To mark the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in the United Kingdom, WikiTribune interviewed activist Helen Pankhurst. Her great-grandmother Emmeline led the suffragette movement of the late-19th and early 20th century. Her grandmother Sylvia was also a prominent suffragette and communist.
With her lineage, Helen Pankhurst has been inspired by continue the quest for women’s rights. She’s written a book, Deeds not Words, after the suffragette motto coined by her great-grandmother. It’s published on February 6th, the 100th anniversary of the first women getting the vote under the the Representation of the People Act 1918 (limited to those over 30 who owned property).
WikiTribune: What would you say is the most pressing women’s rights issue that needs to be challenged at the moment?
Helen Pankhurst: What comes out of the analysis very clearly is that violence infects everything else, and unless we have a grip on that then our abilities to deal with other things are constrained. Furthermore, there’s a very direct link between violence and the sexualization of women.
If you look at the growth of pornography and that whole industry, and this massive, continued sexualization of women and ownership of women….It’s what you look like, rather than what you say as a woman, [that matters], and that continues. If anything, it’s worse than it was 100 years ago.
Whereas if you take politics, we’ve got 32 percent women represented in parliament. If you take women at work, there was a period when married women couldn’t work.
The segregation of women in different types of jobs is beginning to be addressed. Yes, there’s glass ceilings. Yes, there’s gender pay gaps, and those are bubbling up as issues that still need to be addressed, but you can still see a fair amount of progress.
With violence against women there is progress in terms of legislation, but in terms of women’s fear or experience, it’s still all pervasive.
[Reporter’s note: According to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2017 compared with 713,000 men. The British government announced a strategy in 2016 to end violence against women and girls.]
WikiTribune: What do you see happening in the next 10 years in terms of women’s rights?
Helen Pankhurst: From one sphere to another, from one issue to another, you’ve got this bubbling of feminist activism, which feels in some ways very similar to that “enough is enough” statement that the suffragettes were all about.
I would hope that that energy, that sense that women speaking out can make a difference, would continue in all spheres.
Right now, it’s not about a single act, it’s about social norms changing, and it’s about women speaking up and demanding a change in social norms.
WikiTribune: I’m interested in the parallels between now and then, at the time of the suffragettes. You say it feels active like it was back then. What other parallels do you see that remind you of what your great-grandmother, Emmeline, would have experienced?
Helen Pankhurst: That sense of sisterhood. That really, really strong sense of sisterhood. The marching. People marching on the streets the way that they haven’t in those numbers. I’ve been doing a march, it’s called March4Women, for years. We have always echoed the suffragettes. Some people get dressed up as the suffragettes.
If you look at the women’s marches, some of my favourite sashes were things like, “Different century, same shit”, or “Still marching a hundred years on.”
‘The key now is change social norms … It’s the underlying idea about male privilege that needs to be just got rid of once and for all’ – Helen Pankhurst
I think the sense of solidarity comes with a sense of fun and the natural thinking that goes on with those pussy hats, for example, that happened in the ‘States. A lot of the branding and imagery, awareness of the value of all of that, the coming together and in new forms. The #MeToo hashtag, #TimesUp, isn’t that the equivalent to Votes For Women a hundred years ago? Simple, direct, get the message out there.
WikiTribune: Do you really think it’s the equivalent of those kinds of things a hundred years ago?
Helen Pankhurst: Yes I do. What’s different is that 100 years ago there was the sense that the key was political change. Change politics, and that opens the doors to everything else. I think the key now is change social norms. It’s not one issue at a time, it’s the underlying idea about male privilege that needs to be just got rid of once and for all, and you can only do that by looking at different issues.
WikiTribune: It’s more about the structural things, rather than the physical, tangible things, would you say?
Helen Pankhurst: You need the three things. You need laws, you need agency and you need social norms to change. The gender pay gap reporting is an interesting example, because there what preceded it actually was legislation.
