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I recently joined Yvette Cooper MP in conversation with Julia Gillard AC, the Chair of King’s College London, Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.  They were discussing notable speeches by women and the need for female voices to be publicly heard following Yvette’s book: “She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices”.

Looking at lists of the greatest speeches of all time, you might think that powerful oratory is the preserve of men.  But from Greta Thunberg to Margaret Thatcher, there are notable women who have used their voices to inspire change.

Not least Julia Gillard who herself as Australian Prime Minister delivered a striking parliamentary speech which quickly spread around the world: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyn by this man. I will not… not now, not ever”.   (Side note:  it’s a fun story how I came to be connected with the Global Institute after seeing Julia at the same hairdressers as me one day…).

I hope you agree, if you’re reading this, that we all gain when we hear from all genders and all races: as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and former slave, said back in 1851 “you need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold”.

Whilst there are women in high public office like Jacinda Ardern, Sanna Marin and Angela Merkel, still, according to the UN in 2019 only 24.3 per cent of all parliamentarians were women (up from 11.3% in 1995).   I now have more rights and freedoms than Sojourner Truth had in her day. So why aren’t there more women’s voices today in the global public arena?   

Is a piece of this puzzle the layers upon layers of judgement we may feel strangling our throats like knotted vines?  Are we only a voice you may be willing to hear once you’ve first weighed up our marital status, whether or not we have kids, the amount we do/don’t laugh or smile, our appearance and even the pitch of our voice?  Why did Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017 have to justify publicly why she doesn’t have children?  Why when she met with Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon were we talking about their legs??

As Harriet Harman addressed in 2014, in her Speaker’s Lecture to Parliament: “The Clinton Conundrum is…  Bake cookies and you are a real woman – but can’t be a leader.  Fail to bake cookies and you can be a leader but you’re not a real woman.”

Speaking as a woman, if I can get beyond this layer, I think there’s another, perhaps greater barrier to entry that both Yvette and Julia addressed: sometimes speaking out feels terrifying, like you might just actually die if you do so.  I know this fear.  Whether perceived, threatened or real (as when Jo Cox MP was tragically killed or Malala Yousafzai was shot) female members of parliament need more police protection than their male colleagues due to the increased level of personal threats they receive daily.

But the paradox for me is not speaking out does not keep us safe either!  Rather, in my experience, our silence will slowly eat us up inside.  Ultimately dying “safely” with our words locked inside of us.  Our silence does not protect us AND it blocks us from the opportunity of speaking out and the change it might inspire.  We can’t hide behind the wall of fear and influence positive change at the same time, it’s just not possible. Our silence means the world continues to be led only by those people who are willing to speak up and out. A high price to pay for letting our fear win?

So what’s the answer?  How can I overcome that sense of doom that, if I speak out, I’ll be attacked & destroyed?  Well, this blog very nearly didn’t happen due to my own imagined dragons of doom I had first to slay or you would never be reading this.  Yvette said her answer for facing up to her own fears as a publicly active politician was “to just get out there and speak it” and to “lean out, reach out” so that others can hold you up and support you in doing so.  Bearing all of this in mind and everything she’s faced, I once asked Julia Gillard whether she still recommends women standing for public office: “Absolutely”!

So I’m leaning out, reaching out, and speaking out.  Not letting my fear win!  Telling myself: “Oh look I did it and didn’t die today”.  Strengthening my muscles of courage every time I do so and take a baby step forward.  Slaying those imaginary dragons along my way. 

I was not born to sit in a corner mute as a bottle.  How about you?


Lauren x

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