REVIEW: Helen Pankhurst -Deeds Not Words at the Georgian Theatre Royal

Helen Pankhurst. Photo: Virginie Naudillon.

No-one can doubt Helen Pankhurst’s credentials to be tackling a subject as huge and wide-ranging as the development of women’s rights over the last century.

Not only is she the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders of the British Suffragette movement, but she is also an accomplished author, women’s rights activist and international development practitioner, holding senior positions with CARE International and ActionAid.

Dr Pankhurst was at The Georgian Theatre Royal on Sunday afternoon as the last speaker of this year’s highly successful Walking and Book Festival and her talk was informed by her new book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now, published to mark the 100th anniversary of the right to a parliamentary vote first granted to some women in 1918.

There’s no hiding from it, this is a weighty subject (one of the most central and pressing conversations of our time) and at the outset it was hard to see how she would parcel it all into an hour’s talk, together with the promised open-floor debate and invited suggestions from the audience for ways of carrying the women’s movement forward.

But all this was achieved and more, delivered in a very accessible and engaging style that alternated between historical fact; quotes from historical and contemporary women; and plenty of personal anecdotes.

In fact, the whole talk encouraged participation and conversation and Dr Pankhurst was more than happy to answer questions about her illustrious relatives (why did the four famous Pankhurst women fight between themselves?) or listen attentively to the personal experiences offered by the audience.

Indeed, people were encouraged to vote on issues raised during the talk by holding up fingers – a single finger showed no progress in the steps to equality and five fingers demonstrated that full equality had been achieved. Interestingly, the Richmond audience seemed to favour marks of two and three on most counts, demonstrating that we have quite a way to go in many areas.

That there is still a lot of work to do was demonstrated on several occasions. Gasps went around the auditorium when it was revealed that a 1981 Home Economics O’Level paper contained the question ‘What would you pack in a suitcase for your husband going on a business trip?’ The answer given by the quoted author was ‘Nothing. I’d make him pack it himself’. Unsurprisingly, she got a U for her insolence.

Equally shocking was a revelation from a teenager in the audience who bravely declared that she had had her long hair cut into a shorter style during the summer holidays and on return to school this September and been teased by both sexes for ‘looking like a boy’. The obsession with how women are ‘meant’ to look and the perpetuation of this by social media was one of the most hotly debated topics of the afternoon.

It was certainly a very thought-provoking hour and I’m sure conversations that were started in the Theatre (at one point you were asked to debate a point with the person sitting next to you) will have carried on long after the event finished.

This is undoubtedly what Helen Pankhurst wanted to achieve, who ended her talk with a heart-felt request to ‘keep the arguments going’ and ‘keep supporting’, as it is only by creating an inclusive conversation that we will take the bigger strides to equality.