In continued celebration of The Women’s Organisations 20th Birthday, we recently welcomed Dr Helen Pankhurst through our doors for a very special event. Dr Helen Pankhurst is very much following in the awe-inspiring footpath of her great Grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst, a British political activist and leader of the suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote.

Dr Helen Pankhurst is a women’s rights activist and senior advisor to the humanitarian and development agency CARE International, a Board Member of ActionAid, and a Visiting Professor at the LSE and at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works partly in Ethiopia supporting the development of programs focused on the interests and needs of women and girls. In the UK, she is a public speaker and writer on feminist issues.

Women have come a long way since the Suffragette movement, but the fight for economic equality continues – nowhere more so than here at The Women’s Organisation; the largest developer and deliverer of enterprise support targeting women in the UK led by our CEO, Maggie O’Carroll. 

So what happened when we brought together two of the pioneers leading today’s women’s rights movement? We looked back at just how far we have come over the past 20 years in improving women’s economic development, considering the changes in women’s lives over the last century and of course, we asked Helen – What would your Great Grandmother say?

Helen spent a moment reflecting on her great grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst, identifying the three crucial motives of the Suffragettes. This began with institutional and legal change in allowing women the right to vote, “but there were two other phenomenally important elements, the first is agency; women standing up and doing something in their own lives – looking at things differently and conceiving of the world differently”. The women’s rights movement exists because a single person has classified attitudes towards women as oppressive and dared to imagine a different world. 

The last and most crucial element of the Suffragette movement was moving from agency to action and actively challenging social norms, “changing the white society’s views about what women could and couldn’t do”. Helen argued that these three crucial elements can still be applied to any women’s work that takes place today; such as what goes on right here at The Women’s Organisation in striving for economic equality – recognising something as problematic and doing something to change it. 

Helen paid particular attention to the critical importance of role models – people who teach and inspire us to see the world in a new light and who are often prone to being teared down by the media, “We need to raise them up when we see them and support them when the media then turns on them. For every woman that is brought up, the media will have a field day in cutting them down … Social media has a tremendous opportunity to hold to account main media”

Social media was a running theme of the event and Helen encouraged us to reclaim the internet as a source of power by engaging in ‘call-out culture’. Furthermore, to contemplate how we can use social media as a platform to reiterate facts and statistics and remind people that there is still a need to fight for gender equality, “a lack of data causes a problem, we’ve seen in a referendum just how dangerous a lack of facts can be … One of the things we can really do through social media and in other ways is to get those facts out there”.

The event taught us that social media is encouraging us to break down the barriers of not only gender, but also race, class, religion etc.; “these simplistic schisms, blow them away and let’s see who people are and who they want to be. Once we allow people to be who they want to, things become a lot more interesting”

The brave and courageous actions from the Suffragettes prompted a feminist movement that we continue today. When asking Helen just what her Great Grandmother would say, she told us that each success no matter how big or small is a mark of victory and indeed a step in the right direction.

Feedback of the event left from the attendees included:

“Greatness at its best – what amazing conversations”

“Language … How impactive and potentially negative. Language such as ‘you guys’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘man up!’”

“A room full of power and inspiration – thank you”

“Fabulous, thought-provoking and inspiring”

“Great questions and a very useful reminder that we are all role models”

“Helen is a brilliant woman who speaks our language”

“A call to action. Time to think big thoughts again. What a great event”

“A privilege to be a part of this discussion – inspiring”

If you would like to be kept up to date with our future events, then head over to the events page of our website