Helen then turned to talking about modern day societal attitudes to women and activism. She talked of how there have been large leaps in many ways, for example reproductive rights and freedoms, but in other ways there remains very deep divides and problems. She spoke of violence against women, both inside and outside of the home, and the insidious effects of social media where women’s appearances are constantly scrutinised and narrow ideas of what women should look like are propagated widely.
We were privileged to have been able to welcome Helen Pankhurst last night to speak as part of our Rumble Museum Suffrage Season. Helen is the great granddaughter of the well-known leader of the British Suffragette Movement Emmeline Pankhurst, and the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst. She has followed in her family’s footsteps by involving herself in women’s rights and human rights activism, and currently works for CARE International.
Helen spoke first about the women’s suffrage movement itself 100 years ago, and societal attitudes to women. She spoke of how women were very much expected to be in the home, cooking, cleaning, and caring, and how in some ways these ideas have remained entrenched. She cited an example of a childless couple, where the woman was always asked why she never had children, whereas the man was never asked. She noted that the suffrage movement had united women across ethnic, religious and class backgrounds with a common cause. She also spoke of the debate around how women and men campaigned. She noted that there were those who felt that it was important to campaign for some women to get the right to vote, because once those women gained those rights, then this would then eventually spread to all women. Others viewed this as betraying women, and that it should always have been a fight for all women to vote.
She showed the audience a defaced coin with “Votes for Women” stamped across the king’s head, showing the suffragettes’ fierce attitudes to power, and also the medal which suffragettes awarded to those women who served prison sentences for their actions. She spoke about how this was a way to show that women were fighting a war, and how they were prepared to take militant action to achieve their goal.
She spoke about her work on the making of the 2015 film Suffragette directed by Sarah Gavron, and mentioned how Helena Bonham Carter, who acted in the film Suffragette as one of the leaders of the action, was in fact the great granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister at the time who opposed women’s votes!
She also spoke about the interesting reactions she had experiences from giving so many talks in this centenary year. She cited an example of a talk she gave in a male prison where the inmates related strongly to the struggles women face financially and professionally, as many of them had come from families where a mother was struggling to make ends meet, or had partners who were struggling while they were inside.
She finished with a call-to-action, pointing out that in ten years time, it will be the centenary for all women being able to vote – only some women were able to vote in 1918. She said that the women’s suffrage movement had achieved all that it did in eleven years, and we now had ten years to work on changes in attitudes within society, and to think hard about the society we want to live in in ten years time.
Finally Helen did a book-signing for her new 2018 book “Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now”, before everyone settled in to watch the 2015 film Suffragette, which movingly and sensitively depicts a group of working class women who get involved in the suffrage movement.
Helen’s talk was informative, inspirational and thought-provoking, and made the perfect introduction to the community viewing. We are very grateful to her for all her time and energy in visiting us to deliver it as part of our Rumble Museum Suffrage Season.