GDST pioneers – empowering women and girls, then and now

Painting of Dorinda Neligan

Today, we celebrate 100 years since women first won the right to vote in UK elections. These are exciting times for women and girls and this anniversary is a celebration of all we have achieved, and a timely reminder of change still to come.

Founded by four pioneering women who were fearless in their pursuit of providing opportunities for girls, the GDST has always been at the forefront of campaigns to empower women and girls.

How we achieve this mission has changed over the past century, as women’s status and roles in society have changed. The challenges are different but the mission remains the same.

Those pioneering founders embodied the spirit of all those courageous women who campaigned for decades to achieve the right to vote in Parliamentary elections, in February 1918, and the right to stand for Parliament, in November 1918.

These are significant milestones in the progress of women’s representation in public life. So it is right that the centenary of these events are celebrated this year, and it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the brilliant GDST women of past, present… and the future.

Millicent Garret Fawcett – who entrusted the education of her only daughter to the GDST, at what is now Streatham & Clapham High School – first presented a petition to parliament on the issue in 1866, just a few years before the GDST was founded.

Over the coming years, many GDST alumnae and staff became involved in both the suffragettes and the (more numerous) suffragists.

Dorinda Neligan, Headmistress at Croydon High School for over 30 years

Women like Dorinda Neligan, who after 30 years as Headmistress of Croydon High School, devoted her retirement years to campaigning for votes for women. Age 77, she joined a deputation to petition Prime Minister Asquith.

The delegation was met with brutality from the uniformed police and hooligans (who may have been police in plain clothes). That day, 18 November 1910, became known as ‘Black Friday’.

Among the other delegates were Hertha Ayrton, formerly a maths teacher at Notting Hill High School, who was the first woman to be elected to membership of the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) and the only woman to win the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal.

She was a committed advocate for women’s rights and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906. At one time, she was vice president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrages Societies. Her daughter, Barbara Ayrton Gould, who was a pupil at Notting Hill, was a full-time WSPU organiser and later became the Labour MP for Hendon North in 1945.

Image of Emily Wilding Davison
Emily Wilding Davison, an alumna of Kensington High (now Prep) School.

Also there was Emily Wilding Davison, an alumna of Kensington High (now Prep) School, who famously died under the King’s horse at Epsom racecourse in 1913.

It’s clear that the ranks of the suffragists and suffragettes were boosted by young women who had benefited from an academic education at girls’ schools like those of the GDST. And that the fight for the vote was, to an extent, both enabled by and an inevitable consequence of their education.

It paralleled the opening of the professions to women, as they fought for economic empowerment in tandem with political enfranchisement.

Indeed, many of the same arguments against votes for women had been deployed by opponents to the education of girls a generation before.

Once women won the vote in 1918, and the vote was extended to all women over 21 in 1928, a small number of pioneering women managed to be elected, many against overwhelming odds. And they used their public platforms not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all.

Eleanor Rathbone MP addressing a crowd
Eleanor Rathbone MP (photo credit: LSE Library)

Pioneering women like Kensington High (now Prep) School alumna Eleanor Rathbone MP, who spoke against female genital mutilation in Kenya – at the forefront of an issue, which has only gained the recognition it deserves in recent years – and for cheap milk and better benefits for the children of the unemployed in the Depression.

Perhaps her greatest achievement was the introduction of family allowances in 1946, which she fought to be paid directly to mothers – the culmination of over 25 years’ campaigning on this issue. She did this not for her own benefit but for the benefit of all – especially women from working class households who were economically dependent on their husbands.

Today, instead of campaigning for the right to vote and stand for parliament, women are campaigning for the women to be able to play a full role in public life (only 489 women have been elected to the House of Commons since 1918, and women still make up less than a third of MPs – indeed 3% of women MPs are GDST alumnae).

Lamentably, we still have to campaign against harassment, whether online or in real life. Instead of campaigning for the right to enter closed professions like the law or medicine, women are campaigning to work in respectful environments and to be promoted to leadership positions in the same proportions as men, and paid equally.

And there is increasing recognition that feminism has disproportionately benefited white, middle-class women, and more needs to be done to ensure that working-class women, women of colour and women with a disability or with caring responsibilities get an equal share of the gains from the progress that has been made.

Again, pioneering GDST women aren’t just doing this for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all.

So where do the next challenges lie? Some would have been recognisable to our Edwardian foremothers – equal opportunities, equal pay, equal parenting, and equal representation.

In my view, one of the biggest challenge lies in the digital space. Whereas great progress has been made in women’s representation and participation in public life and in many professions – though, of course, there is still work to be done – newer industries, the digital world in particular, still seem intent on recruiting fewer women, paying them less, and promoting fewer of them too.

Yet these industries are not just where future employment opportunities lie, but where the future world is literally being created, and we need to ensure women and girls so make a meaningful contribution and shape the future in this most disruptive of sectors, and not leave that future solely to men.

The information we see is more and more driven by algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). AI extrapolates from existing data, and if that data is partial or biased towards men, then that there’s a risk that our current partialities will be replicated and indeed amplified.

We need more women in those industries who are able to counter this tendency, who can code with understanding, with objectivity, and with compassion.

Who will lead these campaigns?

A YouGov survey last year indicated that only 35% of women aged 18-24 saw themselves as more of a leader than a follower

When we asked nearly a thousand of our Sixth Formers the same question, 53% saw themselves as more of a leader, and 82% see themselves as a leader in the future.

Their challenges will be different but the mission remains the same. Whatever lies ahead, I know that GDST girls will be the ones to step up and make a difference, for the benefit of everyone.