The Suffragettes and the keeper of the Pankhurst flame

As a descendant of the movement’s first family, Helen Pankhurst had an extra reason to encourage – and play a small role in – Sarah Gavron’s film about the suffragettes

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette only briefly rubs against the family at the heart of the movement for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. Meryl Streep's Emmeline Pankhurst – mighty hat and soaring vowels – emerges from a window and calls us back to what seems like an impossibly distant era. Is it only a century ago?

It is, thus, simultaneously disconcerting and comforting to realise that Dr Helen Pankhurst, born a year or so after me, is separated by just two generations from the suffragette dynasty. Her grandmother was Sylvia Pankhurst, politically radical daughter of Emmeline, and Helen brandishes the family name with pride.

“It is amazing that it is so recent,” she says. “This means that, just two generations back in your family, there will be people on both sides of this issue. We forget how, just those few generations ago, things could have gone in very different ways.”

Do people pick up on that famous surname? It’s not a common one.


“Not quite on a daily basis,” she says. “But the conversation will sometimes veer off on that direction. When I was younger I used to get more snide comments about it. But now people tend to say: ‘Isn’t that fantastic? They were so brave.’”

Snide comments

People made snide comments about the Pankhursts? Their stance is, surely, no longer controversial. “It was almost like a reflection of the anti-suffragette propaganda of the time. ‘Is that really how women should have behaved? They were terrorists, weren’t they?’ There’s this sexist diminishing of them. I still get a bit of this in the troll comments on articles I write. ‘You’re hiding behind your ancestors’ petticoats’, and so on.”

Dear lord. There are many battles still to be won.

As happened with the later US civil rights campaigns, the Women’s Social and Political Union was disturbed by disputes as to how much the movement should be involved with wider political concerns. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had earlier campaigned with her husband for the Independent Labour Party, felt the focus should be solely on the core issue, and ended up drifting to the right. Sylvia remained a committed socialist throughout her life.

There were other disagreements. It is interesting to note that the name Pankhurst has been passed to Helen through mother and grandmother. That is still rare.

“Sylvia didn’t believe in marriage,” says Dr Pankhurst. “She felt it was imbalanced in favour of the man. She felt it was important to live the campaign. When I married, my ex – we’re now divorced – knew there was no issue of my changing my name. And it will stay because my daughter feels passionately about it.”

Radical Mancunian

Emmeline Pankhurst, from a middle-class radical Mancunian family, did not approve of Sylvia having children “out of wedlock”. “That’s right. Feminism cuts across so many other schisms, and families don’t necessarily take the same path. As a young adult, [Emmeline] was a socialist; as she became older, she became a conservative. Sylvia changed too, but her left-wing views, including freedom within marriage, remained.”

Dr Pankhurst appears to have inherited her grandmother’s radical spirit. She was raised partly in Ethiopia, where her father, Richard Pankhurst, was a distinguished academic and campaigner. She secured a doctorate in social studies from the University of Edinburgh and now speaks for humanitarian organisations, such as Care International.

Meanwhile, she finds herself unofficial keeper of the Pankhurst flame. She has a small role in Suffragette, which stars Carey Mulligan as a working-class woman radicalised by everyday gender discrimination.

“I do try and be supportive of any such project,” she says. “That’s how we keep it in the media. I saw the script and it was fantastic, primarily because it showed that this struggle could be about anybody. It wasn’t about the leadership. It was about a young woman’s move from accepting the rubbish of life to standing up against it.”

Opening ceremony

And then there were the 2012 Olympics: Dr Pankhurst got to lead a group of woman dressed as suffragettes in Danny Boyle’s hilariously antic and right-on opening ceremony. That must have been a hoot.

“Life throws odd things at you, now and then,” she says, smiling. “Never would I have thought that I’d be at an Olympics ceremony. There I was with my daughter. We were there with the rings coming up and hearing our hearts beating through the drums. Astonishing.”

Was this appearance, alongside Churchill, the National Health Service and the Beatles, final confirmation that the suffragette movement was now accepted as one of the UK’s defining creations? “Isn’t it ironic? I think that’s exactly what’s happened. They have finally been taken on despite the belligerent attitude at the time. That’s fantastic!”

Suffragette opens next week