I’d like to tell you the tale of some amazing young women who decided enough was enough and took their concerns to the top. Until this week, I was unaware of this great story but following the news locally that the Gibraltar Women’s Association was marking its 50th Anniversary, I was intrigued and decided to dig a bit deeper.
I came across this book: A woman’s place: Memoirs of a Gibraltarian Woman -A “Llanita” written by Mariola Summerfield, one of the founder members of the GWA (which at the time of its founding in 1966 was called the Housewives Association).
In it she tells her life story from her birth to the the time of publication in 2007. What an amazing life she has led, in the foreword, the book’s editor Germaine Britto Silva sums it up:
“Very few people can claim such a dramatic life – to have been exchanged at gun point as a prisoner of war, to have been excommunicated, to have co-founded and led Gibraltar’s oldest association, to have negotiated her way into Buckingham Palace and then been invited back to receive an MBE, to have been the first woman in Gibraltar to sit on a jury, and to achieve all this in such a glamorous and elegant way.”
As a child evacuee, Mariola was first sent to Morocco with her mother and brothers, then on to London (via Madeira and Jamaica) and finally up to Scotland. Her amazing life story would make a captivating film, however it was the time when she was a wife and mother and embarking on her public life which initially sparked my interest. Little did I know what a rich vein of experiences her book would include.
Back to the GWA and it’s beginnings: life in Gibraltar in the mid-sixties was unrecognisable to how we live here today. Women on the whole didn’t work. Further education for girls was rare and soon after leaving school they tended to get married and start families. So-called women’s work like nursing and domestic service was done by Spanish ladies who came across the border for employment. They were living in a world of post war austerity and with the Rock facing an uncertain future regarding its relationship with our nearest neighbour, Spain.
A friend of Mariola’s, called Angela Smith, was concerned about the situation facing young families and invited a few friends round to her home to discuss whether they could do anything about it. Soon after, once word got around, between 200 and 300 women gathered for a meeting on 16th February 1966 and formed the Housewives Association. At the time, their main concerns were practical issues like safety outside schools but within weeks their lives were to take a very dramatic turn.
A news story broke which was about to set them down a very different course: the British Government announced it was preparing to speak to General Franco about the sovereignty of Gibraltar. Of course this worried the Gibraltarian people a great deal, they are British and they wanted to remain British. The ladies of the Housewives Association decided they should do something about it. A petition was started and within a very short time around seven and a half thousand signatures were collected. They were all female signatories and all eligible to vote in Gibraltar – amazingly they made up more than 96% of the female electorate!
With the full petition collected, Angela Smith (the chair) and Mariola Summerfield (vice chair) flew to London with the sole intention of presenting the petition to the Queen. They wanted to tell the monarch, a mother herself, about what they were facing at home in Gibraltar and how anxious they were. After a few tense days and several attempts to get their petition into the right hands, they succeeded in getting it to Buckingham Palace and their message did indeed get to the Queen.
At the time it was very big news not just locally but much further afield. The ladies had succeeded in raising awareness about the plight of the Gibraltarian people.
Shortly after that triumph though, came the news that General Franco was preventing Spanish women from crossing the border in order to work. That meant the health service and local businesses wouldn’t be able to function. The Housewives Association again sprung into action and within hours had rallied around 500 women who stepped in to fill the gaps left by the Spanish female workers. This in turn had a dramatic effect on the role of women on the Rock as things began to change forever and move towards the Gibraltar we see today.
To this day the Gibraltar Women’s Association still champions community causes and maintains pressure on the authorities to improve equality for the women of Gibraltar. At the age of 88, Mariola Summerfield is still involved in the organisation as a Life Honorary Chair. If you get the chance to read her book I would highly recommend it, as a woman and mother living in the 21st Century and having grown up during a time of relative peace, I find her memoirs utterly inspiring.
Mariola Summerfield signing copies of her book at the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Gibraltar Women’s Association earlier this week
What an inspiring tale of tenacity. Although Gibraltar is such a small place on the world stage, that’s also perhaps one of its strengths. If something needs doing, it just takes the will of a relatively small group of people who are strong enough to stand up for what they believe in and things can change dramatically.
The photograph & quote from the book A woman’s place: Memoirs of a Gibraltarian woman – “a Llanita” are included with the kind permission of Mariola Summerfield. Proceeds from the sale of the book are going to the Gibraltar Childline charity.