Helen Pankhurst. Photo (C) Katie Lucas.

"All social causes have to believe that they can – that they are - making a difference by their commitments, their sacrifices. They have to keep up the pressure...we have to keep going."

Dr Helen Pankhurst

Dr Helen Pankhurst at the Gothenburg Book Fair: Looking at Women’s Rights in 2019

Ahead of her participation at this year’s Gothenburg Book Fair, Dr Helen Pankhurst, descendant of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, spoke to the British Council about feminism, academia and how Sweden and the UK can still help advance women’s rights. 

Your book ‘Deeds not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now’ asks if the feminist movement has achieved what it set out to 100 years ago. What do you think the future holds in store for the feminist movement? Where does it go from here?

For as long as gender inequality remains, I am convinced there will be a feminist movement challenging discrimination. Moreover, things don’t always improve linearly. It is not just a question of continuing forward but also making sure the situation doesn’t regress, something that I think has been particularly clear in the last few years.

In terms of where we go from here: we keep at it, locally, nationally, internationally, connecting these up and each generation picking up from the previous one.  Sometimes single issues will come to the forefront, as it has for example over the last couple of years with the MeToo movement, but at the same time there are many other forms of inequality and discrimination that will be tackled individually and collectively. I also hope that we will be as inclusive as possible of social justice more generally, acknowledging how different forms of discrimination overlap and exacerbate each other.

Do you usually try to meet feminist groups in the cities that you visit, and if so, why so? What do you hope to achieve?

Yes, I try and meet groups of different kinds, it’s about the opportunity to learn from each other, understanding differences, finding common ground and creating a global sense of solidarity. It’s also wonderful to have international events in all countries, such as the International Women’s Day which occurs on the 8th March every year. 2018 was especially important as it was the centenary year and involved the #March4Women in London. Commemoration of the day happens all over the world, which brings a sense of collective effort and desire to effect change on both a global but also a local stage. But how it is celebrated varies: it might be a public holiday in some countries or ignored elsewhere, it might bring passionate protests in certain cities or witness a coming together and quiet celebration elsewhere. 

Many young women are signing up for the feminist cause, all over the world. Do you know why this might be the case? Are there general themes that you see arising amongst women regardless of their geographic location and country?

It’s always been the case. However, at different times and places we seem to be more or less actively engaged, sometimes because of the backsliding, we are shocked back into greater awareness of the road we still need to travel. 

One of my favourite metaphors when it comes to progress for women, both practical and ideological, is that which involves an ‘elastic band’. The metaphor was borrowed from Mitch Egan, a former prison governor, who says that change can be like an elastic band - one may stretch forward and progress, but if one relaxes, the band snaps back. One theme is that we cannot afford to let go and think the work is done.

The focus in different countries varies, but can be seen in terms of three aspects. First, the girls and women finding their sense of agency, their right for a voice – not being silenced or deferential purely because of their gender.  The second aspect is challenging the structures and policies, for example the parliaments, the legal establishments, the educational, the banking and the business ones which continue to be ‘man made’ literally, i.e. they are fashioned to fit men and they block women –especially at the top.  But thirdly and most all it is about challenging traditional discriminatory norms and attitude these can be practices such as FGM or early and forced marriage in one country, cultural views that girls should just get married and not worry about their education and a career, leaving that to the men in the family in another, or the patterns of expecting women to change their surnames and children to inherit only their father’s surnames. 

When thinking thematically, in my mind I break it down to six issues – also the chapters of my book – politics, work/economics, identity, violence, culture and power. There is so much one could say under each of these headings…and they are interconnected.

Do you see any parallels between the suffrage movement and climate change movement? What do you think of Greta Thunberg and do you think that her self-sacrifice of the school strike, the demonstrations, the speeches lead to the level of change needed?

Yes many parallels, challenging the status quo, demanding rather than just quietly asking for change, being treated with ridicule. Greta Thunberg is a new icon of resistance and defiance.  How much will change and how quickly we have yet to see…but she and all the youngsters addressing climate change are a breath of fresh air!

How has being involved in academia been helpful for your work, and your cause? 

Academia has been important to me personally, as one platform through which to reflect, to learn and to find colleagues with whom to collaborate. It is also one way of communicating with the younger generation. GM4Women 2028 is an initiative based in Manchester which involves both those with academic insight from, for instance, Manchester Metropolitan University, as those from other types of background and professions, such as Manchester City Council or the Fawcett Society and the Pankhurst Centre/Manchester Women’s Aid. It is focused on envisioning a better future for the women of Greater Manchester, including young and old, BAME women and those marginalised due to faith, sexuality and other differences.

You’ve done some work with the Girl Guides and spoken about needing to get more girls and women into positions of power. What does a ‘powerful position’ entail?

Brilliant question. I was with a young Ethiopian woman the other day who finds herself in what would traditionally be seen to be a powerful position and she commented that, once there, she found the position was not particularly powerful, that it was slipping through her fingers somehow because alone, she could do little. I wonder whether that isn’t a common experience, power lies where you can make a difference but the most important thing to understand is that you cannot do it alone, that you need to work with others and in many different ways. 

