Equal rights on the rise for nation: Dr Helen Pankhurst talks ahead of Shrewsbury event
Mid-way through the interview, we pose an awkward question. We ask Helen Pankhurst - great-granddaughter of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and a leading women’s rights campaigner – to talk about men’s rights.
We’ve been discussing the remarkable, life-changing work of her family, most notably Emmeline, who helped women win the right to vote and was voted by Time in 1999 as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. She shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.
Her deeds were truly remarkable and she became an icon to many millions.
And yet in this age of #MeToo, in an era of ever-increasing equality, don’t we sometimes forget the rights of men, too?
Lest we forget, men are routinely denied access to children in Family Courts and – though lawyers, barristers and judges obfuscate and hide the truth behind mealy-mouthed verisimilitude – men are treated as second class citizens when families break down (and, often, even when they don’t).
Separated dads are three times more likely to die after separation than mothers according to data from the Department for Work and Pensions. In 2015, divorced men were close three times more likely to take their own lives (27.4 per 100,000 compared to 9.6 per 100,000 divorced women). In addition to that over 100 dads are believed to have killed themselves because of demands from the Child Support Agency.
There are a number of ways in which such circumstances might be reversed, she says.
“For me, that is such a major cost to society. It’s saying the most important people to men – their families – are removed from them.”
Pankhurst is brilliant. Though her family name is synonymous with the struggle for women’s rights, she is a human whose existence is predicated, in fact, on equality for all.
“There is gender inequality, yes. I think there are mirror images. Society still says to women you are the carers and to men you are the bread winners. In many fundamental ways, that hasn’t’ changed. And so men are always one step removed from their families.
“Fundamentally, I think change happens through the agency of every individual changing the way they live their lives. The second agent for change is social norms, the patterns and norms. Those only change if enough people start to change. Thirdly it’s about institutional changes.”
Faultless. Every single word.
Pankhurst will celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote at Shrewsbury’s Walker Theatre on June 23. She will present an evening called: Helen Pankhurst – Deeds Not Words, which will chart how women’s lives have changed over the last century. Her narrative will offer a powerful and positive argument for a new wWway forward.
And she will point to simple, incontrovertible facts. Because despite huge progress since the Suffragette campaigns and wave after wave of feminism, women are still fighting for equality. In Britain, for instance, women will have to wait in Britain until 2069 for the gender pay gap to disappear. In 2015, 11 per cent of women lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. Globally, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence.
Pankhurst’s narrative will explore themes such as politics, money, family and identity, violence and culture. The voices of both pioneers and ordinary women will be woven into her analysis, which will end with suggestions about how to better understand and strengthen feminist campaigning and with aims for the future. Her evening will combine historical insight with inspiring argument, revealing how far women have come since the Suffragettes, how far they still have to go and how they might get there.
It will be followed by a book signing, during which she will sign copies of her 2018 book, which was met with considerable admiration by all-comers. The BBC broadcaster and campaigner Sandi Toksvig described it as: ‘Informative, enlightening and with the potential to change women’s lives’. The rock singer Annie Lennox called it: “a valuable guide and reference to anyone who wants to understand the women’s movement in more depth. I am deeply grateful to Helen for writing it.”
Pankhurst is looking forward to an evening that will have three key pillars. The first will be a personal perspective on the Suffragettes. She will draw on her own, personal experience as a descendant from the main characters in that story and will reflect on why her forebears endure and why they generate considerable interest.
The second will be the major question of how far women have come in the intervening 100 years. She will look at the political and economic strides that women have made while also discussing issues of identity and what it is to be a open. And she’ll open up the evening to incorporate the anecdotes of other women.
Finally, Pankhurst will turn her attentions to what still needs to be done to bring about a true level of equality.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Pankhurst would pursue a career in gender rights and international development. As the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, British political activist and leader of the British Suffragette movement, and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for the Suffragette movement in the United Kingdom, she could have had no greater role models.
Her father was the historian Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst and her mother, Rita, was a librarian. The Suffragette leaders Christabel and Adela were her great-aunts. She was brought up in Ethiopia until the age of 12 and studied at Sussex University and Vassar College, New York, before gaining a PhD degree in social science from Edinburgh University. Her thesis was published by Zed Press as Gender Development and Identity: An Ethiopian Study 1992. The role of the Suffragettes has been central to her life and Pankhurst advised on and had a cameo role in the film Suffragette alongside her daughter.
Nobody is better placed to talk about their work.
