The winners of the 2016 Woman’s Hour Power List were revealed last week, celebrating seven women who’ve had the biggest impact on women’s lives over the past seven decades. In second place, behind Margaret Thatcher, was a woman we think deserves more recognition for her relatively unknown achievements.
Lady Helen Brook played a vital role in advancing women’s rights during the 1960s and 70s, by opening up her own clinic in London for women who did not want to give birth to unwanted children. You can listen to the Radio 4 clip here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04l8t6p.
The Brook Advisory Clinic was seen as scandalous by the majority of the general public in 1964 when it opened, but the effect it had on women’s ability to have control over their own lives in England is near incomparable.
Brook initially worked as a volunteer for the Family Planning Association, where she argued that contraception should be readily available to women who were not married. Her introduction of contraception services soon after the pill became a safe and accessible alternative in England, opened up a new world for women.
It was her fervent belief that children should only be born to mothers who wanted them and could care for them. She was also somewhat ahead of her time in the hope that women should enjoy equality with men and that to achieve this they needed to be able to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
There were inevitably obstacles at the beginning, however, such as being forced to hold evening sessions each week for the large numbers of unmarried women turned away from other clinics with only the support of a few clinic doctors and a nurse. In 1963, she began ‘secret’ sessions aimed specifically at young people.
When, at the end of that year, a storm of publicity broke, she was advised to set up her own clinic and that is when her clinic for young, unmarried women and men opened its doors in London.
One of the most important changes she enacted was for women to abandon so-called backstreet abortionists, who were notoriously unsafe and unhygienic but had previously been the only alternative for women scared of how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.
What followed in the years after, with more women having access to more jobs and employment opportunities, was a direct consequence of the power she gave back to women in the form of controlling their own lives, and deciding when they wanted to give birth. Without her impact the radical changes that were made may never have happened or taken much longer to come into force.
If you have been inspired by this story, you can learn more about Helen Brook on the official website, or get involved with our work to combat gender-based violence by getting in touch or joining our community on Facebook and Twitter.