‘WE NEED TO SPEED THINGS UP’
Helen Pankhurst is continuing the fight for equality that was started by her great-grandmother
People often ask me what it feels like to be a Pankhurst, to have such a famous name. The answer is proud. Proud to be connected to a family synonymous with women’s rights. My great-grandmother was Emmeline Pankhurst, who together with close friends and her daughters, including my grandmother Sylvia, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. This became known as the suffragette movement.
Emmeline decided that traditional methods of petitioning were not getting traction and that women needed to come together to demand the vote. Banners with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ started to be unfurled wherever and whenever possible. The slogan became ‘Deeds Not Words’, demanding action rather than repeatedly broken promises from the Government, and also calling for direct action from the suffragettes themselves.
The commitment of the suffragettes was tested with at least a thousand going to prison, many being force-fed, and a few giving up their lives for the cause. In 1918, the Government caved in and some women were granted the vote. But it was not until 1928 that it was granted equally with men.
However, that struggle was not the end of the story. The suffrage campaign has since been termed the first wave of feminism. There followed a second one, starting in the 1960s, which included resisting the attempts to take back some of the economic rights that women had gained during the wars. The third wave, associated with the 1990s, emphasised the need for sexual liberation. There is a fourth wave now, framed around understanding the experiences of women due to sexuality, race, religions and class. It is also about the opportunities and threats of the digital age.
A century on from that first step towards equality, how far have we come? It is clear we have moved on, but the journey has been slow and arduous, with many setbacks along the way. We still don’t have enough women in Parliament, with similar gaps in most institutions of power; the pay gap is reducing but at a pace that suggests it won’t be done away with until 2069. Most women and girls continue to face sexual harassment in one form or another, and globally, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence.
We need to speed things up, rather than wait for another hundred years. I don’t advocate militancy. But we can look back and see the importance of linking individual actions of protest in ways that change social attitudes as well as the law. I also believe we could take the camaraderie, clever targeting and PR savviness of the suffragettes. Above all, we need their gutsy determination and innovative thinking.
My appeal is to demand more of society and its institutions. In every sphere of life women and men can make a difference by demanding better of themselves, their families, the institutions they work in and those that represent them. Deeds Not Words is the title of a book I have just written to mark the centenary. I co-opted the slogan because the analysis shows that we take our existing rights for granted at our peril and we still have a long journey ahead. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought to get us this far. It’s up to us now.
Marching shoulder to shoulder remains one of the most powerful ways to call for change. That’s why I lead CARE International’s #March4women in London. This year it’s happening on Sunday 4 March. Everybody is welcome. Please join me.
I feel very proud to be a Pankhurst
Arrested for shouting
On the march: fighting for the right to vote
She died for women: The Suffragette
magazine pays tribute to Emily Wilding Davison
ABOVE No-vote no-tax protest BELOW Sisterhood: women from all walks of life came together