Gender diversity

Your Great-Grandma Probably Wasn’t As Cool As Helen Pankhurst’s

Helen Pankhurst reflects on her family, her legacy and why the Suffragettes can make us all a little braver.

By Angela Ledgerwood

Gender diversity

Helen Pankhurst reflects on her family, her legacy and why the Suffragettes can make us all a little braver.

By Angela Ledgerwood

In the United Kingdom, the mere mention of Helen Pankhurst’s surname can spark spontaneous applause—at the very least, nods of recognition and smiles of solidarity. Pankhurst’s great-grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst and grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst were leaders of the British suffragette movement, who, after years of witnessing peaceful campaigning without any results, decided that more drastic measures were needed. Their efforts which included arson, hunger strikes and parliamentary protest missions—radical even by today’s standards—helped win the vote for British women over 30 in 1918, and for all women of voting age a decade later.

In Australia, on the other side of the pond, women had already been granted the right to vote in 1902: the second country, after New Zealand, to grant women’s suffrage at a national level, and the first country to allow women to stand for Parliament. Indigenous Australian women, however, were denied the vote until 1962. This fact speaks to the unequal ways in which different groups of women have benefitted from the feminist movement since its conception, a stark reality that energises Helen Pankhurst to continue her family’s legacy through her work as a women’s rights activist, writer and senior advisor to CARE International.

“I believe in the power of sisterhood,” says Pankhurst. “I believe that feminists should voice their opinions and fight for legal protections not just for themselves but for women around the world. And if we can summon the persistence and resilience of the suffragettes and remember the sacrifices they made, it might make us all more courageous in speaking up. It might make us all a little braver.”

The leader of the Women’s Suffragette movement, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested by Superintendant Rolfe outside Buckingham Palace, London while trying to present a petition to HM King George V, 21 May 1914. Image credit: IWM/ Getty Images.

In 1879, Pankhurst’s great-great grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and champion of women’s rights 20 years her senior. He authored the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired before and after marriage. “Emmeline’s mother had been political,” says Pankhurst. “So that’s one of the reasons she fell in love with Richard. She was beginning to be politicized by her mother, and, then, in Richard, she found somebody who represented the ideas that she was beginning to become interested in.”

When Richard died suddenly in 1903, Emmeline was left widowed with four small children. Concerned for their wellbeing, people in her community contributed towards a fund to help the family. Emmeline felt uncomfortable accepting the money and suggested it should be donated for a cause instead. The Independent Labor Party, who initiated the collection, decided to build a hall in honor of her husband. “They asked Sylvia, my grandmother, to do the decorations; and then, in their wisdom, they decided that this hall was going to be a men’s only hall. Women were not going to be allowed in it,” recalls an incredulous Pankhurst. “That single moment catalyzed the formation of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline and her daughters, because they thought it was utterly ridiculous that some men could make these decisions in the name of a man who had believed in women’s rights so much.”

The Pankhursts and their fellow WSPU members became known as the Suffragettes, a word that now epitomises this period and its aims to secure women the vote. Their motto, “Deeds not Words”, explicitly called for “deeds” instead of the gradualist strategy encouraged by The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, formed six years earlier by Millicent Fawcett. Largely middle-class in makeup, these women, known as the Suffragists, believed in nonviolent tactics to persuade the country that women deserved the vote. The WSPU, on the other hand, cascaded towards militancy as a form of direct action. “They drew the line,” says Pankhurst. “They were never violent to other human beings. Yes, they were terrorists, if you will, but terrorists who never killed anybody, despite the fact that they were being killed.” In 1913, WSPU member Emily Davison died when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby as a protest at the government’s continued failure to grant women the vote.

Suffragettes form a part of Emily Davison’s funeral procession through London. Image credit: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ Getty Images. Inset: English Suffragette Emily Davison (1872 – 1913) throws herself under King George V’s horse, ‘Anmer’, at the Epsom Race Course. Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

At 26, Sylvia, Pankhurst’s grandmother, was arrested for refusing to pay a fine imposed after she threw a stone through the window of a bank. She went on hunger strike in prison (as did other suffragettes including her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel when they were arrested), resulting in violent force-feeding. In response, and desperate to avoid the political disaster of having any of the suffragettes die in prison, the government swiftly passed what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act of 1913. It meant hunger striking prisoners were released until they grew strong again, and then re-arrested.

