Roz attends 60th Women of the Year Lunch

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London

Amazing, inspirational, wonderful, excellent, incredible. These are just some of the words used to me by women attending this year’s Women of the Year Lunch at the InterContinental Hotel in London’s Park Lane.  And even more amazing is that this was the 60th Women of the Year Lunch and every year has been just as moving and impressive.

woyla 2014 Roz Morris

The Lunch has always been a remarkable event with a mixture of women from all walks of life. There are extraordinary women who are at the top of their profession, politicians, doctors, scientists, lawyers, military officers, athletes and businesswomen, many of whom are the first women to get to the top in their chosen career, as well as extraordinary ‘ordinary‘ women running charities and organisations that campaign for and deliver change that helps others.  

I am pictured above (right) with Joyce Arram, Honorary Vice President of CILEX, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and Deputy President of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association.

Just on my table at the lunch this year I was joined by the President of the NUT, a UNHCR Global Ambassador, the first woman president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, plus Alison Philips, who not only writes a weekly column for the Daily Mirror, but is also one of the Mirror’s weekend editors. I also met two baronesses: Baroness Prashar, who is Chancellor of de Montfort University, President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and a member of the Iraq Inquiry, and Baroness Deech, the Chair of the Bar Standards Board and formerly head of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority and a BBC Governor. And this was just one table.  

All these women have roles that were actually literally unthinkable for women when the Lunch began in the 1950’s.  That was a very different time.  All the women attending the early lunches wore hats and many careers were closed to them either by regulations or by prejudice.

Roz Morris woyla 2014

Just how much things have changed is also illustrated by that fact that the 450 women at this year’s lunch included Elaine West , the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshall in the RAF, the highest military rank ever held by a woman in the UK armed forces, and Lieutenant Maxine Stiles, one of 3 women who have become the first ever to qualify as submariners in the 110  year history of the Royal Navy’s submarine service.   I am pictured above (left) above with Sonia Brown, Founder and Director of the National Black Women’s Network.

Also attending the Lunch were Nell Gifford, who founded and runs her own circus, Molly Thompson-Smith, who at just  16 years old is the UK’s number one rock climber, ranked number 3 in Europe and in the world,  motorbike racer, Jenny Tinmouth, the first and only woman competing in the British Superbike Championship, Polar explorer Caroline Hamilton, who has walked to both the North and South Poles as part of all-women teams,  Emma Gray, first female winner of the  Northumberland  Sheepdog Trials league, Annie Chapman, founder of the Ladies Tractor Road Run, and Janice Langley, the Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK with more than two hundred thousand members.    

Well known faces included Arlene Phillips, Zandra Rhodes, Kimberley Wyatt, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Baroness Shirley Williams,  Lorraine Kelly OBE, Barbara Windsor MBE, Harriet Walter, Fern Britton, Rosie Boycott, Jacqueline Wilson and Liz Truss MP Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.   And more, many more remarkable women of achievement including business leaders from Facebook,  Glaxo Smith Kline, Barclaycard,  Barclays, Nomura, Prudential, Axa, Invesco Perpetual, Ernst & Young, Admiral Group, Reed Elsevier and KPMG.  

However Women of the Year Lunch has also always been a pioneer in recognising not just women who get to the top, but ordinary women doing extraordinary things.  Many of these ‘ordinary’ women are truly exceptional people who set up charities and campaigns and get things done in circumstances where the rest of us often realise there is a problem but, unlike them,  we don’t do anything practical about solving it.  These women do.

For example,  this year Christina Noble was given the Women of the Year Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award.  In 1989, after a tragic childhood, Christina travelled to Vietnam and, having witnessed the poverty facing children there, founded The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation in Ho Chi Minh City, providing free medical care to over 10,000 street and abandoned children per year.  She has also established the Blue Skies Ger Village in Mongolia, which provides a home to 60 street children most of whom have been orphaned or abandoned.  Christina gave a passionate acceptance speech urging us all not to look the other way when there is so much suffering for children in the world

Fahma Mohamed, 17, one of 9 girls in a Somali family who came to Britain when she was seven, won the Outstanding Young Campaigner of the Year Award , sponsored by Good Housekeeping magazine and presented to her by actress Lindsay Lohan and Good Housekeeping Editorial Director, Lindsay Nicholson.

