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Suffragettes100: Barking and Dagenham women explain what the vote means to them

PUBLISHED: 15:00 07 February 2018

Evelyn Carpenter has been a member of the Labour Party since her teens, and says ignoring women in politics creates a talent deficit.

Evelyn Carpenter has been a member of the Labour Party since her teens, and says ignoring women in politics creates a talent deficit.

Archant

To commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act, in which certain women in England got the vote for the first time, the Post spoke to four women in the borough about what having the vote means to them.

Lesley Hawes received a Freedom of the Borough award last year for her work in empowering the communityLesley Hawes received a Freedom of the Borough award last year for her work in empowering the community

Going down to the polling stations with her parents was one of councillor Evelyn Carpenter’s earliest memories.

“My parents used to take me and my two brothers when they voted, it was really exciting,” she said.

“Right from my earliest days the concept of voting was burnt into my psyche, so now as an adult I see that having the vote is the best and most peaceful way of changing the government.”

Having worked in local government before becoming Becontree ward councillor in 2006, it was seeing the gender imbalance firsthand which spurred the 70-year-old into politics.

CEO of the Barking Enterprise Centre, Karen West-Wylie. Picture: Donna FinleyCEO of the Barking Enterprise Centre, Karen West-Wylie. Picture: Donna Finley

“A lot of my career I held non-political positions in local government. I saw in my own ward there were three men being put forward to be councillors and I thought, why isn’t a woman there?

“It’s simple – if you ignore the women, you get a talent deficit in politics. Don’t ignore the women and you’ve got a much richer organisation, be it voluntary, business or political.”

Lesley Hawes, 67, has dedicated most of her life to creating equal opportunities for people in Barking and Dagenham.

The founder of DABD, a charity which helps people live independently through employment training, benefits advice and elderly care, received a Freedom of the Borough award in 2017 for her contributions to developing the community.

Rheanna Stiles is an enrichment team leader at Barking and Dagenham CollegeRheanna Stiles is an enrichment team leader at Barking and Dagenham College

“Having equal voting is about having the right to be recognised and the right to contribute,” she said.

“That goes for everyone. It wasn’t like everyone got the vote at the same time – men who weren’t property owners didn’t have the vote in 1918, and in Barking and Dagenham, that would have applied to a lot of people.”

For the mum of two daughters, voting means being able to change the world, so long as everyone’s represented.

She said: “It’s important to influence the world to make it balanced – equality is having every voice spoken for.”

CEO of the Barking Enterprise Centre Karen West-Whylie, 51, thinks that now women have the vote, making casting the ballot more accessible is the next step to improving representation.

“It’s something that I take for granted, that my right to vote is the same as anyone else’s,” she said.

“I don’t believe women want to ignore voting, but I think daily life gets in the way.”

With the responsibility of balancing busy working lives and families,

Karen said alternative methods of voting – like proxy, post or online – might improve turnouts among

women.

She said: “Women end up leaving the decision-making to somebody else, but then they complain about the borough, and I don’t think the two things resonate in their minds.

“But being able to vote in local elections lets us show support for locally elected representatives and have a say in bigger decisions.”

Having grown up around politics, 20-year-old Rheanna Stiles, from Dagenham, is well atuned to why women need the vote.

“My grandmother was in the Labour Party in Cambridge so I saw how fundamental politics was,” she said.

“Having the vote is important because women across the world don’t always have the same rights as us in the UK, and we should realise that.”

Rheanna’s an Enrichment Team Leader at Barking and Dagenham College, and is launching a campaign called 100 women for 100 years to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.

She wants women to tweet in pictures and videos of themselves to show far how women have come, in the hopes of getting a hashtag trending.

“In the olden days women were pushed to the fringes,” she said.

“By doing this campaign, I can show that women’s voices are finally getting heard.”

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