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Celebrating International Women's Day: Widening Participation visits the Votes for Women exhibition

To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Widening Participation team invited a group of female students and graduates to visit the Votes for Women exhibition at the Museum of London, and discuss what it is like to be women in higher education today. Michelle McAvoy reflects on the visit. 

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When planning our visit to the museum our biggest concern was whether there would be enough seats for us in the café - we never envisaged a snow blizzard would cause severe tube delays on the first day of March. On the day, eight women became an enthusiastic group of three.

The Votes for Women exhibition is incredibly moving, as well as thought provoking. We left with so many questions. Why did the film Mary Poppins make the suffrage movement look like a jolly sing along parade? Who were the husbands of the women in the movement? Why were there 29,100 more undergraduate applications from 18 year old women in England compared to their male peers in 2018?

We began our discussion by brainstorming all the words that come to mind when we think of ‘women’. Our answers were diverse and evolved into a series of related topics and conversations.

A hundred years ago, The Representation of the People Act granted some women the right to vote. Upon considering the conditions – you had to be over the age of 30, and own property or be a graduate voting in a university constituency – we realised that, should those conditions still be in force today, only one of our small discussion group would be able to vote. It also made us think - how different would the general election results be today if only men could vote? This article provides an interesting exploration of the idea.   

I take for granted my freedom to wear trousers

As our conversation developed we began to list all the things we often take for granted as women in the UK in 2018. Even just a few are food for thought: our freedom of choice; to study a variety of subjects, to travel, and yes to wear trousers. Our right to vote and right to work. The educational opportunities available to us, and the experiences we can then aspire to and our relationships with every person in our lives. We must not forget the movement, and social change that took place to provide us with these freedoms. Not to mention the millions of women worldwide who still do not share them.

What would Emmeline Pankhurst think if she were alive today?

As part of the exhibition, the Museum of London has made a short movie explaining more about the suffragette movement. In it the question is raised: What would Emmeline Pankhurst think if she were alive today? The conclusion; she would not be settling for the lives women have now. She would be pushing for more. We concluded that while none of us could honestly say we would be brave enough to be arrested and go on hunger strike or take the risks the suffragettes did. We do still have a role to play, there is more to do and voting is only one element of living in a democracy.

It surprised us, during our conversation, how frequently vulnerable or unsafe we feel in life and how much this affects the way we live. We discussed what it would feel like to live without feeling unsafe. What struck us most was that what we are still striving for, for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality is to be able to make choices free of stigma. ‘Be Yourself’ became our conversational mantra. It was illuminating to be grateful for our freedom and aware of the constraints upon it we still face. Honor, a graduate in Physics, and Sawda, a current student in Computer Science, know all too well what is it like to face stigma. Studying male dominated subjects, they feel the need to represent all women during their studies; they feel a responsibility to work harder and feel the weight of setting an example while attempting to enjoy what they are learning. The pressure is both a motivator and a drain. They want to voice their views, without being labelled as ‘aggressive’, without apologising or being self-deprecating. ‘We are individuals; we are not a quota to fill’

It is clear that potential is wasted and possibilities missed when women are excluded from sectors. Wasted potential is a concept widening participation staff are all too familiar with; it hits a nerve with all of us. 

Learning is the best thing we can do in life

We ended our discussion with the broad question of what it means to us to be women in higher education in 2018. The consensus was clear; education is valuable. Learning is the best thing we can do in life. It benefits all of society the more we all learn, whatever that may be, and beyond simple economics. Going to university is one option and it is an empowering choice; unlike school, we get to choose what we want to study.  

One story encapsulated how we felt about being women in higher education better than any other. An elderly lady who has lived in East London for 50 years, having moved to the UK from Jamaica, was recently asked if there was anything she wishes she had done differently in life. She said, ‘I wish I had done more learning’.

Our appreciation for being women with the opportunity to learn, and to educate others has never been greater.   

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