Dr Helen Pankhurst (AFRAS 1987) is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders in the British suffragette movement. She is CARE International UK’s campaign ambassador.
Helen was born in Ethiopia and worked for three years as the Country's Representative for WaterAid. She also worked as Head of International Programmes at WOMANKIND Worldwide and as the Regional Manager for the Horn of Africa at the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD).
What first attracted you to study at Sussex?
Its reputation as a radical university; proximity to Brighton and the beach; the existence of AFRAS, with its focus on Africa and Asia in an inter-disciplinary way, and the presence of the Institute of Development Studies.
What are your favourite memories of Sussex?
Sunny days, walking on the campus between classes, chatting with friends before and after lectures…the general buzz of the place. In contrast, escaping to the top floor of the library, the desks overlooking the main campus in the manuscripts section, and being able to study in complete peace and quiet.
You were involved in the making of the film Suffragette. Can you describe your experiences on-set and whether it gave you the ability to virtually inhabit the world in which your great-grandmother lived?
I’ve always been asked about my Pankhurst heritage and it’s been an important part of my identity. In the past, this was in terms of what I read and what people asked me about; I didn’t have a visual angle. However, my daughter and I took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, dressed up as suffragettes. I realised then the power of imagery and reenactment. My involvement in the film Suffragette has magnified this awareness and sense of connection to the past.
Can you comment on the role that men can play in furthering gender equality?
Clearly nothing will change without men being involved, as drivers of change. The most powerful demonstration of this I have seen recently is the Dear Daddy video that CARE Norway produced and which has gone viral – indicating that it has touched some kind of a nerve.
It’s about time that there was increased pressure on the political establishment to be more representative. For all it's strengths, our parliament continues to be a dinosaur in more ways than one.” Helen Pankhurst
What do you think of the newly-founded Women's Equality party, co-founded by fellow Sussex alumna Catherine Mayer?
I’m a keen supporter of WE - it’s about time that there was increased pressure on the political establishment to be more representative. For all its strengths, our parliament continues to be a dinosaur in more ways than one.
What are the biggest challenges facing CARE International, on a global scale, in 2016?
As I write this, the world seems to have turned on its dark side. According to the UNHCR, worldwide displacement has hit an all-time high, as a result of wars, conflicts and persecution, as well as climate-change related disasters. Globally, these are challenges to CARE in its emergency response work. However, much of CARE’s work is development focused, addressing entrenched and pernicious inequalities and poverty. One of the main challenges is addressing social norms, including ones around gender, finding ways of transforming them, from ones that constrain and constrict to ones that encourage and empower.
Can you envision total gender quality in the UK being achieved soon, or is there too much work still to be done to achieve it quickly?
There is a lot more to be done in terms of women’s agency, changing social norms and battling intuitional inequality. Political, social and economic inequality is still, globally, the dominant pattern and progress is slow, and far from guaranteed.
A lot of inequality is also very obviously there and not really challenged. Take just one simple example, the issue of choice of surnames. How many ‘Spotlight on…’ readers have negotiated what surname they, and more importantly their children carry forward? My sense is that it’s still a very small minority. For as long as most of our surnames are primarily, almost without question, carried down through the male line, we are symbolically invisibilising women and perpetuating gender inequality.
Where is home for you, Ethiopia or the UK?
Who's influenced your life most (and why)?
My grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst, because of all the social causes she was involved in – from issues around women’s right to vote, to wider franchise issues or pacifism in WW1, anti-semitism, anti-racism and internationalism to name but a few. She died before I was born, but my views were informed by reading about hers.
What’s the skill you’d most like to have?
To have a productive pastime, to be able to switch off by making something, painting, gardening...
What are you passionate about?
At the moment I’m gearing up to our annual International Women’s Day Walk in London under CARE’s Walk In Her Shoes Campaign. I love the opportunity of honouring the suffragettes, with many people including my fellow Olympic Suffragettes, getting dressed up, bringing together domestic women’s rights activists within a global feminist agenda.
Who’s your hero/heroine?
One of my friends, Cecilia Drayton. She is the most kind-hearted, life-loving, positive and funny person I have ever met. Also the poet Lemn Sissay, an amazing man.
What's your favourite quote or motto?
In keeping with the suffragette theme it has to be ‘deeds not words’. Saying you will do something is just not good enough, it’s the deed that counts.
What can’t you live without?
It’s really sad to say this, but not sure how long I could survive without my mobile.
What's your favourite pastime/relaxation activity?
Short walks every day.
What qualities do you most admire in other people?
Those who can be both analytically sharp and at the same time empathetic and kind.
I have just finished reading Mrs Shaw by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, the son of Ngugi Wa Thiongo whose literature I was introduced to at Sussex. It’s a powerful book about activism and exile, and both personal and political betrayals in a fictitious African country.