“The Suffragettes – they represent the idea of resistance to hierarchies of privilege, in this case the institutional privilege of men over women. When they were fighting for women’s rights, the Government kept on saying no, no, no; you have to resist. There was the idea that women could just sit back but they refused to do so. They represented the idea that women needed to stand up and not be doormats.
“Whenever people stand up for a cause, they are very quickly divided and the Suffragetes had many questions to answer. What was the right approach for them? Should they be militant or include men in the struggle? Was their campaign class-related or not? How should they respond to the First World War? And what should they do about class-related divisions. Many of those issues carry through to today.”
Pankhurst was a key player in the film, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, and Meryl Streep. The movie was well received and a critical consensus felt that: “Suffragette dramatises an important – and still painfully relevant – fact-based story with more than enough craft and sincerity to overcome its flaws.”
Pankhurst adds: “Many people will have seen the film Suffragette and seen the force feeding scene. The reality is that hundreds of women suffered force feeding daily. They were subjected to physical violence. All they wanted was a say in their society. That was the extreme of what they faced. The state would force feed women. It was gruelling.”
And yet the Suffragettes were merely building on the work of those who went before. “Even before the Suffragettes started, there was 50 years of struggle and thousands of campaigns. Those campaigns were increasingly desperate with women subjected to a lot of physical violence. There were lots of martyrs, including women who died after force feeding. So the level of courage that women had to show was difficult to comprehend. That sense of solidarity and sisterhood was remarkable.”
The direct action and civil disobedience of the Suffragette’s was built around their determination to win the vote.
Pankhurst explains: “The vote was a symbol for so many things around rights. The vote was about having a say about policies regarding such matters as pay and how society should e structured. The British establishment was based on a few people with power.
“The structure of the system just didn’t want to change or budge. Even when Parliament wanted to change, there were a few dinosaurs who resisted that. There were a few people with power who didn’t want to change.”
The world has improved, thankfully. And the trials and deprivations that were once commonplace are no more. Or, at least, in some parts of the world that is true. Pankhurst suggests her relatives would be thrilled with some of the advances that have been made.
“If they saw the world today, they would be saying it moved in our direction in so many ways. There’s still so much to be done but the fact that we are talking in a world where women do have rights and can be in any position in society shows what has happened.”
Complacency has no place in the struggle, however. “One of the critical aspects I’ve heard almost without exception is that it’s not a one-way street. There is so much evidence of things going backwards. One of the favourite analogies of my book was comparing women’s rights to an elastic band – you pull it back, but if you let go it just pings back. The same is true for women’s rights.
“There’s more work to be done. We’re nowhere near an equal Parliament or having equal policies. If you look at pay gaps or who does what types of work, you will observe the institutional inequality and gender imbalance.
“Most audiences feel there are still things to be done. Women will have different opinions, depending on what economic background they have, and different ages have different ideas. People do think there’s more to be done.
“There are still a number of interesting questions that we should ask. Should we work more on one particular area or should we work more on issues of politics? My drumbeat is that every single one of us can make a difference.”
Pankhurst’s performance will focus closely on her book. It will provide a metaphorical call to arms for women who want improved political representation, a better deal economical, a fairer place in society and an end to all forms of violence.
“If every individual was aware of the way that they perpetuate change and call it out a bit more, that would make a difference.
“It might be getting away from stereotypes and people buying pink or blue clothes for girls or boys. That conditioning at an early age has all sorts of repercussions. There are so many issues around pay and who asks for pay increases and who doesn’t. There’s obviously a whole thing about voting because the least powerful are the least likely to vote.”
We may be 100 years on, but society remains far from equal. Men and women both suffer in different spheres. The odds are routinely – and unfairly – stacked against their better interests.
Pankhurst found out herself how tough things can be when she suffered from endometrial cancer and saw the way in which the system was engineered against providing the appropriate treatment. “That was a life-defining experience and without fighting through that I might not be here. There is research to suggest that women don’t complain as much, so by the time doctors see things it might be later in the day.
“But there are so many things that need to change. There are social curfews, places where women find it unsafe to walk. I think my relatives would love to see some of the advances but they would be fuming about other ‘norms’ and really irritated with some of the continuation. Misogyny on Twitter, for instance, is so similar to the abuse that they suffered. I think they’d be rather amused by me and I’m hoping slightly intrigued that I provide a link between past and present.”
Society owes a great debt to Pankhurst and her family. Without them, we would be in a dark, dark place. And her talk about the changes that have come and those that need to follow promises to be thrilling and thought-provoking.