Tatchell on Pankhurst

// 21 March 2008

Peter Tatchell has been talking about Sylvia Pankhurst, which is all fine and lovely, but this line is just another example of how we get rendered invisible…

There are no contemporary women rights campaigners who come anywhere near Sylvia’s radicalism and social impact. The women’s movement seems to have done a Rip Van Winkle. Sylvia would berate their complacency.

From Indymedia

Yes apparently we feminists don’t exist. And it must be true because a man says so.

Pankhurst did some fundamentally wonderful work, as have women since and to this day. But this lamentation for a wonderful history or fieryness lost is just rose-tinted spectacles. The suffrage movement was almost entirely white and largely middle class – it was exclusionary in many capacities and differing groups took anti-lesbian, anti-working class and racist attitudes (and that’s before we get into eugenics!).

Some second wave feminists do the same thing – saying younger feminists don’t exist because they do not recognise the model of action we adopt. But in both these cries is a lack of belief that the context of social action has also changed. As a well connected, “respectable” woman (certainly before her activism took off) Pankhurst was able to access the media in ways which are now impossible for most women. So OK someone like a feminist Paris Hilton would be useful but then the chances are they wouldn’t get media coverage either – the media only loves women who are vacuous and bubble-headed anything more challenging gets dropped. Want an example – despite the myriad of photographers there on the day Million Women Rise has had precisely no media coverage in the mainstream media. Yes not a single, solitary word has been written by journalists about the 5,000 or so women who gathered and marched for an end to violence against women. But when 250 pig farmers demonstrated in London on March 5th they got coverage from the Guardian.

So what’s my point – Pankhurst was a friend of figures like Kier Hardie, she was an establishment figure, she was given a state funeral by Ethopia for her work in their fight against colonial occupation by Mussolini. Tatchell needs to rail against those “I’ve made it women” in similar situations who have failed to articulate feminist beliefs or, worse still, have made anti-feminist or anti-woman sentiments. But he shouldn’t dismiss the existence of feminism, which is after all a grass-roots movement, on the basis that those doing most for it can’t get the media to pay attention. Or maybe that’s where he should direct his ire. After all, that article was printed in Time Out, why not use it as a space to promote women’s rights rather than bash feminists?

Comments From You

Laura M // Posted 21 March 2008 at 8:46 pm

Not much to say apart from ‘yes’, but just thought I should point out

5,000 or so women who gathered and marched for an end to freedom.

assume this is a typo!

Li // Posted 22 March 2008 at 11:23 am

Cod, this pisses me off so much! Every time I read an article that proclaims that feminism has died or that there’s no feminist activism going on, it makes me want to scream: “There’s this thing people in the 21st century use, it’s called Google, I hope you’ve heard of it, well, could you please use it to check your facts?”

vibracobra // Posted 23 March 2008 at 12:14 am

Yes, the existence of feminism now shouldn’t be dismissed. Then again, what do we care what some guy in Time Out says? We know we exist, surely that’s enough.

About Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffrage movement did have some dodgy associations, and Emmeline and Christabel turned into a couple of gnarly tories, but they actually chucked Sylvia out, so she really didn’t have anything to do with the anti-working-class, racist, or eugenicist sides of it. In fact she was extremely uncomfortable with that side of it, which is why she did most of her work in the East side of London, and among other things set up a toy factory during World War I so she could pay some people a living wage. And the Labour Party weren’t exactly the mainstream party they are today either.

About those pig farmers, they should get coverage, and slightly less mocking coverage than that Guardian article. They’re raising some pretty serious issues, their livelihood is at stake as well as the quality of the stuff we get sold in supermarkets. We’re very quick to say “I make this and that consumer choice”, but when the farmers are actually out on the streets protesting it seems a little ridiculous doesn’t it? They’re just pig farmers after all, not very fabulous.

vibracobra // Posted 23 March 2008 at 12:51 pm

Or another possible response would have been:

Sylvian Pankhurst was such an establishment figure that she was repeatedly jailed and force-fed, which is why she looks so fucked up on any photos where she’s older than 25 or so, and suffered consequences to her health for the rest of her life.

She was also considered a ‘scarlet woman’ because she never married – even Emmeline Pankhurst wouldn’t see her when she was living with that Silvio dude (despite the fact that Emmeline had different ideas about that when she was younger). She’s also the only Pankhurst not to have a statue of her in London. And there was no ‘before her activism took off’ – she was born into it, her mother and father were doing it before her, they were already well-known activists. Also, that anti-colonial stuff makes her still pretty controversial today. I mean, she was hanging out with the guy who’s basically the Rastafarian messiah. So it’s really a bit much to hear her compared to ‘a feminist Paris Hilton’. The suffragettes got coverage because they went around smashing and blowing stuff up (not so much Sylvia with that stuff) and because they were endangering their own lives. Not because they organised feminist events or occasionally wrote for the Guardian – although they did have their own publications, in fact Sylvia did a lot of the artwork for them.

In one respect you’re right though, times are different now and there’s no point in feminists now trying to be more like Sylvia Pankhurst. And it must be pretty frustrating when 5000 women march on London not to get any press coverage at all, but I wouldn’t have thought press coverage was your main goal in the first place.

Louise Livesey // Posted 24 March 2008 at 8:02 pm

Oopsie! Thanks for spotting that Laura.

Louise Livesey // Posted 24 March 2008 at 8:11 pm

Just for clarity, I didn’t actually say Pankhurst was a feminist Paris Hilton. I said, speaking of now:

someone like a feminist Paris Hilton would be useful but then the chances are they wouldn’t get media coverage either

Meaning that a high profile feminist with media “clout” would be a useful thing to have to challenge the misnomer that feminism is either dead or irrelevant.

And what should we care about what some guy in Time Out says? This is Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage! and human and gay rights campaigner we’re talking about. So why should we care? Because one emancipatory campaign writing off another as being “dead” is hugely problematic – as problematic as it was in the 1960s when white feminists argued there was no racism in feminism.

As for the pig farmers, as a vegetarian I can’t speak to their issues but I can say there is something unbalanced when 250 pig farmers get coverage and 5,000 women don’t, I’m not asking that the 20x demo gets 20x coverage but something, anything, should surely have been expected. Was that the main aim? As theorists and commentators have pointed out we live in an era where media and access to it are fundamental to the success of political campaigns and to accessing audiences. Whether we like it or not getting media attention has to be some kind of goal.

Danielle // Posted 25 March 2008 at 1:27 am

“we live in an era where media and access to it are fundamental to the success of political campaigns and to accessing audiences.”

I agree with that. If it was all as easy as merely campaigning and instantly making progress, then feminism really would be irrelevant and “dead” by now. (Or laid to rest, at least.)

Convincing all the ignorant people, now that’s the problem. And as there’s so many of them, and so many of them seem to have so much power, unfortunately they must be convinced if we want to get anywhere.

Harvey // Posted 6 April 2008 at 11:48 pm

You may all be interested to know that a new website was launched last week: http://www.sylviapankhurst.com. It’s an information resource, with lots of text pages, picture galleries and a forum. It has been published thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

If you live in or near London or Essex, you may also like to know about the new ‘Celebrating Sylvia Pankhurst’ exhibition at the Redbridge Museum, Ilford. See http://www.redbridge.gov.uk/cms/leisure__culture/museums_and_galleries/current_exhibition.aspx

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