Two Forgotten Sisters from Suffolk and women’s political progress today
Boni Sones is an experienced broadcast journalist and hails from the village next door to Millicent Fawcett’s hometown of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Combining these two histories, she created a wonderful audio documentary about Millicent’s life and that of her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. In this blog, Boni explains how the documentary came about.
Listen to the documentary here.
For some time I have wanted to write the story of my hometown and my beloved East coast. But the idea – to link the history of modern feminism to the power of new enlightened ideas brought by the coast, the waves, and the coming of steam to the Richard Garrett and Sons Engineering works in Leiston – got stuck. Really stuck.
I grew up in Sizewell, a small fishing village in Suffolk, in the 1950s and 1960s – it was before the first Nuclear power station was built (they now feature heavily across the skyline) and we didn’t have electricity at home. I went on to become a local East Anglian print, radio and TV correspondent, and later one of the BBC’s first women Regional Political Editors.
The Garrett family, grown from this new age of steam, were so enlightened that their grand-daughters, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett, after whom the Fawcett Society is named, went on to dramatically change the world – through their work and campaigns for women’s rights, across healthcare, education and the electoral system. And yet there were so many questions: How and why Leiston and Aldeburgh (the Suffolk town that Millicent Fawcett hailed from) and how and why did they succeed when they might have failed? Their roots in Suffolk and a ‘can do’ enlightened family in an enterprising age helped me unravel this story.
When we are in a new age of industrialisation and such a huge change in women’s rights, I wondered if unlocking these secrets of the “Two Forgotten Sisters from Suffolk” would help inform our global futures too.
My research was plodding. I walked around the Long Shop Museum in Leiston this summer (yet again) and I chatted. Why does Aldeburgh get all the credit when Leiston was so important? I looked at the Blue Plaques of Elizabeth and Millicent, again and again in Suffolk and London. I stopped off at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery at the Unison HQ in Euston, London. I also owe much to biographer Elizabeth Crawford, but how to distil all these visits and wonderful research down to a few thousand words and a twenty minute radio documentary? It took a brave heart.
The 24/7 news cycle and Twitter kept the abduction of the 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram ever present in my mind. I must get on with it, I must get these ideas out of my mind and onto the page. In a new global internet age, defending women’s rights has never been more important. Surely if Elizabeth and Millicent were alive today they would have a radical solution? They broke through barriers, and they took men like the reformer, John Stuart Mill, and their father, Newson Garrett, with them too. Together they shook the establishment and when confronted by a problem they found a way around it and a solution – usually peacefully.
Mixing The Four Sea Interlude music of Suffolk’s Benjamin Britten into my documentary was a natural fit, and it really brought it to life: the power of the sea and waves to radicalise us all. It transformed my words. In this new age of the internet we need to shape together our futures as women living in a global world. The doors are wide open for more feminist to link up globally with women in other countries so that women’s rights in healthcare, education and votes for women are radical and progressive.
If only Westminster had a gender balanced Parliament it would speak with more moral authority to the rest of the world. I sincerely hope that the Boni Sones and Associates Archive, with over 350 interviews and documentaries with women MPs across the parties here and elsewhere in the world (hosted at the London School of Economics) has, in some modest way, recorded a decade of our own journey.
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