On the third anniversary of Labour MP Jo Cox’s murder, we should celebrate her legacy of compassionate, courageous feminism.
Three years ago, the UK lost not only one of our most promising female MPs, but a genuinely forward-thinking feminist. Jo Cox was an ardent champion of women and girls, and the image described by one of her close friends – that “she had one arm wrapped around your shoulder while the other pushed you forward” – reveals so much about what kind of feminist she was. Empowered women empower other women; Jo did that in spades.
Emmeline Pankhust’s motto was ‘deeds, not words’, and that sums up Jo’s approach to life. As the chair of the Labour Women’s Network she mentored, cared for and inspired women of all backgrounds to believe in themselves and their abilities, and to see a career in public life not as a privilege to aspire to, but as something ordinary women did ordinarily.
Once asked what sort of feminist she was, she replied: “A massive one.” At her wedding, she asked her best women to wear the suffragette colours of green, white and purple. That’s the kind of woman Jo was: down-to-earth, passionate, funny.
We feel her loss keenly. But three years on from her murder, Jo is still empowering women in a tangible way. Women make up almost three-quarters of the organisers involved in the Great Get Together, the nationwide movement inspired by Jo’s maiden speech to parliament in which she reminded us that we “have far more in common than that which divides us”.
Traditionally held over the weekend of Jo’s birthday on 22 June, the Great Get Together sees communities up and down the country organise events to bring together people who would never normally meet, encouraging us to celebrate unity in our diversity.
Like Jo, the women who spearhead these events are responding to specific issues in their communities not with talk, but with action. Laura, a young mother of two from Widnes, was inspired to become more involved in her community after hearing about Jo’s murder. She strongly related to Jo, and was motivated by her example to hold events and promote women’s empowerment in her own neighbourhood.
Then there’s Kelly, a young entrepreneur from Newcastle, who has taken the lead in addressing some of the issues affecting young people in the north-east by organising open networking events. Or Mandy in Llanelli, who knew and worked with Jo. She’s using her example to help people in her home town see the potential of their community and celebrate what they have in common.
These women’s acts of social activism make them truly heroic and inspiring. But while their actions are making a difference to our society right now, they will also have a long-lasting impact on the next generation. Many girls still have a complicated relationship with the idea of public life and the concept of ‘power’: one study by Michele Paule and Hannah Yelin of Oxford Brookes University showed that while British girls aged 13-16 care deeply about equality and social action, they view leadership as a double-edged sword. They fear the hostility and scrutiny associated with public life, but relate to women leaders who have overcome challenges to create change.
Non-political global figures were identified by these girls as role models: women like Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai and Beyoncé. But it was hyper-local role models, such as mothers and teachers, who were cited next. The importance of exposing girls and young women to female role models from all areas of society, and increasing access to them, cannot be underestimated.
Visibility matters; if you can see it, you can be it. And thanks to Jo, a new wave of hyper-local role models are coming to the fore, their lives transformed by Jo’s story, and their values shaped by Jo’s own beliefs.
What more can the Jo Cox Foundation do to help unleash the potential of our girls, our daughters? Like Jo, we understand that change does not miraculously happen; we have to create that change. We can only improve access to role models when we simultaneously dismantle all the other barriers that stand in girls’ way. Abuse and intimidation both online and offline; the relentless scrutiny of appearance; the endless judgment; not to mention the disproportionate burden of these barriers born by BAME girls.
Feminism is not just an important part of Jo’s legacy; it is a potent tool that can both defend our democracy and build a world that is more vibrant, more diverse. In times of polarisation and a fear of ‘the other’, we must teach Jo’s narrative in schools, showing that it is possible to be a local change-maker and a passionate internationalist.
We must propel forwards future leaders and lawmakers from diverse backgrounds. We must raise awareness of genuine female role models, and nurture the social activism that so many girls display at school. We must help make public life and parliament more family-friendly, and more welcoming and tolerant of those who are most under-represented.
The image of Jo both supporting and pushing us forward guides us still now, three years on. And I hope, very much, that she would be proud of the work we are doing.
Images: Jo Cox Foundation / Getty Images