“They never started off thinking they were going to do what they ended up doing. They started off saying, ‘Look, this is ridiculous. Surely, we can do something about this.’ And, gradually, as opportunities to demand a voice, to demand change, were compressed and reduced, they looked to all sorts of different ways to campaign for change. Sometimes that gets forgotten,” says Pankhurst of the Suffragettes and their legacy. “They were lateral thinkers that brought politics into so many different spheres.”

Take, for example, Australian-born Suffragette Muriel Matters, who in February of 1909, rode a hot air balloon over the Houses of Parliament the day King Edward opened the year’s proceedings. “Her plan was to distribute WFL leaflets over the House of Commons. But, actually, the direction of the wind took her to a different place. So, she wasn’t able to.” Pankhurst continues excitedly, “The suffragettes used boats. They used horse carts. They imprinted on coins the ‘Vote for Women’ words, on the face of the King, as an act of disobedience. They did so many things that were not violent, as well. And, I think, it’s really important to remember those other things. But, yes, they were willing to use violence. And, yet, violence in such a different way.”

Opening of Parliament. Suffragettes attempt to attack the house by airship. Miss Muriel Matters with megaphone, Hendon airfields, London. 16th February 1909. Image credit: Daily Mirror/ Getty Images

For Pankhurst, like the suffragettes, action is where the power lies. This International Women’s Day, Pankhurst is leading Care International’s #ThisIsNotWorking campaign to raise awareness of the nearly 235 million women across 94 countries who are not protected by laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work. “People seem to be ingrained with the idea that things get better. But what history tells us time and time again, is no. Things can go backwards and they can go forwards and they can go round and around in circles.” Furthermore, she says, “we must also be prepared for backlash, because it comes with the territory.”

In July there will be a historic vote at the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention to increase the workplace protections for women across the world. If ratified it will increase protections for the lowest paid, most vulnerable women at risk of harassment and abuse like women working in informal workplaces, in private homes as maids or nannies, sex workers and street vendors, and migrant workers living far from home.

Pankhurst isn’t suggesting we need to hire a blimp to make a difference (but we could). She’s urging women, and men, to take a moment to sign the petition to urge the Australian government to vote for a binding international convention ending violence and harassment at work at the conference. Beyond that, Pankhurst suggests that every single one of us can look at our lives and ask some simple questions like, “Am I bringing up my son or my daughter equally? Am I giving the girl pink toys and pink clothes and giving the boy a football and speaking to him more loudly? Am I, as a consumer, supporting the perpetuation of these stereotypes? When I get married, am I changing my surname or not?”


Helen Pankhurst, CARE International Ambassador Image credit: Guy Bell

“More than a hundred years ago, a lot of the campaign families had some of the most progressive men around, who were part of the campaign behind the scenes. You also had couples realizing the symbolic relevance of double barreling their names, which is still an exception today,” Pankhurst is flabbergasted that we haven’t moved forward on that one, especially given the number of divorces, which means women often change their name back.

Even in countries like Australia where there are legal protections, women’s level of political representation is pitifully low. In fact, Australia’s standing in the world rankings for female parliamentary representation has fallen from 15th in the world in 1997 to 50th in the world today. There is a lot to be learned from seemingly, less developed countries. “Two of the countries that have the highest political representations of women are in Africa and South America, in Rwanda and Bolivia, respectively,” says Pankhurst. “Not in Europe. Not in The States. Not in Australia. So, there’s something powerful about understanding that we’re in this together.”

Ultimately, for Pankhurst, the ongoing fight for gender equality will never be a fight between men and women or a fight between different groups of women. “It’s a fight between the dinosaurs who want to take us back to the dark ages and those who believe in equality,” she says. And she challenges all of us to ask ourselves, especially this International Women’s Day, which side we’ll be on.

To find out more about CARE’s petition ensuring sexual harassment laws leave no woman unprotected, click here.