Suffragette descendent Dr Helen Pankhurst gives her thoughts on the progress of women’s rights.
Great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, Dr Helen Pankhurst graduated from Edinburgh in 1990. She studied for her social science doctorate and went on to become one of the UK’s foremost campaigners for equal rights. She is now Senior Advisor at CARE International, and Board Member of Action Aid. Here she shares with Edit her thoughts on gender equality in 2018.
How much have women’s lives changed over the last century; how far have we come in terms of women’s rights? What would the suffragettes make of the progress and the world today? Where have we advanced the most, where are the blockages? Who has benefited the most or the least?
These questions in various forms are the ones I’m often asked, as the great granddaughter of Emmeline and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst. They were the leaders of the WSPU, the Women’s Social and Political Union, with those involved better known as the suffragettes – a diminutive nickname given by the Daily Mail – but one they embraced. They put a stamp on the world because of their persistence in the demand for the vote, their refusal to be silenced and their increasingly militant tactics in the context of some political dinosaurs and an intransigent state.
Deeds not words
In advance of the centenary of the People’s Representation Action 1918, when some women finally gained a parliamentary vote in Britain, I thought it was time to answer the questions of how far we have come, in some depth. The result is a book published to coincide with the centenary of that pivotal but partial vote, entitled Deeds Not Words: the Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now. It starts with a personal reflection about the suffragette story and why 100 years on, the suffragettes continue to inspire. The slogans ‘Deeds Not Words’ and ‘Votes For Women’ were the hashtags of their day; the suffragette branding so strong that even now their colours of purple, green and white have become symbols of feminism taken up by many organisations – including the Women’s Equality Party. Formed in 2015, by UK writer and presenter Sandi Toksvig, the party came about because, in her words: “… As I’m talking [about the suffragettes], what I realised was, this was not a history I was giving, this was not something where the job was done, this was something where there is so much still to do.”
No doubt much has changed in 100 years. In the political sphere women are in leadership positions, they make up 32 per cent of the House of Commons and 26 per cent of the House of Lords, with generally higher figures in the devolved administrations. Figures of around a third apply in the economic sphere and in cultural spaces. However, we are talking about a 100-year time frame. In terms of political representation, what we have is around 0.3 per cent increase per year… not exactly impressive transformation. Globally the UK is ranked 39th in the world, again not a particularly proud position to be in, for a country that prides itself on its democracy.
I wasn’t allowed to take chemistry O level and was told that I had to do needlework instead. I’m proud of my ‘U’ (unclassified) gained at the end of the course. In the written paper I was asked: Your husband is going on a business trip, what do you pack for him? My answer: I don’t, he does it himself. I wasn’t trying to be clever, it just had no connection with my life – my dad was an electrician, when would he ever go on a ‘business’ trip? I was meant to say that I would pack his socks into his shoes, which would be at the bottom of the suitcase. This was 1981! I am very proud of my younger self.
Similarly, women entering formal workplaces, previously barred to them, have transformed the world of work. (Though depending on time and place, many working-class women always worked outside the domestic sphere.) But education expands opportunities. Yet I was entertained and shocked by many an anecdote, for example from The Open University’s Dr Liz Chamberlain who shared with me: “I wasn’t allowed to take chemistry O level and was told that I had to do needlework instead. I’m proud of my ‘U’ (unclassified) gained at the end of the course. In the written paper I was asked: Your husband is going on a business trip, what do you pack for him? My answer: I don’t, he does it himself. I wasn’t trying to be clever, it just had no connection with my life – my dad was an electrician, when would he ever go on a ‘business’ trip? I was meant to say that I would pack his socks into his shoes, which would be at the bottom of the suitcase. This was 1981! I am very proud of my younger self.”
The wage gap and glass ceilings continue
The labour market remains doggedly segmented with women predominating in lower pay and public sector jobs, and even in feminised jobs, men managing to dominate at the very top. The wage gap increases over age and glass ceilings continue to define the workplace, as does precarity at work for the very poorest.
Yet our lives have lengthened, domestic chores reduced, the options of whether and whom to marry, whether and when to have children and many other aspects of our personal lives show more choices and a greater sense of agency, though our reproductive rights remain constrained in some parts of the UK – least so in Scotland, which leads the way in demedicalising abortion for example.
There is something powerful about my generation of women, who have been brought up with gender bias from birth regulating our personal and professional lives, and finding – not surprisingly – that now, empowered as a result of largely our own actions, we need a different way forward, as leaders, managers and colleagues.
We are also more visible in the public sphere. Francis Morris, Director of Tate Modern, recently reflected: “There is something powerful about my generation of women, who have been brought up with gender bias from birth regulating our personal and professional lives, and finding – not surprisingly – that now, empowered as a result of largely our own actions, we need a different way forward, as leaders, managers and colleagues. After so long on the margins this is gratifying. The margins are the place in the forest where the great mushrooms grow, in soil that has been raked over and disturbed but often disregarded. My generation has likewise been somewhat trampled, but like the best mushrooms in the margins we are now showing our heads.”
Violence against women is still all-pervasive
The area that keeps pulling us down is undoubtedly the fact that violence against women is still all-pervasive. Women’s experiences of violence infected every chapter of my writing. It was there in politics, in work, in the home, in social spaces and has morphed into new forms through social media and the growth of sexualised images and of pornography. A very simple scoring – a device to compare progress in the different chapters – reinforced this, as have discussions with countless women and girls since the book was published. How far have we really travelled, how much power do women really have, if targeted gendered harassment and violence – the expression of brute force – continues to be normalised and experienced by millions of women and girls?
Overall, although we have moved forward in many aspects of women’s lives, I doubt whether the suffragettes would be that impressed. Moreover, when I discussed this with Mitch Egan, of England’s National Offender Management Service, she warned: “Change can sometimes be of the elastic band kind. You take the strain and stretch forward for progress. You begin to see real change, new motivations, a future. And then you ease the pressure – you tire, you’re moved to a new post, vital funding is cut. And the elastic band does what it does best, snaps back to its original shape. You just can’t let up the pressure, can’t relax, can’t ever believe the job is done. And that’s the mistake feminists and feminist institutions make, believing that an issue is solved, and it’s OK to take your eye off the ball.”
Rebirth of the suffragette spirit
We must keep our eye on the ball and in this centenary year of all years, the suffragettes would be chivvying us on. They would also recognise that there is something in the air in the UK and more globally. On the one hand this includes the threat by new political dinosaurs, with their ideas and policies promoting male privilege and entitlement, and on the other hand the increasing visibility of those who are saying enough is enough and who are re-imagining an alternative. This includes #MeToo and #TimesUp, gender pay related activism, the growing acknowledgement of privilege and vulnerabilities due to different identities, i.e. to intersectionality, and the challenge to the simple gender binary. This new force, challenging the injustices and hierarchies of old, feels like a rebirth of the suffragette spirit of resistance and defiance. This time the campaign is not the demand for a single law, it is the demand for a change in culture, in behaviours and practices.
Let us hope for success, that the new spirit can sweep away all the powerful vestiges of what should be a bygone age. And if there is one last thing the suffrage campaigners can teach us, it is that sustained activism will be needed and that there will be many false dawns along the way. We have 10 years until the centenary of equal voting rights that was granted in 1928. Ten years to develop cultures, behaviours and practices that will transform society into one that truly gives the same opportunities to every little child and every adult, regardless of their gender.
Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now is published by Sceptre. All quotes in this article are from the book. @HelenPankhurst, #March4Women #StillMarching #DeedsNotWords
Photo courtesy of Guy Bell/CARE #marchforwomen