Fahma set up a campaign to warn girls across the UK about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation and persuaded then Education Secretary , Michael Gove to write to all primary and secondary head teachers in England drawing their attention to guidelines around FGM and reminding them of their duty to protect schoolgirls.  Her campaign, one of the biggest ever hosted on with a petition attracting nearly a quarter of a million supporters also won the backing of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who called it deeply inspiring,

The Women of the year Lunch was the first event of its kind, set up in 1955 by the late Tony Lothian OBE, a journalist and also the Marchioness of Lothian.  She started the lunch because she felt strongly that, in the 1950’s, the achievements of women were underrated and ignored by a male establishment which had plenty of dinners and lunches celebrating male achievements, while there was nothing comparable for women.

Working with her co-founders Lady Georgina Coleridge and the World War two heroine, Odette Hallowes, the aim was to bring together a wide cross-section of working women who had distinguished themselves in their careers or their communities. At a time when the concept of career networking for women was unknown, Women of the Year was, and remains, a gathering for inspirational women and an opportunity to hear the views of world-famous women on important issues.

But in 1955 this was a very ambitious project. Where, her detractors sneered, could Lady Lothian possibly find four or five hundred interesting women to come to a lunch?  However she proved them wrong with the first lunch held on 29 September 1955 at London’s Savoy Hotel. 

True to the eclectic spirit still carried on by today’s lunch organisers, the speakers were actress Hermione Gingold, Conservative MP, Patricia Hornsby Smith and the Indian High Commissioner, Vijaya Pandit.   There were no awards. The guiding principle was, and still is, that  every one of the women attending the lunch is welcomed as a Woman of the Year. 

The event was such a success that Tony decided to go for it and make it an annual event.  When she died in 2007, her radical new idea of a lunch celebrating women’s achievements had already taken place 53 times.  She had set up a lunch that you can’t just buy a ticket for.  You have to be nominated by other women.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then both the founders and the current  organisers of Women of the Year Lunch should be very flattered that so many newspapers, women’s magazines, and big businesses now hold their own annual awards celebrating various types of female achievement. And all this started just 60 years ago.

Over that sixty years, Women of the Year Lunch has grown and evolved and has set up the Women of the Year Foundation, which gives grants to help women both in Britain and abroad to achieve their ambitions. There is also an annual Women of the year Lecture.  The Lunch is now sponsored and there are half a dozen specific  awards given every year, which help to gain publicity and more sponsorship.  However it is still the case that every Lunch begins by telling all the women present that they are there because they are all women of the year.  

The Women of the Year awards judging panel has a variety of inspirational women including, Sandi Toksvig CBE, Sue MacGregor CBE, Esther Rantzen CBE, Andrea Coleman, Dame Tessa Jowell MP, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Jane Luca, Ronke Phillips and Jasvinder Sanghera CBE.  

Other awards this year went to Jack Monroe,  who won the DFS Women of the  Year Enterprise Award for her book and blogs on budget cookery, columns for the Huffington Post and The Guardian and her anti –poverty campaigning as a mother on the breadline; to Diana Nammi , who set up  IKWRO, to fight for Iranian and Kurdish women’s rights; and to Beatrice Mtetwa, the courageous Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, who was given the Women of the Year Human Rights Award.  

Joanne Thompson won the ITV Lorraine Inspirational Women of the Year Award, presented by Lorraine Kelly.  Joanne set up Millie’s Trust with her husband Dan in memory of their daughter Millie, who died when she was nine months old in October 2012 while at nursery.   Joanne is a now a qualified first aid trainer and dedicates her time to delivering paediatric first aid training for nursery workers with Millie’s Trust and raising money in order for the training to continue.  Joanne was picked from hundreds of remarkable women nominated by viewers of ITV Lorraine.

Lorraine Kelly describes Joanne Thompson  as  “A truly inspirational woman.  Her work with Millie’s Trust has saved lives. Her story is moving and inspiring, and this award is well-deserved. Sam and Tracey should both be proud of themselves for the incredible work they have done and for being nominated for the award. Women of the Year have shone a light on the terrific work they’re doing.”

The current President of Women of the Year Lunch, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC says: “I am particularly proud to be President of the Lunch in its 60th year. The lunch has become a special part of British life, like Wimbledon and the Proms.  It comes around every year and every year we are amazed and beguiled by the stories and lives we hear about and all of them have women as the hero."

Six decades of celebrating women as heroes – that’s what Women of the Year Lunch is all about – and we definitely need another 60 years.  We might just run out of ‘first women’ by then.

Published 30 October 2014