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Manchester is no stranger to revolutionary women.

If anything, the city has been home to some of the most progressive women in history, women who have led the way in tackling some of the biggest issues of their day.

Indeed, Manchester was at the heart of the national campaign for equal voting rights, with the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst spearheading the suffragette movement alongside other esteemed Mancunians including novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and Middleton botanist Lydia Becker.

Fast forward to the 1960s, and Mancunian women were lending their voices to another important cause: The Women’s Liberation Movement.

As one of the first cities to hold a national WLM conference, Manchester’s fearless campaigners were pivotal in championing sexual health rights of women all over the country, and getting them protected through the law.

Yet as times have changed, so have the pressing matters of the moment.

In today’s world, it is climate change that has become the defining issue of our time.

Scientific, academic and social movements all across the globe have come together to urgently prevent the warming of our world, and Manchester has been playing an important part too.

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate four inspiring local women have been doing their bit to help the cause they care so deeply about. Despite differences in age, background and even methods, these women are united in their belief that climate change is a real threat to all of our lives, and that something needs to be done about it.

Zoe Cohen, an executive coach and Extinction Rebellion member, was inspired by environmental activism even as a teenager.

Zoe Cohen, a master coach based in Warrington, has been an XR member since January 2019

She said: “I remember in the 80s when Greenpeace was in its heyday and doing really brave stuff- intercepting ships and attaching themselves to all sorts of things. I can remember massively admiring them back then, but not knowing how you could even do the stuff that they were doing.”

Then, last year, Zoe became involved with Extinction Rebellion, one of the biggest and most controversial organisations at the forefront of climate activism.

From blocking roads in the city centre to staging a ‘die in’ at the Arndale, their advocates in Manchester and beyond are known for putting on outrageous stunts, which have both frustrated and inspired many.

“When I did some research on their work, I was blown away by people’s passion and desperation to speak the truth. It totally hit me in the heart", Zoe said.

There was also a personal reason why Zoe got involved with XR, after watching how climate change had impacted her already ill mum.

“It was increasingly obvious to me how bad things were", she said.

“In the summer of 2018, we had the extreme heatwaves, and it made the last months and weeks of my mum’s life more distressing than it needed to be.

"The heat was difficult for her to cope with and the hospital she was in was unpleasantly hot.”

After her mum died, Zoe resolved to dedicate more of her life to protest.

“Nothing else has ever worked in human history. Mass peaceful civil disobedience is the only sensible option, and social science research shows that.

“I went to my first XR meeting in Manchester, and it felt like coming home. It was such a relief to be around people who just got it.”

Zoe was one of the many protesters involved in the blocking of Parliament Square, and she was arrested as a result of it.

When asked how she felt about the disruption caused she said: “We had to be disruptive in the early stages.

“If you just politely ask for change it doesn’t happen. I absolutely believe that we had to cause disruption to be listened to.

“Within weeks of doing what we did we had parliament passing a motion to declare a climate and ecological emergency.

"Theresa May then made the 2050 net zero target legally binding. There’s no way that would have happened if we hadn’t blocked London for a week and a half.

“But I would say that everyone in the whole movement regrets the tube action in Canning Town. There are always going to be mistakes, but we are learning and evolving and there’s always room to do things differently.”

One person doing things differently to Zoe is Carly McLachlan, Professor of Climate and Energy Policy and Director of Tyndall Centre at Manchester University.

Carly McLachlan, director of the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University, has been shaping the city's green policies for over a decade (Image: Carly McLachlan)

Despite choosing not to be involved in direct activism herself, she still recognises the role that strikers and protestors have played.

Carly said: “Some people are critical of protest movements, but it has had all kinds of successes. We need to be open to different ways of engaging people.”

Carly has made her difference through academic means, having worked in education for over a decade.

She has also had a significant public policy impact in the city and beyond; from being selected as an advisor for the UK’s new climate assemblies, to leading the team that sets Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s carbon budgets, Carly has a wealth of experience and knowledge that has helped make Manchester greener.

