Women’s suffrage: Top Islington councillors on the fight for equality 100 years on

Cllrs Kaya Comer-Schwartz and Janet Burgess outside Islington town hall this week. Picture: Polly Ha

Cllrs Kaya Comer-Schwartz and Janet Burgess outside Islington town hall this week. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Housing, hate crime and public health. Just some of the issues that disproportionately affect women.

Islington councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

But what is the council’s role in tackling these inequalities and how does it do it?

Islington’s health and social care chief Cllr Janet Burgess MBE and Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, who looks after community development, told the Gazette about the issues that impact their day-to-day work.

First of all, Cllr Burgess was quick to point out Islington has always been further ahead than most boroughs thanks to “trailblazers” like Margaret Hodge and Catherine West, both council leaders who went on to become MPs.

“Catherine encouraged me to become an executive member,” she said. “It never would have occurred to me I could become one.”

Islington councillor Janet Burgess. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington councillor Janet Burgess. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Cllr Burgess admitted the Lib Dems, who were in power from 1999 to 2010, did a lot to elect more women councillors, but said Labour’s selection of more women than men for this year’s election was a result of the hard work being done in the party.

Cllr Comer-Schwartz touched on some of the issues in the borough that had a disproportionate effect on women, from domestic violence services to the town hall’s own breast-feeding policy.

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“Housing is a key issue,” she said. “The amount of casework we have about overcrowded families is huge, and that is often single mothers.

“In employment there are issues around childcare and enabling women to work as they wish.

Margaret Hodge

Margaret Hodge - Credit: Archant

“We’ve also just set our new licensing policy and it includes a section on safety of women on a night out.

“There’s everything, from large to small. Janet and I have worked together on domestic violence policies, and that disproportionately affects women.

“The voluntary sector is primarily staffed or run by women. That can be anything from the education of asylum seekers to providing parenting classes.”

On her own speedy ascent to the executive, Cllr Comer-Schwartz – born to a Zimbabwean father and Jewish mother – said she had made sure she pushed herself to try for posts such as committee chairs.

'Trailblazer': Catherine West, now the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is a former leader of Islingto

'Trailblazer': Catherine West, now the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is a former leader of Islington Council. Picture: Chris McAndrew (Creative Commons licence CC BY 3.0) - Credit: Chris McAndrew (Creative Commons licence CC BY 3.0)

“It’s about putting yourself forward,” she said. “I think there are issues with confidence in women and that needs changing.

“As a minority ethnic councillor there is an added responsibility to me to be a beacon of how you can do it.

“Only last night I was talking at an event about right-wing extremism. Hate crime, particularly religious hate crime, affects women more.

“A few young Muslim women were in attendance and they wanted to know what it’s like to be a councillor. I take that responsibility seriously. This is a diverse borough.”

Cllr Burgess said sport and exercise was another area that affected women more than men and referenced the Sobell Leisure Centre’s new trampoline park, brought in partly to encourage teenage girls to exercise more.

She said: “The first day at the Sobell when schools were using it teachers were saying to me: ‘This is absolutely fantastic because it doesn’t look like a sport’.

“Children who may have had issues don’t and can go and have fun. They don’t think of it as a sport so they can enjoy it.

“I think women are less competitive than men, in general. In work they may not put themselves forward for a role. They will do if there’s a vacancy, but they are more nervous about challenging somebody else.

“There’s clearly a long way to go for women. The pay gap for example, it will probably take a century to change that. It’s utterly ludicrous, I can’t comprehend why it’s taken so long.”

Cllr Comer-Schwartz added: “It’s about building on things like the #MeToo campaign and making sure women know their rights and how to combat negative behaviours. It’s about making sure each school has healthy relationship education as a preventative to domestic violence and abuse.

“Having a connected world now has increasingly meant women are put off roles like ours because of the abuse they will get.

“My political heroes are of Janet’s generation – Diane Abbott, Angela Davis.

“Angela Davis never asked: ‘Would it be OK if we had a minimum wage?’. She demanded it.”

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