Visible Women

“My ancestors fought for women’s right to vote, but the struggle isn’t over yet”

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Helen Pankhurst
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Celebrating a centenary of suffrage is a wonderful thing, says Stylist consulting editor Helen Pankhurst – great-granddaughter of legendary suffragette Emmeline. But there’s still much work to do.     

Centenaries provide an opportunity for reflection. We remember, we compare and we look forward. 2018 is the centenary of when, finally, after years of struggle – constitutional, peaceful and militant – some women in Britain were granted the vote. The event was symbolically huge, but it was also partial.

I’m often asked what it’s like to be a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst, the name most associated with Votes For Women. Proud doesn’t begin to answer it. It is amazing to be told how much women admire and thank my ancestors. It sometimes feels 
like I belong to feminist royalty.

But there were divisions even within my family. The issues behind women’s fight for their rights were complex. Emmeline and her three daughters, including my grandmother Sylvia, had at least six main disagreements.

First, the focus of the movement: votes for some women as a door into power, or full enfranchisement of all women?

Second, tactics: should they ally with a political party or other social movement?

Third, was there a need for direct action – even militancy?

Fourth, was a top-down authoritarian approach best, or should suffragettes in non-leadership positions play a bigger role? 

Fifth, how and when to address other feminist concerns, such as equal pay?

And sixth, what stance should the Women’s Social and Political Union take on hotly debated topics such as home rule in Ireland, the Empire and World War One?

These differences echo through the ages and will be familiar to present-day activists. 

Helen Pankhurst’s ancestors, from L-R: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst

When the Representation of the People Act 1918 passed, only certain women gained the right to vote. Women needed to be 30 or older and householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property rented above an annual minimum or one of a small number of female graduates of British universities.

At the same time, the Act increased the right to vote to all men over 21, and to men over 19 who had served in WWI. Younger women who worked in munitions factories and had served on the home or war front were not acknowledged. The government wanted to preserve the old order and thought maintaining a male majority electorate would do so. Ironically, in the same year, women aged 21 or over were allowed to stand for Parliament, so you could be an MP, but not vote.

The right to vote was seen as the key that would unlock changes for women in all walks of life. But how much has improved? This is a question I have spent the past two years researching. My book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now summarises my findings and gives what I hope will be a platform for discussion. How far have we got in politics? With women at work and financial autonomy? What about women’s identity, family lives and health? What
 are the trends 
regarding the 
sexualisation of and violence against women? Finally, how have women fared in the cultural sphere?

At the end of each
 chapter I give a score on how far we have progressed on the issues covered and encourage readers to reflect and develop their 
own assessment. I also address the underlying issues of power and intersectionality, suggesting a framework for understanding the elements needed for social change. 

Helen Pankhurst at the March 4 Women in London, March 2017

Undoubtedly, overall – in terms of the most basic statistics around equality – we have moved on significantly. However, we’re talking about 100 years. If the measure is an understanding not just of equality, but of difference and the transformative contribution from a world that values women and men equally, we have a long way to go.

Moreover, there is the danger of regression. One of my favourite quotes in the book is from Mitch Egan, a feminist campaigner and former prison governor: “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. You ease the pressure – you tire, you’re moved to a new post, vital funding is cut. The elastic band does what it does best: snaps back to its original shape. You just can’t let up the pressure, can’t relax, can’t ever believe the job is done. That’s the mistake feminists and feminist institutions make, believing an issue is solved, and it’s OK to take your eye off the ball.”

Egan’s warning needs to be heeded. The past few years have seen worrying trends and we assume progress at our peril.

However, 2028 is the centenary of the Act that gave all women equal voting rights and hence equal citizenship. What do we want to see by then? I asked many women and girls this and the answers were wide-ranging. My friend and colleague Jo Broughton proposed “all photoshopped images have a warning label as cigarettes do”.

Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, said, “I hope, in 2028, I’m talking about cake and spending sunny days with friends and family. That I’ve put my marching shoes away and 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 some of them will smash the glass ceiling, but mainly I hope that for most women the floor beneath them does not continue to collapse.” 

Suffragettes being arrested at a protest outside Buckingham Palace in May 1914

Over the next 10 years we need to knit together three aspects of change as closely as possible. First, individually and collectively, through our acts, small and large, we must challenge the status quo: we do not have to accept the put-downs and discriminatory attitudes the world has always levelled at women.

Second, we need to push for structural changes: policies and laws that work for women and men.

Thirdly, most crucially, we need to undermine nebulous social norms that perpetuate discrimination
 and violence against women in
all its different forms. We should foster new norms and envisage a global alternative.

Remembrance is one thing. But what would the suffrage campaigners of old want of us? It would be that we complete the task.

We have work to do. 

Demonstrators at the Time’s Up rally for women’s rights in London, January 2018

Practical ways we can all take action today

Stay informed about feminism: sign up to podcasts and mailing lists from gal-dem, The F-Word, Women’s Hour and The Guilty Feminist.

Use your political voice: ALWAYS VOTE. Make your MP aware of your views, support the challenging of unequal pay and sign government petitions such as ‘Scrap the Tampon Tax’, ‘Let mothers be named on marriage certificates’ and ‘Reverse the government plans to remove women’s refuges from the welfare system’.

Join feminist pressure groups: take part in events with the Fawcett Society or Action Aid. Or join me on a march/musical rally before International Women’s Day on Sunday 4 March: you can sign up here.

Encourage women in cultural spaces: buy books by female authors, go to feminist exhibitions and performances and support women’s sports. Invest in women, learn and have fun.

Share your hopes for 2028, the 100th anniversary of full equal franchise, on social media using #DeedsNotWords and #StillMarching.

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.

Main illustration: Garry Walton at Other images: Rex Features