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Author Catherine Riley
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‘Spirited’ women revealed in our Manchester suffrage exhibition

‘Spirited’ women revealed in our Manchester suffrage exhibition

Our new centenary exhibition Spirited is now open in central Manchester – the city where women in the UK began their fight for the vote.

Offering a fresh take on the suffrage story, it is designed as a celebration of young people and a commemoration of the unsung women – and men – who fought for the vote a hundred years ago. 

The 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised 8.5 million women – less than half the number of female British adults. Many working-class and unmarried women, and all those under 30, were left out of the franchise. 

Spirited tells their stories, featuring women from across the northwest who became activists in their teens or twenties.

It has been designed as a provocation to young visitors to think about ways they might take their first steps into social action – it signposts to opportunities to get involved in volunteering, youth leadership, and a range of projects that empower girls and young women. 

I hope these Spirited women will inspire a decade of action by young people

Helen Pankhurst

Nimco Ali, co-founder of the organisation Daughters of Eve which campaigns to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) worldwide, will cut the ribbon on the exhibition at its launch on 18 October, as well as give the first talk on its programme of free events.

“I’m delighted to help open Spirited and excited to speak to the young people who visit,” she says.

“Manchester is my first home, it’s where I learnt to walk and talk. I was only 26 when I began my campaign to help end the practice of FGM which does such damage to so many girls worldwide – and in which we’re making real progress. I know that I am here today because of the women who came before me, who fought for me like I fight for girls across the world. 

“I hope visitors to Spirited make the connection between people like me and the women in the exhibition. I want them to be inspired to start their own campaigns and push forward on the causes they care about.”

Helen Pankhurst – great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst – will talk about her most recent book Deeds Not Words as part of the exhibition’s events programme.

She hopes Spirited will succeed in inspiring a new generation of activists to carry on the work begun 100 years ago.

“We remain a long way away from a gender-equal world, so I hope these Spirited women will inspire a decade of action by young people.

"It wasn’t until 1928 that women and men won equal voting rights at 21, so my wish is that by the time we celebrate the next suffrage centenary in 2028, these young people will live in a fairer, kinder and more equal country of their own making.”

Our Spirited women

One of Spirit’s goals for 2018 is to empower, inspire and engage young women and girls – we are funding a range of projects that provide opportunities for making change through social action

“We wanted to mark the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote 100 years ago with a celebration of the young people who were pivotal to the suffrage movement, but whose names we might not know,” says Spirit of 2012 Chief Executive Debbie Lye.

“We are using their stories to inspire a new generation of young social activists.”

Spirited features items – including medals, games, manifestos, original photos, film footage, letters, diaries and other ephemera – from the collections of the BBC archives, the BFI, Bishopsgate Institute, British Library, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of London and the Women’s Library at LSE, which together offer an exciting new perspective on the suffrage story.

Spirited focuses on the stories of some of the young women and girls who worked for the vote 100 years ago and who, in spite of fighting with great courage and creativity, did not qualify to vote when the Act was finally passed in 1918.

Either they were too young or they didn’t meet the property ownership qualification: one, cruelly, died the year after the Act was passed – but three years before she would have been old enough to cast a vote. 

Visit The Portico Library before 3 November to meet them, and to be inspired by their stories. 

Further learning

A set of Spirited learning resources for Key Stage 3 students are now available on the British Library’s website – click here to access them.

A digital archive of the exhibition will be available at www.spirited.org.uk from 12 November.