Monday, 8 December 2008

Valiant women: notes from an orange grove

I am writing this entry in Mallorca, our first visit since our honeymoon 40 years ago. We are staying in a garden house in orange and lemon groves in Soller, a little mediaeval town in the Tremuntana Mountains in the northwest of the island. The diary of local events reveals that every year in May the town has a festival to celebrate Ses Valentes Dones (the Valiant Women). Back in 1561, two sisters refused to run and hide when pirates invaded the island, instead attacking and killing several of the men who broke into their home and contributing significantly to Soller’s victory over the marauders.

This story of the strength and determination that women find at times of war reminded me of the speech I had given just a few days before, at a Women in Property lunch at Raymond Blanc’s beautiful restaurant La Maison aux Quat’ Saisons near Oxford. (make link to site and report). In Visibility, Entrepreneurship and Success, I recounted the little known but extraordinary tale of the women who built London’s Waterloo Bridge during the Second World War. Construction historian Dr Chris Wall discovered that, although riverboat pilots refer to ‘The Ladies Bridge’ on leisure trips on the Thames, the story had been written out of the official archives.

Her investigations resulted in a fascinating documentary film which revealed that despite 70% of the workforce being women, their contribution was not acknowledged. When Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1945, the dignitary doing the honours was Lord Mandelson’s grandfather Herbert Morrison, then Deputy Prime Minister. His words were "The men who built Waterloo are fortunate men. They know that, although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come."

So why did so few people know then, let alone remember now? The son of one of the men who worked on the project with main contractor Peter Lind recalled his father’s comment that the women didn’t look like women, because they wore all-in-one overalls, with their hair tied up in scarves or hats. Tight security around the site also kept onlookers at a considerable distance. So the women were simply invisible.

The film The Ladies' Bridge includes interviews with some of the women welders and builders recalling their experiences - and their deep frustration at having to give up their work when the men returned from war to reclaim their jobs. "But it showed me what I could do," said one doughty nonagenarian, "My husband found that I was an independent woman when he got back from the front."

As Harriet Rubin, in her book Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, says "When the rules are broken, or in shambles, women succeed. War favours the dangerous woman."

So if a small town like Soller in Mallorca has acknowledged its two Valiant Women every year for nearly five centuries, why don’t we organise a celebration every year to acknowledge the invisible and valiant women in construction? After all, there were 25,000 of them in the building trades in 1941, representing 3% compared with a mere 1% today, so they could do with some recognition. Perhaps a walk of constructive women, past and present, from every discipline, from both side of the River Thames, and meeting in the middle of Waterloo Bridge for balloons, bubbly and fireworks?

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