Dr Helen Pankhurst: 'I ask a class if they’re feminists and there's silence'

Dr Helen Pankhurst feels as strongly about women’s rights as her famous ancestors

Ask Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, leader of the British suffragette movement, about the best way to tackle any number of issues affecting women today (the cost of childcare, reproductive rights, equal pay) and she’ll always return to the same answer: we need to get more women into positions of power.

The obvious focus, she suggests, should be on increasing the number of women MPs. “I think women should be using their political might to get more women in Parliament,” says Pankhurst, 48. “I don’t care what party. I believe that if we have more women, more diversity, more representation, then the policies will follow.”

The Lord Rennard scandal, for example, which has seen the former Liberal Democrat chief executive accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women, might have had a very different outcome, had there been more women in the party for those affected to turn to. “Inappropriate behaviour, with men in authority taking advantage of that power in unsuitable and unwanted ways, has been happening in all spheres – Parliament, the media, public and private institutions – from time immemorial,” says Pankhurst, who is CARE International UK’s campaign ambassador.

“When women complain, it’s often brushed off. They are threatened with being fired, their complaints are not taken seriously by – guess what? – male dominated institutions, despite the personal costs of coming forward.” 

Pankhurst believes a larger female presence would have two outcomes. “Firstly there would be somebody in authority to turn to who would take the claims seriously and not treat them as a joke, and, secondly, the behaviour is less likely to happen in the first place; the whole culture would change.”

Naturally, a passion for women’s rights runs in Pankhurst’s veins. But despite the sacrifices and actions of her ancestors (her grandmother, Sylvia, was also instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage), Pankhurst warns the fight is far from over. “My view is that there is a path to equality and to women being able to make the decisions that they need to in their lives but we are not there yet. We are at a dangerous time where repressive ideas could take hold”.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s remark last October that he supported halving the legal time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12 is one such example. It was one of the main issues that encouraged women to join Pankhurst when, later that month, she led a march to Westminster to protest against the erosion of women’s rights, that also included the impact of cuts on women, rights of refugee women, low rape prosecutions and access to childcare.

This Friday, International Women’s Day, she will lead Walk In Her Shoes, a charity walk through London in solidarity with women and girls in the developing world who travel miles every day to collect water for their families, often at the expense of their education. “For me, International Women’s Day is great as it’s a chance to celebrate and not always complain,” she says. “It’s about creating continuity with the past and a unity with women around the world.”

One global issue Pankhurst has been involved with is William Hague’s initiative for forming a team of experts to work on preventing sexual violence in conflict situations and to move towards prosecution. It is to be presented at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting next month with the hope of gaining the support of the world’s most powerful nations to implement it. CARE, an international humanitarian agency, have been involved in consulting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over how best to prevent rape, and provide support for victims, in countries such as Syria, Mali and South Sudan. Again she returns to the idea of equal representation as a move towards addressing sexual violence.

Education is also key – abroad and at home – and Pankhurst has spent time in schools discussing equality. “I’ll ask the class if they consider themselves to be feminists and there’s silence. So I ask if they think girls are equal to boys and all their hands shoot up. There’s more engagement with ideas but a lot of people still don’t like the label.”

However, she believes we need the word feminism. “I think you need to stand up and not be too shy about it. That doesn’t mean to say you have to be a card-carrying, shouting-at-demos type of feminist. You can be quiet and introverted; I’m quite introverted, actually.” Such an assertion might be  surprising considering her family history. Born and raised in Ethiopia, as a young girl Pankhurst was aware that her family were well-known in the country. But the interest in her name arose from her father, Richard, being a famous scholar of Ethiopian history, and Sylvia was remembered as a fierce supporter of Ethiopian independence from Italian rule in the thirties and forties. It was only on holidays to Britain she learnt about her ancestor’s extraordinary lives.

It is a name she carries with great pride (one she has passed on to her daughter, Laura) and Pankhurst was thrilled to be asked to lead the suffragettes in Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony last summer. “People are very nice when they find out I’m related to Emmeline and Sylvia. They get excited, it’s lovely. Twenty years ago people would be more critical in response to it. Sometimes people would dismiss them as those mad, militant women. I very rarely get that now.”

This June marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the suffragette Emily Davison, who was killed when she stepped in front of King George V’s horse in the Epsom Derby in protest. “There were some amazing women, who made a lot of sacrifices within that movement. I think it’s important to honour them,” she says. “I’m hoping over this centenary period there’s a whole set of events can be used to honour what they’ve done, also in order to highlight the need for continued advocacy and action as they wouldn’t be happy with where we’re at now. They’d want a lot more.”

careinternational.org.uk/shoes

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