Written by Hannah Dunleavy


Deeds and words

The fight for women’s rights is as vital as ever. Dr Helen Pankhurst talks to Hannah Dunleavy about how crucial it is to show solidarity with women the world over and the continued importance of the suffragettes.

Dr Pankhurst (with a few other famous faces) at the 2015 Walk in Her Shoes march. Photo: Care International.

Dr Pankhurst (with a few other famous faces) at the 2015 Walk in Her Shoes march. All photos: Care International .

“Yes, it’s a responsibility. But it’s gladly shouldered,” Helen tells me when I ask her about having that surname: Pankhurst.

“I could have changed my name and my daughter could have changed her name, but we felt it would be silly to abdicate that.

“I felt, particularly growing up in Ethiopia where the inequalities were that much move obvious, if I could be more effective because of the name and people would be more interested and ask me questions, then brilliant. There’s the odd time it might be nice not to be visible but 99 per cent of the time I’m happy because it generates really interesting conversations.”

Dr Pankhurst, the granddaughter of Sylvia and great-granddaughter of Emmeline, has inherited their vigour for campaigning and women’s rights. This weekend, she’ll be at Walk in Her Shoes, a march through London designed to demonstrate how far many women around the world still have to walk to access clean water and “to show solidarity with women and girls worldwide who endure inequality and injustice”.

Previously held on International Women’s Day (8 March), this year’s event takes place on Sunday 6 March “because it means we get families coming along,” Pankhurst explains. “The march itself is really lovely. We hark back to the suffragettes and some of us get dressed up, so it’s honouring the past and demonstrating solidarity with women in developing countries. It’s a powerful medium.”

Pankhurst works in development, promoting women’s rights and wider issues such as sanitation. “Ethiopia is a place of great diversity – not just culturally – it’s got one of the lowest places on earth and one of the highest mountains in Africa,” she says. “Sometimes when we talk about Africa there’s this dependent language that creeps in and, although I work on development issues, I’m really keen to say it’s a wonderful, beautiful, vibrant society and economically they are doing really, really well. And there are some fantastic bits that promote women’s rights in some brilliant ways.

“Having said that, there still is a culture where, although the law says a girl shouldn’t be married under the age of 18, the practice is still one of early marriage, the practice is still one of FGM, the practice is still one where the domestic role of women that used to exist here is the pattern for almost all women there. Women will be solely responsible for the childcare, the food. Cutting across all classes, there is still a much stronger gender role that results in women being subordinated.

“I’ve also done a lot of work on water and sanitation because, for me, it is unacceptable that in the 21st century, one in 10 women globally don’t have access to good sanitation. And good sanitation matters for women, because of menstrual hygiene.

“In Ethiopia, about half of the population doesn’t have access to clean water. And that means women and girls having to go great distances to get water and not being able to get on with their lives. Just imagine every day having to spend two hours collecting water, in the cold, in all the conditions. Basic things like that need to be campaigned on, as well as issues around women’s representation.”

“At the end of the film Suffragette when it showed when countries got the vote and there’s always a gasp when people realise how it was in some countries. Switzerland always gets everybody. And it brings it right to 2015 and Saudi Arabia and it universalises it.”

Bearing a name synonymous with women’s rights also places Helen in an almost unique position to judge the ever-changing feeling towards feminism.

“When I’m here [the UK], whenever I introduce myself the name resonates, so I see how people respond to it. But my best gauge on this is when I do talks in schools. Five years ago when I would ask whether the girls were feminists, very few would put their hand up. They clearly were in many ways and even the young boys would be supportive of the idea of gender equality but none of them would want to label themselves.

“But now, whenever I talk about it there’s a much livelier debate and, by and large, most of the girls will say they are feminist and those who won’t will say, ‘It’s a slightly constricting term,’ or, ‘I feel it’s misleading.’ But I definitely think there’s a different mood here, now.

“The internet is helping to magnify people, who we either know because of things they’ve already done – like Emma Watson – or we get to know because of the internet, such as the Everyday Sexism campaign. And they’ve widened the definition of what you can campaign about and how you can campaign and what a feminist looks like.

“Social media has been fantastic, although that’s also where we get most trolls. You might think you’re preaching to the converted but you look at the comments on any feminist article and you see how much of it is out there.”

Has the film Suffragette played its role in this, I ask.

“The whole creation of Suffragette was a feminist initiative and subsequently it’s led to a fantastic galvanising around feminist ideas. From the conversation about how many women are involved – or not involved – in the industry to me being able to talk about international feminism. Or to anyone who watches it and thinks, ‘Look how much they did, it’s up to us now’.

“I’m not coming to it neutral by any means,” she admits. “Not just because of my background, but because I was involved. I was asked to look at the script and I loved the film from the script onwards, because it gets to the heart of why somebody would become politicised despite all the personal side effects of doing that.

“And I loved the fact that it wasn’t just a biopic, it wasn’t even about a particular historical person, it was really about any woman and I think that meant it was automatically relevant today and that anybody could identify with Maud, the central character.

“I loved the way that any time there was a meeting with Sarah Gavron, the director – and others – there was a real interest in the issues. It wasn’t just a film for them. Sarah had been working on it for seven years. Abi Morgan kept changing the script, as people suggested things, Carey Mulligan started to read some of the literature and personal stories and that had an influence on how they did some of the scenes and in particular, at the end.”

Dr Pankhurst with her 'suffragettes' outside the Houses of Parliament.

Dr Pankhurst with her ‘suffragettes’ outside the Houses of Parliament.

One of the most interesting things about Suffragette, is its focus on working class women, when early feminism has been so long portrayed as the preserve of the middle classes.

“Yes,” says Helen. “It’s been belittled as a middle-class movement. You either say that these women are angry or anti-men or they were middle-class.

“The reality, as anyone who’s done the research knows, was that it cut across all classes and that is why it was powerful. They supported each other. The leadership positions were more likely to be filled by the more articulate, educated or free-to-move-around women. But even then you had quite a lot of working-class women who joined in a leadership position or gradually as they became more confident – or sadly as they were disowned because of their militancy – becoming more and more able to become leaders.

“At the end of the film when it showed when countries got the vote and there’s always a gasp when people realise how it was in some countries. Switzerland always gets everybody. And it brings it right to 2015 and Saudi Arabia and it universalises it. Then people go away thinking about all the reasons why Maud got involved. About pay, about the control her husband has over her son, about violence at work and public violence. All those other issues are still relevant. It’s about all of us and all of us taking a role in the change.”

Before our chat ends, Dr Pankhurst tells me about a CARE International report published to coincide with last year’s International Day of the Girl, which found that in 26 countries girls are more likely to be married than enrolled in secondary school. In Niger, 10 per cent are enrolled in education and 76 per cent are married by the age of 18.

If there’s a better reason to join Walk in Her Shoes, I can’t think of it.

You can join the march on Sunday (10AM, The Scoop, London),  or you can also sign up to walk 10,000 steps a day from 21-27 March to raise £100. (Or walk during another week of the year that suits you.) More information here: www.walkinhershoes2016.com

Read all about the working-class suffragettes here.


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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.