As the new cohort of mayors and council chairs take office I am pleased to see what a diverse bunch they are.
We’ve come a long way since 1908 when the first female mayor took office in Aldeburgh. Her name was Elizabeth Garret Anderson and it is high time she featured as Mayor of the Month.
First among equals
Elizabeth Garret Anderson was an amazing woman.
She was the first woman to qualify as physician and a surgeon in Britain. She co-founded the first hospital staffed by women. She was the first woman to be admitted to the BMA. She was the first female dean of a medical school.
I could go on.
A hard road
You obviously don’t rack up a list of accolades like that without a lot of hard work. Just obtaining her medical licence took her years. After failing to be accepted to any medical school she became a nurse and studied during the evening. Elizabeth Garret Anderson eventually managed to push her way into her hospital’s dissection classes, much to the chagrin of the male students.
She was eventually forced to leave but not before she had completed some valuable qualifications and certificates. These, combined with her years of private study, were enough to get her foot into the door of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. She took their licensing exam and passed with the highest marks on the day.
She was then a qualified doctor.
The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries immediately changed its rules to prevent such a thing happening again.
Elizabeth was unable to find employment at any of the hospital or institutions of the day so she began a private practice. There was still plenty of prejudice about being treated by a woman but her tenacity built it into a success.
Her thoughts then turned to philanthropy. She opened a dispensary to help the poor of her community to gain access to medical treatment. This flourished and it soon developed into the New Hospital for Women and Children. This pioneering institution treated women from all over London for gynaecological conditions and it did it with an entirely female staff. Needless to say, this was a radical idea at the time.
Elizabeth was always actively involved in the suffrage movement raising petitions and serving on committees. While her sister Millicent was the more political of the two, Elizabeth was keen to advance the cause of women’s freedom in areas of education and government as well as medicine.
She retired to her family home of Aldeburgh in Suffolk but she did not spend her time sitting by the fire and reading novels. 1907 saw the Qualification of Women act which allowed women to stand for election to their local councils. Elizabeth duly stood.
On 9th November 1908 Elizabeth Garret Anderson became Mayor of Aldeburgh. As the chain touched her shoulders she smashed a tradition spanning nine centuries. She had fundamentally rewritten what it meant to be a civic leader.
Of course, she didn’t stop there. She used her position to campaign tirelessly for women’s rights and suffrage. Like all good mayors she had a clear vision of what she could use the platform to achieve.
Still room for pioneers
We’ve come a long way since Elizabeth’s time. For example, in the last 25 years 64% of the Mayors of my home town have been female, which is great. But in that time the City of London has elected a single female Lord Mayor, who is one of only two in over 800 years.
That’s not good enough. It’s a terrible indictment that we’ve seen as many female prime ministers as we have female Lord Mayors of London.
Don’t get me wrong I’m thrilled to see the number of young mayors, mayors from ethnic minorities and mayors from the LGBT community that have taken office this month but there’s still more we could do.
Be like Elizabeth
Sure, there has been so much progress since Elizabeth Garret Anderson donned the chain, but we can’t relax. She certainly wouldn’t relax, she’d be out there on the streets making it happen. She’d be refusing to take no for an answer. She’d be the change that she wanted to see.
The best way to celebrate the memory of Elizabeth Garret Anderson is to emulate her.