MODERN ECHOES OF THE SUFFRAGETTE MARCHES OF OLD
by Dr Helen Pankhurst
This month on the 4th of March, I will be leading ‘#March4Women’ in central London, the Sunday before International Women’s Day. We will be marching in the footsteps of my grandmother Sylvia, great aunts Christabel and Adela and great grandmother Emmeline, as well as the tens of thousands of suffragettes who rallied to hear them speak in Trafalgar Square – which is where this year’s rally and musical extravaganza will take place. On the centenary of the year some women finally won the right to vote, it is with mixed feelings that I will be there shoulder to shoulder with countless others, suffragette colours in the wind, calling out the ancestral battle cry of gender equality and ‘Deeds Not Words’.
The emotions include pride, of course, for all that women have achieved. And pride in the family’s complex role. The complexity itself a microcosm of differences within the movement. That pride is mixed with a sense of injustice for the very many women who made enormous sacrifices for the women’s vote and whose names have been forgotten. Those who were beaten, force fed, stigmatised, ostracised, humiliated, and downtrodden – all because of their demands to be counted as political citizens. And the reaction of a government who continued to find more and more brutal ways of silencing them. It is partly for the ‘forgotten foot soldiers’ of the movement that I will be donning my sash in remembrance – marching together with the Olympic suffragettes, a band of women who came together as volunteers at the Opening Ceremony of London Olympics and have gone on to use re-enactment to campaign today.
There is anger, too, that an entire century later, women still have not secured equal rights in this country and globally, in any sphere of life. This reality, though never in doubt, has been crystallised for me throughout the process of writing my book, Deeds Not Words, The Story of
Women’s Rights, Then and Now. I spoke to hundreds of women and girls in Britain from every walk of life, and analysed countless statistics. Each of the five main chapters is devoted to a different sphere of women’s rights: politics, money, identity, violence and culture, with quotes from women’s experiences bringing these to life. These include, for example, one from Frances Morris, the Director of Tate Modern, who commented:
“There is something powerful about my generation of women who have been brought up with gender bias from birth regulating our personal and professional lives and finding – not surprisingly – that now, empowered as a result of largely our own actions, we find a different way forward, as leaders, managers and colleagues. After so long on the margins this is gratifying. The margins are the place in the forest where the great mushrooms grow, in soil that has been racked over and disturbed but often disregarded. My generation has likewise been somewhat trampled, but like the best mushrooms in the margins, we are now showing our heads!”
Each thematic chapter is summarised with a score out of five as a way to reflect on how close we have come to full equality. No chapter ends with five out of five. Shamefully, it is violence against women in all its different forms that is dragging us behind and infecting every aspect of women’s lives. The final substantive chapter entitled ‘power’ pulls the analysis together in a more analytical way by looking at case studies exploring how best we can move forward.
Returning to the issue of the modern echoes of the suffragette march, there’s also a sense of sorrow. Every generation of feminism has tried to push society forward in terms of also addressing other inequalities – but they have often fallen short of their own aspirations, let alone those of subsequent generations. Although they are critiqued for being a middle-class movement, many in the suffragette movement undoubtedly pushed against society’s rigid distinctions, including those of age, class, wealth, sexuality, colour and disability.
Many of the most privileged women, however, also wanted social change only to the extent that it benefited them without challenging their own areas of privilege. The same applies today. I’m acutely aware that the women’s movement here in the UK has made the most progress in areas that benefit those who are already in a position of comparative privilege, leaving behind multitudes of women whose disadvantages extend beyond their biological sex. We could achieve so much more if we were more sensitive to double and triple discrimination – ensuring that those who are most disenfranchised have the greatest voice.
Furthermore, in an increasingly interconnected world, our solidarity needs to extend beyond the shores of our own country. Feminism is increasingly, undeniably and urgently a global issue. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, and spent much of my adult life working for international organisations including CARE International on women’s issues in developing countries. The work has addressed sexual and reproductive rights, and improving access to clean water and sanitation. The strongest form of feminism opens its eyes to the world as experienced by all women, and builds solidarity with women globally.
Since the battle is now not one for a single Act that is in the hands of government, as it was in the run up to 1918 and 1928, but rather the transformation of social norms in society as a whole. We need boys and men to be marching, marching alongside their friends and colleagues, their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and granddaughters. By doing so they are consciously speaking up against traditional forms of entitlement, taking on the role of allies, and they are also growing, strengthening the visibility of a masculinity defined by harmony and not toxicity. The support of many men has been pivotal in making #March4Women happen – support for example by male CARE staff, by the Mayor of London who has kindly partnered with the organisers, and by the wonderful composer David Arnold, who is producing a star-studded musical line-up for the rally.
So, join me in London for #March4Women. It’s a unique moment of celebration and determination bringing people together of all backgrounds – of all ages, genders and nationalities. We will be joined by women MPs from every political party and by women leaders in many others spheres too, including civil servants, those in business, law, teaching, music, dance, poetry and, always my favourite, women activists of all background and all ages. And that is why I hope that, on 4th March, the prevailing feeling among the crowd will be one of affirmation and celebration – reflected in the spectacular line-up of those who will be entertaining us on the day. It is a day of joy mixed with purpose with the echoes of past struggles resonating loudly. The gender equality goal is still very much work in progress.
Join Helen at CARE International’s #March4Women on Sunday 4 March. www.march4women.co.uk. March4Women will be hosted by comedian and broadcaster Sue Perkins. Speakers include the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Bianca Jagger, Dr Shola Shogbamimu (Author, Lawyer, Public Speaker & Women Rights Champ), Faeeza Vaid (Muslim Women’s Network), and poet Salena Godden. With a star-studded line-up of singers, including a musical finale produced by acclaimed composer David Arnold.
References:  Frances Morris, email to author, 23 January, 2017,  http://votingcounts.org.uk/rosa-may-billinghurst; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/politics/aristocrat-anarchist-princess-sophia-duleep-singh-parted-ways/