Cherie Blair: International Women’s Day is as vital as ever

Cherie Blair with her mother Gale as she receives the Freedom of the City of London at The Guildhall in 2006. Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/GettyCherie Blair with her mother Gale as she receives the Freedom of the City of London at The Guildhall in 2006. Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Cherie Blair with her mother Gale as she receives the Freedom of the City of London at The Guildhall in 2006. Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Cherie Blair has told how her mother’s struggle to find work to support and raise two children as a single mum in the 1960s inspired her to launch a foundation which has helped 160,000 women around the world start and run their own businesses.

The barrister launched the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women the year after her family left Downing Street in a bid to support female entrepreneurs in lower and middle-income countries, after witnessing their struggles to earn their own money. Now, on International Women’s Day, her mentoring organisation is launching a new campaign, to raise £10m and support a further 100,000 women into business and social enterprises.

As the wife of prime minister Tony Blair, she has met women who were desperate to start or expand their own businesses and to be financially independent, during her travels abroad with him, and the parallels between their lives and her own upbringing made her want “to give something back”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I met so many women who were making a real difference, not just to their own lives but to their communities, because they had become leaders through setting up and running their own businesses,” she says. “They faced prejudices about women not being good at business, or not good with money, or even blatant stereotypes about how women should be in the home, but they were getting on with it.

Cherie Blair with former prime minister Tony Blair. Picture: Henry Nicholls/GettyCherie Blair with former prime minister Tony Blair. Picture: Henry Nicholls/Getty
Cherie Blair with former prime minister Tony Blair. Picture: Henry Nicholls/Getty

“They reminded me so much of the situation in Britain back in the 70s, and of what my mother and grandmother faced when opportunities for women were severely limited. Women in Africa and India are facing the same battles now and it seemed to me that we’d already learned a lot in our country and so we needed to share our knowledge of what works, and what doesn’t, and help accelerate the process of female entrepreneurship in other countries.”

She adds: “Money does help women make choices. From my own experience, my dad left my mum, sister and me when I was eight. My mum had had to leave school herself at 14 because her own mother had died. That was 1947, and her father, who was a miner, had no alternative but to say to her ‘you have to leave school and look after me and your ten-year-old brother’.

“Subsequently she did train to be an actress, then she fell pregnant with me, and ended up in Liverpool with two children and no qualifications – and her husband abandoned her. So what does she do? At first the only job she could get was at a fish and chip shop, which for someone who had dreams of being an actress, wasn’t what she wanted.

“Then she was lucky enough to get a job in the Lewis’s department store, and ultimately became a travel agency manager in Liverpool and then Oxford. She worked hard all her days and was incredibly frugal. But the fact was that she was left with nothing and had to find whatever work she could get to make us have the best life possible.”

Cherie Blair hugs Foundation beneficiary DhanashreeCherie Blair hugs Foundation beneficiary Dhanashree
Cherie Blair hugs Foundation beneficiary Dhanashree

Cherie’s father was actor Tony Booth and he and her mother, Gale, had met while studying. However, while she struggled to bring up his daughters – ironically with the help of his mother – he famously went on to marry four times and have eight children. And it still rankles with his eldest that back in the 1960s he was regarded as a more fit person by the banking industry than her mother.

“When my mother tried to get a house, when she was living with her mother-in-law, she was told by the bank she couldn’t get a mortgage as her husband had to sign – which is something that still happens in some places – which was just devastating,” she says. “My mum made so many sacrifices, and my dad was a very famous womaniser… a drunk… so the idea that he was a better guarantor of paying back a loan than my mum was absurd.

“But these were the views people had about women, and the extraordinary thing is, this year we surveyed 750 of our beneficiaries and asked them about obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs, and they are the same – getting finance and being stereotyped as incapable.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She adds: “My mum died four years ago this May, and she was such a big influence on my life. She wanted the best for my sister and me, to have the education she didn’t. And she was such a big supporter of mine when I was struggling to bring up three kids, not on my own of course, but Tony would go to the constituency every weekend, so my mum would come down on a Friday to help.

“She was a real role model for me, I can’t remember her not working. As a woman and working mother myself, I knew that if I could be as good a mum as my mum, then my children would be well looked after. When we were in Downing Street I was so thrilled to be able to take her with us on things we did and give her the opportunity to meet the Pope or Bill Clinton or Nelson Mandela or even the Queen – I was so privileged to be able to say thank you to my mum in that way.”

