In conversation with Helen Pankhurst

Bea Carpenter 

Pankhurst is a name many of us associate with the incredible fight for women’s right to vote. 2018 marked the centenary of some women gaining that right.

You are already likely to know the names of Emmeline and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, yet another family member whom we must add to our list is Helen, the grand daughter of Sylvia. An author, she has worked as a human rights activist for many charities, including CARE international where she has led their #March4women for many years, and was awarded a CBE in the 2018 New Years honours list.

Towards the end of 2018 I was lucky enough to chat to Helen about her upbringing and entrance into activism, the fight for suffrage today and the advice she has for the future. We also discussed her new book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights – Then and Nowthat I can not recommend enough. My conversation left me in awe of the incredible work she has done over the years and I am very grateful to be able to share her wisdom with followers of Girl Talk.

Helen’s childhood was spent in Ethiopia living with her father and his mother Sylvia. When we discussed why she was first moved to enter the world of activism she credited it partly to the exposure to poverty and the clear need for development she saw as a young girl. She particularly noticed the double standards in the attitude towards women, with the contrast between the stereotype of supposed weakness and their active roles such as carrying jugs of water and fuel wood on their backs.

Helen then moved permanently to the UK to study Economics, something she considered to be a middle ground between two of her passions, languages and the sciences. Here she began to develop an interest in working in international development particularly at a grass roots level, which felt more tangible to her rather than distant policy level. To her the disparity in economic and political issues between men and women was apparent as was a lack of campaigning from NGOs, something she wished to further develop. Interestingly, Helen said she didn’t feel her opinion was isolated and despite it being a male dominated sector she was able to find others who understood the need for change. Her work at Womankind was completely focused on women’s issues but her move to WaterAid presented a greater challenge due to the much higher proportion of men working there as a result of the “technical” nature of water. Here she was one of just three women national representatives out of 14 and had to push a little harder to get women’s issues into the forum and to ensure their voices were heard.

It is easy to assume that someone with Helen’s ancestry would have had a ready made path carved for her into the world of activism, but she describes the journey as one that was much more self-motivated. The conversation that filled her childhood home revolved around the work of her father who continued in his mother Sylvia’s footsteps and was passionate about Ethiopian culture. Helen says her mother came from a background that was “not particularly feminist at all” and felt as the first woman being directly related to Sylvia she felt she had to “find her own route” into feminism.

We then got on to the topic of intersectionality, a word I only encountered when I first arrived at Cambridge. Helen put it into a different context for me when she described Sylvia as being “well ahead of the game” and what we would “now call an intersectional feminist”. Her demands were not limited to just votes for privileged, educated women of society, but for all women and for a universal vote. Schisms within the movement developed between those who were willing to compromise and those who were not.

Helen also explained that the Pankhursts became divided over the issue of violence. We tend to look back only on the Suffragettes, the women who were prepared to use violent means to get their way, but many women didn’t agree with these methods. Sylvia, a pacifist with a particular passion for Art, objected to the violent acts particularly the destruction of artwork. Christabel and Emmeline were more relaxed, reasoning their approach by referencing how men used violence in the war to fight for what they believed in and refusing to let there be any double standards.

Helen’s latest book “Deeds not Words” is a reflection of the valiant work of the suffragettes and the impact they had as well as the cultural interest we have in them. It delves into different sectors of women’s lives, comparing the progress that has been made in each of those areas, each chapter ending with a score from 0-5, reflecting this progress. Her reason for this was to force the reader to be “more reflective” as well as providing continuous prompts for reflection and comparison throughout the book. During the tour of her book Helen has asked members of the audience to rate sectors in a similar manner and revealed the differences she has seen between various groups of people. One obvious divide she noticed was between men and women but she also saw disparity across different age groups and professions, this highlights how there is not one “single line of improvement” that suits everyone. The issue Helen considers most important to tackle is violence due to the lack of progress across the board. She believes that women’s experience of violence “affects every other aspect of… [their]…lives” whether it be the workplace or in their own homes. In November 2018 the BBC published shocking statistics that simply prove this point further, new UN data now indicates that on average 137 women are killed by a partner or family member every day, highlighting the disproportionate effect domestic violence has on women.

To end things on a more cheerful note, I wanted to share Helen’s key pieces of advice for the future and how to move forward as a feminist:

The first is “the more you engage with the world the more it engages with you”, emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what’s going on around you.

The second is aimed more towards our generation: “ignore the future at your peril”. It is often so easy to adopt a position of ignorance, blind assurance that ‘everything will be ok in the end’. Frequently this comes from a point of privilege where we are safe enough or perhaps financially secure enough to chose to ignore the awful fates of many women.

Her final piece of advice is to go out and do everything with “fun and purpose”, to find a balance and be aware of past sacrifices, but also to embrace the community feminism establishes and the comfort that comes from collaborating with like-minded people.

My interview with Helen reminded me how important it is as a modern day feminist not to become blindsided by the personal issues you face and to continue to engage and educate yourself in the wider world.

Helen also wanted to stress how crucial it is that feminism does not turn in to a gender battle and how feminism is simply believing in equality for all. We must recognize how far we have come and continue on the long road we have ahead to achieve it.

If you would like to hear more from Helen, she will be speaking at Churchill College as part of their history lecture series on the title “From the Suffragettes to the ‘Snowflakes’ “on 14th January, follow the link below for more details.

Be sure to grab a copy of her book, available at all good bookshops and from amazon, also linked below.

Churchill College Lecture:

Helen’s Book:

Featured image – Helen ( middle) with organisers of recent Women’s festival ‘ Deeds and Words’ that took place in October last year. Source: writer’s own 


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