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'Feminism has some real momentum, but violence against women is pulling us back'

Ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, the great grand-daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and other women tell Hannah Stephenson about their hopes for a future free of sexism

Driving force: suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst riding a horse-drawn carriage in 1910
Driving force: suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst riding a horse-drawn carriage in 1910
Dr Helen Pankhurst

Women have come a long way in the past 100 years - from getting the vote to becoming prime minister, being consecrated as bishops and launched into space.

We've gained control over our fertility, shattered glass ceilings at work and our roles at home have changed through technical innovations and men being encouraged to become more hands-on.

But in the run-up to International Women's Day on March 8, women's rights activist Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, says we still have a long way to go.

Her new book, Deeds Not Words, charts how women's lives have changed in the past century and looks at how they may continue to in the future.

She says it hasn't been difficult to continue the momentum of the Women's movement.

"There are moments when the zeitgeist or atmosphere sometimes is against feminism and when the message was harder," she explains. "But over the last three years, there's been a dramatic change in that, and more women self-identify positively with the word 'feminist'."

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She herself took some flak for having the Pankhurst name when she was growing up, she recalls: "When I was a child, people would say, 'Oh, you're a Pankhurst, you're related to those women who used to chain themselves to Buckingham Palace'. Now it's much more nuanced and understanding. There's less of that 'making fun of them' attitude."

Comedians such as Sandi Toksvig and Bridget Christie, along with young campaigners including writer Laura Bates, have helped move the image away from the stereotypical, bra-burning campaigner with a banner, she says: "Women comedians show what's been wrong with the way that men have made fun of feminists."

Considering the gender pay gap, which has recently been thrown into the spotlight - particularly thanks to Carrie Gracie, who resigned from her BBC post as China editor over a "secretive and illegal pay culture" at the BBC that discriminated against women - Pankhurst believes things will change.

"We've all known it," she says. "It's underpinned in almost all employment areas and people have accepted it. Now and again a few have challenged it, but there's now a momentum."

More to be done in next decade

"Violence against women is the one factor that infects every aspect of women's lives. Unless we address that, other aspects will be slower to change," says Pankhurst.

"Everything will change because there are enough women speaking up, but violence against women is pulling us back, which is linked with the sexualisation of women - the pornographic industry - and linked to the idea that what women look like is more important than what they say."

In her book, Pankhurst invites a variety of women of different experiences and backgrounds to express their hopes for the next 10 years. Here are some of their answers...

  • Children's author Dame Jacqueline Wilson: "By 2028 I'd like to see every girl grow up considering herself the equal to any boy in every way, and that the books available to young girls and boys increasingly provide positive, and not stereotypical, role models."
  • Cherie Blair, barrister and QC: "By 2028 I hope that employers will have stopped considering parenting as a woman's issue. That means we will have created family-friendly workplace environments that enable all parents to thrive at work and play their full part in the upbringing of their children."
  • Dame Julie Walters, actress and writer: "I hope that women actors are no longer put out to grass when they hit 60 and that they are as visible as older men; that films and plays no longer fixate on youth and beauty, and instead reflect the real world - in all its wonderful complexity."
  • Jo Broughton, #March4Women organiser and press officer for CARE International: "All photo-shopped images should have a warning label as cigarettes do."
  •  Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep: "By 2028, globally, we will have roughly equal numbers of women and men rating films and plays. We will have done this by calling out inequality where it exists, and by many more women coming forward as critics to redress the existing bias."

Pankhurst concludes: "For me personally, I would like more women of all backgrounds to say, 'I can change my world if you support me'. I love individual women's voices saying, 'Let's change things'."

Deeds Not Words by Helen Pankhurst is published by Sceptre, £25

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