I am delighted – and more than a little bit honoured – to be here with you girls, your parents, families, friends – and teachers – to celebrate your extraordinary achievements. I feel immensely proud of all of you. I know, from distant – though not quite distant enough – memory how hard you must each have worked to reach this stage and the outstanding effort and achievement of those who are receiving prizes today. Well done.
I have felt very excited at the prospect of coming to speak to and hopefully meet you at this important moment in your lives.
You follow in a very proud line of brilliant, fearless, warm and generous women who have gained their education here and gone on to help shape our world and our country for the better. From the earliest pioneers, the first headteacher Miss Creak, novelist and poet, Amy Levy, and the groundbreaking Martindale sisters, to the more recent yet still extraordinary BHHS alumna several of whom I know very well. My very best friends are 8 former girls in green – who I first met between these walls over 22 years ago.
When we were here, we did a lot of the things that I expect you may have done, and some I hope you haven’t! We holidayed in Boughrood and we spent many, many, happy lunchtimes sunbathing in Neboths. Some of us made the ultimate commitment to school uniform shade and died our hair green and others once managed to accidentally suspend themselves by their skirts from the coatpegs that used to be in the basement, giving the unfortunate appearance of oversized flying frog. We laughed and we cried. We fought and made up.
In doing all of this, we formed deep bonds of friendship and sisterhood that have over the years become as strong – and as important – as our family ties. To this day we are all in touch with each other daily and see each other most weeks. It’s my experience that this school plays a powerful role in helping create bonds like these. Strong female friendship like this is a precious gift. So my first hope for you is that your friendships will endure, as mine have, and that you treasure and nurture one another other as you move to the exciting next stages of your lives.
BHHS taught us to be independent, intellectually curious, to strive for excellence in everything we do and to foster warmth, compassion and community wherever we find ourselves. It is a special school for many reasons. Special because of the fantastic teachers that it attracts – and manages to keep! – I’m looking at you Mrs Ashdown, Mr Sherwood, Ms Casey and Mrs Mashford. Special because it’s in Brighton – a city whose spirit fills these classrooms – and one of the most forward-looking, ground-breaking, creative cities in the world. And special because of the strong community and feminist ethos nurtured over many decades which ingrained in me and my friends that all young women have an important and equal role to play in our society and should dream just as big as the next boy.
When I studied here, I didn’t realize just how important and unusual those attributes and values were. Since leaving the high school I have become a human rights campaigner and one of the earliest lessons for me was that out there in the wider world, values and ideas – such as respect, tolerance, fairness and equal treatment – ideas that were drilled in to me in this place – are not universally accepted and instead have to be fought for and won every day – in our communities, in our workplaces, in our police stations, in the law courts and in the Parliament chamber. I now work as the Policy Director for Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties which was founded by a group of concerned writers, politicians and citizens in 1934 in response to police brutality towards hunger marchers, to act as a national watchdog – the ‘conscience’ of the nation – to protect the rights and liberties of all men, women and children. My organization has done remarkable work over the years, dedicating itself to the greatest human rights campaigning causes of each generation. In my time there, I have been privileged to work on many human rights campaigns that have among other things seen the criminalization of modern day slavery, the abolition of identity cards, the repeal of extended pre-charge detention, and the restriction of discriminatory stop and search practices that see young Black men disproportionately hassled by the police without reason. We are currently campaigning against a dangerous and resurgent racism in our country following the referendum result and for the UK Government to take in more of the desperate refugees who have reached Europe against the odds and to whom we owe a duty to provide sanctuary.
I passionately believe that all those who believe in human dignity and equal human worth should stand up for those values every day in any way that they can. As my career has developed, one of the women I most admire and return to is Eleanor Roosevelt, an American politician, diplomat and activist who masterminded the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This great woman once said –
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends…unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Of course this is true. What happens in the microcosm of daily life has ripple effects that have the power to change our society for good or ill.
Having been educated at a school that was established to give women an education when the State refused, your individual stories are already entwined with the universal struggle for women’s rights. Women’s rights are, of course, human rights. In my lifetime there has been some progress in how women are treated and represented in our culture, policy and law. But there is still a lot wrong. Two women are killed every week in England & Wales by a former partner. Women who come to the UK to claim asylum, following the most harrowing and dehumanizing abuses, are detained, re-traumatized and sometimes further sexually assaulted in detention centres across our country. At the lower end of the scandal barometer – but a scandal nonetheless – is the fact that more CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are named Dave than are women. And as we look to the future, post Brexit, many of the rights and protections that my generation of women could take for granted – such as protection for equal pay and maternity rights – will be back on the table and will need to fought for all over again. And then there remains the vestiges of the institutional patriarchy which has been in operation for millennia and needs to be chipped away at all the time. In my work in politics and the media, the old boys club is still very much alive and kicking. My advice? Work with the boys, keep the sisterhood close, and remember everything that this school has taught you – keep pushing for more for yourselves, you are all the very best.
I mention these challenges, not to put a dampner on what is a wonderful and important day in your lives. But to try and give you my realistic and honest view of the challenges that persist, even for brilliant and highly educated young women like you. I know that you, each bright and curious, with the finest feminist education possible under your belts, are well positioned to rise to these challenges. And I know from your teachers that you have already been working for a better world, travelling to Addis Ababa to support children of women who have been helped out of prostitution and to Bulgaria to run educational activities for Roma children, as we heard so movingly just now. My second hope for you is that you take the values, principles and fearless spirit you have inherited here with you in whatever you go on to do.
I would like to end by quoting one last great woman, Nora Ephron. She was not a politician or diplomat but a human rights activist nonetheless and was, in my view, one of the finest journalists, humorists and screen-writers of the last century. In 1996 she addressed her all-female alma mater, the historic Wellesley College in the United States, at an occasion similar to ours today and she finished with this message for her audience, which I love. She said,
“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives.”