Penguin Random House UK chair Gail Rebuck has used her maiden speech in the House of Lords to champion greater literacy for the “most marginalised and excluded women in our society”, saying the literate woman is “a potentially empowered woman”.
Speaking during a debate titled Women: Homelessness, Domestic Violence and Social Exclusion, Baroness Rebuck, who was appointed to the House of Lords in August, referred to her own upbringing and her work at Penguin Random House, as well as Quick Reads and World Book Day to show the power of reading.
“We should strive to ensure that everybody, especially the most marginalised and excluded women in our society, can have access to what Philip Pullman describes as the 'rich, consoling, inspiring, liberating' experience of reading,” Rebuck told the chamber.
Rebuck praised the publishing industry for its gender diversity, saying: “For 22 years, as chief executive of a publishing group of which I declare I am now the UK chair, I have been proud of how my industry has led the way on gender diversity, promoting women to the top ranks at a time when the only way into the executive suite in many sectors would have been with a tray of tea and biscuits.” But, quoting recent statistics from the World Economic Forum that show the UK is 26th in the world for gender equality, she said the country still had far to “go in confronting the systemic problems that blight the lives of too many women”.
Giving women opportunities for self-development, including by improving their literacy skills, is key to “tackling social exclusion”, said Rebuck.
“For me, books are a symbol of freedom and transformation,” she said. “They opened my mind and changed my life and I want others to share in that opportunity. My mother, the eldest of five, had to leave school at 13 so that she could help support her family. My paternal grandfather came to the UK alone, aged 15, to escape persecution in Lithuania. From selling suits off a wheelbarrow—he was a tailor—he became a successful businessman, but he never learned to read or write. There were no books on our shelves at home except for a leather-bound edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but, despite that, each Saturday my mother would take my brother and me to the local library to borrow books. It was the highlight of my week. Books unlocked my imagination and aspiration, and I became the first person in my family to go to university.”
Rebuck said it was not just books, but all creative arts, which were vital, and said she had seen “the arts change the lives of excluded children at inner London schools and through charities such as Kids Company, offering hope and a vision for a future that is often lacking in young lives”.
Rebuck made her maiden speech on 6th November, noting that it was 10 years since her late husband Lord Gould of Brookwood made his maiden speech, and three years exactly since he lost his fight against cancer.