To mark International Women’s Day, we spoke to three descendants of political activist and leader of the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought for women’s right to vote.
The topic of women’s rights is dominating conversations everywhere - and it’s something that the Pankhursts have been waiting for a long time.
Here, Helen Pankhurst, 51, her daughter Laura, 22, a student of International Human Rights Law, and mother Rita, 89, a retired librarian, open up about Trump, feminism and their hopes and fears for women in 2017.
They also talk about why Emmeline would be “appalled” by the US President’s rise to power.
On Becoming Aware Of Gender Inequality...
For Helen, Emmeline’s great-granddaughter, gender inequality is something she’s always been aware of, ticking away in the background of her life.
“There was no major single moment or event that made me acutely aware of it, just the drip, drip, drip of inequality at all stages, starting with the male inherited surnames most people still carry,” she explained.
“I often felt protected within my own family because of our engagement with feminism, yet I saw the problems all around.”
Helen, who is a women’s rights activist, senior advisor to CARE International, board member of ActionAid and a visiting University Professor, said her first vivid realisation of the problem was when she lived in a village in Ethiopia as a young adult.
“The image that pops in my mind when I think of gender inequality is usually that of women in Ethiopia carrying water, day after day,” she recalled. “It’s backbreaking, gruelling work and yet women are socially constructed as weak and less important.
“That scene in my mind’s eye is a daily reality for millions of women the world over. To me it represents women’s invisibility and skewed global priorities.”
On Progression For Women...
When asked what is the greatest step forward they’ve witnessed for women in their lifetime, Rita, Helen and Laura all have varying views.
For 89-year-old Rita, who was married to the late Richard Pankhurst (Emmeline’s grandson), there hasn’t really been a monumental leap. Instead, it was “more of a curve or a climb - a growing awareness”.
For Helen, 51, it’s that girls’ education - both in the UK and across the world - has improved vastly. “Girls are now doing very well and are no longer a minority even at tertiary level in many countries,” she said. “This is transformational in so many ways, it heralds the possibility of greater equality at work, at home and in society more generally.”
Laura, the youngest Pankhurst (and Helen’s daughter), aged 22, feels that she has been quite sheltered from much of what girls and young women elsewhere have to face, thanks to her upbringing in a “very supportive and feminist family”.
Regardless, for her, it’s the smaller acts that slowly chip away at inequality and sexism that have an overall bigger impact.
On Those Who Think Feminism Is A Dirty Word
Some don’t want to align themselves with feminism for several reasons, but for the Pankhursts, it’s simply another word for equality - a basic human right. So what would they say to someone who disagreed with the movement?
“Learn more about it,” said Laura. “Both the word ‘feminism’ and ‘movement’ bring certain images to the mind. The word ‘feminism’ is a toxic word to many, but to me, its about equality – whether that’s economic, social or political - and about making the world better for women and for men, too.”
Helen continued: “Let’s talk about what you think feminism is and why you disagree. For me, feminism is about saying ‘I believe in the benefits and justice of equality, of opportunity between men and women, not pigeon-holing people based on their sex’.
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would take the person who disputed feminism to live the life of Ethiopian women, carrying water day after day, and witness the wider subservience that defines their lives. Then they will see firsthand why we still need to campaign for women’s rights.”
On The Challenges Facing Women...
For all three Pankhursts, a world in which leaders such as Trump are in power is an uncertain world indeed. In fact, Helen believes that if Emmeline were alive today, she’d be “appalled” by the current US President and some of the things he stands for.
“Emmeline often visited America, including as a break from Holloway prison, and had many friends there,” she explained. “She would have been appalled that America’s new leader is a man who has bragged about assaulting women, and will promote policies that are regressive in terms of women’s rights.
“However, she would recognise the problem – that Trump’s success is testament to the fact that underneath more progressive ideas of equality and diversity, misogynist social norms still thrive.”
Discussing the challenges that face women in 2017, Laura, a student at the University of Edinburgh, said the “far-right backlash against women’s rights, immigrant and refugee rights” is a huge problem.
“Especially when this is condoned and advocated by leading figures in the Western world,” she added. “The normalising of such behaviour has already had a trickle down effect, and in this context it is so much more important than ever before to stand together.”
Helen added that she worries that the progression we’ve made, could be easily undone.
“There’s danger of a backwards slide away from gender equality and promotion of diversity, and away from progressive views more generally,” she said. “The world seems to be turning on its ugly side.”
On Their Hopes For Women In 2017...
There’s no denying that things are slowly improving for women in the UK. As of 2018, companies will be forced to publish how much they pay male and female employees in a bid to close the gender pay gap.
But that doesn’t mean that women the world over are facing the same kind of progression.
So what do these three generations of Pankhurst wish for women in 2017?
“To keep fighting,” said Laura. “I hope that in 2017, women and men keep going to the wonderful marches that are being held regularly in the UK and beyond. I hope they keep up the momentum that the backlash to Trump has created. I hope that they talk to each other and pass on their passions, skills, awareness and hope.”
Helen agrees: “We need to build on the activism that is currently in the air, not just to ensure that we don’t slip back, but to move the needle forward.
“For me the three areas that need the most attention that would be mutually supportive of each other are: firstly, to see a decrease in violence against women in all its forms. Secondly, to counter the increased sexualisation of society. And finally, to see an increase in women’s leadership across the board but in politics and business in particular.”
“Equality is obvious and natural,” Rita added. “I hope that before too long, we won’t have to think about what proportion of the group are women in any meeting of executives.”
A note from Helen: I share this after losing my father Richard Pankhurst who died at the age of 89 on 16 February. He was the gentlest person in the world, a much beloved husband to my mother, father to me, grandfather to Laura. In Ethiopia, he was also a public figure, a fierce defender of all things Ethiopian, writing seminal works on the country’s history and campaigning for restitution of looted cultural items. He inherited from his mother Sylvia and grandmother Emmeline a belief that individuals have a duty to make the world a better place, and that this is not a short-term pastime but a life-long commitment. I follow in his footsteps, attempting to combining gentleness and purpose.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today.
Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org.