It was with shock and sadness that we heard of the death of our wonderful friend and colleague, Jean Johnson, Chair of Hampshire Women’s Institute. Jean died suddenly on 4 October and her funeral is today. Her passing is a terrible loss not only for her family and friends but for sex workers and single mothers in particular, often the same people, whose rights she championed. She was known widely for her campaigning work for women’s safety and for an end to the criminalisation of prostitution. We are attending her funeral today, representing many thousands in our network in Britain and elsewhere.
We first got to know Jean and her friend and close colleague Shirley Landels following the tragic murders of five young women in Ipswich in 2006. Hampshire WI branches reacted to the horror of the murders by immediately and practically putting forward a resolution that local councils should provide safe spaces for women to work. Hampshire WI, with Jean as its representative, was one of the original members of the Safety First Coalition which we initiated to “decriminalise sex work and prioritise safety”. Sadly Shirley died in 2009 but Jean continued their work, often mentioning Shirley with fondness and respect.
Jean’s empathy for sex workers came from her own experiences, firstly as a mother. She often spoke about the young women in Southampton’s red light area and how herdaughters or granddaughters could easily have been one of them. She saw the world from the point of view of women who had much less than she did, and understood very well that poverty is the crime not prostitution.
The media picked up on the significance of what Hampshire WI was doing and in 2008 Channel 4 made a film with Jean and Shirley; A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels, which looked at the effects of the prostitution laws in Nevada US, the Netherlands and New Zealand. It was one of those films you would not easily forget, serious but with a good dollop of Jean and Shirley’s humour – who could forget them talking enthusiastically about New Zealand’s SOOBs (small owner operated brothels) and BOOBs (bigger owner operated brothels).
Jean was a delight to work with — reliable, principled and ready to take her lead from sex workers, the experts on the ground. She spoke on many occasions at our public events including in Parliament – always to great effect. She was funny and enormously impressive. Parliamentarians hung on her every word. She brought the prestige and power of the Women’s Institute, often seen as an organisation of “good” women to a cause led by women who have been maligned as “bad”. On many occasions we would get small encouraging notes from her after she saw one of us on the TV or heard us on the radio.
We last saw Jean last November, when she spoke at our symposium in Parliament, with sex workers from ten different countries, academics and a wide range of other supporters presenting evidence for decriminalisation. She travelled up to London in the cold, emerging from the underground with her determined, serious smile. She was a caring person, a solid political colleague and a true friend. She set a standard for the relationship between “good” and “bad” girls in her refusal to be governed by the social expectations for “respectable women” and her fearless determination to use her respectability in the service of justice for women.
We are so sorry you are gone, Jean, we are going to miss you very much.
All of us at the ECP and the Crossroads Women’s Centre