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Carrying on the fight for rights started by the Pankhurst women more than 100 years ago

Helen Pankhurst, Great-granddaughter of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, is coming to Huddersfield

On the eve of a visit to the Huddersfield Literature Festival, Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of the suffragette leader Emmeline, talks about the continuing battle for women’s rights the name Pankhurst is embedded into our nation’s modern history.

It speaks of suffragettes, women’s rights and a family at the forefront of the activism that 100 years ago won women the partial right to vote.

For Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, it’s a name that has always attracted attention – and not just in Britain.

'Emmeline Pankhurst'. Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C


She was raised in Ethiopia, where her grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst, another of the suffragette movement’s famous figures, spent the last few years of her life.

Helen’s father Richard, who acquired the Pankhurst name because his mother stubbornly refused to marry, remained there and worked as an historian and professor at the University of Addis Ababa.

She explains: “The name was well known in Ethiopia because of my father’s interest in Ethiopian history and with Sylvia’s link to the country, which was exceptional and unusual.

“When I came to the UK in the summer holidays people would ask me about my surname and there was a gradual realisation over time how interested people were; I found I needed to know more and more about it.”

Helen is proud of her legacy and has followed in the footsteps of both her father and the iconic Pankhurst women by becoming an academic and a tireless campaigner for women’s rights. She has a PhD in social science and works for the humanitarian agency CARE International in the UK and Ethiopia as a senior advisor promoting gender equality.

Helen Pankhurst, great-grandaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst


While Helen acknowledges that we’ve come a long way from the days when suffragettes were arrested and force fed in the fight to acquire the simple, basic right to have a democratic vote, she says there’s still a lot of work to be done.

This opinion has been reinforced by her research for a new book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now, which she will be promoting at Huddersfield Literature Festival on Saturday, March 17, in an event with Yorkshire writer Joanne Harris.

While compiling her book Helen spoke to around 400 women and girls of all ages and from as many different backgrounds as possible. She concluded the struggle for equality is being hampered by the fact that our society still places too much emphasis on how women look and not on what they say or do.


Suffragette Dora Thewlis from Huddersfield being 'escorted' following arrest in March 1907(Image: UGCG HDE)


Her research also unearthed a disturbing reality – that violence against women is pervasive in our society. “Over two years of talking to women it was violence against women that came up time and time again,” she said. “A culture that allows that violence gives so much control and power to men. We have to look at how physical power links to social and political power, privilege, and assumptions that it’s OK to watch porn and buy sex. It’s about the objectification of women. Fundamentally, we are still evaluated because of what we look like, not what we do, and until that changes men will continue to behave like they do.”

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of People Act 1918, which gave property-owning women over the age of 30 the right to vote. It was a major victory for the suffragettes, whose long and, at times, bloody campaign had demanded great personal sacrifice.

Helen was commissioned two years ago to write a book to mark this centenary and couldn’t have imagined that around the time of its publication the media would be buzzing with stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood and Westminster and among aid charities. What’s more, recently released Crime Survey figures show that one in five women have been the victim of a sexual assault, a figure little changed since 2005.

Pay equality is another issue Helen would like to see tackled. She believes one of the reasons for continuing disparity is that successive Governments have not put in place the right policies to support families and help women to work after having a baby. As she says, there’s no reason why having a baby should hamper a woman’s career, after an initial period of giving birth, breastfeeding and recovery: “But society says women are primarily there to procreate and men are the breadwinners. Governments understand the physical infrastructure of society – our roads etc – but don’t understand the social infrastructure. Men spending quality time with children is as important as women doing it. But if you don’t value that then there’s a belief that work outside the home is more important.”

Marchers take part in the March4Women, in Westminster, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday March 4, 2018. The march marks the centenary of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 by retracing the steps of the suffragettes past Parliament to Trafalgar Square. See PA story PROTEST March. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wired: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire


Western women no longer have to battle for basic freedoms and rights, while many around the world are living in oppressive regimes, but Helen says it’s dangerous to point the finger when abuses and inequalities can still be found in the West. She explained: “Britain had one of the highest early marriage figures in the world and in the US in some states it’s still allowed for 12-year-old girls to get married. Poverty and vulnerability often come together and women bear the brunt.”

The parent of two grown-up children, including a daughter who is training to be a lawyer, Helen believes young women today don’t necessarily take for granted the sacrifices of the suffragettes, they just have other issues to face. “My generation”, she says, “isn’t as attuned to the mental health issues of today’s young people, or their Facebook and social media obsession. But the millennials look at us and say ‘why didn’t you fight more for equal pay and equality issues’. Each generation is unaware of the fight of the previous generation.”

However, the brave activists of the early 20th century are not forgotten and many millennials know the name Pankhurst, as the struggles of the suffragettes are taught in high schools. My own daughter, who took history at both GCSE and A level, can list the names of the entire family and understands their place in social history. Whether or not the current young generation will continue the fight, however, is another matter and a worry to Helen, who says women need to stand up, speak out and become politically active – to live up to the suffragette slogan Deeds not Words.

Tickets to see Helen at Huddersfield Central Library are £5 and £8 from

Advances in women’s rights since 1918

1918 – women win the partial right to vote and The Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act is passed, enabling women to stand as MPs.

1920 The Sex Discrimination Removal Act allows women access to the legal profession and accountancy.

1928 All women in Britain gain equal voting rights with men.

1956 In Britain, legal reforms say that women teachers and civil servants should receive equal pay.

1965 Barbara Castle is appointed Minister of Transport, becoming the first female minister of state.

1968 Women at the Ford car factory in Dagenham strike in order to gain parity with other skilled, male workers. Their protest led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

1974 Contraception becomes available through the NHS.

1975 The Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training.

1982 The Court of Appeal decides that bars and pubs can no longer refuse to servie women at the bar as this constitutes sex discrimination.

1994 Rape in marriage is made a crime after 15 years of serious campaigning by women’s organisations.

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