Language, gender and Politics, University of Plymouth: ‘What Difference did the War Make’ project.

On Friday, 6th October, Plymouth University hosted the first event in the AHRC funded project ‘What Difference did the War Make?’ Working with project partners from the University of Lincoln and Parliament’s Vote 100 Project, ‘Language, Gender and Politics’ was the first of three public events commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which gave some women the vote for the first time. The project received a ‘Follow on Funding’ grant from the AHRC as both Plymouth Univeristy’s Angela K Smith and Professor Krista Cowman from the University of Lincoln had previously received funding awards for projects built around Women’s suffrage.

The morning session comprised two workshops aimed at Year 11 school students. Thirty lively and very engaged students from Tor Bridge High School took part and divided into two smaller groups for the workshops. Each workshop lasted one hour, then the students swapped over to attend the other one. Workshop One was led by Parliament’s Education Service Outreach officer, Roz Birch, who adopted a range of strategies to invite the students to think about the ways in which language and images have been employed to articulate gender politics, beginning before the First World War and moving to the present day. The students were astonished to see how little change there has been in the ways in which women have been represented from Nancy Astor to Teresa May. Workshop Two was a Creative Writing session led by the novelist, Babs Horton. She brought in a number of props that would have been everyday objects for a house maid before the war, including a scrubbing brush, carbolic soap and a chamber pot. She invited the students to think about life for a woman in domestic service in 1910, then to create a story in which their maid would travel to 2017; the students had to imagine the impact of change on their central character. This session had the benefit of coffee and chocolate biscuits to help with creativity. At the end of the hour the students all read out their story plans, each showing real imagination and creativity.

After eating as much lunch as 15 year olds can, the students joined the public facing part of the event in the afternoon. A small exhibition of photographs of Nancy Astor were displayed in Crosspoint (courtesy of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery), which accompanied the afternoon focus on the impact of the First World War and on Astor herself, the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament. The school visitors were joined in by members of the public, interested colleagues and some of our own students, to hear two keynote lectures. Professor Angela K Smith delivered the first, ‘The Relationship Between the First World War and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage’ drawing on research carried out for her book Suffrage Discourse in Britain During the First World War which addressed some of the issues central to the project. The second keynote, delivered by Dr Jacqui Turner (University of Reading) focused on the early political career of Nancy Astor with ‘An unconventional MP’ The highs and lows of Nancy Astor’s first decade in Parliament, 1919-1929’. This lecture used a range of fascinating images from the Nancy Astor archive at Reading to illustrate the problems Astor faced as well as her successes as the first sitting woman MP.

The day finished off with a round table discussion that considered many of the ‘language, gender and politics’ issues raised in the workshops and lectures, but moved them firmly into the 21st century, as the audience questioned our cross party panel of politicians. Guest speakers inculded Luke Pollard (Labour), MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Nancy Astor’s old constituency, Linda Gilroy (Labour), who held the seat between 1997-2010, Caroline Voaden (Liberal Democrat) who stood for Parliament in the recent election, and Sarah-jane Sewell who is the current chairman of Conservative Young Women. Each speaker presented their own ideas about language, gender and politics in the twenty-first century, before Professor Angela K Smith opened the discussion up to questions from the floor. Despite the length of the day, the Tor Bridge students proved to be thoughtful, confident and lively questioners who certainly put the speakers through their paces. Added to this a range of questions from older members of the audience ensured a sparky discussion that moved beyond issues of gender to engage with many other areas of concern in the South West today.

Overall the day was a great success. Feedback from all the participants was positive and it was great to see such a diverse range of people in attendance. A second event for the project is planned at the University of Lincoln in November, with a final day at Parliament UK, accompanying an exhibition in Portcullis House, in late January 2018 to coincide with the centenary of votes for women.

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