10th July 2011 by Natalie Burns
Women celebrating women.
The Women of the Year lunch is more than a networking opportunity for women achievers. It is a celebration of the power of women to improve lives.
This year, Women of the Year celebrates 55 years of working with and for women of all ages and from all backgrounds. And it welcomes to the annual lunch both old and new friends, each and everyone recognised as a ‘woman of the year’, honoured equally for their unique and often truly heroic contribution to modern day life, whether it be in art, science, politics, business or in the humanitarian arena.
‘It is both a great joy and a humbling experience to be present at the lunch,’ one invitee commented last year. ‘You never know who will be on your table – it could be a TV presenter, a sports personality or a nun who has quietly dedicated her life to looking after down and outs and alcoholics. But what they all have in common is an amazing story to tell. It makes you thank God that women exist and are out there being magnificent. It’s unbelievably empowering.’
At the lunch, four awards are presented to exceptional women who have each proved an inspiration to others through their courage, selflessness and dedication. Recent recipients include the forces’ sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn; Baroness Thatcher, the UK’s first woman prime minister; Nina Barough, who set up the Moonwalks in aid of cancer research; Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company; Claire Bertschinger, the nurse who inspired Sir Bob Geldof to set up LiveAid; Marguerite Patten, home economist, food writer and broadcaster; Shy Keenan and Sara Payne who have campaigned tirelessly for the introduction of tighter controls on convicted paedophiles released back into the community; Sister Frances Dominica who founded the first children’s hospice; and legendary rock star Tina Turner, whose personal story of an abusive marriage helped so many other women.
The idea for the lunch came from the late award-winning journalist and campaigner, Tony Lothian. Back in the 1950s, she realised that while men received plenty of plaudits for their successes, women’s achievements went largely unrecognised. ‘I hoped it might be possible to bring together a wide cross section of working women who had distinguished themselves in their careers, to enable them to meet each other and hear the views of world-famous women on important issues,’ she later recalled.
Her idea became a runaway success. The first lunch took place in September 1955 and has been held annually ever since. Every year, the Women of the Year’s nominating council is tasked with discovering yet more amazing women to invite to the lunch, all of whom have earned the right to be called a ‘woman of the year’.
In some cases, women who would be on the top of everyone’s guest list are unable to make it. It was Maureen Lipman, actress, author and member of the nominating council, who came up with the idea of an empty chair at the lunch for ‘a woman whom we would wish to attend but who, for whatever reason, was unable to do so’.
Not surprisingly, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, leader of the campaign for democracy in Burma and the world’s most famous political prisoner, was the first recipient. And once again, in this year of her 65th birthday, a chair will be left vacant in remembrance of her continuing incarceration.
The chair will also celebrate the lives of others who should have been at the lunch. Afghani MP Malalai Joya – named ’the bravest woman in Afghanistan’ for her stand against warlords and war criminals in Parliament and her outspoken criticism of the Karzai government – lives in fear of her life and her movements are restricted.
Another is the late Karen Woo who, driven by a desire to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and spread the word about their plight, gave up a well-paid job in the UK to work as a doctor in Afghanistan. She was shot by the Taliban alongside six Americans, a German and two Afghan interpreters who had been working with a charity to provide eye care in remote villages.
In general, however, the Women of the Year lunch is a joyous occasion, presided over in her inimitable style by mistress of ceremonies, comedian, author and presenter Sandi Toksvig. As council member Teresa Graham sums it up: ‘The lunch is all about celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Only when you attend it do you really begin to understand what a truly unique and powerful experience it is.’
The Women of the Year lectures
Each year the Women of the Year organisation, in conjunction with Barclays, hosts an annual lecture with speakers who are leaders in their field. The first, which was held in 2008, featured Ireland’s first woman president and former UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, talking on the theme of ‘New Ideas in Women’s Leadership’. In 2009, Baroness Susan Greenfield, then the first woman to hold the position of director of the Royal Institution and professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, spoke about ‘the Impact of Current Technology on the Mind of the 21st Century Child’.
Earlier this year, former minister for the Olympics Tessa Jowell gave the third lecture on ‘the 2012 Olympic Games and their Legacy’. Much to the audience’s delight, she brought along with her a team – including four times gold medal winner and oarsman Matthew Pinsent – who took part in a panel of questions from the audience.
The 2011 annual lecture will be given by Nava Dekel of the Weizman Institute of Science. Professor Dekel, who is a leading expert on embryo fertilisation, will talk about ‘The Scientific Breakthrough’.
Tough acts to follow
The Women of the Year organisation thrives on seeking out strong, influential and selfless women whose contribution to their communities makes them ‘stand out from the crowd’. And this is no different whether those women are invited to the lunch or asked to run the organisation that supports it. Throughout the 55-year history of the organisation, it has been led by an astonishing band of women: from Tony Lothian, veteran campaigner and journalist, whose brainchild the lunch was, to Joan Armatrading, singer, songwriter, presenter and until last year president of Women of the Year.
When Joan met Tony there was an immediate rapport; they became good friends and Joan often visited her in Scotland. In fact, it was Tony who nominated Joan as the person to follow in her footsteps as president. Joan agreed, she says, because she wanted ‘to give something back to the wonderful woman who created Women of the Year’. It was a role that she took extremely seriously despite all the other commitments in her life.
‘Joan came to Women of the Year in one of the busiest periods of her life as she was re-emerging not just as a singer songwriter but as a journalist and commentator on many aspects of music and its importance in culture and society,’ says Jill Cochrane, a member of the nominating council. ‘Yet she was a working president, liaising with sponsors, inspiring new ideas and leading the rest of the board towards giving Women of the Year a thoroughly modern, ecumenical drive and energy.’
Gill Carrick’s tenure as chairman of the organisation overlapped with Joan’s: ‘Joan was wonderful to work with – a great team player for whom nothing was ever impossible. She was a great door opener and people found it very hard to say “no” to her. The best bit of our threeyear partnership was when she agreed to run the New York marathon for the Foundation – the worst bit was her determination to train herself – I had visions of one our national treasures ending up a physical wreck. However, she ran bravely and got the medal which is what counts.’ (Gill and Joan together helped to raise £76,000 for the Women of the Year Foundation.) ‘We were lucky to have her as president for five years: she kept us true to Tony’s objectives while always being keen to improve or try something new. Her interest and energy never diminished – she brought imagination, determination and fun as a board member and I hope to see her adding passion and commitment to some other organisation in the future, whilst retaining her links with WOYL.’
Gill is also stepping down having done a three-year stint as chairman. Like Joan she has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to her role. As her successor Teresa Graham says: ‘She has been an outstanding chair and put the Women of the Year organisation on the soundest financial footing for many a year. She will be a tough act to follow!’
We would like to thank both Joan and Gill for everything they have done and in the immortal words of the Spencer Davis Group’s number 1 hit, tell them to ‘Keep on running’.
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