Votes For Women! Feminspire Interviews The Pankhursts
Who was paying attention in Year 8 history? Raise your hands ladies, there must be some of you. You don’t have to be British to play, although it might help. Some schools have a frightful habit of only teaching the history of the country they’re in.
If you don’t recognise Emmeline Pankhurst’s name, then it’s time for your History Refresher lesson. The topic is women’s rights, and today we’re going right back to the beginning, when women didn’t even have the right to vote. Ah, I can almost see your cogs clicking as you start to remember what you learnt about the Votes For Women campaign, and perhaps an image has appeared of Mrs Banks wearing her sash and singing Sister Suffragette in Mary Poppins. Mrs Banks was a suffragette, and the leader and founder of the suffragette movement was Emmeline Pankhurst.
Frustrated by the slow pace and failure to achieve change of the suffragist movement, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. While the suffragists had campaigned peacefully for the women’s right to vote, making speeches and liaising with Members of Parliament, Emmeline’s motto for the new WSPU was “Deeds Not Words.” In 1906, a journalist at the Daily Mail derogatively referred to militant women as “suffragettes” – a diminutive of the word “suffragist” – but Emmeline reclaimed the word and WSPU members referred to themselves as suffragettes from then on. The group became known for its militant and violent protests, and for the prison hunger strikes of its members who were arrested for smashing windows, striking or spitting on policemen and politicians, holding violent protests outside or breaking into Parliament. The prisoners were famously violently force-fed using tubes inserted into their noses and mouths. The police became increasingly violent in how they dealt with protesting women, frequently punching them, twisting their arms, and pulling their breasts. The suffragettes added arson to their list of tactics, and used acid to burn slogans into a golf course regularly used by MPs. One suffragette threw an axe at a car containing the Prime Minister.
Not all women’s rights activists agreed with these tactics. Millicent Fawcett, who led the more moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, declared in 1912 that the suffragettes’ violent protests were “the chief obstacles in the way of success of the suffrage movement in the House of Commons.” They were criticized for acting in ways that made men think they were irrational, insane, violent, and therefore certainly unable to vote. The rifts extended to Emmeline’s own family; her daughters Christabel, Sylvia (pictured), and Adela were all involved in the WSPU. Christabel, described by Sylvia as her mother’s favourite, aligned herself entirely with the violence advocated by the WSPU. Adela was the first to leave the organization, because she was uncomfortable with the level of property destruction. Sylvia also grew uncomfortable with what she described as her sister’s “autocracy” and began to work closely with other groups, leading Christabel to believe she was setting up a rival group. Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister in 1914. In 1918, women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote. In 1928, women were fully enfranchised on the same terms as men, able to vote from the age of 21.
Today, Sylvia’s granddaughter Helen Pankhurst and Helen’s 17 year old daughter Laura Pankhurst are intrinsically and passionately involved in feminism and women’s rights. You may have seen them at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, dressed as suffragettes and celebrating an extremely important period in the history of Britain and women’s rights. Feminspire is extremely grateful and honoured to present an interview with the Pankhursts in which Helen and Laura discuss the suffragettes and the ongoing importance of feminism.
How does your ancestry affect how you’ve grown up? Do you think you would be advocates of women’s rights without it?
Helen: I’ve been molded by growing up in Ethiopia and by my feminist heritage. It’s almost impossible for me to think of myself without these interests. They are in my bones somehow.
Laura: Likewise, I honestly cannot even think about separating the feminist, interested-in-human-rights, equality, etc. parts of me from me as a person – it just doesn’t work!
How do you respond to those who argue that the suffragette movement was detrimental to women’s rights by making women seem violent/irrational/driven by emotion?
Laura: Yes, they were driven by emotion, but to me it’s inconceivable that being driven is anything but a good thing. As for violent and irrational, maybe this was sometimes the case, but these actions were inherently useful since they sparked a debate about women’s rights.
Helen: The movement was characterized by many different approaches, some of which were violent, but it is a simplification to assume that that was what it was all about. The Suffragettes should really be remembered for the large variety of audacious, colourful and clever stunts that they undertook, individually and collectively, to change public perceptions about the role of women in society.
They also faced the brutality of a state that would not listen to them. It was the state that was violent/irrational and driven by an emotion – the fear of change. Why do we remember the suffragettes as the ones doing the violence not the politicians, the police, the law and the prison system?
