Helen Pankhurst: How Meghan has been treated is sad

Helen Pankhurst has discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s treatment ahead of International Women’s Day (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)
Helen Pankhurst has discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s treatment ahead of International Women’s Day (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

The great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst has described the treatment of the Duchess of Sussex as “sad”.

Dr Helen Pankhurst CBE told the PA news agency people are “so uncomfortable still” with “a woman standing up for herself – not just smiling”.

The 58-year-old added: “Expectations are still around women just looking, and men doing and saying. As soon as a woman does and says, there’s a lot of critique.

“As soon as the woman shines, there’s a lot of critique.”

Meghan – who has been asked to vacate Frogmore cottage with her husband the Duke of Sussex – has been criticised heavily since speaking out about her experience in the royal family.

Jeremy Clarkson’s comments that he “hated” Meghan were published in The Sun in December. The presenter and journalist later said he was “horrified to have caused so much hurt”.

“The media portrayal and the hounding of celebrities – one minute they’re up on a pedestal and the next minute they’re being raked through the dirt and treated appallingly – is really harmful to everyone, not least those who are in the middle of that,” Pankhurst said.

“I think it’s sad the way that she has been treated.”

The gender equality activist, scholar and CARE International’s senior advisor has launched a podcast ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8, co-hosted by singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

Stars including Beverley Knight, Raye and Imelda May performed songs for the one-off special episode, Walk4Women.

Celebrity male allies feature too, with David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Lemn Sissay sharing messages of support.

It’s designed to listen to while you walk any distance, to support gender equality on International Women’s Day and beyond.

The podcast features interviews by Pankhurst and Ellis-Bextor with grassroots women in leadership, including Daria Khrystenko, a Ukrainian refugee who fled Kyiv and now helps other refugees to settle in Poland.

There’s also Sherine Ibrahim, who supports women and girls impacted by the Turkey and Syria earthquake in February, and works to prevent sexual exploitation.

A gender lens is “so imperative and so lacking” for natural disasters like the earthquake or other humanitarian crises, says Pankhurst, whose famous activist ancestors also include grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst and aunt Christabel Pankhurst.

“Women are socially and biologically experiencing different things,” she said. “Socially, they’re involved in care of the elderly, the young, the disabled, the ill. They are responsible for making sure that families can eat.

“Biologically, there are issues around pregnancy and menstruation and all sorts of factors that need to be considered in any emergency.

“Young girls [are] particularly vulnerable. Patterns of early marriage often increase often in situations of insecurity… Girls are more likely to be pulled out of education.”

In the UK, the cost-of-living crisis will leave women even more vulnerable to violence, she warned.

Violence is so endemic here – as it is globally – [and it’s] particularly bad in situations of crisis. We saw that even with Covid, a form of crisis, and we will see it with the cost-of-living.

“In any crisis, you tend to see violence go up – there’s a global pattern that happens like that. So yes, we will see those figures [come out in relation to the cost-of-living].”

Pankhurst urged men to “have the courage to be more active allies” this IWD.

She said: “I think it’s almost more important for a man to be a feminist and be proudly so and loudly so, and change views of those men around him that are perpetuating patriarchy.”

Her great-grandmother “would be frustrated with the rate of pace of change”, she said.

“She’d be saying, ‘Come on, we can do better. We don’t want to wait another 200 years.’

She added: “There are not enough women in Parliament – I firmly believe if you had more women politicians, a lot of this would be much higher on the priority chain.”

The Walk4Women podcast is available to download at careinternational.org.uk/walk4women, Spotify, Apple, Google and Acast.