A bid by Priti Patel, minister of state for employment, to link Brexit with the historic suffragette movement for women’s rights has backfired after the descendant of an iconic early 20th century campaigner called it “unacceptable”.
One of six ministers in the David Cameron government to go against the official line and support Britain’s exit from the European Union, Patel used a speech on International Women’s Day to seek women’s support for Brexit, and likened her camp’s efforts to those of the suffragette movement.
The movement for women in Britain to be given the right to vote was led in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was brought to life by Meryl Streep in the 2015 film “Suffragette”. Women activists were called suffragettes.
Patel said while launching a “Women for Britain” group: “As a suffragette, Pankhurst fought for the rights of women to have a vote, a voice and a say in how their society is governed and who governs it.
“In many ways, Women for Britain are fighting for the same cause. The suffragettes fought for our democratic freedom. Now we are the ones who must fight to protect it,” she announced, provoking angry comments and worse online and offline.
Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, told The Guardian: “My great-grandmother fought tirelessly for women’s rights and dedicated her life to making sure women could live their lives free from discrimination.”
She added: “It is unacceptable to use her achievements to argue for something that is so out of line with the spirit of international solidarity that defined the suffragette movement.
“To the contrary, I believe that my great-grandmother would have been the first to champion what the EU has meant for women, including equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.”
The Patel-suffragette row came amid increasing tempers between the “Remain in EU” and “Vote Leave” camps before the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc.
Patel, 43, born in London to Indian parents who migrated from Uganda, believes Britain leaving the EU will provide a “massive boost” to relations between India and Britain, a claim dismissed by supporters of Britain remaining in the EU.