That said, Sylvia, my grandmother, was at odds with some of the more violent strategies adopted by some of the Suffragettes, including some tactics endorsed by her sister and mother. I tend to side with Sylvia, and I think that her more democratic approach, based on lobbying and mass protest, but really building up pressure and using imaginative approaches to keep the issue on the agenda, was more powerful. Sylvia did also resort to violence, but it was violence against herself, going on hunger strike until Asquith agreed to listen – not to her – but to a delegation of working class women from the East End of London who could explain the economic and social arguments behind their demands for the right to vote. This meeting was a critical moment in history, which had a significant influence on changing the views of the Prime Minister.
What are the most important issues facing women today? Why are these issues problematic and what can be done?
Laura: Many people still don’t want to believe that discrimination, inequality and abuse are a reality, and not just a million miles away but right under their noses. The number of people who can be given the facts, can be shown what’s happening, and can still look the other way is incredible.
Helen: In many societies worldwide, women are still the property of others, particularly of their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons. Mothers and grandmothers also often play a role in perpetuating abuses against girls, in practices such as early and forced marriages and in some parts of the world in female genital mutilation. Economically, socially and politically, women therefore remain second-class citizens in many different mutually reinforcing ways. Even at the most basic level – and particularly in some poorer societies – the drudgery that women have to face on a day to day is just appalling. Tasks such as long treks to collect potable water or fuel-wood belong in the ancient past, not the 21st Century. Unfortunately however, they are still a reality for millions of women.
The feminist movement has a long history and there have been many not-so-wonderful moments when it has failed to be inclusive and understanding of non-Western, non-liberal, LGBT, and trans* communities. How has feminism changed and what developments does it still need to make?
Helen: The good news is that that feminism is alive and better still, it seems to be gaining traction, and becoming more powerful in innumerable ways. I’m not sure that it has become more inclusive and united, but I hope so. Ideally, we should take on both our own battles – the ones that we feel passionately about because of our own experiences – but at the same time, we also all need to support women addressing different problems on the other side of the world, or even women facing a totally different set of issues next door to us. It’s this dual approach of taking control of our own lives, but also supporting others that is most likely to ensure sustained change – for us all.
Laura: Feminism is still something that people are scared to be associated with, even if at heart they believe in it. This needs to change – anyone can be a feminist, young or old, man or woman, conservative, liberal or anywhere in between. We can all have a slightly different focus, but there needs to be more unity across our differences, so that we can get more done.
Helen: With these changes, feminism can become an extremely powerful force that helps young women as they navigate through life. Already I can see a strong impact of feminism on young women: it encourages them to stand up for themselves, to understand the importance of their independence – including financial independence, and to build purpose to their lives – as they want to define this, and not as others might want to do so on their behalf.
How important do you think it is to engage men in feminist activism? Do you think men can be feminists, or only allies?
Helen: It’s good to see this question. Engaging men always has been and always will be critical – we live in a world made up of men and women and cannot make it a better place for anyone, unless we tackle the relationship between the two. For me there is a need for women to share their experiences as women, to enjoy that ‘female’ space and to take up issues on behalf of women, just as there is a need for other categories of society to group together to celebrate their common identity, experience and cause. Ideally we pick up several banners when we engage in feminist activism, so we are aware of the multiple discriminations of gender, colour, religion, disability, poverty, etc and can highlight compounding problems. Both women and men have multi-layered identities and they need to engage with each other both because of their other common layers, but also because, fundamentally, feminism asks both men and women to change their attitudes. The feminist movement strengthens women’s sense of common identity and purpose, but we need to do this in ways that encourages men to work with us to build this better, more supportive, decent and richer world, and not to oppose change, or worse still turn back the clock and try and take us all back to a more repressive and oppressive world.
What websites, books, and resources would you recommend every young feminist use to educate themselves?
Helen: In the list below we have chosen books we have loved that have a feminist-‘ish’ angle,
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
- The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
- Jane Austen (all!)
- Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
- The Red Tent – Anita Diamant
- Braided Lives – Marge Piercy
- The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan
- The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
- Virginia Woolf (all!)
For anyone who wants to know more about the Suffragette movement and the links with other causes, through the perspective of my grandmother, there is a newly published book on Sylvia Pankhurst by Shirley Harrison called the ‘The Rebellious Suffragette’ and a more academic one ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: A life in Radical Politics’ by Marie Davis.
Feminspire would like to extend deep-hearted thanks to Helen and Laura Pankhurst for talking to us. What did you think of their views? Do you feel inspired by the suffragettes? Join us in the comments.
Written by Abbey Lewis
Follow her on Twitter!
May 23, 2013
May 23, 2013
May 22, 2013
May 22, 2013