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Author Debbie Lye
Chief Exec, Spirit of 2012
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Celebrating spirited women everywhere

One hundred years ago this week – on 21 November 2018 – the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gave women the right to stand for election to Parliament and three weeks later, on 14 December, women over thirty voted for the first time in a general election.

The hard won right to vote for some women was limited to those over thirty to prevent women forming the majority of the electorate.  In the wake of the loss of so many young men in World War I the Government was alarmed at the prospect of women having too much power. Yet ironically The Parliament Act ensured that younger women over the age of 21 now had the right to represent constituencies in Parliament.   

The first elected woman MP (who never took her seat) was the Sinn Fein MP, Constance Markiewicz, formerly Gore-Booth, whose younger sister Eva is one of the young feminist activists celebrated in the Spirit of 2012 Spirited exhibition at the Portico Library in Manchester until this Saturday 24 November.

Our funding of Spirited and the associated digital archive, is one way in which Spirit is marking this important centenary. As history constantly reminds us, the extension of suffrage to women was only a milestone on the journey towards political, social and economic gender equality. The destination is still a distant horizon. 

Since 2016 Spirit has committed £2million of our national lottery funding to a vibrant and diverse programme, advocating women’s voice, achievements and rights.  First we contracted with the Fawcett Society to stage two Spirit of Women Changemakers conferences in London and Manchester in November 2016. Subsequently they awarded and managed seven Changemakers grants to projects that confront the objectification of women and challenge traditionally gendered roles – for example, the perception that caring is “women’s work” and is less highly valued than other work.  

We have recently received the evaluation report of the impact of Changemakers. All seven projects were highly ambitious in that they involved very vulnerable girls and women across the UK. Some had been in the criminal justice system, suffered abuse or come from a stigmatised social or ethnic group.

The girls who participated in My Big Beating Voice managed by Amina Muslim Women’s Resource in Edinburgh emerged with a strong sense of the importance of telling black and minority ethnic women’s stories. They took the insights they had developed over the course of the project to the Scottish Parliament, where in February Leith Academy girls presented their views on the lack of BAME women’s representation in the school curriculum.

In #She Believes, the Runnymede Trust set out in partnership with Lewisham Thunder to tackle gender stereotyping and lack of body confidence, using sport as both a hook to draw young people in and engage them in conversations about gender and as a visible illustration of stereotype-shattering role models.

They worked with 900 girls in an approach that seems to have been effective here. A participant response, typical of many, was: “I’m so thankful that you have got me out of my comfort zone and got me to have more confidence than before.”

We hope our EmpowHER project will inspire young women to speak and act to challenge injustice and inequality as the young suffragettes commemorated in our Spirited exhibition did a century ago

Debbie Lye, Chief Executive Spirit of 2012

Also back in November 2016 we launched our WOW, Spirit! partnership with Jude Kelly and the Southbank Centre with the first of three annual WOW Festivals in Bradford. The third was last weekend.

The involvement of local people of all ages and cultures in planning and producing the WOW festivals has made a real difference to many lives in Bradford. After the first one, external evaluation documented at least 39 different partnerships, opportunities and regular events that grew out of the festival, ranging from boxing workshops to a new organisation, Speakers’ Corner, started by young women inspired and empowered by WOW, Spirit! and the training they received through the festival.  ​

We have since funded six other WOW, Spirit! festivals – two each in Exeter and Perth and one in Norwich, with the final WOW, Spirit! festival taking place this weekend at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff (23-25 November). I am looking forward to seeing what the amazing group of women I met at a Cardiff festival planning Think-In event have in store for us.

Finally, earlier this year Spirit and the #iwill campaign jointly awarded a £1.8m grant to UK Youth for an exciting new project called EmpowHER. This aims to build the confidence and skills of girls and young women over three years in Wigan, West Midlands towns including Sandwell, Coventry and Solihull, and Bristol and Gloucester. The project will then support them into social action.

We hope that UK Youth, in partnership with the British Red Cross, will inspire young women to speak and act to challenge injustice and inequality as the young suffragettes commemorated in our Spirited exhibition did a century ago. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, at 27 words, is the shortest UK statute. The struggle for equality was, and is, a long and ongoing one.

Further information

To learn more about our WOW, Spirit! project click here

To learn more about Spirited, our centenary exhibition, click here.