It was legislation that companies have to report, and then the few companies beginning to do it are just so embarrassed. They’re trying to do things behind the scenes so that it doesn’t look so bad, or they’re just hoping that the news will move on to the next company that’s reporting its payments are poor.
You’ve got Carrie Gracie saying, “Enough. We’re just not going to tolerate this.” It’s a really good example of how if you bring those three tightly together, we can achieve more and quicker.
WikiTribune: The women’s rights movement today is often criticized for not being inclusive enough, that it’s excluding some women. Do you have any worries about that?
Helen Pankhurst: We always need to do better. The intersectionality language is really important, and the links with other causes is really, really important. But I think we’re also always attacked for not doing it.
To some extent, the women’s movement is a reflection of the society, and the society is full of these schisms. Yes, we need to work across those, absolutely, and the more we do so the stronger our feminism. I’m absolutely convinced of that.
The narrower our feminism, the least effective and the least valuable, and the least powerful it is.
The suffragettes were attacked for being non-inclusive, and yet they were at the forefront of working across class. You had working class women who believed in the movement and got involved, even although they were twice removed from the even vague possibility of getting the vote as working class women in a time when working class men didn’t get the vote.
I’m not saying that the suffragettes were all inclusive and equal, and that there wasn’t any class hierarchy. I’m saying they were involved in trying to break that down. There was Sophia Duleep Singh, a non-white suffragette. The movement was also very international, so Muriel Matters of Australia, Alice Paul of the U.S., they tried to work very internationally. There was an example of a disabled woman who was a suffragist, I think rather than suffragette, who was then her wheelchair equivalent.
WikiTribune: Do you think protests today are as powerful as they have been in the past?
Helen Pankhurst: There’s an understanding of their role, that they are an important marker of that activist desire. A democracy that only allows you a political voice is not as strong as a democracy where there is active articulation of that desire to be politically engaged.
WikiTribune: I wanted to hear your thoughts on the men’s rights movement. What kind of feelings do you have on those that have popped up in recent years?
Helen Pankhurst: There’s some fantastic men’s movements that are contributing to the dialogue. The White Ribbon Campaign is an example. I think the more, is it fair to call it “far-right”? It might not be fair to call it far-right, but the “What about us men? We’re marginalised as well” campaigners. It’s inevitable.
It’s possibly good, as a reflection of democracy that you allow all voices. Do I think they are right? No, I don’t. I think that the people who are right are the men who are willing to speak up and be feminists and value feminist views.
At the end of the day, I also come to point where I think, ‘Enough is enough’ – Helen Pankhurst
WikiTribune: Were you automatically interested in women’s rights, or did you feel a pressure by your heritage?
Helen Pankhurst: I think it was other people’s interest that generated mine. Because I had the surname and people were interested in it, people would ask me about it.
Generally, so often still women change their name on marriage, and in our case Sylvia kept her name and then she had one son. He kept the surname, and then I’ve kept the surname.
Why don’t we have more women who have kept the name of their female ancestors? It’s a single symptom of the fact that we’re not valuing both parts of our parental personal heritages.
WikiTribune: If you were there in the 19th century or early 20th century, would you have been a suffragette or a suffragist?
Helen Pankhurst: I am not an extrovert. I’m not particularly brash. I tend to think I like negotiations and compromise and working together, dialogue, rather than pushing a position of my own. However, I still think that I probably would have been a suffragette because at the end of the day, I also come to point where I think, “Enough is enough.”
Actually, you just have to be courageous in that view, regardless of what it’s going to cost you personally.
WikiTribune: Is true gender equality possible, do you think?
Helen Pankhurst: Yes, I do. I think that you see it in some families and that’s despite the fact that society more widely is still so infused in inequality and it’s quite difficult to escape it
We can get there if we are consistent, if we persevere. If there’s one thing that the suffragettes knew was needed, was perseverance.
This interview has been edited for clarity. It was agreed that it would refer to Pankhurst’s book.
Want to get involved? Have a look at the transcript, below, and if you see anything that we didn’t include that should be included, sign up or log in to edit.