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> > > Parliamentary Outreach: Breaking Barriers

20 July 2009

Liz Porter reviews a project about how the stories of local suffragists and suffragettes in Essex can be relevant to modern audiences.

A collage of images regarding the Suffragettes Rachel Gadsden

Rachel Gadsden's commissioned painting 'Breaking Barriers'

Image: Rachel Gadsden

Many of us feel disenfranchised by the corrupt behaviour of our politicians today. The recent European elections spoke volumes in terms of how the ‘nation’ views the current position. But how many of us stop to remember the lengths people like Emily Davison went to - throwing herself under the King’s horse - so that women could have a democratic voice?

I remember when I was at school I was fascinated by the history of the Suffragettes. I was impressed and inspired by what Emmeline Pankurst and her daughters had achieved in the fight for choices and rights. If I’d been around 100 years ago I’d have certainly been actively involved. I was interested in the subject because, being at special school, we didn’t have the opportunity to have a voice. Rules were made and we had to stick by them. Here was a body of women who stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ and collectively made a difference.

Artist Rachel Gadsden was appointed to work with three Essex-based groups from Rethink - a charity which works with people who have experienced mental health problems. Participants had the opportunity to creatively explore suffragette stories, with particular reference to Essex Women, and look at their own stories and make multi-media pieces of art.

This is the first project of the Parliamentary Outreach team, developed in partnership with Essex County Council, The Women's Library, Rethink, Epping Forest Museum and Southend Discovery Museum.

Research revealed that there were high numbers of suffragettes from the Essex and London areas. Parliamentary Outreach worker Rebecca Fawcett explained why they involved Rethink: "There was a definite parallel between people suffering during recovery from severe mental illness, and the low engagement with parliament and people who even register to vote. The other connection is that a lot of suffragettes at the time were labelled as lunatics within the media. We felt we could marry the two issues and use local stories about suffragettes as a springboard for workshops exploring local history. We wanted to use those stories to give people the opportunity to explore how they feel parliament is relevant to them today."

detail from collage showing figures from the Sufragette movement

I went to Southend-on-Sea to find out more about the project and to see the opening exhibition. The exhibition itself is a series of large purple boards with fabulous historic photographs, information and relevant local stories, including family photographs, letters and memorabilia. Rachel Gadsden was commissioned to create painting collaging elements of the materials brought to the workshops by the Rethink participants. The exhibition included a slideshow of shots of the work in progress.

The exhibition is undoubtedly fascinating and powerful. Unfortunately, it is not currently fully accessible. Reasonable attempts have been made to ensure colour contrast of white print on purple, yet there was no audio description or BSL interpretation. I’m sure that some of the audiences this exhibition targets will need additional access support. Given there are plans to develop this project with a potential national tour is, however, a great starting point. The Parliamentary Outreach team actively welcome constructive feedback. I understand plans are afoot to develop a digital exhibition, which is an excellent idea. In developing access I also hope this will include live recordings of some of the wonderful stories and descriptions of the images. Live performances and BSL tours would add weight to the material used.

It was evident that all participants had got a huge amount out of this project and over 90 people attended the opening of the exhibition. One participant Joy Cane told me: "I was quite interested in learning about it and spending a day with Rachel to find out more about how to express myself through making artwork. It’s inspired me to do more to encourage others to join in."

As I walked around I couldn’t help but reflect on the parallels of the struggles disabled people have had to endure to get our voices heard, particularly in more recent times. During the last 25 years, leading up to the DDA there were a lot of disability activists who chained themselves to railings and buses in a bid to break down barriers. Without such action I wonder if we could have achieved the DDA? The 90’s was certainly a crucial period in the development of Disability Culture.

I asked Rachel if they had touched on these parallels. "In this pilot phase we focussed on the Essex story but I think that would be a very interesting element to bring to the work in the future. We did talk about how disabled people are still fighting to have a strong enough voice. Mental health issues are very frowned upon. As an unseen disability, it is the one that society fears the most, due to lack of understanding."

Attending the exhibition served as a strong reminder that we can make a difference through the power of choice, and individual and collective voice. With Arts Council South East being a leader in improving opportunities for disabled and deaf people, and London 2012 organisers wanting to leave a real legacy and inspiring young people, this kind of project sets a good example of how the past can be linked to the present to explore elements and issues that affect disability culture.  I hope we see more of this kind of work.

For further information on the 'Breaking Barriers' programme, please contact Rebecca Fawcett, Cultural Programmes Manager, at fawcettr@parliament.uk

For dates of future events please go to http://news.parliament.uk/2009/06/breaking-barriers-adult-education-programme

Click on this link to see a gallery of Rachel Gadsden's images