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We are keeping the legacy of our suffragette ancestors alive; A CENTURY ON, THREE WOMEN WITH A RADICAL PAST.. AND PRESENT.


WITH their battle cry of "Deeds not words", the suffragettes stopped at nothing in their fight for equality - braving prison, hunger strikes and risking death.

When they finally won the vote in Britain in 1928, it was a major victory for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Last week that organisation, founded by the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, celebrated its 100th anniversary. What the suffragettes achieved continues to be an inspiration today. But how much have women's lives really changed in the past century?

We met three descendants of the first militant feminists to see what they make of their famous relations, how far they think women have come since then - and how far we still have to go.


Great-aunt: Marion Wallace Dunlop

ALTHOUGH Alex never got to meet her famous great-aunt, she has been a huge influence on her life.

Marion Wallace Dunlop was the first suffragette to go on hunger strike. Sticking by the motto "Release or Death" she refused food for 91 hours after being sentenced to a month in Holloway in 1909. It prompted other suffragettes to use fasting as a means of campaigning.

Today, Alex, a bus driver, also believes in radical action to fight for her beliefs. A feminist and human rights campaigner, she drove an aid bus to Iraq last year.

"I think there is something in the genes," says Alex, 30, who lives in Brighton. "Marion died before I was born, but she has always been talked about in the family so I was aware she was special.

"I found out more about her personal crusade recently when my dad gave me a book about her. It was fascinating.

"Hunger striking was a radical thing. People just didn't expect women to do anything like that. They would have been stunned and horrified. It was such a brave thing to do. I felt very humbled by Marion.

"I'd compare the suffragettes to the women who volunteer as human shields in Palestine - it's sticking to your principles when you are physically threatened.

"We have become complacent about women's rights. Just because we got the vote doesn't mean we can forget about gender issues. Men are still being paid more than women and there is a view that men are superior.

"I work with a lot of men and that can be difficult, but I deliberately chose a non-middle class job, something environmentally sound, and I do enjoy it.

"I have campaigned for human rights and environmental issues and I would identify myself as a feminist. I don't think you can separate the everyday and political.

"In Marion's time the suffragettes were denounced as unnatural, now there is this depiction of us all as 70s lesbians.

"I started campaigning when I was 18. My mum had a problem with me challenging the police at demonstrations but she was able to rationalise it all because of Marion.

"Mum didn't agree with what I was campaigning for, but she supported my right to do it.

"I feel a sense of responsibility to Marion, too. I want to live up to what she did, but I can't imagine being as brave as she was.

"A few years ago I drove a bus taking aid to Iraq. People said that was courageous but I have wondered what I'd have done in her position. Would I have gone to prison for my beliefs? I don't think so.

"When she was starving the guards left cakes by her bed to tempt her, but she resisted. I find it hard resisting chocolate.

"When they asked if there was anything she wanted to eat, she answered, 'My determination'.

"That stays with me."


Great-grandmother: Emmeline Pankhurst

HER great-grandmother was the most well known of all the suffragettes but Helen more than lives up to her famous surname.

Emmeline Pankhurst became the popular face of the women's movement. She campaigned alongside her daughters Christabel and Sylvia - Helen's great-aunt and grandmother, respectively. All three women spent time in prison for their beliefs.

An aid worker in Ethiopa, Helen is a feminist and has inherited her relation's passion for righting wrongs.

"I didn't meet my famous relatives - Sylvia died four years before I was born - but I have her middle name, so I feel she has always been with me," says Helen, 39, speaking from her home in Addis Ababa.

"It was strange because I grew up in Ethiopa where my grandmother was more well-known as a freedom fighter than for her work with the women's movement.

"I didn't discover that until I came to England for holidays and people recognised my name. I found the attention difficult at first. People would ask questions about feminists that I couldn't answer.

"My parents were great, they didn't push the history on to me but left books around for me to dip into. I became proud to be a feminist and the suffragettes have had a huge influence on the way I've lived my life.

"When I married David I didn't want to change my surname and I had to be sure he was OK with that. I believe in equality, so when we had Laura, eight, and Alex, six, we gave one child my surname and one his.

"Women's issues have been a big part of my work, too. I did my degree in economics rather than languages because I felt it was less stereotypically female and something that could make a difference. After that I went to India as a volunteer then I worked for Womankind Worldwide which addressed global gender issues.

"It was hard to be a Pankhurst and not attract attention but by then I felt that having such positive female role models was giving me the confidence to pursue what was important.

"Now I work for WaterAid in Ethiopa. I see how unjust life is for women there and how much there is to work towards. I have seen 15-year-old girls being married to older men, taken to live somewhere different.

"The Pankhursts and suffragettes were amazing because they managed to bring about radical social change. They shook things up. They realised you had to be controversial to get noticed and were aware of pageantry.

"The physical suffering, the abuse they suffered, was terrible. And that must not be underestimated.

"In so many spheres, we still don't have equality. Violence against women is still a huge problem. As women now we have a duty to strive for equality."


Great-grandmother: Emily Cowley

THERE is no danger of Annette not bothering to cast her vote come election day. After all, her great-grandmother Emily Cowley helped get women that right in the first place.

Emily was imprisoned for knocking a policeman's helmet off during a Westminster demonstration. The Pankhursts awarded her a brooch and a plaque for her efforts.

Annette, a business analyst at the National Archives Centre in London, is so proud of her famous relative that elections have always held a particular significance in her life

"The first time I was eligible to vote, at 18, I held a little celebration," says Annette, 44, who lives in London with her daughters Lila, seven, and three-year-old Isabel.

"It was a very big deal for me. Since then I've always voted. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't.

"I've always been conscious of the rights and freedoms we have because I have that personal link with Emily. But I don't ever take them for granted.

"Emily was 11 when she had to leave school and start work. That was her lot in life.

"She took in lodgers when her first husband was ill, then left her second - a brave step - when he got violent.

"She lived the last 20 years of her life alone, as independently as she could hope for.

"And in between all that she somehow found the time to campaign for her rights as a woman. She was given a silver brooch and plaque by Emmeline Pankhurst. These heirlooms were often looked at during my childhood.

"The plaque starts, 'On behalf of all women who will win freedom by the bondage which you have endured for their sake and dignity, casting a vote is not a liberty we should take for granted'. I hold that dear.

"One century and all her efforts later and my life is so much easier.

"I am educated, a business analyst and a mother. I have the freedom to work if I want to and financial independence, which women didn't enjoy 100 years ago.

"As a teenager in the late 70s I was caught up in the feminist movement. It had a personal relevance to me because I was so aware of what Emily stood for.

"I don't know if I would have had the courage to leave my family to put myself on the line for what I believed in, like her. But I will be telling my daughters all about Emily.

"And I hope that she proves as inspiring to them as she has been to me."


HOLDING FAST: Marion was the first suffragette to go on hunger strike; INSPIRED: Alex; ARRESTING IMAGE: Emmeline gets a police escort from outside Buckingham Palace in 1914. Inset: Helen; INDEPENDENT: Emily, centre, gets Annette's vote for her courage
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 14, 2003
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