Pankhurst v Thatcher: A tale of two legacies

By Bernadette Meaden
April 29, 2013

With the backing of Conservative Way Forward, and the Cherish Freedom Trust (CFT) fundraising has begun for a proposed Thatcher Library. With supporters like Rupert Murdoch on board it will no doubt be quite easy to raise £15 million and acquire a prestigious Central London property.

The Trust explains the purpose of the library thus:

"The library will focus on public outreach, working with teachers and lecturers in primary and secondary schools and in colleges of higher and further education throughout the United Kingdom, especially in challenging communities, so that the next generation receives a truly balanced economic, political and historical education."

The idea of this institution being able to provide a "truly balanced" educational input to schools is surprising, and surely questionable. One of the project’s backers listed on the Trust website is Ron Robinson, President of Young America’s Foundation which, "saved Ronald Reagan’s beloved ranch in California and… created a 'schoolhouse for Reaganism' in Santa Barbara, on which this project is based."

It looks a lot like a ‘schoolhouse for Thatcherism’ is also to be established by Conservative politicians, wealthy businessmen, and a billionaire media baron, aiming to provide economic, historical, and political education to primary school children.

Meanwhile, in the rather less prosperous setting of Nelson Street, Manchester, opposite the main entrance to Manchester Royal Infirmary, an unassuming house commemorates a towering and almost universally respected figure in British political life: Emmeline Pankhurst.

The Pankhurst Centre was the family home where in 1903 Emmeline and her daughter Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) beginning the Suffragette movement and eventually winning votes for women.

The place had fallen into dereliction when in the 1970’s a group of women volunteers learned the skills needed to repair the building and restore the parlour where WSPU meetings were held. Some of Emmeline’s belongings, like a tapestry and her piano, have been rescued for posterity, but rather than fostering a personality cult around this historically significant woman, the Centre prefers to continue her work by striving to help women who need support today.

Part of the building is a women-only space, with a rape crisis centre, various classes and activities, and now, sadly in response to growing need, a foodbank. The whole place is run on a shoestring by a band of committed volunteers. But it is obvious to even a casual visitor that an injection of cash over and above what is gathered from the donations box by the entrance would be welcome and put to very effective use.

The building is actually owned by Manchester Royal Infirmary, and each year the Centre pays the hospital its rent, in the form of one Suffragette sash, to be displayed in the hospital Director’s office. The volunteer who showed me round when I visited said they are actually two years overdue, so they will have to get sewing.

The contrast between the struggling Pankhurst Centre and the lavish Thatcher Library project could not be greater. Yet surely not even the most ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher could claim her achievements were more significant than Emmeline Pankhurst’s.

Perhaps these two very different projects, and the people who are involved in them, accurately reflect the values and priorities of the women they commemorate.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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