Interview with Helen Pankhurst

The women’s rights activist on balancing fun and purpose and growing up as the great-granddaughter of the leader of the British suffragette movement

January 24, 2019
helen-pankhurst
Source: University of Suffolk

Helen Pankhurst is a writer, academic and women’s rights activist, and the great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the British movement to win the right for women to vote. She is a senior adviser at humanitarian agency CARE International, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and a visiting professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. Dr Pankhurst’s book, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights – Then and Now, was published last year. Last month she was installed as the first chancellor of the University of Suffolk.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1964 and lived there until the age of 12.

How has this shaped you?
My earliest memories, sounds, sights, smells and tastes come from Ethiopia. I speak Amharic fluently and – because I have returned there often to work, live and visit family – the country has continued to shape me. It has been at the core of my career in international development and my belief in the power of intersectional feminism.

What was it like growing up as a descendant of leaders of the British suffragette movement?
The Pankhurst surname isn’t as well known in Ethiopia as it is in the UK. Or rather, it is well known but for different reasons. My grandmother Sylvia (Emmeline’s middle daughter) supported the cause of Ethiopian freedom against the Italian occupation by Mussolini in 1935 and became well known and well loved for doing so. The surname is also known because of my father’s subsequent work in making Ethiopian history accessible to a wide audience through newspaper and magazine articles. It was when I came to the UK in the summer holidays, and then once we moved, that the name was picked up on by adults. I was asked many questions and had to find answers – other people’s knowledge and curiosity sparked my own.

You father was a historian, your mother a librarian. How did this impact on your childhood?
I was brought up in an intellectual, rather than an activist, family. My parents both encouraged a love of books, and academic work was valued and encouraged.

What kind of undergraduate were you? 
I enjoyed spending time with a small circle of friends – the social aspect of university was important to me, but in general I was a pretty serious economics undergraduate at the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex. I really appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the course, which focused on one subject area but allowed students to explore other courses linked to their geographic area of interest. Towards the end of my second year, I lost myself a bit and nearly gave up. Thanks to a great tutor, I ended up applying for a one-year history scholarship at Vassar College in New York and having a year abroad. I then returned to Sussex and loved my last, very focused year.

How do you assess the progress that has been made on women’s rights?
Progress seems very capricious, sometimes with two steps forward and one backward, with differences also based on women’s colour, class, age or other backgrounds. My book assessed the progress made in six areas: politics, money, identity, violence, culture and power. In researching each area, I found reasons to celebrate. However, in each area, but particularly around violence, there are many concerns. I also found a great sense of frustration with the rate of progress and, sometimes, a feeling the problems are morphing, not disappearing.

What do you see as the main barrier to achieving gender equality?
Cultural norms that perpetuate [inequality]. All-pervasive and insidious ideas that put men on top and women beneath; that encourage girls to be quiet, helpful and pretty, and boys to be noisy, independent and active; that assess women based on their appearance and men on their actions; that see women as relational – always linked to their families – and men as autonomous; that devalue work that is traditionally seen as feminine. These cultural norms prop up unjust social, political and economic structures of power, which harm us all.

What do you hope to achieve as chancellor of the University of Suffolk?
The youngest university in the land is at the beginning of a journey, one in which it can take the best from the old, yet shape itself differently, harnessing the benefits of being new. It is a small university with international and national linkages, yet also very rooted in the local community, both in terms of its student body and the placements and careers in the local economy. I look forward to better understanding the university’s niche, representing and advocating on its behalf. In addition, within the university, I will be championing diversity and the aspiration of those least likely to feel they have a right to be ambitious, to encourage the whole university community to combine hard work and perseverance with fun and purpose.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not being proactive enough about my health: knowing there was something wrong but being too slow to have it checked and checked again, and therefore getting a worse cancer diagnosis than I would have, had I prioritised my own health, taken action sooner and demanded that my concerns be taken more seriously by the medical establishment. I know I’m not the only one and this is a systemic problem, around women’s health in particular, that has yet to be resolved.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Continuing my family’s legacy; emphasising the importance of balancing fun and purpose; and inspiring the next generation.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Verity J. Brown has been appointed pro vice-chancellor (impact and innovation) at the University of East London. She will join in March from the University of St Andrews, where she is a professor of behavioural neuroscience. Professor Brown has previously served as vice-principal (enterprise and engagement) at St Andrews. Paul Marshall is also to join UEL, as pro vice-chancellor (careers and enterprise). A former chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, he is currently group director for business development at University Partnerships Programme (UPP), one of the UK’s leading providers of campus infrastructure and student accommodation. Both appointments brought “highly experienced leaders who will make a huge contribution to UEL as we prepare our students for graduate success”, said Amanda Broderick, UEL’s vice-chancellor.

Susan Dodds has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (research and industry engagement) at La Trobe University in Melbourne. She is currently dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, and was previously deputy provost at the University of Tasmania. Professor Dodds, a La Trobe alumna who completed her PhD there, was described by John Dewar, La Trobe’s vice-chancellor, as a “high-calibre researcher, a progressive and strategic thinker, and an experienced and respected academic leader”. She is, he continued, “a highly regarded philosopher and bioethicist [whose] proven ability to challenge traditional ways of thinking to deliver practical outcomes will be invaluable.”

Marcus Cole has been appointed Joseph A. Matson dean of the law school and professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently the William F. Baxter-Visa International professor of law at Stanford University.

Kevin Naidoo has been named acting deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at the University of Cape Town. Professor Naidoo will hold the role until the end of March.

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