An ongoing interest in the environment and global warming meant that recently I have been introduced to the work of an inspirational woman; the late Barbara Ward. Born in 1914 into a wealthy British family, University educated and a hugely influential environmentalist when few were interested in such issues and women were rarely listened to, even within the home let alone within the political arena. My own mother, also named Barbara, was born in 1934 into an East London working class family, missed most of her education due to the war but was wise, intelligent and truly thoughtful within her own circle of friends and family. She too questioned such environmental issues as excessive packaging and food wastage although she never had opportunities to influence political or world leaders.
Four and a half decades ago in 1972 the first international climate change conference was held in Stockholm. Had it not been for the impressive diplomatic skills of Barbara Ward history might not have recorded such an important event. The early 1970s in the Uk were derisory times for most women – I recall the emphasis on very short skirts, long hair, marrying young and producing children. Within my family only one from twenty-four of my immediate cousins attended University let alone influenced World leaders. At this time my mother was working as a bookkeeper in a large local store. Only because of my dad’s encouragement and her own forceful personality was she independent, financially solvent and drove her own car. The majority of my friend’s mothers remained at home or worked part-time in low paid employment. Yet in the same year, the Canadian born UN conference secretariat , Maurice Strong, approached Barbara Ward to participate in a working group aimed at launching the first UN conference on climate change. The male-dominated New York Times caught wind of her appointment they sought to malign her reputation by labelling her ‘a synthesiser and a propogandist’. She shrugged off the criticism with confidence. Ward’s concept of sustainability by then had grown to be one of the most important policy doctrines of that era.
Ward’s earnestness to improve the world possibly stemmed from her Quaker father and her Roman Catholic mother. She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University and her first book was published at the age of 24. She later became an assistant Editor if the Economist which provided contacts contacts with some very impressive political luminaries. By 1943 the British government sent her to the US to garner support for the British war effort and she spent five months in the US where she socialised with Eleanor Roosevelt and the vice President Wallace. During this time she amassed an influential circle of American admirers. She returned to the US in 1945 where she met John F. Kennedy, then a young naval officer. J.K.Galbraith, an economist, became a lifelong friend and was influential in getting her a job at Harvard University department of Economics. Shortly after this, she was appointed to the post Of Professor at Columbia University. She also worked and received substantial backing from the Carnegie Foundation. Most importantly, Barbara Ward became a close friend of Robert Macnamara, President of the World bank. Her quiet charm and diplomatic skills impressed President Lyndon Johnson so that he wrote a personal note to thank her for contributing to the success of his Premiership. In the 1950s she lived and worked in Africa becoming friends with post-colonial leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyere, Kenneth Kaunda and Jomo Kenyatta.
One of her most impressive achievements was to convince Indira Ghandi to speak at the 1972 Stockholm conference. Ghandi was hugely influential third-world leader and viewed as a unifying figure being admired by World leaders and could bridge the north-south divide that existed at the time. Ward was also instrumental in ensuring the Chinese Premier attended China’s first international conference of that era. She is most respected for coining the phrase of ‘sustainable development’ and for arguing forcefully that World leaders in developing countries should contribute 1% of GDP towards international aid for poorer countries.
Compare Ward’s impressive achievements with the majority of British women’s lives throughout the 1940s and 1950s: before 1956 women teachers and civil servants received substantially less pay than men and once married, were made redundant. Prior to 1958, the House of Lords was a men only arena. It was anticipated that, although women worked in physically tough jobs out of necessity during the war, they would return to their ‘natural’ role of a homemaker. Academic achievements were not a feasible ambition for most women, particularly those from working class families such as my mother. This history created an undercurrent of resentment from some women although most accepted their undeniably submissive role throughout the 1950s. My own mother, Barbara from East London, was a hugely positive and vibrant woman who never expressed resentment or discontent at her life. I recall her explaining why she took such pride in the presentation of her home, especially her clothes – for most of her childhood she had only one hook on the back of her bedroom door where a few paltry items of clothing hung – to have a huge wardrobe crammed with beautifully ironed clothes was such pleasure (though environmentally questionable!). Simone de Beauvoir asserted that, “the housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present….. The battle against dust and dirt is never won”. My mother would vehemently argue against this, always ensuring a spotless home alongside working full-time, driving her mini confidently around town and socialising throughout the Estuary!
At Kingston-mouth we are keen for readers to know and learn about the truly influential Barbara Ward. Type a Google search and you will be sadly disappointed at the results – why is this? Her achievements within a male dominated world are difficult to proclaim loudly enough: most women had no voice at all throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. My own mother had a voice within a small cohort of friends and family but lack of opportunity meant her legacy remains within those groups. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949 that women are often enslaved amongst the male species and prisoners of their own biology. This cannot apply to Barbara Ward; I am convinced she would argue forcefully against this as she flew around the world convincing World leaders of their need for global sustainability. We know that history is too readily written by white men for the advancement of white men. Remember Barbara Ward and know that within environmental and global development she was an exceptional and undeniably influential woman. Kingstonmouth.com is extremely pleased to honour her contribution.