Helen Pankhurst, CBE
In preparation for the new web site dedicated to my great grandmother, I asked Helen Pankhurst, CBE, of her view as to where women’s rights are today, some 100 years or more since those suffragette times.
Helen kindly agreed……
Where are we with women’s rights today? How far have we got since 1918 when some women first got the parliamentary vote in the UK? The right to vote was seen at the time as the key that would unlock changes for women in all walks of life, this has definitely happened but what has really changed and what has stayed the same?
I reflected on these questions in my book Deeds Not Words: the story of women’s rights then and now, published on the centenary of that critical vote. The suffragettes and the suffrage cause is a drumbeat throughout the book, their impact and influence continued over the years and still reverberates. Well beyond the role of suffragettes in British women gaining the initial partial right to vote in 1918, and the equal citizenship in 1928, suffrage campaigning, and the suffragettes in particular, spearheaded a transformation in women’s sense of self, in their agency, and in wider cultural or social norms. However far we have or haven’t got, the suffragettes are an ongoing global inspiration.
My book explores progress through the lens of chapters entitled politics, money, identity, violence, culture and power. Each one charts the change through statistics and quotes from women and girls of all walks of life, and questions are posed to the reader to also reflect and score on progress to date.
Undoubtedly, overall - in terms of the most basic statistics around equality - we have moved on significantly. However, if the measure is about an understanding of difference and the transformative contribution that could be generated by a world that values women and men equally, we still have a long way to go.
My assessment is also that we have made the least progress in addressing women’s experiences of violence. Laws have been put in place, but violence against women remains omnipresent and infects every other gain, through traditional locations such as in the home, at work and in the streets, and also morphing into modern forms such as online trolling and internet driven pornography.
In my book, I conclude:
‘We can say, unequivocally, that social, economic, political, cultural and technological changes have all contributed to a society in which women’s lives are generally better than those of our mothers, grandmothers or great-grandmothers. For most women, it’s a kinder, less cruel world.
However, on the centenary of what was only a partial right for women to vote, the assessment is that we have made important but incomplete gains since then. Moreover, this is not a simple trajectory of progress or of stasis, but of constant evolution, reversals and change experienced differently for a multitude of reasons. In every substantive area - there is more to be done.’
When it comes to women’s rights, we are still on a journey and change can be of the elastic band kind, i.e. you cannot ease the pressure because if you take your eye off the ball, the elastic band can snap back.
There is another centenary celebration ahead of us namely 2028 is the centenary of the Act that gave women equal voting rights and hence equal citizenship in the UK. What do we want to see happen by then? A question I asked many women and girls – their answers providing the epilogue to my book. The answers include the suggestion of Siofra, a then eleven-year-old who reflected:
‘By 2028 I hope girls will not just dream of being princesses and mermaids, but will dream of being astronauts, scientists and superheroes…and that women heroes in graphic novels won’t have such skimpy costumes whilst saving the world from the bad guys.’
Sandi Toksvig, comedian, writer, presenter, founder of the Women’s Equality Party shared:
‘I hope in 2028 that I am talking about cake and spending sunny days with my friends and family. That I have put my marching shoes away and that the world is a better place. The good thing is in 2028 the young people of 2018 will be blossoming into the wonderful activists I see developing. I am sure that some of them will smash through the glass ceiling but mainly I hope that for most women the floor beneath them does not continue to collapse’.
Remembrance of what the suffragettes did is one thing and it’s important. In addition, what the suffragettes would want, is that we complete the task. We still have work to do.