Northern Lights: ‘As a society we need to take all the views of younger people seriously’

Artwork created at the event Live Late: Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Photo Museums Sheffield
Artwork created at the event Live Late: Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Photo Museums Sheffield

As I left home this morning, I felt that my request to empty the dishwasher had probably fallen on deaf ears. At times, all of us wonder if anyone really listens to what we say and we struggle to make our voice heard.

In our current season exploring 200 years of protest and activism in the city,

During the war Sheffield’s women kept the munitions industry going, yet immediately afterwards were under pressure to return to the home and lower paid positions to free up jobs for men.

Museums Sheffield is hosting a series of events encouraging young people to find their voice. Marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, where women fought for and won the democratic right to vote, the sessions ask us to learn from the past and harness our collective ability to speak out to effect change.

Next month, we welcome Hester Reeve, a Sheffield-based artist whose work is inspired by the suffragette movement, to lead a session helping young women aged 16-18 to develop their public speaking.

Hester says: ‘The suffragettes lived in an era where it was against the law for a woman to speak out in public meetings. Imagine their fear and bravery when they started to make speeches at rallies to gathering crowds.

They would often meet in private to practice using their voices and trying out their speeches. They had no experience, but they did it, and did it in style.”

Thanks to the suffrage movement, all women now have the right to vote, yet we are still fighting for gender equality in the workplace, in areas of public life and in the home.

Calling out injustice, voicing your opinion, or making a demand requires strength, conviction, experience and resilience – it’s not a privilege, it’s a democratic mechanism for change.

That’s why it’s so important to support our young people to build the skills and the courage to speak out, and to be confident that they can build a more equal future.

It isn’t just about the younger generation finding their voice.

It’s about the generations that came before being willing to listen.

As a society we need to take the views of young people seriously, and make space for marginalised voices: the extraordinarily brave people who say #MeToo; the young people who took part in the March for Our Lives across the US – making a stand and saying ‘this is not acceptable’ will make change happen. This is about people acting together and supporting each other to make a difference.

If I look back at how gender equality has played out in the last century it’s clear that women’s engagement in local, national and international democracy has been a force for change – women have achieved a level of autonomy and empowerment that was hard to imagine a hundred years ago.

In 1928, all women aged 21 and over won the right to vote on equal terms with men. During the war Sheffield’s women kept the munitions industry going, yet immediately afterwards were under pressure to return to the home and lower paid positions to free up jobs for men.

Women in the 1950s were burdened under the weight of expectation to marry, have children and become full-time homemakers, yet joined groups such as the Women’s Institute and Mother’s Union and campaigned tirelessly for change at a national level.

The 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement motivated thousands of women and men to work together to secure equal pay, education and job opportunities, legal and financial ndependence and freedom from sexual violence. This work continues locally and globally, people risking everything to build a fairer world.

If we learn from this history, activism has to be about collectivism – young women, young men, all of us need to be valued for who we are, feel that we belong and share a common cause. As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War in November 1918, it is a time to reflect on change, take a breath and celebrate peace, not just 100 years ago,but now.

Ultimately, it will be the voices and actions of young people that shape the next 50 years.

Thinking about peace together at a time of growing nationalism, individualism and inequality, when the world feels on the brink, needs fresh thinking; it needs the commitment of people acting together. In the end, everyone stands to benefit from building a more equitable society.

When I was a child someone asked me, ‘if you had three wishes what you would wish for?’

After the Chopper push-bike and Starsky and Hutch car, I wished for world peace. For all its youthful naivety about the world, I still think it was the right thing for me to wish for, for all of us to wish for.