Susan Dalgety: Why Fisherrow fishwives are revolutionary heroines

Heroic: Mary Johnston was among the last to wear the red-and-white skirt (Picture: Paul Raeburn)
Heroic: Mary Johnston was among the last to wear the red-and-white skirt (Picture: Paul Raeburn)
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International Women’s Day, which is on Thursday this week, is now a thing.

Gone are the days when, once a year on 8 March, a few women in dungarees would gather in draughty community centres to share daring tales of women’s liberation, while sipping herbal tea and plotting the downfall of the patriarchy.

The festival now has its own hashtag, several in fact.

Global brands, from Apple to Nike, have jumped on its advertising potential to market their eye-wateringly expensive gadgets to women.

Hollywood actresses have embraced girl power with all the fervour of converts, though their dress code remains revealing designer frocks.

And no doubt on the day we will have to endure a great gaggle of politicians – of both sexes – desperate to show off their feminist credentials.

I will be celebrating in Musselburgh’s Brunton Theatre, watching the premier of a film about the fishwives of Fisherrrow.

I need to declare an interest here. The film, commissioned by the Fisherrow Waterfront Group and paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund, was produced by friends of mine, Gaynor Allen and Raw Film Productions, so of course it will be brilliant.

READ MORE: Susan Dalgety: Women are gathering to take on sex abusers

And given its subject matter it is bound to get five-star reviews. The Fisherrow fishwives were a phenomomen.

A tightly knit community of women and girls, they sold fish across Edinburgh and Fife, from heavily-laden creels that they carried on their backs. The last fishwife, Betty Millar, did not hang up her baskets until 1988.

They were strong working-class women. Matriarchs who worked 14 hours a day because they had to feed and clothe their family, not because they wanted a seat in the boardroom.

Women who, on their “day off”, trampled blankets by foot and washed clothes by hand.

They played golf and football, knitted while trudging miles to sell their wares, and unusually for the time, were economically independent. A fishwife did not tell her husband how much she earned.

And they wore their red and white striped skirts and wool shawls with great pride, and far more panache than Jennifer Lawrence in her Versace.

As 97-year-old Jean Wilkie, the last living fishwife, recalls, going to the creel was a calling, something special.

Working-class women have always been something special.

From the women of Ford’s Dagenham car factory – whose strike in 1968 led to the Equal Pay Act 1970 – to my mum who brought up four children on less money in a week than my dad’s boss would spend on his gundogs.

Working-class women are the backbone of our country. The women who clean our hospitals, staff call centres, keep our supermarkets open all hours.

READ MORE: Going fishing for family memories

The women who work night shifts so they can save on child care, who have two or three part-time jobs so they can pay the rent. The care workers who, for minimum wage, wipe the bums of our elderly relatives so we don’t have to.

And the women who clean the homes of the middle-class women who are too busy shattering the glass ceiling to scrub their designer kitchen floors.

These are the women we should being celebrating on Thursday. Actresses in their party frocks don’t need our praise, nor do women politicians, comfortable in their seats of power.

We don’t need to stand up for women with stock options or inherited wealth.

There has been an uprising of women recently, prompted largely by revelations of sexual abuse in the movie industry, politics and the media.

And quite right too. Men who abuse power deserve to be exposed, and strong women like Harry Potter heroine Emma Watson, who has just donated £1 million to a new campaign to end sexual harassment, can be great role models for our girls.

But this new wave of feminism has been nurtured in our universities and political parties by women who use jargon like intersectionality and cisgender.

It has been embraced by young men who identify as lesbians.

It is Facebook feminism where women of privilege, dressed in Hobbs and LK Bennett, lean in to each other as they clamber up the corporate ladder.

It does not speak to the millions of women barely earning the living wage.

Time for a working-class feminist revolution sisters, and who better to be our role model than the fishwives of Fisherrow?