Photography: Hillary Wood

209 Women

Open Eye Gallery

“To represent and be presented for what we are – as women, by women – is a very special thing. This is what 209 Women is all about.” Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, sums up the new 209 WOMEN exhibition at Open Eye Gallery perfectly.

To mark 100 years since women achieved the right to vote in the UK, photography exhibition 209 Women has been launched to commemorate this significant step towards women’s equality. Not just in politics, but throughout society. Launched in the Houses of Parliament on 14th December 2018 – 100 years to the day since the first women voted – the exhibition showcases photographs, taken solely by people who identify as a woman, of all 209 female MPs currently in Parliament. This is also the first time all 209 photographs have been exhibited together, as it includes the Sinn Féin MPs who abstained from having their portrait shown in Parliament.

As part of RISE, Culture Liverpool’s season of events celebrating female artists, thinkers and leaders, the exhibition provides an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come towards gender equality. From the passing of the Representation of the People Act which allowed certain British women to vote in UK Parliamentary Elections in 1918 to the Parliament Qualification of Women Act which allowed women to be elected into UK Parliament in the same year, 1918 was a huge year for women’s political rights. It is, therefore, important that we still recognise it today. The exhibition not only highlights how far women have come in politics but also in terms of the workplace and reproductive rights; again, areas which we are still working towards equality in.

“The photographs are a beautiful art form. They not only showcase the diversity of the subjects, but the lens draws out their character, focusing on the understated side of each MP”

However, the exhibition also illustrates how much more we need to do. The opening statement to the show claims: “Women form 51% of the population, but only 32% of our MPs are women. Why is this?”. This stays fresh in your mind as you take in the photography. It does make you really focus on the why. Suddenly, the 209 doesn’t feel like such a large number at all.

The photographs, however, are incredibly powerful. They represent each woman not necessarily as an MP, but as an empowering woman who has her own life alongside her position in politics. Some women’s portraits are of a serious nature, some in black and white, some in colour, some are in back gardens, on the beach, in parliamentary chambers. Some women are smiling, while others look more forlorn; there’s one MP stood with a goat, another is draped in a European flag. There are also photographs of women in surgical scrubs and a firefighter uniform, highlighting their other roles within society alongside their positions in parliament. It is unclear if the subjects chose their setting themselves, but their situations allow for the humanisation of women whose lives are so strongly bound into politics.

209 Women Image 2

Cat Smith MP, by Tabitha Jussa

The photographs are a beautiful art form. They not only showcase the diversity of the subjects, but the lens draws out their character, focusing on the understated side of each MP. It often becomes too easy project that the 209 are a singular entity of female MPs. It becomes a restrictive bracket wrapped around its widely diverse group, with more room to grow. In addition, each female photographer has also been given the chance to showcase their work through the exhibition. What’s more empowering than women supporting other women?

Their names, constituencies and the female identifying photographer’s name are given alongside the portraits, but their political party is not addressed. This allows for the exhibition to focus on the women in the photographs rather than their politics. It is a refreshing way of bringing everyone together for an important issue. Political opinions, for once, are put to one side.

Our achievements within gender equality so far are only the start of the milestones of what we can and will hit over the next 100 years. Hopefully, we will not have to wait that long to see significant changes. Notwithstanding the changes to be made, in 2019 we can’t ignore that we have come a long way from where we were in 1918. The exhibition carries this theme of forward-looking celebration, highlighting how there are only 209 elected female MPs in Parliament – out of the 650 MPs. There is no doubt this is a cause for celebration, in a century that began without the right for women to vote. From 1918 to having a female Prime Minister in 2019, it’s progress, but 209 out of 650 is still in the minority.

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