• Opinion
  • November 9, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

The UK’s civil servants are celebrating 100 years of votes for women

Opinion: We're part of an army of volunteers who are helping the civil service celebrate

suffrage centenary

This piece was written by Siobhan Sherry, Head of Biomass Electricity at the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


Hopefully it hasn’t escaped your attention that 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. This Act gave women over 30 who owned property the right to vote for the first time.

While we will have to wait another 10 years to celebrate the centenary of full suffrage, in terms of equality it is important to celebrate all of our wins, and this Act was the culmination of decades of campaigning, protesting and defiance by some truly phenomenal women (and a few phenomenal men).

Their conviction caused them to be ostracised, imprisoned, force-fed and, in the tragic case of Emily Wilding Davison, cost them their lives; it is right that in 2018 we celebrate the tremendous dedication of the Suffragettes and Suffragists.

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The Government Equalities Office is leading celebrations across England on behalf of the government. This has included the recent unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square, the first ever statue of a women there, as well as working with other agencies for high profile events such as Processions, #Askhertostand, and supporting the celebrations of seven centenary cities.

This work is linked to our own civil service celebrations. Led by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE, Vicky [Victoria Boyes] and I are part of an army of volunteers who are helping the civil service celebrate the Representation of the People Act.

As part of the celebrations we are running the 100 years, 100 women blog series, where we aim to feature women from a variety of grades, locations and departments, and showcase the women who paved the way, promoting the fantastic work women are doing now and looking to the future.

It is also incredibly important that we use this opportunity to celebrate intersectionality, and we have had some amazing blogs on sexuality, faith, BAME representation and disability.

Helen Anderson (Centenary lead at the Government Equalities Office) said it beautifully in her blog about her mother: “We all stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us.” She also included a fantastic quote from Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life”

This is precisely why a key feature of the blog series is a celebration of the amazing things our mothers, aunts and grandmothers have done to pave the way, whether that is by deciphering codes at Bletchley Park, raising a family single-handed, working undercover in WWII, suffering the loss of limbs or simply refusing to accept no as an answer!

The blogging team were nominated for the civil service diversity and inclusion awards

We began in February with a celebration of women in education, including my own grandmother Dora O’Mahoney, a woman whose tenacity, intelligence, passion and determination were infectious. Sadly, Vicky didn’t get to meet her grandmother, but she was also clearly a strong woman who moved to the UK from Ireland and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Ministry of Defence).

This year we’ve been lucky enough to uncover some relatives of the suffragettes and Briony Goulden, great-great-niece of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden), taught us about the other unsung heroines in her family.

We’ve also been reminded that 2018 is a very special year for many reasons. As part of the RAF’s centenary, Wendy Rothery shared her story of joining the forces but also that of her great aunt Mary, an early feminist whose own military career (while unknown at the time) was vital to the whole war effort.

As women in the UK, we are incredibly privileged and should be proud to celebrate how far we have come, while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go

The year also marks the 70th anniversary of Windrush and Roxanne Ohene shared her grandparents’ story as they made the journey to the UK to help rebuild the country after WWII. I don’t think we really appreciate how courageous it was to have made that journey, but it is clear from Roxanne’s blog that her grandmother was someone who faced challenges head on.

Throughout the year we have learnt a lot about the civil service. From the power that came with carpets (see Clare Moriarty’s blog) to the marriage bar (mentioned in several blogs and never less astonishing), it’s clear a lot has changed.

With 58 years’ service, Alma Richardson has certainly seen and experienced those changes first hand, having left the civil service to raise her family. She says that the civil service is a great place to work and at 75 years old, a truly devoted public servant, she has no intention of stopping yet!

I could write pages and pages on this topic and even then, I would be barely scratching the surface of how amazing the generations before us were, and how much we owe them. As women in the UK, we are incredibly privileged and should be proud to celebrate how far we have come, while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go.

I think Rabab (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Iraq) sums what we need to do next perfectly so I’ll leave the final word to her:

“[As] a young woman, living in Iraq, with a package of challenges ‘specifically for women’, I recognised that having a balance between living in dignity, and committing to my duty to myself as woman and to my country as a citizen, was complex. Therefore, I chose the difficult option — I did not accept to be same as any other Iraqi women. I do believe that women are the core of change. Finally, I am strongly internally convinced that it is our internal decision, if I want to do anything, I will find a way. My motto is win or win, the fail is not accepted.” 

(Picture credit: Flickr/mrgarethm)

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