Brave Voices with Helen Pankhurst

In the very first of our Be Braver interviews, we are utterly thrilled to share reflections from the inspirational Helen Pankhurst. Author of Deeds not Words, Great-Granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and an international development and women's rights activist.

Helen Pankhurst Image.jpeg

Helen Pankhurst

Discussing how Fun and Purpose and Hunger Strikes both have relevancy to bravery

What does it mean to you to Be Braver?

It’s about having the courage of your convictions, living up to your beliefs, doing what you know is right, not ducking out of things, living by your principles …all these expressions testament to the fact that we can do – can be - more if we are braver.

Who do you admire for being brave?

A few weeks ago, I visited women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre with a friend and colleague from Women for Refugee Women.  One of those detained struck me as being fantastically brave.  She came to the UK from Algeria at the age of eleven and is now 35, having lived in the UK for 24 years since her arrival. Her accent, her cultural reference points, her identity, everything as British as it comes. When we visited, she was worried she could be sent to Algeria a country she hardly remembers and has no real connection to.

She was brought to the UK by her Algerian father who had indeterminate leave to remain. Her mother had left them much earlier. Her father was not completely reliable and used to drink and she fell out with him and, as life on her own became harder and harder, she started getting into trouble and taking drugs. But she then pulled herself together and life became easier.

Seven months ago, however, she was detained – her NI number showed up problems when Starbucks tried to pay her and to cut a long story short she was sent to Yarl’s Wood.  In the detention centre, she orchestrated a suffragette style hunger-strike for 3 days which 120 women took part in.  When we met her, she was focusing on her legal case and hoping to be let out and have her legal status regularised, and to campaign for others when she got out.  She is a feisty, articulate young women who given a chance could not just turn around her own life but also those of many other disenfranchised and vulnerable women.  Bravery when life has been good to you is one thing, bravery when life has been hard on you is particularly impressive.

When was the last time you were brave?

Compared to the life of the women I met in Yarl’s Wood, my life has been much, much easier. Yet I think in all our lives we are involved in little acts of daily bravery and as many of cowardice - times when fear gets the upper hand or we just don’t engage with what’s going on within and around us. At the moment, I’m regularly giving talks linked to the centenary of women getting the vote and a book I’ve published looking at how far women’s lives have or haven’t changed over the last hundred years. Most of these talks I give without reading from a prepared text and with a lot of interaction and responding to questions from the audience. This requires courage since there is always the fear that I will lose my train of thought or not be able to answer a question, but the process of public speaking in this interactive way becomes easier, demands less bravery each time.

What’s the bravest thing that you have done?

Surviving endometrial cancer. The journey through operation, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, dealing with the emotional fears as well as the physical effects – all this on the back of a divorce.  The bravery made much, much easier by some wonderful friends and the support of my children.

What lessons has that taught you about yourself?

That I’m pretty resilient and that the friendship of others feeds this resilience. Also, always feeding in, is the legacy of my family, the strength of character and female courage conjured up by the Pankhurst surname which has enveloped and strengthened me.

Where next for you to Be Braver?

2018 is all about commemorating the centenary of when some women got the vote. For me that also means being braver in a public facing year, trying to maximise people’s knowledge and interest in the centenary and in the need to continue the march towards gender equality – and for that matter countering discrimination more widely.

How would you like to inspire women to Be Braver?

By talking about the suffragettes and how much we can learn from their courage.  By linking their courage and the issues they fought for with the reality of women’s lives today and what we still need to do. I would also like to share my mantra of combining fun and purpose to what I do. ‘Fun and Purpose’ not a bad slogan to accompany ‘Deeds not Words’!


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