Challenging discrimination since 1925
A glance at this book plate takes you to the beginning of our story, to a time when equality of liberty, status and opportunity was just a dream for most women. Founded as the British Commonwealth League in 1925 to promote these ideals, it counted many prominent campaigners for England’s suffrage movement among its members – names like Margery Corbett Ashby, Alice Hemming, Margery Chave Collinson and Myra Sadd Brown. The BCL, which later became the CCL, tirelessly lobbied for the representation of women in politics throughout the Commonwealth – as it does to this day. Civil rights and issues of citizenship were also high on its agenda.
The league held a conference each year, often themed around issues of race. One of the speakers at the 1932 conference, with the theme ‘Marriage from an imperial standpoint – the civil rights of married women in inter-racial unions’, was Harold Moody, a Jamaican-born doctor who studied medicine at King’s College London. After being refused work because he was black, he started his own practice in south-east London. He made some stark observations about British society at the conference:
“Now you dear English folk are such a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions that you are a source of merriment to us more logical and consistent coloured people. If I happen to be wealthy and in a position to spend a lot of money, then I may marry your daughter. If in addition to my wealth, I add the fact that I am either a prince or someone in exalted position, then you will practically throw your daughters at me, without any enquiry into my character. If I happen to be a poor student who has won his way by character and merit, then you will admire me, you will allow me to visit your home, take out your daughter and give me every freedom but if I should suggest that your daughter and I are compatibles and would like to spend our future lives together then you are immediately up in arms. Do please remember that our objective in coming here is not to get married. We come to get equipment for our life’s work and to drink in some of your culture and it is more than we dare do to risk our chances of attaining our goal…”
Subsequent years saw similar themes, often exposing – and challenging – the astonishing discrimination endemic in British society at the time. Speakers included trailblazers of the early equality movement like Audrey Jeffers, a Trinidadian social worker who became the first female member of the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago, Una Marson, a Jamaican feminist, activist and writer, and Jomo Kenyatta, a Kenyan anti- colonial activist and LSE student who became Kenya’s first President.
Fortunately, the Britain we live in today is rather different, although racism still festers beneath the surface and discrimination sadly still blights lives. Across the Commonwealth though, women are fighting every day for the kinds of opportunities that we have long since dissociated with gender.
And so our work continues…