On Saturday 30 June, I spoke at the Women’s Gala, which took place in Wharton Park in Durham City.

Roberta speaking at the Durham Women
Roberta speaking at the Durham Women's Gala

As July 2018 marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote in the UK, this event was organised to celebrate this important anniversary.

The original Women’s gala ran from 1921 to 1977, and was started by women who were part of the labour movement, and wanted to provide political education for newly enfranchised women.

At its peak, the gala attracted thousands to Durham to hear speakers such as Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee and Clement Attlee, as well as take part in activities and events aimed at improving political engagement amongst women. 2018 saw a range of speakers once again, and I was delighted to speak alongside fellow MPs Chi Onwurah, Helen Goodman and Sharon Hodgson, as well as Clare Williams from Unison, Dame Vera Baird and Jude Kirton-Darling MEP.

The event was a wonderful day out for families from across the region, with live music from Ladies of Midnight Blue, an all-women brass duo, and Mums in Durham choir. There was also plenty of activities for children and families such as mini-golf and a women’s heritage trail.

Unison Northern Region at the Women
Unison Northern Region at the Women's Gala
Some of the crowd at the Women
Some of the crowd at the Women's Gala

This gala also gave us the chance to celebrate the contribution that Durham made to the women’s movement. The first petition for Women to get the vote from County Durham was presented to Parliament in 1869, and there is a strong history of political engagement and education for women in region with the Miners’ Gala stating in 1951 that “the Women’s Organisation plays a large part in the strength of the Labour movement in Durham” and the success of the Women’s Gala shows that this is still true today.

It also allowed us to reflect on how the suffragette movement still has relevance, as we seek to address gender pay inequality and increase female representation in politics and public life.

Alongside these important issues though, it was wonderful to see so many families enjoying the fabulous weather, and taking part in a range of activities, such as mini-golf, mini-cars and football games organised by the Foundation of Light. We even saw local Brownie units on hand to teach people how to make mini-Suffragette banners, and solidarity bracelets! A number of women’s banners were on display throughout the event, and families had the opportunity to attend a banner blessing at St Cuthbert’s Church after the speeches.

The event also had numerous stands for visitors to find out more about women’s organisations, trade unions and not-for-profit organisations, as well as space for voter registration to try and drive up participation of women in politics. It was encouraging to see so many visitors finding out more about the important work that these organisations do.

Wharton Park was a fantastic venue, and it was great to see so much going on in this wonderful setting. It was particularly fitting as this was the same venue as the original Women’s Gala, and the first Miners’ Gala.

My thanks go to Councillor Maura McKeon, who originally conceived the idea of bringing back the Women’s Gala, and to the rest of the organising committee – Councillor Marion Wilson; Vera Baird QC; Aurelia Smith; Val Hudson, Clare Williams; Susan Egglestone and Chris Fletcher – for all their hard work in making this idea a reality, as well as all of the people and organisations who supported the event.

My thanks must also go to all those who came along to the Gala and help make the event a huge success.

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