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A beacon of shining light

Mary Seacole: still relevant for women today
Obi Amadi, Unite lead professional officer, Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

If black pioneering nurse Mary Seacole was alive today she would probably be in action on the Greek-Macedonian border or helping those trapped in the twilight hell that is the so-called ‘jungle’ in Calais.



As history moves on apace, it is important to reflect on whether historical figures, such as Mary Seacole, have relevance to today’s generation.



Obviously someone from the 19th century would be bewildered by the range of technological progress on display and sheer frenetic pace of our 24/7 lives, but some things are common to all ages: humanity, compassion, battling against injustice and questioning the status quo. Conversely, so are hate, war and prejudice.



So it can be argued that Mary Seacole (1805 -1881) has still got relevance for young women in 2016 as we celebrate International Women’s Day. She fought for better health conditions for our troops suffering in primitive conditions during the Crimea War (1853 – 1856).



Today’s female doctors, nurses, other health staff and charity workers bringing aid and succour to the waves of refugees entering Turkey and Europe, because of the Syrian conflict, are the direct descendants of the Mary Seacole tradition – and also of Florence Nightingale.



Where Seacole and Nightingale diverge is their backgrounds and ethnicity; Florence’s background was highly privileged, while Mary had to struggle against prejudice because of the colour of her skin.



Many may still not know Mary’s story but this half Scottish and half Jamaican woman started life learning from her mother, a doctress, helping invalid soldiers.



She travelled widely before arriving in England in 1854 where she asked the War Office to send her to the Crimea as a nurse as there was a chronic shortage of medical facilities.



She was refused and so funded herself where she set up the British hotel where she fed and looked after wounded officers. She visited the battlefield to nurse the wounded, showing courage and determination.


The abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, meant not only did Mary face the legacy of being  perceived as an ex-slave, although because of her parentage she was born free, but also that of a woman traditionally subservient to a man. A double whammy of inequality.



She didn’t let anyone or anything dampen her resolve, such was her passion, she always found another way. She did what few other women did in the Victorian age – she travelled, ran a business and went to war – spending time on the frontline.



How should we mark this day? I would like everyone to take a little time out and think of women who have changed their lives and made it better, whether a woman famous in history you admire or your own mother. We all know women who have had a positive impact on our lives.



We need acknowledge, sadly, the fact that there are still so many areas of life where women are discriminated against and held back because they don’t have equal power to men.



In many countries women still have limited educational opportunities or the choice to wear what they want. In many African countries, there is still female genital mutilation. Throughout Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa and central and eastern Europe trafficking is still a huge problem.



It is estimated that over 700,000 people are trafficked each year although it is not known exactly how many are women. Most of these women are trafficked for a pitiful life of sexual exploitation.



The United Nations Women’s Treaty, implemented a few decades ago, was supposed to give women a right to take part in their nation’s political and public life, but that hasn’t changed everything.



It is a sad indictment on the optimism of 19 March 1911 when International Women’s Day was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.



In the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations.  Women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination.


Substantial progress has been made in the last century, but the journey for women to achieve full equality is not yet ended; there are many miles still to be travelled.


I hope as a woman and also a woman of colour that when my eight-year-old daughter Ogechi becomes a woman she doesn’t have to face and fight through the same obstacles that her grandmother and I have had to do.



So for all the reasons outlined above, Mary Seacole still remains a beacon and a shining light for this generation of women.





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