“They paved the way for us.”
That’s the view of two Leeds councillors who have paid tribute to the city’s brave and pioneering political women.
Councillors Julie Heselwood and Salma Arif, right, were speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post as the nation marks 100 years since some women were first given the vote in parliamentary elections. The pair, who are among the newest crop of female councillors at Leeds Civic Hall, have also underlined the danger of complacency, and why women in local politics still need to fight for equality in Leeds.
The pair spoke out about the role of women in local politics ahead of a year of events in the city run by Leeds City Council as a salute to the suffrage movement.
Coun Arif (Labour, Gipton and Harehills) told of her pride when looking at the prominence and sheer numbers of women now representing the people of Leeds inside the council chamber.
“As a council we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve got a female leader, a female deputy leader, a female Lord Mayor,” she said.
“At one point I think we had more women councillors than men and that’s rarely seen across councils.
“Having said that we can’t be complacent and we need to keep going with that, and to keep recruiting.”
She said that despite the closing of the equality gap over the years in Leeds, people still needed to remember and pay tribute to the suffrage movement.
“To some extent we still walk on the shoulders of the women that came before us,” she said. “It’s important that we celebrate the fact that women were given the vote. We have come a long way but, having said that, we have still got a lot to do.”
Her words come after hundreds of women gathered at Leeds Civic Hall for a special summit examining the past, present and future of the city’s journey to gender equality.
The Centenary Cities: 100 Years of Votes for Women event kicks off a 12-month programme of events run by the council, after the city was awarded more than £100,000 in funding to celebrate equality.
And while much has changed in Leeds over the last century, Coun Heselwood (Labour, Bramley and Stanningley), spoke of how she had experienced gender discrimination first-hand as recently as the 1990s.
“I can remember going for a job interview in my early 20s –so that was the early 90s – and even then I was asked: ‘So, have you any plans to get married? Have you any plans to have children?”
“I just turned around and said ‘you’re not allowed to ask me those questions. You wouldn’t ask a man and you’re not allowed to ask me.’
“They gave me the job because I think they just thought ‘we’ve got one here’. But that was the 90s and even now women are still asked those questions.”
She said legislation, like the Equality Act introduced in 2010, and better education, had helped give women more protection in the workplace.
Coun Heselwood, 47, said: “It is a lot better now than it was. In the early 90s you wouldn’t have seen anywhere near the amount of women in that council chamber as there are now. There have been real, positive steps taken to encourage women into politics and be involved. I’m a single mum, there’s a handful of us on the council who are single mums and we wouldn’t have been able to do that in the 80s and 90s, there’s no way we’d have been able to take the job that we have taken on, we’d have just been discriminated against and told we couldn’t do the job.
“As a council we have made huge strides to encourage women, no matter their background, into work and into politics.”