The 26th of August was Women’s Equality Day but only in America. In the UK the date is meaningless because we don’t have a day set to celebrate women’s equality, despite British women winning the right to vote over 100 years ago and having had a female Prime Minister for 11 years. I wanted to speak with someone who had lived through many decades of discrimination and learn what they thought about this, so I started researching Nursing Homes in the South West, to find somebody who was both the right age, and had a powerful story to tell. I found that person in Frome Nursing Home. One of their residents is 84-year old, Wendy Mills. Frome refer to all their residents as family members, and after I explained the reason for my visit, Wendy was keen to talk with me.
As a child, she had watched the Battle of Britain in the skies over her childhood home in London and grew up determined to become a pilot. As soon as she was old enough, she applied to join the Royal Air Force but when she asked about flying, she was told point blank, that they didn’t accept female pilots. She was angered and disappointed but didn’t let her frustration show. She went on to do her basic training in North Wales before going on to work as a fighter plotter, who are those women you see in war movies, pushing model aircraft around a map, with sticks. This was during the Cold War years when there were regular incursions into British airspace by Russian bombers, usually coming in over Scarpa Flow. Wendy and her team would scramble fighters up to intercept them. Her shifts could last 36 hrs, meaning she slept and ate underground, in a top security bunker in Norfolk. The job was onerous because the aircraft were sometimes carrying nuclear payloads. Before her shifts, she told me she would walk in the fields around the bunker, filling her nostrils with the scent of vegetation, because if a nuclear war did ensue, it may have been her last chance to experience that.
She did well in her post and was soon promoted to Flight Sergeant, but she never lost her yearning to fly. One day, she noticed a magazine advert for women to join the RAF as air-crew. Eagerly she took the magazine across the airfield to where the flight crews were based and knocked on the commanding officer’s door. She waited nervously before being invited in. She presented the magazine and explained that she was requesting flight training and had thought of little else since she was a child. The C/O smiled and carefully read the piece before leaning back in his chair and telling her that she’d need to pass a medical exam and get permission to fly, from her own commanding officer.
A few days later she presented him with both. The C/O smiled, stood up and told her to follow him. They walked into a large room, where the aircrews sat around smoking and drinking coffee before their missions. He introduced Wendy as their first female air crew member. The place erupted with cheers and whistles. Wendy’s eyes twinkled as she tells me this, the memory still fresh in her mind.
Although women could be air-crew members in 1958, they were not allowed to be operational pilots for another 34 years. In 1992, long after Wendy had left the RAF, the government finally announced that women would be allowed to fly military jet aircraft. But what had happened to Wendy?
She left the RAF, to get married and start a family. She went on to work as a successful aviation journalist for the Yorkshire Evening Post and spent her first month’s wages on flying lessons.
It turned out that she was a natural and quickly passed her pilot’s licence and then became a flying instructor and then a flight examiner and taught flying instructors how to teach. She continued to write aviation stories, including one memorable piece when she flew faster than the speed of sound, as a co-pilot in a 2-seater Phantom jet fighter.
Impressed by her remarkable story I asked Wendy if she thought the UK needed a Women’s Equality Day. She sighed before turning to me.
“Of course we do, dear. Things have improved, but I think Westminster still needs a good shake up, don’t you?”
I do, Wendy, I do. Suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, said, “Justice and freedom for women are worth securing, not only for their own sakes but for civilisation itself.” It seems that millions think we should have a Women’s Equality Day. Last February 6th was the centenary of women getting the vote, so surely that would be an ideal date, but it does beg the question, why don’t we have one set already?
Jerry Short, Frome Nursing Home