Helen Pankhurst, CBE, came to talk to Senior School students on Thursday, 10 January about equality and her new book ‘Deeds Not Words’.

There are few names that can be instantly recognised by all and instil a sense of wonder and intrigue at their mention, but the packed theatre and eager faces of our students and staff last Thursday clearly proved that the surname ‘Pankhurst’ is among them. We were honoured, delighted and slightly giddy with excitement to receive an insightful, informative and inspiring interactive talk from Helen Pankhurst CBE, great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst of suffragette fame. A renowned international women’s rights activist in her own right, Helen shared her knowledge and enthusiasm with us. Having sent her own children to St Chris, and having already met the staff and students involved with the ‘Processions’ march in London last year, Helen was instantly at home!

She raised some interesting and thought-provoking questions for her young audience. How did we get to a democracy where women get the vote? How far have we progressed? And what do we still need to do? Here’s what we learnt.

How did we get to a democracy where women get the vote?

With only some women getting the vote in 1918, it took a further 10 years for all women to finally achieve this fundamental human right. Many women felt that quietly asking had gone on for too long, and sharp action was needed to secure a voice; a voice in politics, in the home and in government investments. This unrest soon turned into pressure groups made up of men and women, some who were constitution focused and some who were confrontational. However, as Helen says, we tend to remember the militant suffragettes more as they had “panache and humour”. (It is hard to forget stories such as a cricket club who quipped that women were allowed inside as ‘who else would make the tea?’, and who then later found their clubhouse had been burnt down!)

How far have we progressed?

Out of 5, where 0 = no change and 5 = everything is sorted, St Chris students on average felt that we were at a 3.5 when it came to progress in opportunities for women, identity, economics and power. The children have spoken. It seems there is work to be done! With media forcing our viewpoint, social media pulling us back towards narrow stereotypes, pay issues and men still dominating senior roles, Helen pointed out that although there have been “phenomenal changes” there are still issues that need to be addressed.

And what do we still need to do?

Ideas from our students included de-gendering clothes, joining pressure groups to scrap the tampon tax (if crocodile meat can be tax free why can’t female products?!), avoiding gender specific toys and dress up, or as Helen suggested, allowing women a 50% deduction for their TV license as the BBC pays female journalists 50% less (!). But most importantly, Helen made us realise that “we have to speak up. We have to call it out. We have to ensure there is a change.”

Helen’s advice? “Keep your eye on the ball. The more you engage in these issues the more you can transform lives for the better.”

And remember, “this isn’t about men vs. women, this is fundamentally about those who believe in equality.”

A heartfelt thank you to Helen Pankhurst for giving us her time, impressive knowledge and ideas on the history and future of women’s rights. If you or your children would like to read more about the subject or Helen, her brilliant book ‘Deeds not Words’ is out now.

Written by Emma Bennett-Jones

Helen Pankhurst