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An Ethiopian Man’s Tribute to a Suffragette

I will always be indebted to Sylvia Pankhurst and her descendants’ commitment to enduring values of justice and freedom for all, regardless of race, gender, class or country

The year 2018 marks the centenary of the year some women (those who held property or had a university degree, and were over the age of 30) succeeded in securing the right to vote. As part of the centennial commemoration, LSE has decided to rename Towers 1, 2 and 3 after the three major suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

As an unapologetic feminist and LSE student, I am proud to see my university giving credit where it is due. And as an Ethiopian, I am ecstatic to witness this history in the making because of one name in particular: Pankhurst. I froze in awe when I saw this name on the plaque at Tower 3.

The Pankhursts are a household name for Ethiopians because of Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, a remarkable suffragette in her own right and a relentless supporter for Ethiopia during the Fascist Italian invasion of 1936–1941. Sylvia Pankhurst denounced the use of poison gas during the war and demanded more effective sanctions against Mussolini’s government. As the press’s interest in Ethiopia waned, Sylvia took matters into her own hands and founded a newspaper of her own, entitled New Times and Ethiopia News. Sylvia would later move to Ethiopia with her son Richard in 1956, where they would live for the rest of their lives until she passed away at the age of 78 in 1960.

Richard, who studied at the LSE, would become one of the leading historians on Ethiopia’s political economy and a founding member of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, where he taught and researched for decades. He died at age 90 in 2017. Sylvia and Richard’s bodies rest together at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa among extremely distinguished Ethiopian dignitaries including HIM Emperor Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church patriarchs and PM Meles Zenawi.

Sylvia fought for the underdogs regardless of who they were because her fights were not picked along identity lines of class, gender or race, but along the enduring values of justice and freedom for all. That is why Sylvia continued to fight for universal suffrage when many abandoned their struggle after the more privileged gained their right to vote in 1918. Sylvia persisted until all women, regardless of their socio-economic status, won the right to vote.

As an Ethiopian I will always be indebted to Sylvia and her child and her grandchildren. It would be remiss of me if I did not seize this moment to thank her and bring to light her role as a key member of the suffragette movement. Her name might not be fixed on the towers, but I hope that LSE will think of a fitting way to recognise her invaluable contribution to the success of the movement.

Today, LSE has a female director in Minouche Shafik. “The irony of time!” I thought when I first saw her photo, name and title in the Welcome to LSE Guide. Only a hundred years ago, a group of women sat on this same ground and strategised day and night to prove to their government that they were worthy of the ballot. Only a hundred years ago, several women were scooped from this same ground and arrested for demanding their right to vote — a privilege the youth of my generation now take for granted.

Have we not come a long way as a society? I understand we cannot be naive enough to assume Shafik’s truth is the reality of every woman out there. No, we cannot rest on our laurels and lose sight of what remains to be done to make the world a fairer place for women. La luta continua, of course! But, at the same time, we cannot overlook how far we have come.

An African female with an Arabic last name is at the helm of LSE? I call that progress! What’s more? LSE is not an exception. In fact, one in six major universities in the world — including British world top-tenners Oxford and Imperial College London, are now led by women. Such progress didn’t just happen. It took powerful forces to cause it and to spread it across the world.

Today, as a result of the long and hard-fought struggles of like-minded feminists in my own country, Ethiopia, is one of an elite few that boast a healthy female representation in government — with a fifty-fifty gender ratio in our council of ministers, a female president, and a female President of the Federal Supreme Court.

Today, as an LSE student, I stand next to Tower 3 (from now on Pethick-Lawrence House) marvelling at the plaque that pays tribute to a few of these incredible revolutionaries:

“Here Were the Headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union. ‘The Suffragettes’ Led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Here Also Lived Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Who With Her Husband Played An Invaluable Part in Building Up the Organisation and Edited Votes for Women”.

I thanked them — from the deepest place of my being. None of the heights we have reached as humanity would have been possible without women like them. It embarrasses me, as a man, to see that a lot of us still see the rights of women as being women’s issues alone. That could not be farther from the truth. Women getting ahead benefits us all, not just because they are our mothers, daughters, wives or sisters, but because, as Millicent Garrett Fawcett said, “Justice and freedom for women are things worth securing […] for civilisation itself.”

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