Editorial Feature

Helen Pankhurst on How The Suffragettes' Actions Still Inspire Today

The great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst reflects on what we've achieved over the 100 years

Helen Pankhurst is a campaigner on international development and women's rights, and senior advisor to charity CARE International. She's also the great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst.

We spoke to Helen about dealing with disagreement in the feminist movement, and what it was like growing up with such an iconic surname.

Why was 1918 such a pivotal year, and what does the centenary mean to you personally?

1918 was absolutely pivotal because, after years of false dawns, this was the final moment where some women got the vote. Having a Parliamentary vote for the first time was about citizenship and political power, and opened the doors to policy change, including women becoming MPs that same year, so it was critical.

As the flag-bearer of the Pankhurst family now, 2018 feels like an important moment to acknowledge the fight that got us to this point. It's important to celebrate what the Representation of the People Act achieved, but its partial nature also still resonates, because even today we have that sense of partial success.

Ethel Symth and Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested (Courtesy of Museum of London)

What influence did your grandmother have on your life?

I never knew Sylvia; she died four years before I was born, but I have her name as a middle name and, growing up, her room in Ethiopia became my room, so I was always very aware of her influence.

I was particularly aware of the diversity of her interests. The suffragette issue but also, within that, working class women's interests. The fact she was a pacifist during the First World War, but wasn't by the time of the Second World War, because she was warning of the dangers of fascism. Her interest in pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and fighting for Ethiopia's independence.

Sylvia was absolutely what we'd now call an intersectional feminist – she recognised that people’s privileges and vulnerabilities came from different sources, which needed to be understood and tackled. So yes, women were oppressed as women, but class, colour, sexuality, age, reproductive status, nationality and other factors were also pivotal in their experiences, and both practical and strategic responses were needed to respond to this reality.

Sylvia Pankhurst (From the collection of Museum of London)
Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a crowd (From the collection of Museum of London)

The suffrage movement is often thought of in binary terms: the militant suffragettes, like the Pankhursts, who broke the law to highlight the cause; and the law-abiding suffragists, like Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned through constitutional means.

What impact did those different campaigning styles have?

It's important to remember that the movement was never just the [Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union] WSPU and the NUWSS [National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, of which Millicent Fawcett was president].

There were always splinter groups, professional groups, trade union groups, and all the others. The media and we ourselves like to simplify and create conflict between the two, because that tells a narrative, but actually the reality was a lot more complicated. Individuals went in and out of those two different organisations and, in terms of what you define as militancy, an individual person's arc varied tremendously. So the simplistic militant vs. constitutional image isn't accurate.

Also, what the suffragettes did above all else, I think, is change individual women's sense of themselves – so you start to have women leaders who think about themselves differently and then go on to create all sorts of radical change in the church, in the workplace, in political systems, in families.

WSPU London Office (From the collection of LSE Library)
Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Emmeline Pankhurst in Court, 1908 (From the collection of Museum of London)

What is it about the suffragette movement in particular that has continued to inspire women so much over the last 100 years?

The sheer vitality, verve, courage, endurance, spark, and amazing characters; all the really left-of-thinking approaches they used; their innovative PR and merchandising. They were just a force. But there's also a sense of appreciation for the depth of the sacrifices that they made – that must be part of the mix about why people now hold them dear.

As well as being 100 years since some women got the vote, 2018 is also the 50th anniversary of the Dagenham factory strike and the start of the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM).

What links do you see between those two milestones?

It's really fascinating that there are those directly connected numeric links. They're critical in keeping the issues alive and pushing them forward.

In 1918, you already had individual women beginning to want a different family structure – and then, with the WLM, you have that explored in much greater depths. 100 years ago you have the beginnings of conversations about violence against women; 50 years ago, you have refuges starting to emerge.

You have the marches and direct action that are so similar, the language that's so similar. It's the demands that move you on. The liberation movement demands were about 24 hour nurseries, sexual and reproductive rights, equal pay, and so on – all of which are so interconnected and so relevant still today.

Suffragette Demonstration in London (From the collection of National Portrait Gallery)
Leading Suffragettes at The Prisoners' Pageant procession (From the collection of Museum of London)

What milestone do you hope 2018 will be remembered for?

I think 2018 will be remembered for a change in social norms – the #MeToo movement, the Time's Up campaign, gender pay gap reporting, the legislative changes forced by individuals saying, "enough is enough".

Differences and divisions are a recurring theme within the feminist movement – even within your own family more than a century ago. Are these divisions inevitable, and what can we do to build unity across those differences?

I think some schisms are inevitable, and the form those schisms take varies over time – so the prime one now is around trans identities. The lessons from the past are to create dialogue, listen, learn, and try not to let it split you totally. You do see the same level of vitriol and major difficulties that these schisms create, and I think we need to learn to listen to each other and deal with differences of opinion better.

Suffragettes holding a broken window pane (From the collection of Museum of London)
Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested (From the collection of British Film Institute)

Where would your ancestors' campaign focuses for today be?

If I had to imagine them back with us today, I would see Emmeline challenging the establishment here and also fighting against powerful men, the ‘dinosaurs’ wielding so much power in the States, in Russia, in China, all over the world; she'd be naming them for what they are, and the regressive policies they represent, and be very intolerant of any attempts to pacify them.

My grandmother Sylvia would be right out there in whatever the newest, slightly unacceptable campaign would be. She'd be supportive of Sisters Uncut for example, and she'd also be at some radical other issue where most people still felt very uncomfortable. She would be more interested in the issues that affect working women, the cuts to services, the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Adela would be involved in pacifism and environmental issues, whilst Christabel would be campaigning for LGBT rights, and against the sexual double standards that still apply today – and possibly taking a strong stand on sex workers' rights. They might still carve up different areas of feminism.

Christabel Pankhurst (From the collection of LSE Library)
Adela Pankhurst (From the collection of LSE Library)

Why does the WSPU slogan 'Deeds not Words' continue to resonate today?

'Deeds not Words' is about the point that nothing will change if we just talk; we need to make sure there's real, implemented change. The saying is important and powerful because it's not just a demand for government or society; it's also a demand for citizens and campaigners, for us individually, to be active.

At the end of the day, it's even about us marching together now and again collectively, as of old – hence the March4Women event that I do with Care International ahead of International Women's Day each year. There's something really powerful about the collective moment of making your voice heard.

WSPU Votes for Women leaflet (From the collection of LSE Library)

Where does your work with Care International fit into the suffragettes' legacy?

The important thing about #March4Women is that I'm trying to link women who are interested in the suffragettes and feminist history, and women who are campaigning today in the UK, to international ideas and development, and feminism more globally.

That international perspective is an important part of Sylvia's legacy too, and the work I've been doing in Ethiopia has informed my thinking about these issues. For example, I have been involved in developing a project that works with adolescent girls, looking at how to improve their opportunities – including not being married-off underage, being able to continue in education, and have more livelihood options. We were looking at whether you can tackle that best by working through government; by working directly with the girls themselves, to give them a sense of agency; or by working with traditional power holders, like the mother-in-law, the priest, the elder of the village.

There are many parallels and this is a global problem. We need to better understand how social norms and structures of power perpetuate gender inequality and how women and girls and society more generally can break free of these shackles.

Suffragette procession (From the collection of Museum of London)
Interview by Sarah Graham
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