I don’t remember having a ‘eureka’ moment on finding out that Emmeline Pankhurst was my great-great-aunt. As a child, I think I was just excited to be related to someone famous. One of my earliest memories is watching Mary Poppins and the mother, Mrs Banks, shouting ‘Hurray, for Emmeline Pankhurst’, and feeling so happy. I grew up hearing stories about Emmeline and felt so proud of what she did for the world, even before I was conscious of what that truly meant.
The Pankhursts have always been a big part of my family’s sense of self. We’re honoured that our relatives had such an important role in winning the vote for women and humbled by their strength of character. As I've grown older, I've become more interested in their history and read numerous biographies about the family and the Suffragettes. Learning about their lives makes history come to life, especially when I've spoken to members of my family who knew Emmeline.
The public perception of Emmeline is very different to the one my grandfather remembered. As a child, he knew her during a period when she would have been under huge amounts of pressure, and in bad health being in and out of prison. He once recalled that he was playing the piano one day when a very grumpy Emmeline came to visit and she told him off for making too much noise. I think she was probably quite a stressed out, bad-tempered and slightly intimidating figure in his childhood.
People often forget that Emmeline was a human being as much as she was this feminist icon. Like everyone, she and her siblings – one of whom was my great-great-grandfather – had family arguments and fallings out over money. While the world sees them as historical figures who have done amazing things, to me Emmeline and her family have always felt like real people and flawed characters, with good and bad qualities.
Most of the female descendants in my family have a Pankhurst tribute in their name somewhere; my sister is Bethan Sylvia, there are cousins called Emmeline and Christabel, my daughter is called Sylvie. Being a relative of the Pankhursts has definitely made me, and members of my family – particularly the women – think carefully about our life choices. We’ve all chosen our professions, whether it’s to be lawyers or doctors, with some sense of public service and duty, fed by a desire to live up to our relatives in some way, even if you do feel like you can’t quite achieve what they did on an international scale. There’s a sense that we should make the best of our strengths and use them in a way that we feel is socially useful, like our ancestors did.
At the same time, the family tie does make you wonder whether you’ve made the ‘right’ choices in life. I’m a layer in public service so it’s not my job to speak publicly about political causes, like the Suffragettes did, so I often question whether I’m still doing the right thing.
But, on the whole, being a descendant of the Pankhursts has felt like a positive force. It’s taught me to persevere when times feel difficult and the importance of taking opportunities to amplify women’s voices. In my profession, I’ve tried to do this by mentoring other women and bringing up my daughters to be confident and grasp any chance they get. Above all, their legacy has helped me be reflective about the choices I make and to fight for what I feel is important.
When I think about who I relate to more in my family, it’s not so much Emmeline – the extrovert, public speaker – rather her sister, Mary Clarke. She was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Organiser for Brighton from 1909 to 1910. Sadly, she died of a brain haemorrhage on Christmas Day in 1910, following the street violence of ‘Black Friday’ and forcible feeding in prison. She was the first suffragette to give her life for women’s right to vote but there is no public memorial to her anywhere in the UK. Many people have come to know her as the ‘forgotten Suffragette’.
While she chaired big meetings and took on a public facing role in the Suffragettes, Mary was also the person who stepped in to care for Emmeline’s children when she was busy. People were impressed by her quieter sense of courage, too. On one occasion, her friends begged her not to go on a demonstration and smash a window – an act which ended up in her incarceration, month-long hunger strike and poor health. I don't know if I would have had the courage to do what she, nor any of the Suffragettes, did. It's both humbling and daunting to have grown up a descendant of Emmeline and Mary Clarke.
The interest in the Pankhurst family history varies among the family but some of us have active roles in ensuring their legacy is remembered. I recently became involved in the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal which is raising money to erect a bronze statue of Mary in Brighton. I became inspired after attending the unveiling of Emmeline’s statue in 2018 in Manchester. Standing there with my family, I watched hundreds of school children and their families – all from diverse backgrounds – approach the statue and spark up conversations about my relatives and their work. It served as a poignant reminder that statues aren’t just a bit of street furniture, rather they serve as tools to make generations of people to stop for a moment, reflect and learn about their history.
When it comes to how Emmeline and Mary would view feminism today, I'm not in a position to speak for them – they were such independent, thoughtful but complicated women. Like many of us, I’m sure they’d be proud of the legacy they’d left, and the choices women now have available to them. But, one thing's for sure, they'd also feel there was still a lot of unfinished work to be done.
The Mary Clarke Statue Appeal urgently needs to raise £60,000. For more information or to donate online visit www.maryclarkestatue.com.
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