John Smith legacy: championing women in public life

On International Women’s Day (8 March), we held a special event with the John Smith Centre to celebrate women’s achievements and mark 30 years of John Smith’s legacy.

Our Women in Public Life event, hosted by Professor Kezia Dugdale, director of the John Smith Centre and supported by the Faculty of Advocates, was an opportunity both to celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness of the challenges women continue to face daily.

The event honoured 30 years of the legacy of John Smith QC MP.  John was an early champion of women’s rights, introducing all-female shortlists in the Labour Party in 1993. This paved the way for a record number of female MPs being returned in the 1997 General Election. One of his enduring legacies is supporting emerging women leaders through the development programmes that were set up in his name.

Three incredible women – Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, Kateryna Musiienko and Leah Duncan-Karrim – joined Kezia for a panel discussion on how to build fairer, safer and more equitable societies for women and girls. They are all at different stages of their careers and work in different areas, but all share a connection to John Smith.

Confronting violence against women

Helena is a leading barrister, an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues and a member of the House of Lords. She knew John Smith personally. “He was a great hero to me, and something of a mentor, because, of course, he was in my profession, too,” she says. “He was a great lawyer.”

Helena believes that confronting violence experienced by women and girls is still a major challenge in the UK. “We still have systems that are not delivering everything that women are entitled to and expect, which is justice,” she says.

“One of the challenges we have to deal with is the underlying sense of aggravation there still is in the misogyny that women experience in their daily lives,” Helena adds. “I recently chaired an inquiry for the Scottish Parliament into misogyny. I heard shocking evidence from young women about the ways in which they experience abusive behaviour – verbally and physically – coming out of clubs and social gatherings. They’re listening to an unpleasant and threatening commentary. Those small things can often lead to much graver things. We have to confront bad behaviour when we see it.”

Women have become warriors

Kateryna Musiienko is a John Smith Fellow and city council member from Kremenchuk, Ukraine. She believes that what is vital to building a fairer and safer society for women and girls is a mindset transformation.

“Women are powerful,” she says. “They can do an amazing job, but sometimes they’re not feeling brave enough to step into a leadership position to share their knowledge to empower each other. The first challenge is overcoming internal fears.

“Then there’s society around us. Unfortunately, we still see many barriers and people who oppose us when we try to bring about change. But I think everything is possible. I’m here and many women are standing behind me in my community. In Ukraine, women have become warriors.”

Decolonising International Women’s Day

For Kateryna, International Women’s Day has an added political dimension because of its history as a Soviet holiday. She says: “The whole idea of Women’s Day was giving women 24 hours of rest. We’ve tried to come up with a totally different approach.

“We’ve decolonised our understanding of this day so that we don’t think of it as a free holiday. It’s about actions and gender equality and the rights of women. We’re trying to put a real meaning behind these words.”

For Leah Duncan-Karrim, policy and public affairs officer at Barnardo’s, and a former participant on John Smith Centre’s Minority Ethnic Emerging Leaders Programme, a key challenge is recognising intersectionality. This means acknowledging the varying and multiple identities people hold. “We need to get better at how we talk about lived experience,” she says.

Speaking up for women

To create true equality and a fair and safe world for all, women and men must support each other. The 2024 cohort of John Smith Fellows, who attended the event, offered some reflections on how they can apply this in their own societies.

Suhaily Abdulvahhobov, head of the banking analysis division in the National Bank of Tajikistan, says: “I believe that one of our main issues in today’s world is gender inequality. One way to solve this issue is to increase the role of women in the economic life of countries. It is also important to involve women in social life and provide more jobs to have more stable and growing societies.”

Tamar Oniani, a human rights programme director from Georgia, says: “The biggest challenge is gender-based violence, which has many layers, including an economic one. Economic vulnerability exposes women more to violence. I think we should work harder to empower women to have access to more property, to earn and to close the gender pay gap.”


Read our story about Kateryna Musiienko and her work in Kremenchuk, which is located close to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.