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A Woman I Admire Writing Competition Spring 2018

Elizabeth Fry — My Inspiration
Margaret Holdsworth
Highly Commended

I must have been thirteen or fourteen when as library monitor at my secondary school, browsing through the shelves during a quiet time, I came across a book which had a long-lasting effect on me.

I don't know what spurred me to remove the slim book from its place on the shelf, perhaps it was the moon-yellow dust cover that made it stand out, or the picture of a middle-aged woman wearing a strange bulbous cap tied under her chin, and wearing the all-encompassing skirts of the 18th century which stirred my curiosity. Something in her direct gaze and solid demeanour intrigued me. The title of the book, Elizabeth Fry, Prison Reformer pricked my interest further.

The more I read about this extraordinary woman the more intrigued I became. Here was a woman, the mother of eleven — yes eleven — children, who, living at a time when a woman's place was firmly in the home, before it was even dreamed that women could have a political voice through a vote, visited Newgate prison in 1813 at the age of 33, and determined immediately to improve the terrible conditions she saw women and children forced to endure in that prison.

Elizabeth Fry campaigned successfully and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of women in prisons by providing them with practical support and training. She negotiated with the authorities to ensure that women were treated humanely - urging that women should be rehabilitated and provided through training with the means to support themselves and their children when they left prison, rather than being subjected to the harsh punishment regime that was current at the time. She also supported women who were being transported to the colonies and worked towards ending transportation, becoming the first woman to speak to Parliament.

While she was striving to improve women's lot in prison, she formed the first national women's association — ‘Reform for Women in Prison’ and together with other Quakers campaigned against slavery and established a training school for nurses.

How was it possible for a woman with eleven children to accomplish all this? Of course she was accused by some of neglecting her duties as a mother and wife. For me she wasn't superwoman, she was the woman I wanted to be, perhaps without eleven children.

My teenage fantasy was that I could, like Elizabeth Fry, be the sort of woman who improved the lot of others, I wasn't planning to be famous, just make the world a better place. This resulted in my 35 year career in Social Work.

Did I achieve what Elizabeth Fry inspired me to do? I am not sure, but when I think about the work that my daughter-in-law is doing with young men in London prisons through restorative justice programmes, and by providing mentoring and support to reduce recidivism, I feel that the torch which Elizabeth Fry lit 200 years ago is still being carried by women, and it makes me proud to be a woman.

Margaret Holdsworth © 2018