Interviewing Helen Pankhurst

By Former Editor-in-Chief Guinevere Poncia 

Helen Pankhurst is a women’s rights activists and an expert in international development, particularly women’s rights in Ethiopia. She is also the great-granddaughter and granddaughter, respectively, of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, both leaders in the British suffragette movement. Guinevere Poncia caught up with her before her appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

Absolutely. Because the term ‘feminism’ draws attention to gender inequality and the fact that society is still man-made in so many ways, and by labelling that as an issue that needs to be addressed by calling yourself a feminist you are identifying with that sense that you have to do something about it, which is the first step to addressing it. If we don’t even have the courage to name it as a problem, there’s no way we are going to start addressing the underlying issues that it speaks to. 

What place does identity politics play in solving social and political challenges? Is it a useful approach?

In the book I have just written I identify that change happens through three aspects. First, institutional, structural and legal formal mechanisms. But, it cannot happen unless you consider the other two aspects, one being agency of individuals (engagements, beliefs etc.) and the other concerns traditions and social norms – things that are not necessary legislated, but actually affect what people think. 

In an individual person’s experience their identity forms, influences and affects their experiences just as much as structures or other intangibles. To dismiss those i.e. to describe someone as simply an economic or political being by which your colour, gender or sexuality has no bearing is not true to our experiences. To me, we really have to understand that people are living their lives according to a number of factors of which identity plays a key role. For women, issues surrounding how we are treated as youngsters and issues related to our reproductive and caring roles is central to the opportunities afforded to them. We cannot pretend that this isn’t happening and we need men to understand that, which brings the issue into politics.

How do you go about explaining the merits of identity politics to others? 

I’ve heard Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, say this lots of times – that men tend to think about physical infrastructure, such as economy and investment when looking at societal problems, whereas women tend to focus on social infrastructure, such as nursing, health and social care provisions. That is not to say that all men would focus on physical infrastructure, or all women on social, but there are those different approaches and a lot of studies have shown how incredibly important the returns from investment in social infrastructure are. Austerity has led to cuts in social infrastructure, but we really should be focusing on it to generate a healthy economy. So that is just one example by which traditional ways of thinking of policies can be seen to focus on one (not exclusively, but often gendered) approach.

The other thing is how you challenge valuation. The world is built on a certain way of valuing what counts and doesn’t count, and traditionally women have been in jobs (the so-called ‘five Cs’: caring, cooking, clerical, cashiering, and cleaning) that a male-dominated society has valued less than technical occupations that support physical infrastructure. So, if you rethink valuation, you end up with a very different world. Then when it comes to colour, I don’t know how you explain to someone who doesn’t understand the layers and layers of discrimination of society which means that it is not a level playing field, and unless it can be we are going to get nowhere. 

You have a background in international development, how did this come about and how does this affect your work on women’s rights in the UK?

Well, I was born in Ethiopia because Sylvia (Emmeline’s middle daughter) started a campaign to raise awareness of the fact that Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia – an act of aggression that needed championing in the West. Bearing in mind that when there was the Civil War in Spain that many left-wing people took up arms and protested on the understanding that it was an infringement on rights, but no-one was taking any notice of what was going on in Ethiopia. 

I was very influenced by this early background and after studying economics in development issues, I realised that poverty and gender were intimately linked. I remember recognising the inconsistencies in society in this area, for example, it is women who carry very heavy water on their backs day-in-day-out and do other heavy chores, and yet society says women are weak! I wanted to work on those issues of poverty and social marginalisation to see how closely interlinked those two are. 

When it comes to how this influences my work in the UK, it is very much about bringing three separate actors together. On the one hand there are those who are interested in women’s history, suffrage, and the path of women in the past. Then there are those people who are campaigners in women’s rights today, and finally those who are interested in international development. I wanted to bring those actors together to say that these things are inter-linked, and more space needs to be given to consider those linkages.  

One of the events I do is the International Women’s Day March, and the spirit there is all about bringing these issues together and getting rid of all the schisms that exist in society that are, as far as I’m concerned, retrograde. 

The other really powerful position that I want to hold on to is to explain to those people who think of development as “poor them” and simply as a charitable endeavour, that it is a lot more complicated than that. One of the questions I always ask people is what country they think has the greatest percentage of women in parliament… their eyes widen when I tell them it is in Africa, Rwanda in fact. It is really powerful because it counters this image that they have less than we do. The second highest percentage is in Bolivia in South America and again, attitudes begin to shift. 

Talking about the fact that we are in a universal, global story of privilege and unaccountability, in which some countries are doing better than others, but that we won’t resolve any of the important issues unless we work together. This is what I feel most passionate about. 

Finally, you are speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the #MeToo movement, what do you think of the movement and what in your opinion is its future?

I think the movement has been fantastic at shedding light on the dark shadows where some appalling acts have taken and continue to take place. When you go back to the ideas of agency, social norms, and institutional change, what we had historically in terms of legislation against violence in the workplace, it is not enough and needs to be strengthened. 

There is an initiative around the International Labour Organisation developing a policy on harassment at the workplace at the moment and if this kind of global framework gets put into place, then you have really globally all the legal systems stepping up to the plate and improving. There was an idea of doing that independent of the #MeToo movement, but the movement, with its focus on agency, the voices of individuals, and changing social norms has brought together three things that will cause a step change. I think fundamentally something has shifted because people have spoken out.

Now, the people who have been able to speak out are those with privilege – by and large, well-seen, visible women, and some women without those privileges have tried to do the same and not been able to do so. And they are aware of this, and people are increasingly coming together and talking about the fact that some people can speak out and others cannot. We are on a journey and I desperately hope that the media will stick with us on this journey as they amplify the voices of the few who can speak out. If we keep all of this together then future generations will not suffer in the same way.  

As a final note, one of the things I have heard when travelling and talking to people around the country is that in their workplace there is a new language of “don’t be a Harvey” that has emerged out of all this suffering. 

Helen Pankhurst will be talking about her book Deeds Not Words (Hodder, £9.99) at Cheltenham Literature Festival 5-14th October.

Image: Katy Blackwood @WikimediaCommons


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