By Holly Adams
The Pankhurst name is synonymous with women’s rights.
Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading figure in the struggle for women’s suffrage 100 years ago. Her daughter, Sylvia, was also a campaigner for equality in England and Ethiopia.
Now, Sylvia’s granddaughter, Dr Helen Pankhurst, is building on the work started by her great- grandmother.
As a family name, Pankhurst is one of those that carries one of the most remarkable legacies. As a result, it is often also associated with a great burden of responsibility. However, when I ask about this, Dr Pankhurst emphasises the “opportunity” provided by the family name to continue the work of her grandmother and great- grandmother.
Through her work with Womankind Worldwide and as a senior advisor at CARE International, Dr Pankhurst continues to participate in the struggle for gender equality, which even today is by no means complete.
Her recent book Deeds not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now addresses a fundamental question: why is it taking so long to achieve equality?
Dr Pankhurst encourages the reader by depicting victories of women across the past century, heralding both minor and major steps forward in gender equality.
“We must not be silent and complicit, but use our voice to support others”
However, Dr Pankhurst also reminds us of the importance of using our privilege to address the continued disparity in gender opportunities in societies with greater levels of inequality. Born in Ethiopia, and having lived there until the age of 12, Dr Pankhurst has dedicated much of her career to improving living conditions and sanitation in urban and rural Ethiopia.
Her experience leads her to emphasise that “we must not be silent and complicit in equality, yet use our voice to support others”.
Back in the United Kingdom, the family name has proved invaluable to Dr Pankhurst and her daughter in furthering the work of women’s rights movements and mobilising the legacy of her illustrious forebears.
Speaking to Palatinate, Dr Pankhurst describes how Danny Boyle approached her ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. He was asking if she and her daughter, Laura, would be willing to be involved with other volunteers in the Suffragette tribute that comprised a major element of the Opening Ceremony.
The end result proved a powerful and visual reminder of our nation’s progress.
Whilst the tribute celebrated the considerable achievements of the last century, Dr Pankhurst viewed the experience as a platform to open discussions about women’s rights today.
She describes how the “little group of women” involved in the suffragette tribute in the ceremony are continuing to use their experience to campaign.
After talking about 2012, we move on the discuss the legacy of the Suffragettes today, in 2018. This year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act – the seminal piece of legislation that the Suffragette movement was integral to, which granted the vote to women over 30. This Act proved to be the first step in granting women full voting rights.
“The legacy is alive,” argues Dr Pankhurst, “partly because of the amazing remembrance work up and down the country, but also because people can see the parallels”.
In addition to inviting us to consider the connections between early-twentieth century society, and the continued inequalities faced by women today, Dr Pankhurst encourages reflection on our individual histories to inspire change in the present.
She offers a poignant reminder that we are all individually connected to women who experienced and suffered from inequality. Every one of us is related to a woman who lived through change.
I think of my own grandmother, Pamela Basgallop, working on a salary higher than her husband in the 1950s. Yet, on going to purchase a fridge at a local shop, she was refused sale without her husband’s signature, despite her adamant protest.
We can all celebrate the achievement of 1918, but it is through remembering the everyday struggles that our own relatives faced, that we can feel deeply connected and invested in the ongoing struggle for equality.
Contemplating the Suffragette legacy inevitably leads to a discussion of the implications of their violent methods.
Like many activist groups, members of the Suffragette movement sometimes used violent methods to enforce their political message.
Dr Pankhurst argues that the reciprocated force from the state was extreme, and must be acknowledged.
She further stresses that, unlike many other non-peaceful activist movements, the Suffragettes did not kill a single individual in their struggle for equality, instead running an “incredibly clever campaign” of radical activism.
Dr Pankhurst believes reflecting on the past century of women’s rights activism raises questions about the present and the future. Where do we go next? What is the responsibility of our generation?
In Deeds not Words, Dr Pankhurst suggests the next ten years will be pivotal in our progress towards equality.
I ask Dr Pankhurst how individuals can contribute to the movement and Dr Pankhurst responds with a seemingly simple answer; “it is really important that everyone registers to vote”. Pankhurst stresses, “those who do not vote do not have power”.
Pankhurst reflects on the power of the social media age, which allows individuals to access campaigns and progressive ideas.
Although many focus on the detrimental effects of social media, Pankhurst suggests its ability to empower and engage.
She believes the movement towards gender equality is taking so long due to the movement’s need to continue challenging the “main pillars of power”, which even, in 2018, remain overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Rather than viewing men as opponents, however, Dr Pankhurst emphasises that they are “vital and pivotal” to the success of women’s rights movements.
“We cannot do it with only one half of society”, stresses Pankhurst; moreover “the world is poisoned for men too by societal expectations”.
“The world is poisoned for men too by societal expectations”
Pankhurst emphasises the detrimental impact of toxic masculinity and that campaigning for true gender equality should also tackle damaging ideas of what a man should be.
By showing that femininity is not synonymous with weakness and inferiority, society can challenge the foundations of toxic masculinity. Men stand to gain considerably from equality.
Finally, I asked Dr Pankhurst what her grandmother, Sylvia Pankhurst, and great grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst, would say about society today.
She believes her ancestors would want us to “celebrate what we have achieved and then they would quickly say “come on there’s a lot more to be done’”.
Photographs: Creative Commons