Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, calls on students to embrace feminism

Lucy Miller
7 min readSep 9, 2019

Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter wants us to stop ignoring the state of the rest of the world post-Suffragette.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, a campaigner and feminist as well as vocal supporter of recently released Suffragette, believes that university is a time when women — and men — should open their eyes to the issues still faced by females almost a hundred years since the vote was awarded to them in the UK. Inequality, she says, stretches from Bangladesh to Ethiopia to our own doorsteps.

It’s something that she’s keen to talk about when we meet ahead of the release of Suffragette (released in the UK last month.)

Of course, everyone knows the vague outline of the suffrage movement, and most educated people are likely to have some knowledge of the women at the helm of it.

Possibly though, the Pankhurst legacy means that the foot soldiers of the movement somehow get lost to history.

Whilst we have a huge amount of rhetoric around the struggle for female enfranchisement, focusing on one woman as Suffragette does brings the story home — literally; we are taken into the shabby yet precariously happy little house that our focal point Maud shares with her husband and son, and we are still there when this relative peace is shattered. The focus on one central figure drives just how much effect this movement had on individual lives.

Minor acts of disobedience, still, can have a profound effect on the lives and wellbeing of women in the world in the modern day.

“There’s that scene, where she says she started (at the Bethnal Green laundry where she works) part time at the age of seven, full-time at the age of 12,” Helen says. “Well that’s the garment factory in Bangladesh; that’s the rest of the world.

“And all those little acts of violence against her… some of that still goes on, now, here.”

Noted suffragette Annie Kenney, with Christabel Pankhurst — Helen’s great aunt

In Ethiopia, where Helen’s father Richard grew up and where she was born, the issues that women face on a daily basis are infinitely more visible than they are in the UK — and even more visible than they were in 1912, the year in which we first meet Suffragette’s Maud.

“In Ethiopia,” Helen says, “you have child marriage, and 14 year olds being married off, and FGM… there are a lot of things that on the surface seem a lot worse, and probably are worse.

“But it’s not as simple as thinking that. Rwanda, for example, has much better political representation than we have here. It’s not all bad, at all.

“I don’t know — I should know — what the figures for political representation in Ethiopia are, but I think they’re quite high. But culture, and social norms, attitudes, are still very traditional in terms of gender hierarchies.”

Of course, inequality is not just a problem confined to history or to the third world — however, we have to be aware of the subtleties of the issues that matter much closer to home.

Helen continues: “Before, it was so in your face, the discrimination. Now it’s here and there, and it’s all a bit more confused, so sometimes you can think that it’s not a problem.

“But in so many ways, it’s still all around us. I pick up on things like the fact that wives generally take their husbands’ names; even if they keep their own names they don’t pass it on to their children. All this business about girls dressing up to look good, that boys don’t do; the make-up… that’s at a simplistic level. And then you’ve got women earning 80% of what men earn, and so on.

“My daughter has been looking at our family tree, and what she’s found — and what I’m sure everyone who tries to trace families finds — is the men. Because of course the women don’t keep their name, so you lose them. Even in terms of historical knowledge.”

It’s a sobering thought: that history loses track of and eventually erases its women as a result of their names being changed through marriage.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Helen’s grandmother

Helen says that the student population is perfectly positioned to make a ruckus about such issues — and believes that “that’s a time when we need feminism, and we need women to say, you know — I love you very much, but my identity is important to me.”

She’s a big fan of student activism, and of different people addressing issues in the ways that they find the most comfortable — from pounding the streets with placards to writing politely worded letters to the Times.

“The upside is that youngsters nowadays have so much information, they can easily find out about the past, but also they can get people together,” she says. “You can see that there’s an inequality in this particular thing, so in your university — say there’s an issue with lights and safety — you can deal with that, and then in another university all the professors are 60-year-old men.

“So I think that we can all do things — some of us do it quietly, and some of us can do it in the streets. The world that we live in allows that to happen.”

She grew up fully aware of the importance of her grandmother (Sylvia) and her great-grandmother (Emmeline), but in the majority of cases “it wasn’t central” to her life. Other times, though, the Pankhurst name has led her to feel a certain level of responsibility.

In the context of only 25% of women voting in the General Election in 2010, I ask her if she feels any sense of disenfranchisement when speaking to young women today — does she feel that young women are turned off from politics?

“I think some (are), and it’s a shame. I think those who don’t vote usually have the most reason to vote. It’s often somebody who feels excluded, but by excluding themselves even more they’re making it easier for people to exclude them. If you look at young people, often they don’t vote, so the government doesn’t do as much for them.

“If young people vote, the government us much more likely to give them things — to bribe them.

“I think it’s really, really important — it’s always been important — for women to vote. But I think it’s really important that they continue to do so.

“I hope they (women and young people who don’t vote) watch this film, and it makes them think again.”

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd

With three quarters of women failing to vote in 2010, does she consider the suffragette fight to really — honestly — have been a successful one?

The answer is yes — with a caveat.

“They did win, because we now have constitutional ways in which we can fight for social change. But… if laws and policies are still governed mainly the views of men, and the representation of men, then we haven’t achieved what they wanted.”

Because of course, you can change a law — but due to the majority of people not closely reading legislature and strictly applying it to their daily lives with an immediate effect, it’s infinitely harder to change a society and the views that those within it hold.

“The suffragettes were about three things,” Helen says. “They were about changing the law, they were about changing social attitudes… and they were about changing themselves. That was absolutely critical.

“With Maud, you see how there’s an inner change, and I think that still applies today. I think people who stand up and start thinking about why they are where they are, and about themselves and what they can do for others; I think it changes them internally.

“Yes, we still need legal changes — but more importantly we need social norms and attitudes to change, and we need women to know that they don’t need to be perpetuating inequalities just because that’s the way it’s always been.”

It’s these “awful social norms… in terms of women’s sense of what they can do for themselves” that this vocal (although much less militant than her forbearers) Pankhurst is really focused on changing.

Because, as she says: “There are always voices, women, who are trying to achieve things. And it’s about global solidarity.” Whether that’s being aware of the issues of factory workers in Bangladesh or believing in the importance of female students’ voices on university campuses in the UK.

Helen Pankhurst is involved in organising Walk in Her Shoes, a march led by Care International that takes place in London annually, on International Women’s Day. The walk aims to encourage people to walk 10,000 steps per day.

Helen says “It’s about saying that in the world today, there are still girls that have to walk 10,000 steps to fetch water — and that that kind of drudgery is unacceptable. If we invested enough we wouldn’t have to do that.”

Helen is hoping that anyone — male or female — affected by watching Suffragette will join her on the walk.

To sign up or find more details click here.

Suffragette is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.

Originally published at https://www.thenationalstudent.com.