Of course Blair famously became the third prime minister’s wife to have a baby while living in No 10, with the birth of the youngest of her four children, Leo. So has she any advice for Carrie Symonds, who is expecting her first child? “Well… it’s certainly a very public experience. But to be honest, I’m not sure my experience would be of much use to Carrie.”

Blair would much rather discuss inequalities than Boris Johnson’s latest baby. And there’s a quiet anger in her voice when she does, be they in health, education, politics or the economy. So you might think she’s delighted to see the Labour leadership contested by more women than men. Yet she has already said that voting for a woman, because it’s felt that it’s time for a woman to do the job, would be “tokenism”.

She adds: “Certainly we can look back and think of the amazing women role models in the Labour Party – going back to Barbara Castle. I was proud that under Tony as leader we introduced all-women shortlists which meant for the first time women MPs exceeded 100 and we had Mo Mowlam and Tessa Jowell, all these amazing women role models.

“I don’t necessarily think though, that women have to be the leader to be role models. I’m sure we will find whatever happens, the Labour Party will continue to promote to the front bench talented women.”

She’s more worried about the impact of Brexit, particularly as restrictions on immigration could hit caring services, and as a result potentially put more pressure on women.

“Brexit will have an impact on all of us but it will have a particular impact on caring professions, from the numbers in the health service to the cleaners of hospitals which is also a specialised task, or in relation to care of the elderly or young children. It’s not insignificant that lower wage jobs have tended to be classified as women’s jobs.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“And if those jobs are not done, who is going to look after our elderly and mind our children? I’m pleased that today in our society we do have men in these areas, particularly in caring for elderly relatives, but nevertheless the reality is that for many it’s the woman who picks up the slack.”

She has concerns that it could result in the drive for equality for women going backwards, with more expectation on them to revert to stereotypical jobs, and with a lack of resources available for working class youngsters to attend university.

“What saddens me in our country is that when I was growing up there were so many new opportunities opening up for women, for working class girls like myself. I went to university on a full grant – even managed to save something from that believe it or not – got scholarships, and when I became a barrister legal aid was much more widely available so I was able to be paid for some of the cases I did.

“I worry that in my own profession it’s all much harder, not least because of the cost of qualifying, for a working class boy or girl to have the ability to break through in the way that I and many of my contemporaries did. These days the fact you’re a woman is not as big an obstacle in getting on in the law, but if you don’t have family money behind you it’s much harder now.”

Some of her first cases revolved around the new Domestic Violence Act, and it made her all too aware of how domestic abuse affected women in all walks of life. “When I started in late 70s the attitude was this is behind closed doors, it’s a domestic, it doesn’t matter.

“The reality was it affected all women – those who were financially poor but also those who were well-off and who would lose everything. So they stayed, not for themselves but for their children. And although women’s refuges had started it was quite a thing to do that, to leave and go there. It made me realise how money brings so much independence to women, Money talks, it gives you status and a voice and the ability to make choices. So what I’m doing now is about helping women make those choices.”

It is this aspect of women’s lives which has makes her dip a tentative toe in the increasingly heated debate around gender and sex; a topic of intense discussion within the Labour Party after two leadership candidates signed a trans rights pledge – something which her husband has said he would never have done. “I know the issues around sex are complicated,” she says. “But I firmly believe that we haven’t fought for so many years for safe spaces for women, be it refuges or prisons, or even for women’s dignity in hospitals… we have to ensure that vulnerable women have their safe spaces.”

She adds: “The women we work with in Africa and Asia are really focused on making sure that the barriers, societal barriers to them as women, are overcome. Certainly people are not disputing whether they are women or not, rather the issue is that they are not regarded as equal to men.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For Blair the burning issue is that there is no single country in the world – “not even the nirvanas of Scandinavia and Iceland” – where women have absolute equality with men. “In education and health the gap is narrower in terms of equal access, but when you look at where the power is in the world… with political power for every ten male parliamentarians there are less than three women and economic empowerment has gone backwards – last year it was said it would take 202 years before women and men gained equality, this year it’s 257. Women’s access to the economy and ability to earn their own money has gone backwards, and that’s why the foundation is even more determined that the campaign succeeds.

“Since 2008 we’ve had 160,000 women across 105 low to mid-income countries and we want to raise £10m over next three years to increase that by 100,000 women and we do that by using tech to bring business skills, access to networks and mentors to women, so that they can re-define their future.

“International Women’s Day is absolutely as vital as ever. Every year people ask if it’s necessary and I would love to live in a world where there was complete equal opportunity for women, but we do not, and we need to talk about it to help change the culture and to have a day where we focus on that does help and highlights how far we’ve come but also how far we’ve still got to go.”



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.