Is tradition just old hat?

Cllr Francesca Robinson
Cllr Francesca Robinson
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Centuries-old tradition requiring female councillors to wear hats indoors at civic events has seen Thetford Town Council labelled ‘sexist’.

Thetford lays claim to one of the oldest mayoralties in the country and protocol requires female councillors to keep hats on during ceremonial meetings – even though their male counterparts do not have to.

Since being elected last May, Cllr Francesca Robinson has taken exception to this and has ignited a sexism row by refusing to wear her cocked hat and ceremonial robe in the council chamber at King’s House.

Now a recommendation has been made to allow women to remove their hats – but only after asking for the mayor’s permission.

Cllr Robinson, who represents Anne Bartholomew ward, has labelled the idea ‘sexist, discriminatory and plain unfair’.

She said: “It’s absolutely dreadful and that, for some reason, was seen as equality.”

But her fellow councillors – three women and 12 men – are largely in favour of upholding the tradition.

Cllr Colin Burnett, of the Vicarage Road ward, said it was about protocol, not sexism, and was a matter of ‘common courtesy and politeness’.

He said: “I’m 64 and I’ve been brought up where gentlemen don’t wear hats inside but ladies do and it’s always been that way in Thetford – women wear hats inside, even in church, whereas men don’t, but we all wear them outside. By not doing that we’re breaking an old tradition that’s always been expected in Thetford.”

Town clerk Maurice Howard said the protocol was the same in church and in the military where women also kept hats on inside.

“It seems normal practice to me because I’m ex-military, but it’s been done forever and a day,” he said.

Cllr Chris Harvey, who represents the Burrell ward, said he sympathised with Cllr Robinson because it got ‘really hot’ in King’s House and often became ‘quite uncomfortable’.

“I’m on her side –if we don’t have to ask, she shouldn’t have to ask,” he said.

Women’s rights campaigner Eleanor Rehahn, who is coordinator of Fawcett Society Suffolk, said ‘every issue of sexism should be challenged’.

She said: “I laughed initially because it just sounds such a bizarre thing – that women have to ask permission.

“It completely demeans women, lowers their status and puts them at the beck and call of men. What message does it send out to girls about the status of women in society?”

“It’s crazy,” she added. “And, as for the ‘it’s traditional’ argument, all sorts of things were traditional – that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it now.”

The council’s Civic Links Committee will consider the recommendation when it meets next month.