In her new book Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of the leader of the British suffragette movement, examines the battle for women’s rights. Yvette Huddleston reports.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, passed on February 6, 1918, which for the first time gave some women in the UK the right to vote. It was a significant step in a long-fought, sometimes bloody, campaign by the suffragettes – and if there is one name that is most associated with that fearless, committed group of women, it is Pankhurst.
To commemorate the centenary Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia and great-granddaughter of Emmeline, has written a book, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now, published last week, that reflects on the legacy of her famous forebears and charts how women’s lives have changed over the last hundred years. As a notable women’s rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International – a charity which fights poverty and injustice around the world and supports women and girls to overcome inequality and fulfil their potential – Pankhurst has continued the work of her pioneering ancestors.
“About two years ago I was asked whether I would be interested in writing a book for the centenary commemorations, focussing on any aspect of it – it was up to me to choose,” she says. “When I thought about it I decided it would be interesting to use that long lens of a hundred years to see where we had got to and how far we still had to go. I have written a lot of short pieces on women’s rights, so for me personally, it was also a great opportunity to take that longer view. Little did I know when I started writing that 2018 would resonate is so many ways with 1918.”
She is referring, of course, to the recent sexual harassment scandals in Hollywood, Westminster and beyond; the gender pay gap that continues to exist nearly fifty years after the Equal Pay Act of 1970 – at the present rate it is estimated that in Britain we will have to wait until 2069 for that to disappear – and how the #Me Too and Time’s Up Movements have both exposed the fact that the battle for women’s rights is an ongoing struggle. Just last week the latest Crime Survey figures revealed that one in five women have been victims of sexual assault and the Office for National Statistics confirmed the scale of sexual assaults against women had changed little since 2005.
“All the research and writing that I have done builds to the conclusion that work needs to be done in all areas,” says Pankhurst. “And through the structure of the book, looking at the past, present and future I explore how those three are related to each other. We can only change social norms by women standing up and I think 2018 is going to be significant; things are changing, I think there is a synchronicity about knowing it is a centenary.”
She begins the book with a fascinating prologue outlining the history of the women’s suffrage movement in this country, with the emergence of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 and the establishment in Manchester in 1903 of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by her great-grandmother. It includes an incisive comment acknowledging the fact that the suffragettes have gained a respect in the intervening years that they weren’t afforded at the time, while pointing out that ‘there is a tendency to gloss over their militancy – especially the most violent acts – in a way which diminishes and ‘domesticates’ them.’
“I knew that, because of my family connection, people would be interested in my thoughts and feelings about the suffragettes, so that’s where I started,” says Pankhurst. “Then I have taken five themes – politics, money, identity, violence and culture – and looked at how things have improved in those areas, or not.” At the end of each chapter she poses the question ‘how have we done?’ and gives scores out of five, encouraging the reader to do the same. “Because each of the chapters is quite detailed, I wanted to use a simple scoring system to gauge how far we have come,” she says. “I wanted to engage the reader to say ‘this is how I feel about it, but how do you feel?’ And that exercise of scoring was also really interesting in the overall analysis.” In a final chapter on power she pulls everything together and looks at how we might move forward, with suggestions on how to better understand and strengthen feminist campaigning.
We mustn’t forget, however, that 2018, is the centenary of only some women getting the vote. It is a hundred years since the Fourth Reform Act which saw property-owning women over the age of 30 gaining the right to vote for the first time. It affected 8.5 million previously disenfranchised women and was a significant move forward, but the majority of women had to wait another ten years to achieve voting parity with men. Pankhurst addresses this in her book with a whole section at the end entitled To 2028 and Beyond in which she invites women and girls of different ages, backgrounds and experiences to share the changes they would like to see take place in the coming decade.
Depressingly what Pankhurst noticed was that violence against women was affecting every other area she had considered. “That is where I would like to see the most change come about,” she says. “I see violence against women as being completely linked to the sexualisation and objectification of women and the emphasis that is still, even today, put on how women look. I would like to see that swept away, so that every individual woman is not judged on her looks but is accepted for who she is, what she says and what she does.” Amen to that.
Her hope for the book – which adopts the suffragettes rallying cry for its title and is dedicated to ‘the Pankhurst spirit, past, present and future’ – is that it will prompt debate. “I would like men to read this even though it is clearly about women’s lives,” she says. “I think it’s important that women put themselves in other people’s shoes but it’s particularly important for men. I want people to think about the issues the book raises.” She sets out five action points on how, going forward, change might be achieved. She argues that it is essential to remain engaged with and informed about feminism; to get involved in political debates and campaigns, always voting and using your voice whenever the opportunity arises; to support women in the cultural sphere by reading books by women, watching plays by women, attending exhibitions by women artists, going to women’s sporting events; she stresses the importance of physical visible activism, encouraging people to go on marches and citing the success of the global women’s marches the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump last January in which more than 5 million people are thought to have marched worldwide; and finally she asks that women share their hopes for 2028 on social media using the hashtag #Deeds not Words.
Overall, Pankhurst is only cautiously optimistic about the future. “I am slightly fearful,” she says. “Although, now does feels like a moment and the To 2028 and Beyond quotes at the end of my book demonstrate that a whole range of women and girls have a clear vision of how they want things to be different, sometimes it feels as though we have nearly got there and then we seem to go backwards again.”
She concludes in her book that ‘in every substantive area there is more to be done’. This year, she says, is as much a time for reflection as for celebration and commemoration. We are on our way, yes, but the fight is far from over yet.
Deeds not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Helen Pankhurst appears at Huddersfield Literature Festival on March 17. www.huddlitfest.org.uk
Music inspired by the suffragettes
Helen Pankhurst was invited, along with composer Lucy Pankhurst, another distant relative, to write a choral work, commissioned by the BBC to mark the centenary of the historic Representation of the People Act.
The Pankhurst Anthem, which incorporates extracts from a speech that Emmeline gave in Hartford Connecticut in 1913, was broadcast on Radio 3 last week and the score is available to download for free.
“It is hoped that it will be used as a marching song,” says Helen.
“I organise CARE International’s annual #March4Women in London and this year we are going to get lots of choirs singing it before we march. Singing and marching is a very powerful combination.”