irish, but she really fought the same battle as I did for amateur boxing, and now it’s in the Olympics I think that has helped.

“But we’re a long way from being where we need to be. Frank Warren and Frank Maloney used to make my life hell, they were always on the TV saying that woman shouldn’t be allowed to box.

“They don’t say that any more but I know they haven’t changed their minds – they just don’t have the bottle to say it out loud any more.

“But when you’ve got that kind of attitude among the promoters they’ll never truly help the women fighters.

“I still get women coming to me and saying that they’ve not been allowed into a boxing gym. It’s not legal of course, but there are ways of making people feel uncomfortable and not welcome.

“But it’s not just in boxing, you see the exact same thing in women’s football, the pay and support they get compared to the men is just ridiculous.

“And it’s even more stupid because the England women’s team are always winning things and the men’s team aren’t.”

Since retiring from boxing in 2008 – the year after being awarded an OBE for her contribution to sport – Jane has worked a promoter but now runs a construction firm in Bristol with her husband.

She said: “I’ve landed in another male-dominated profession, but I don’t get the same prejudice that I got when I first started out in boxing.

“I think we’ve got a way to go before we’re all equal, but sometimes I’m jealous of the girls today that they didn’t have to fight the battles I did. In some ways the girls today have got it easy.”

Suffragette Spirit by comedian Shappi Khorsandi

The struggle to win the vote was long and arduous, but in 1918 brave suffragettes up and down the country won.

Since then, women around the world have channelled the suffragette spirit to campaign for progress. They have stood up to racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption and much more.

Last century’s suffragettes are today’s women human rights defenders. Every day they harness their passionate voices to empower communities and create a fairer world.

Amnesty International campaigns to help protect women human rights defenders around the world. These brave campaigners often face surveillance, intimidation, threats, imprisonment and some even risk their lives. But you don’t need to travel thousands of miles to meet women fighting for justice and equality. In fact, there’s probably a woman human rights defender living at your doorstep.

This is why Amnesty and the Blackpool Gazette wants readers to nominate the incredible women who are making a real difference in their local area. Ordinary women from all walks of life – from students to shopkeepers, office workers to OAPs – are doing extraordinary things.

They might have stood up to bullies, helped the homeless, aided refugees, worked to protect the environment or campaigned for better access to healthcare. The list goes on.

Every time these women have spoken up, they’ve helped make life better for others - to ensure that you and I, as well future generations, enjoy a fairer, more equal world.

The amazing achievements of these often-unsung heroes deserve to be celebrated, and Amnesty wants to put them on its Suffragette Spirit Map of Britain.

The interactive map, which will launch on International Women’s day, will be a symbol of the suffragette legacy – proudly displaying how far we have come over the past century, but highlighting how much life-changing work is still being carried out today.

So, over to you: Which 21st century suffragette deserves to be put firmly on the map?

How to nominate

To nominate an amazing woman in your local area visit www.amnesty.org.uk/suffragettespirit.

All women must have carried out work to help others their local area within the last 10 years.

All successful nominees will be contacted to give consent prior to being placed on the Suffragette Spirit Map of Britain. This campaign has been funded by People’s Postcode Lottery.

1832

In 1832 the Great Reform Act extended the vote to a proportion of the male population – previously only a tiny handful of wealthy landowners could vote.

1867

The Act, followed by further bills in 1867 and 1884 meant that the majority of British men could vote in General Elections.

But women remained totally excluded from the ballot, and from any representation in parliament.

1903

There had been campaigns before for an increase in voting rights, but in 1903 the campaign picked up a gear with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, it took a more direct, confrontational approach.

Their tactics included marches, demonstrations, vandalising empty buildings and arson attacks.

As more and more women were arrested for breaching the peace, they developed the tactic of hunger strikes in prison.

1913

Probably the most famous Suffragette action was taken by Emily Wilding Davison, who in 1913 threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the Derby.

She was killed and the WSPU made her funeral into a massive Suffragette rally, with 5,000 mourners following her coffin.

The boy scouts and the army were called in to protect the Royal Lytham and St Annes golf course amid fears the upcoming British Ladies Amateur Championship was a target for the Suffragettes. In the end, the event went ahead undisturbed.

1914

Locally, in July 1914, a train guard was badly burned after an explosion on a train from Blackpool to Manchester.

It was suspected the Suffragettes were behind the incident, which saw a device detonate inside a mailbag being transported from the resort.

1918

Upon the outbreak of the First World War, the group suspended campaigning and got involved in the war effort, although many individual members were pacifists and did not take part in war work.

Women - at least those over the age of 30 – were finally granted the vote in 1918, and in 1928 the franchise finally made equal for men and women.