The first woman of colour to show at Chelsea Flower Show (and win a gold medal), garden designer Juliet Sargeant this year takes part in The Foundling Museum’s First Amongst Equals project to celebrate the centenary of women having the vote in the UK. Here, Juliet answers our ‘what it means to be a woman in 2018’ Q&A, to mark 100 years of suffrage; the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed on 6 February 1918.
Juliet Sargeant Q&A
It’s been 100 years since women were granted the right to vote in the UK – how far do you think women have come in the last century?
Well I do think theres a lot to celebrate, a lot has been achieved. In a sense I like to slightly reframe that question and really ask the question of how far, as a society have we come? In the way that we think about women, and the way that we treat and respect women. I think it sounds pedantic, but if we talk about how far women have come, then in a sense it puts all of the responsibility onto women, and it makes it a bit of a women’s problem. But actually, giving women their rightful place in society is good for everybody, and for the whole society. We as a society I think have come a long way and of course, I am talking about british society because if you look at the world wide picture it’s a different kettle of fish. I think in British society we have a lot to celebrate, and a lot to build on, because of course there is some way to go. I think we seem to be generally all agreed on the fact that women should be equal in society, I don’t think that is debated. What the is issue now is, what does that look like? how do we actually achieve it? I think looking at parliament itself is a good illustration of that because of course, Theresa may is not just our first, but our second prime minister. We have women in parliament 100 years after they were first allowed to be MP’s. We all agree they should be there, they should be playing an active role but of course just recently, we’ve been reminded that actually we don’t quite know how to handle that. We still haven’t quite worked out how to treat the women that we say should be there, and how to make their working life just as equal, just as easy as a man’s working life. So yes, we have come a long way in that we all agree where we want to be, but we’re just not quite sure how we are going to get there.
What does it mean to be a woman in 2018?
I think a lot of women would agree that you have to be an acrobat to be a woman in 2018. It’s all about juggling, and walking a tightrope. With juggling we’re very fortunate in the UK because we have so many opportunities in general, so many choices, but we are in this situation where we have to make choices. We have to think about our varied responsibilities and we have to juggle those responsibilities. As far as walking a tight rope, of course it’s a section tightrope, we have to find a way to be able to express ourselves, our whole selves as women.
Men also need to be able to express themselves and their sexuality, but how do we do that when we are in a workplace and we’re trying to get our jobs done? At the end of the day, we are sexual beings, so I think as a women you are walking a bit of a sexual tightrope and trying to work out how, in a workplace that isn’t designed, in a world that isn’t designed primarily for women, how to do you be a woman?
What do women still need to achieve?
I think what it’s about now is that we need to look at our institutions, because of course it’s our institutions that mould society. We make the laws that make women equal, but of course we all know that making a law is not the same as changing culture and changing minds. There’s a lot to be done in changing culture, again the Houses of Parliament are a prime example. I think that one piece of the puzzle that’s missing in changing the culture is actually face and religion, because culture is bound up with deeply held beliefs and part of our deeply held beliefs are, for the majority of people, face and religious beliefs.
I think that the major religions, the major face leaders have a responsibly, and a role to be part of the discussion about where women are in society. If you take Christianity, as much of British society historically has sort of come out of Christian framework, the way our society has been set up over the last few hundred years. Women have been very badly treated and I think the church needs to actually look at that and reflect on it publically, and have a debate about what’s happened, possibly even apologise for a lot of what’s happened, and think about what we want to do as a church, to make the next few hundred years a different story for women.
I use the church of England, Christian church as an example but I think that other major faiths also have similar history with women, and therefore a similar role of responsibility in the future. I don’t say that to undermine the institution, or to undermine peoples faiths but just to say that in the past the major religions have had a lot to say about the role of women, so they ought to have a lot to say about the role of women in the future.
Your personal proudest achievement?
I love my job and I’ve had so many happy and proud moments. It may sound a bit old fashioned, but at the end of the day, I come home, and I think really my proudest achievement are the achievements of my children. I have two girls, and I’m speaking on a very personal note here because of course I know that not everybody has the opportunity to have children, or even wants to have children. I really look at how my children have developed as women, and for me it’s the greatest privilege, to be amongst them is the greatest privilege.
If you could teach young women one thing about being it woman it would be…
I think that there are still lots of external constraints on young women, but also I think we need to address the internal constraints that girls, young women, and older women, place on themselves . Having seen my girls grow up and their friends, and seeing how they develop, I think that what we need to teach young women is confidence. The sense that, yes I can, I can do that, and that’s something that starts from baby-hood. If you think about the number of times a day a girl is told, either implicitly, through things like the media, or messages they get from school, or other adults, they’re told implicitly that they can’t do that. They’re even told explicitly that they can’t do that.
We as parents, as teachers, role models, just any adults of influence, we need to be actually speaking against those lies and saying yes you can. If a child hears ten times a day that they can’t do something, we need to be in other ways saying ten times a day, yes you can, so it’s an ongoing message that we need to be giving down from baby-hood, in order to bolster them, and give them that resilience to be able to bat off those negative messages they get all of the time.
And if you could teach young men one thing…
Young men are so important, I talk about bringing up girls to feel confident, but there’s so much to teach young boys and young men. I think what I would like to teach young men, or men about women is that very often women communicate in a different way, and they need to learn to listen in a different way. Just because something is spoken, perhaps more quietly, or in a different style, it doesn’t mean that it’s not of value. I think it’s well accepted that in general, male ways of communicating and female ways of communicating do have their difference. I think again, because the world is structured and built for men, it’s difficult for women to be heard, and I think men need to learn to listen to the language of women.
Complete the following: In the next 100 years, I hope women will…
…achieve their potential, both individually and collectively.