She said: “Having been in Manchester my whole adult life, I feel like an adopted Mancunian. It’s my place, so I want to be able to use my expertise to make a difference here in particular.

“It’s important for cities across the UK to call for action, because we need to drive the movement nationally from our own places. It’s through this that we start seeing national government deliver change.

“[Manchester] has got this amazing industrial and political history as being at the forefront of driving progressive change. I think we’re seeing that now with the school strikes- I find the youth movement here really impressive.”

Indeed, the city’s young people have been particularly engaged. As the last generation expected to experience a stable climate, they have been more vocal than ever in their efforts to protect their futures.

Emma Greenwood, a 16-year-old Youth MP for Bury, has been one of their shining voices.

Emma Greenwood, 16, says she is fighting for her future (Image: ABNM Photography)

Emma was one of the first ever attendees of the Manchester youth climate strikes, and has since taken on a leading role in co-ordinating them.

On why she got involved in the youth strikes, she said: “I needed a way to channel all this fear and anger I was feeling.

“I felt like it was an amazing opportunity to stand up and say that the one liberty I’ve got as a young person is my education, and I’m that scared that I’m willing to give it up to see a push for action.”

But that push for action hasn’t always come through, something that has, at times, taken a toll on Emma.

She added: “It can be a really stressful and emotional thing. It’s frustrating when you put all this effort in and we’re not getting the response we’re looking for.”

With her passion and persistence, she has been hailed on more than one occasion as ‘Manchester’s Greta Thunberg’. However, it’s not a title she’s entirely comfortable with.

She said: "Obviously I’m really flattered to be compared to such an inspirational figure, but it’s really important that we recognise that everyone brings their own individual things to the youth strike movement.

“By labelling me as someone else, it does sometimes take away from my own unique contributions.”

Yet many have recognised Emma’s contributions in their own right, including Ash Farrah.

Ash Farrah works at Manchester City Council and has been interested in the climate movement since her university days (Image: Ash Farrah)

A self-described ‘all round eco-warrior’, Ash has balanced her day job as the Neighbourhood Compliance Officer at Manchester City Council with her extensive volunteer work as a member of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership.

Through this organisation, she has been working with universities, hospitals, private institutions and even the city's football clubs to help decarbonise Manchester by 2038- a target date that was scientifically calculated by Carly and her team at the Tyndall Centre.

She was also one of the six original members of the Manchester Climate Change Youth Board.

Ash said: “I don’t think your age should define the interest and power you can have.

“I’ll support anyone who wants to challenge the system and make the world a bit more sustainable.”

She added: “I’m of the opinion that if you want to change the system you should infiltrate it- that’s why I joined the council.

“But the top-down policy approach in Manchester combined with the bottom-up action from strikers has really upped the momentum.

“There’s always more to do, but I’m very proud of the point we’ve come to.”

Ash is certainly not alone in that opinion, with Emma sharing in her hopeful outlook.

Emma said: “There definitely is hope. Attitudes are changing, and people are starting to make the connection in their minds between the floods, fires and climate change.

But whether it is happening quick enough is the true question.”

Interestingly, all four women agreed that many areas of the climate movement are still very much dominated by women; this comes with both benefits and drawbacks.

Ash said: ‘It is a women-heavy industry. Especially white women. Whilst the huge female presence is very empowering, it does beg the question as to why this is the case.”

“I don’t like gender generalisations, but on one level it is true that women tend to be more compassionate and connected to bringing life into the world and looking after that life,” suggested Zoe.

Emma thinks it may even have historical roots.

She said: "There’s a sense that for so many years, women didn’t have a voice. So, when the youth strike movement came, it felt like a rare platform where anybody could speak, and I think women appreciated that more.’

Carly added: “We do have to have more diversity in the voices that we listen to, and that goes beyond gender.

“We need to keep pushing for representation of a wider range of voices and experiences…only then will we start shaping the kind of Manchester we want to live in.”


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