The hundreds of female delegates gathered at the TUC Women’s Conference came from unions larger and small, those with over a million members and those with membership in the thousands. Over several days we debated many of the issues close to women’s hearts, from rape and domestic violence and abuse, to employment law and the stunning example of Malala Yousafzai’s courageous fight for education. And there was a lot about education, because we are learners, we are teachers, support staff, lecturers and dinner ladies and we are mothers – so we care about education and we see the results of this Gove-ernment’s attempt to take us back to the fifties (nineteen or eighteen, I’m still not sure).
Teaching unions were well represented in our concerns about education, as well as changes to employment law. ATL’s motion highlighted the need not only for flexible working to be widespread, but also for awareness to be raised, so that men and women are informed about their rights and employers can see the excellent business case for flexible working. In line with that we, as affiliates of Maternity Action, are concerned about the increasing numbers of women on maternity leave being sacked or made redundant and the fact that one in seven are returning to a new job. I can tell you from personal experience, that returning to work after having a baby is trauma enough (what no break for Midsomer Murders?), but coming back, with decreased confidence and having to take on a whole new job, that you never applied for or necessarily wanted, is no picnic.
So back to Women’s Conference. Every year we will debate how much we have actually done and perhaps why we are debating the same subjects. However, we heard the story of the young woman who faced discrimination as a daily part of her job. We heard the harrowing tale of a woman who had been attacked at least nine times while working in a betting shop. We heard the impassioned plea from a mother, who had taken a call early in the morning from her daughter, to hear the words none of us ever want to hear, ‘mum, I’ve been raped’.
All too often, there is silence and we don’t hear women’s voices, the voices of ordinary working women. Once a year we have that opportunity, which is why Women’s Conference still has the capacity to shock, to move us to tears and to fires us up to get out and do what we can, whether for one woman, or for millions.