In 1913 there was a belief in the great changes that would happen in society when women got the vote. The vote would mean a better and more equal society, but some might say that progress towards this has been slow. Do you think the suffragettes were misguided and can a better and more just world still be achieved by women?

I don’t think the suffragettes were misguided in believing in a better and more equal society, though progress has been so much slower than I think most of them would have thought would be the case. Although it’s also been uneven. For example, in the West, a lot of progress has been achieved in terms of equal education which has opened many doors and in terms of freedoms around women’s sexuality. Much less in terms of challenging the focus on women’s looks, on violence against women, on economic and political inequalities. 

I also think that all social causes have to believe that they can –that they are - make a difference by their commitments, their sacrifices. They have to keep up the pressure, if we all thought nothing much would change for a century the motivation to put pressure would be quashed. We have to keep going not knowing which of our campaigns will succeed quickly, which the generations to come will still be pushing for the same ones. Fundamentally, yes I do think that changing the world from being ‘man made’ to made by both genders equally would make this a better place for all.  

The WSPU, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, was the most militant of the women's organisations – do you think that militancy led to getting the vote (for some women) in 1918? Would it work now?

The suffragettes didn’t start off thinking they would be as militant as they ended up. This happened as a response to the government’s violence and the steps taken to silence the suffragettes, including imprisonment, being treated like common criminals not political offenders and being force fed not once but repeatedly. It’s important to put the suffragettes’ militancy in the context of the ratcheting up of violence by the government - by a so called Democratic Liberal state.

Having said that many women were willing to do anything for the cause, though not all approved of all of the tactics. My grandmother Sylvia for example was against some of the more militant actions, particularly the destruction of art. 

In terms of the relationship between militancy and women getting the vote, I think the point is that it was the women’s determination not to be ignored, not to be silenced. That they persevered and caused trouble that contributed massively to the win in the end. What they did most fundamentally is make ‘Votes for Women’ a conversation matter in every home and every public place – the conversations themselves created massive change. By 1914 most of the society and most of parliament were in favour of the change. It was just a few men in power that were blocking this from happening. 

I think resistance and rebellion against the status quo is still required, direct action still has a role to play. The hope is that the same level of militancy is not required because the governments are not as violent or as silencing in their approaches. However, you only have to look around at the different governments in place around the world to realise the inevitability of those who want democratic change still having to put their lives on the line. 

The pre-WWI authorities reacted quite aggressively to the militant actions of the WSPU. Do you think the world, as it is now (post 9/11), would react to those militant acts differently?

I have answered this question above. I think in the West, generally, the democratic institutions would not be quite so overtly violent. This does not apply across the world. Another big difference has been social media which – where it can operate - makes it more difficult for repression to take place. 

Which of your well-known relatives do you feel politically closest to, and why?

I think they all had a role to play, and what’s so amazing is that it was a whole family, many of them being important in the story. Emmeline’s mother influenced her, her husband was a great advocate of women’s rights, Christabel was the strategist, Adela stayed to campaign in the North when the rest of the family had moved to London. I think it’s also important to look at the different positions that the family took on a whole range of questions, from how to campaign, the role of militancy, who the vote was for, how to relate to other social issues of the time, etc.

However, fundamentally my heart and head are with Sylvia, her views ones we could now characterise as intersectional feminism. She spent many years in the East End, one of the poorest parts of the country supporting the voices of those living in the area, rather than speaking for them. She worked to address the practical needs as well as the strategic interests of women (legal support, attention to maternal and infant health, converting a pub to the Mother’s arms nursery, opening cut-price restaurants, etc). Over a long life, she linked up and cared about other social causes, e.g. support to Irish home rule, against WW1, opposed to imperialism, against the rise of Fascism in particular the occupation of Ethiopia by Mussolini. She ended up living in dying in Ethiopia. She was also a painter, a poet, a writer and an editor of very successful journals – all additional ways she spread socially progressive ideas.

Can the UK make a difference around the world when it comes to encouraging women, and ensuring their voices can be heard? How so?

Every country can make a difference and can be influential. The UK has a voice because of its history and its economic size.  It can make a difference with its allies, through UN joint initiatives and through international initiatives it can promote feminism, can be neutral or can set things going backwards. A significant event worth referencing, and one in which the UK has made an impact, is the recently adopted ILO global Convention and Recommendation to combat violence and harassment in the workplace. The new labour standard has the potential to protect workers and employees, irrespective of their gender or contractual status, and includes people in all forms of work.  Many organisations, including CARE International the one I work for, have campaigned hard for the convention to be as strong and inclusive as possible and will continue to work to ensure ratification around the world.

Sweden is often seen as being at the forefront of gender equality. Some say the question there is not about women’s rights, but human rights. What would you say to that approach?

It is wonderful that Sweden is at the forefront of gender equality. The Scandinavian countries more generally are the vanguards that the rest of the world looks up to.  

However, I think there is a danger in saying ‘job done’, we can now have a more general human rights approach. We know from history that there can be a backsliding and even without this, my understanding is on almost all measures there is still a pattern of gender-based inequality in Sweden. I think for as long as there is systemic gender based bias it needs to be called out specifically and directly.  That’s not to say all the other biases around colour, sexuality etc, don’t need action. They do. As well, but we need to understand the root causes and consequences of different forms of oppression not lump them all together.

External links