The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Britain’s most famous suffragette family is speaking in Sheffield about the progress made by women since they first got the vote.
Helen Pankhurst is the key speaker in the closing event of the Festival of Debate today, Friday June 29, celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage.
She is the granddaughter of radical suffragette activist and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst and the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Sylvia’s sister Adela Pank-hurst spent two years in Sheffield from 1910-12, organising for the WSPU.
Her most famous action was leading an attempt to invade the Cutlers’ Feast, disguised as a kitchen maid. She was pushed back by police and ended up making a speech for women’s rights to a crowd outside the town hall.
That night is commemorated in the Weston Park Museum exhibition, Changing Lives: 200 Years of People and Protest in Sheffield, ending on Sunday (July 1).
Helen will speak about her new book, Words Not Deeds: The Story of Women’s Rights, with Kate Taylor-Jones of the University of Sheffield.
Women’s rights activist and writer Helen described the book: “It’s a bit of a reflection on how we got to 1918 and a personal take on some of the reasons why the suffragettes and the suffrage campaign is interesting.
“I didn’t think we could just start in 1918, I needed to link it to the history and the things that some of my family went on to do.”
The book also examines how women’s lives have and, more importantly, haven’t changed in the century since the first British women were able to vote. Helen looks at women at home and work, their sense of self and politics, culture, violence and power.
She conducted interviews with women from different walks of life to ask them about their experiences.
“The best bit of the book is to see where we’ve got. At the end of each chapter, I’ve scored how far we’ve got, based on my scoring and all the conversations I’ve had with people.
“Nobody thinks we’ve got there, almost on anything. Violence scores the lowest of all the chapters.
“I also asked ‘what do we want to see happen in the next 10 years?’ which will be after 100 years of the equal franchise, using those 10 years to push forward.”
Helen said the point of her book is what needs to come next in the fight for women’s rights.
Referring to her suffragette ancestors, she said: “I think even then they knew it wasn’t just about legal change, it was about a change to social norms, both small and big. Everything we can do contributes in that sense.”
Helen said women needed security and to fight against being required to “be quiet, look nice, stay at home.
“There’s not one single area where we have won and all of these interplay. There’s also the issue of violence and the sexualisation of women.
“That is the cause and consequence of the way we are treated and how we treat ourselves. It’s not just women, it’s people who believe in equality versus the dinosaurs, and women are equally guilty.”
She said that writing the book made her look again at the relationship between Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst and the way that Emmeline and daughter Christabel felt it was important to focus on upper and middle-class women who had more power and influence, as opposed to Sylvia, who concentrated on working women in the East End of London and elsewhere.
“Sylvia was left wing and stayed very left wing. The difference was leadership versus democracy. Sylvia felt that dem-ocratic methods were more successful, even to the last points in a rather tragic story.
“There was never a reconciliation between Emmeline and Sylvia, as there was between Sylvia and Christabel.”
Helen said one reason the rift continued was that Emmeline later stood for the Conservatives as a prospective MP and Sylvia refused to marry her anarchist partner and father of her child, which her mother considered a huge embarrassment.
Helen said Sylvia wanted to highlight double standards for women but she also would have taken on her partner Silvio Corio’s Italian nationality on marriage – meaning she would lose her recently-won right to vote here.
The Festival of Debate event takes place tonight at Abbeydale Picture House. Website: www.festivalofdebate.com