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Festival of Ideas

Deeds Not Words Helen Pankhurst

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Despite huge progress since the suffragette campaigns and wave after wave of feminism, women are still fighting for equality.

Why, at the present rate, will we have to wait in Britain until 2069 for the gender pay gap to disappear? Why, in 2015, did 11% of women lose their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination? Why, globally, has 1 in 3 women experienced physical or sexual violence? Helen Pankhurst – great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and a women’s rights campaigner – charts how women’s lives have changed over the last century. She reveals how far we still have to go and explores how we might get there.

This event was part of the 2018 Coleridge Series run in association with Bristol Women’s Voice.

photo credit: Virginie Naudillon

Audience Member Review

Written by Laura Gallagher

There is more than one road to freedom. Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters went very different ways, politically and personally, and finally each was buried on a different continent.

Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, inherited that name because her grandmother refused to marry in despite of pressure from her suffragette family. She lived and had a son (at the age of forty-five) with Italian anarchist refugee Silvio Corio, but held that marriage was an unequal institution and insisted on living out the principle of female equality; she’d have lost her nationality and hard-won vote along with her name, if she hadn’t.

Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I was quite astonished to learn that the great Emmeline, who fought so famously hard for women’s rights, and whose memoir of militancy reveals a radically critical mind, was in Helen’s words “distraught” that her daughter was living out of wedlock and rejected her more thoroughly over this than she had over their earlier political differences. Even the intensely militant Christabel Pankhurst (who is rumoured to have had love affairs with women) pressured Sylvia to marry.

Certainly there are far fewer white British women who’d be disowned by their families for having illegitimate children these days, but the persistence of patriarchal tradition is remarkable. Helen and chair Jenny Lacey orchestrated an impromptu survey of the audience, trying to count the hands of women who’d kept or changed their names on marrying; the women present at such a feminism-laden, ticketed and predominantly-white, middle-class event could hardly have been considered representative of the general population, but it looked as though a little less than half of those married had kept their own names. And the proportion of those whose children had taken their mother’s rather than their father’s name was far smaller. There was just one lonely hand for the double-barrel. With characteristic good humour, Pankhurst suggested that if you’re going to get married, perhaps you could think about “how to minimise” the anti-woman impacts of that very patriarchal tradition.

This evaluative see-sawing between then and now was the pattern for the evening’s event as well for the book under discussion, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now. After a first section on the Suffrage movement, which Pankhurst describes as having been less exclusively middle-class than critics like to suggest – drawing together women of diverse backgrounds, classes and ages, with “issues of intersectionality beginning to be tabled” – the audience were given an opportunity to respond. I raised my hand to say that a man once told me that Suffragette militancy had been inexcusable, whereas Nelson Mandela’s much greater use of violence was justified because “the Apartheid state was evil”. Why was a state that enshrined female inferiority in law and endorsed the brutalisation of women not also “evil”? Pankhurst answered me with a wry smile and pointed out there was a similarly gendered double standard at work in the way that Winnie Mandela has been portrayed with so much less glory and sympathy than has her husband.

A woman sitting just behind me raised her hand to say that while we’re all familiar with the idea of girls dreaming of getting married, in her youth she had “dreamed of getting divorced”: growing up in the “South Asian ghetto” of London she had seen marriage-followed-by-divorce as “the road to freedom”. After one year in an awful marriage, she told us, she had done as she’d intended and secured through divorce the independence she could not have had if she had remained a marriageable girl, or a wife. It both stirred and sobered me to hear that a woman who had grown up in the same country as me, and been a girl when I was a girl, had been planning how to secure her freedom while I was idly dreaming of all I’d do with mine that was already granted. However hot we think we are on our intersectionality we need these vivid reminders; need not only to tick off the list of intersections – age, race, class, religion, ability, sexuality, gender non-conformity, etc. – when we make our sentences, but never to let our assessment of the status quo be informed by voices from only one group.

Which brings me to the status quo. At the end of each section of the book – Politics, Money, Identity, Violence, Culture, Power – having weighed up the evidence, Pankhurst offers a rating out of five for our progress since 1918. I won’t spoil the book, but she surveyed us in the audience on a few of these as well and two or three seemed to be the most common score. “We’ve done so much in terms of financial independence,” she said; “massive, massive changes… and yet, the structures still remain.” She thinks, though, that 2018 is “really important: something is going on” that is “resonant” of the movement for women’s suffrage a century ago. “If we could keep it up for ten years…”

And she’s “not just talking about gender” but “equality in all its fascinating diversity,” she adds. “Then as now, it’s not about men versus women; it’s about the dinosaurs versus those who want equality.” But she made it clear this doesn’t change that “we do know that one sex is suffering more than the other.” And “we are all responsible”: for “not getting involved in the pinkification of girls,” for “using our privilege to support others,” for “owning” the label feminist “because it’s the first step in saying there is a problem.”

When the conversation was opened up to the floor again at the end, an audience member asked her to comment on the contemporary tension between sex and gender – one of the most loaded questions a feminist can be asked in the current climate – and how she thought suffragists and suffragettes might have dealt with it. “It would have caused a split then just as now,” she said. “The vulnerability of trans people is unquestionable. … My starting point would be, let’s understand their vulnerability and look at how we can support them. If that means we have to open up our boxes, then I call for opening up. But I do understand how really difficult this is, in particular at times of shrinking support, for example … for facilities given to shelters and things like that.”

She also observed that there are more women transitioning to be men (which is not quite accurate, because historically there have always been more recorded male to female transitions and it is only recently that we are seeing a great upsurge of young females transitioning to male) and that this is “really interesting,” but that the media dwell almost exclusively on trans women (male to female) and are obsessed with “the feminising of that transition: they [the media] want the perfect trans. So we’ve got a problem with how information is coming to us,” she argues. What she would really like, she says, is for society to “start thinking in spectrum rather than binary ways”: it would be “a lot healthier if we could think about “sexual spectrums, gender spectrums, colour spectrums.” Her nephew is mixed race and so often being “asked to say he’s one or other of those – he’s not. None of us are.”

The other contentious issue that came up was the question of agency. “Women’s agency is what feminism is all about,” writes Pankhurst in the book; speaking of the fight for suffrage she says that “women’s agency was at the core of that movement. … Ideas about agency and about changing social norms.” I wanted to know what she’d think of recent claims – many coming from self-proclaimed feminists – that the #MeToo movement is an insult to or denial of female agency. Women like Melanie Phillips have suggested it is a movement to embrace the victimhood mentality and that women sexually harassed in the workplace should punch the guy and/or leave the job. I asked Pankhurst if she thinks that to say “I have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace” or “I have been the victim of street harassment” is compatible with agency?

“I do. I do, fundamentally. Because it’s speaking out: speaking out is agency. I don’t understand how you couldn’t see that” – and she laughs. “My answer would be to quote one of Emmeline’s speeches … when she said, ‘it’s to each of you the way you can.’ … the woman who doesn’t have the chance to speak out because of vulnerability, because of economic issues, etcetera: you can’t diminish her experience … for me, feminism is about finding where you want to put your mark.”

So if you can punch someone in the face, great; and if you can’t, because you need to keep that job, you can use the hashtag? “Yes,” she nodded. “And because it might not be your nature to do that: that might not be your response to it. Your response might be to write a blog, and that’s equally valid.”

There is more than one road to freedom.

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