Charleston Festival 2018: Helen Pankhurst on the battle for female equality

PUBLISHED: 09:50 22 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:03 22 May 2018

Care International's #March4Women 2018 - Helen Pankhurst (front, third from right) with (front from left) Conservative MPs Justine Greening and Maria Miller, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, comedian Sandi Toksvig and actor Michael Sheen (Photo by Guy Bell)

Care International's #March4Women 2018 - Helen Pankhurst (front, third from right) with (front from left) Conservative MPs Justine Greening and Maria Miller, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, comedian Sandi Toksvig and actor Michael Sheen (Photo by Guy Bell)


In the 100 years from partial suffrage to #MeToo, the battle for female equality still rages. Helen Pankhurst is at Charleston Festival to explore how far we have come

“Deeds not words” was a suffragette slogan criticising the complacent politicians who agreed with the principle of female suffrage but did little about it. The statement is at the heart of a book by the great-granddaughter of one of the movement’s most famous leaders, Emmeline Pankhurst. Helen Pankhurst’s Deeds Not Words addresses what has happened in the century since some women received the vote, combing over the facts and giving space for real women to share their own personal experiences.

Ahead of an appearance at Charleston Festival Helen, who is a women’s rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International in London and Ethiopia, says the book was based around the question she was most often asked – how much has changed? She covers her own family in the book’s prologue. Helen’s grandmother Sylvia had been responsible for much of the suffragette designs. When she was expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother Emmeline she continued her campaigning work. She eventually moved to Ethiopia having previously criticised the League of Nations’ failure to act when the country was invaded by Fascist Italy. Helen was born and raised in Ethiopia – her father Richard was a scholar and campaigner for Ethiopia’s cultural heritage, while her mother Rita was involved in the Women’s Library and wrote about Ethiopian women in history. “I really don’t know what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t had this surname,” she says. “It is a name which resonates because of the past struggle up to the present day.”

Both Helen and her daughter were involved in Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics, which led to the creation of the Olympic Suffragettes. The group was part of CARE International’s #March4Women ahead of International Women’s Day 2018. “It has become a mutual support group,” she says. “If something is going on in somebody’s life we come together and support that person. It’s a lovely legacy of the London Olympics. Some of us dressed up as suffragettes to celebrate the centenary. By looking back and thinking about it we are more inclined to do things in the present day. We can celebrate that life is a lot better for a lot of women, but remember the people who got us here and sacrificed so much.”

Deeds Not Words underlines how much is still to be done. Some of the stories which Helen has unearthed are truly shocking – from the extremely slow progress of equality in our law courts to the very real violence women endure today. It is a primer for anyone who wants to know the reality behind the headlines, without feeling battered into submission.

“I wanted the facts to speak for themselves,” says Helen. “I didn’t want it to be the traditional type of angry feminist militant piece – I wanted it to be rational, thought-provoking and now and again shocking because of the facts.”

Each of the five sections of the book – politics, money, identity, violence and culture – explores topics ranging from the extremes of pornography and sexual violence to the effect austerity and Brexit have had on women.

In her epilogue – looking forward to 2028 – she includes the voices of both feminist icons and schoolgirls. “Children talk to you in an unfiltered way,” she says. “You really hear what they are thinking and experiencing, and what they are questioning. We are seeing a change in terms of engagement in feminism, and also through older people. With the issue of being a feminist people were much more hesitant in the past. They are much more vocal now. There was a time when there was a view of the suffragettes as militant and problematic – there was much less appreciation of what they were doing.”

The book’s publication chimes with the #MeToo movement, whose beginnings Helen caught in her pages. “The positive in me says it’s changing,” she says. “But let’s not celebrate too soon. There is a visibility to the world we live in now – through social media and through a more democratised mainstream media. In the past there were a few moguls who controlled things, and there were much fewer outlets. Society is more democratic generally.”

In the book she refers to an analogy Brighton-based criminal justice consultant Mitch Egan made to her in an email: “Change can sometimes be of the elastic band kind. You take the strain and stretch forward for progress. You begin to see real change, new motivations, a future. And then you ease the pressure – you tire, you’re moved to a new post, vital funding is cut. And the elastic band does what it does best, snaps back to its original shape.” But Helen now does feel that we are in the middle of a really powerful moment. “The most recent moment was the reporting of the gender pay gap,” she says. “Everybody knew there was a problem, but having to report it has demonstrated how absolutely universal it is. Things are shifting and enough people are caring and moving things forward. There are more women who have the power to change things, and more men saying let’s change this. But there is a slight danger in this way of thinking – we’ve had Trump and the Arab Spring which was a false spring. We need to be careful.”

This will be Helen’s first visit to Charleston, but she has happy memories of Brighton as a former economics student at the University of Sussex. “Brighton was a wonderful place to live,” she recalls. “The whole atmosphere of Brighton and the university and the course I was doing were all really good.”

Her focus is now largely on the book and having conversations around what she uncovered. “I felt conversation was the lifeblood of the book and the real fascination for me,” she says. “At talks I continue to hear people’s experiences. There’s something really magical about it.”

More Charleston 2018 debates

Inside the Vaults - Monday 21 May 1.30pm

David Kynaston’s history of the Bank of England explores its 300-year history from its foundation to the present day

The Man Booker Prize 50th Anniversary debate - Thursday 24 May, 12.30pm

Former award judges Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, AC Grayling and Erica Wagner advocate their winning books, with the audience invited to choose their favourite.

In Byron’s Wake - Thursday 24 May, 3pm

Biographers Miranda Seymour and Virginia Nicholson consider Byron’s influence on his estranged wife and his daughter, Ada Lovelace.

The Inner Level - Friday 25 May, 5.30pm

Authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explore the psychological impact of inequality with Caroline Lucas.

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