Sisters are doing it for themselves: 50 years of girl power celebrated in Gibraltar

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.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Sisters are doing it for themselves: 50 years of girl power celebrated in Gibraltar

  1. But have things really changed? Many people still use Spanish cleaners. When I was in hospital, my main nurse was an excellent Spaniard, who had worked all over the world, spoke great English, and ironically came from a few miles away from the pueblo where my finca is. He was great.

    And on equality, the worst, most insulting interview I have ever had in my life for a press office post was here in Gibraltar. Utterly appalling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s still a long way to go on equality here. And yes I know the majority of the cleaning/building/physical jobs are done by Spaniards but I guess as long as there is an eager workforce keen to road the border for such jobs, that situation won’t change. I was just reflecting on what happened in the sixties. As for professional jobs. I’ve only applied for one here and failed to get that but two women were recruited so I can’t blame sexism for that.

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      1. Sure, as long as cross border workers are willing to take monet at all costs and put local people out of work, for cheaper rates and no security, of course it won’t change.
        Not knocking their efforts, far from it. We need that sort of spirit now.
        When I applied for that one job, CV that stated HMG press office, NHS press office, one ****er asked if I had ever worked in a press office. At which point, I realised I was wasting my time. It was an all male panel.

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  2. Many attitudes have changed over the years. For instance when I came to Gibraltar in the 60’s women in the workforce were in the minority and I was told by my Gibraltarian boyfriend how unusual it was for girls to go out to work and that my monthly pay of around £40 – I was PA to the Managing Director of The Internstionsl Sporting Club (the old Casino on Europa Road) – must be one of the highest salaries in Gibraltar! Girls went straight from their family home into marriage, now a high percentage go onto
    University and travel the world doing fantastic jobs. You would never have seen a man pushing a pram and I suspect few did much to help at home, after all they had a full time wife to take care of everything and wait on them hand and foot. Women seemed to be perpetually in black clothes, in mourning, not allowed to go out. I don’t agree with a previous post that Spaniards or any other nationality are taking jobs from Gibraltarians, They are taking jobs that Gibraltarians don’t want in construction, hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes, petrol stations to name a few. As a single girl in the 60’s I enjoyed myself in Gibraltar much to the surprise of Gibraltarian girlfriends who said I should be engaged and preferably married before I was 21 otherwise my life would be over!

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