Tatchell on Pankhurst
Louise Livesey // 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.
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?