The legacy of the Suffragettes lives on at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 March 2018
With International Women's Day this month, Helen Pankhurst considers the progress made in the fight for equality in the century since women were granted the vote. Paul Mackenzie reports
The centenary of the Bill granting some women in Britain the right to vote should be a reminder of how far there is still is to go on the road to equality, says Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter.
Helen Pankhurst – whose campaigning career embodies the spirit of her ancestors – told Lancashire Life the revelations about sexist behaviour in Hollywood, the Presidents Club scandal and the online popularity of the #metoo and #timesup hashtags all prove the fight is not over.
‘The recent past has demonstrated that the time is now to look back and see how difficult and long the journey was for the suffragettes to get the vote,’ she said. ‘Things that have happened are being exposed and that exposure is what’s new and by shedding light on these things we can bring about change. It feels like a watershed moment, 1918 was so significant in the fight for women to have the right to vote and 2018 feels like a significant moment in the move towards equality.
‘I am optimistic but in the same way that from the bill in 1918, women had to wait another 20 years before the right to vote was extended, we are not going to solve all the inequalities now.’
The bill that was passed in 1918 extended the right to vote to almost all men and to women over the age of 30 who met certain property qualifications. It took a futher ten years for women to be granted equal voting rights.
Emmeline, who was last year voted the greatest ever Lancastrian in a Lancashire Life poll, was born in Moss Side and spearheaded the Votes for Women campaign. In October 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was launched from her home in Nelson Street, Manchester, with the motto ‘Deeds not Words’.
On February 6 this year – the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act – Helen launched her book ‘Deeds not Words, the Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now’ at the Pankhurst Centre in Emmeline’s former home.
‘I thought when I wrote the book that I’d be able to do each chapter separately – politics, work, culture, family – but the one thing that wove through it all was violence,’ Helen said.
‘We are seeing powerful women, and women who can afford to speak out, challenging unacceptable behaviour but, for more marginalised women, it is still often very difficult. There will be a trickle down – I have heard people challenge certain attitudes by saying ‘Don’t be a Harvey’ – but it is everywhere and it is all inter-linked.’
Helen grew up in Ethiopia, where her grandmother Sylvia moved in her 70s. ‘I was very young when I was first aware of what my family name meant,’ she said. ‘People would stop when they heard my surname and ask if I was related to them.
‘I always knew a bit and my parents must have explained it to some degree when I was quite young, but not enough to answer every question. People would ask things and I found I needed to know more. My parents sent me to the books because they didn’t know everything. The more I looked the more fascinating and complex it all seemed. It was a gradual understanding that feminism and equality are still relevant and still need fighting for.’
Helen, who studied economics and then a PhD looking at women’s lives in Ethiopia, has gone on to work for a range of charities and organisations that influence government policy around the world. She now works for the humanitarian aid agency Care International and she added: ‘It is very hard to change the political landscape but I am an optimist and I hope that well within the next 100 years – within my lifetime – we will have ticked a lot more milestones off on the road towards equality; closing the gender pay gap, seeing more women in key roles in cinema, theatre and music for example. These are relatively simple things but I hope they help transform what our society looks like.
‘It’s established that having men and women involved in parenting is most effective and I believe that the same applies throughout society. Men and women do tend to parent differently and have different skill sets and reflecting that and appreciating those differences and those different skills would make a big difference in society, in business and in politics. But if we achieve that without understanding that these issues are all inter-linked, we will still have failed.’
The Pankhurst Centre is at 60-62 Nelson Street, Manchester, next to Manchester Royal Infirmary. It is open Thursdays and the second and fourth Sunday each month. For more information, go to thepankhurstcentre.org.uk