Letter from the President
19th October 2011 by Natalie Burns
It has been a great pleasure welcoming you all to the 2011 Women of the Year Lunch. It is my second year in the role of president and being involved with such an extraordinary organisation has been an unalloyed joy. The magic of this event is that it does what no other awards ceremony manages to do. It brings together the most fabulous women from the widest range of backgrounds – race, class and religion – and from very different walks of life.
Breaking bread together today are women who are famous and women who are unsung; women who are older and women who are not so old; women who are political, women who are not; women from the world of business and from the public sector; women who are in the public arena but also women who labour quietly in the vineyard. But what all of you have in common is that you are, truly and utterly, amazing women. Each of you in your own way has made a huge difference to the lives of others. Every woman who is invited to this lunch has been the subject of discussion and debate. There is nothing random about your being here. Every single woman has done something special with her life and made an impact. Each of you is a woman who has used her special talents, gone the extra mile and inspired others. You are all women of the year.
The creation of this unique and amazing event came out of the genius of the late Tony Lothian – the Marchioness of Lothian – who started having these lunches back in the fifties, when women were being encouraged back into the kitchen after the Second World War. As a journalist, she was all too aware of the amazing contribution, paid and unpaid, that women had made to our country during that bleak period. She wanted to ensure that women in peacetime would continue to have opportunities to pursue careers or other passions and that women would not be pushed back into the margins. She saw that women were the great creators of social capital, the good stuff that binds our society. She recognised the importance of role models. She knew that celebrating achievement acted as an inspiration to others. And she knew that flagging up the extraordinary accomplishments of women helped embed these achievements in our society.
The first time I was invited to this lunch was back in the eighties. I was a young woman practising at the Bar, a profession where then only 8% of practitioners were women. I was trying to shine a spotlight on the ways that the law so often failed women and was campaigning for reform. I wanted reform of legislation, reform of the legal system, reform of prisons. I wanted more women practitioners, more women judges and better judicial training. There was no end to what I wanted. But what I was really after was fairness and a better world. Just like all of you. My campaigns brought me to Tony’s attention and I was invited to this lunch. I was utterly bowled over, sitting at a table with Cilla Black, a shepherdess from Cumbria, an Olympic shot putter and a coal merchant from Wales. The conversations were hilarious.
In among the sheer pleasure of being with such glorious women in all shapes and sizes, were their stories. In the room each year are dedicated women who have succeeded beyond imagining in their chosen sphere.
There are those who put their own good fortune in their career to the use of others through philanthropy. There are also women who put their own loss and tragedy to the most incredible purposes and refuse to buckle under their grief. Women who, after the death of their husbands in war, create charities to provide support for soldiers who are physically maimed. There are women who after cancer set up counselling groups or run in marathons to raise money for research. At your table will be women who look after disabled children or do battle with the authorities to improve their council estates for the good of their whole community. You will meet women who overcome their fear of failure and become successes in all sorts of endeavours.
People ask why we still want to have a women’s lunch. Well, you only have to look around the world at the position of women and the suffering women endure to recognise that we still have a distance to travel to achieve genuine equality. One of my own public roles in this last year has been to act as Investigating Commissioner into Human Trafficking. As a human rights lawyer, I thought I knew all there was to know about cruelty and inhumanity towards women but this inquiry has reminded me of the horrifying suffering that women still too often endure. Opportunities like this gathering remind us that women have the ability to make change, that we are powerful if we come together.
The other question that is thrown at us is how do we find all these exceptional women? It actually takes up the time and energies of a dedicated cohort of women on the Women of the Year council, who tirelessly scour the land to find all those who are honoured here today. I want to thank them all. They know who they are. This year we were greatly helped by the marvellous Lorraine Kelly, whose morning television show invited nominations. We also rely on the women who come here today to write with recommendations for next year. So please remember to do that for us.
I also want to thank our committed sponsors – Barclays, Good Housekeeping, Sacla’ and Sainsbury’s, and all the other people who really do make the event possible. I hope you will leave the Women of the Year lunch with your heart warmed and your optimism restored. There are wonderful women doing amazing things – and you are one of them.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
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