Illustrator draws inspiration from women who changed the world

Kate Pankhurst's drawing of distant relative Emmeline Pankhurst.
Kate Pankhurst's drawing of distant relative Emmeline Pankhurst.

As a descendant of a leading suffragette it’s no surprise Kate Pankurst’s latest book celebrates the women who have changed the world. Sarah Freeman reports.

When Kate Pankhurst was compiling a list of women who changed the world for a new children’s book there was one obvious inclusion. A distant relative of Emmeline Pankhurst, the Leeds illustrator knew that it had to feature the suffragette who led the campaign for votes for women.

Illustrator Kate Pankhurst.

Illustrator Kate Pankhurst.

“When most people hear my surname the first thing they ask is ‘Are you related to Emmeline?’,” says Kate, whose book Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World has just been published. “For a while I wasn’t sure, but then another relative was tracing our family tree and confirmed that we are linked to her through the paternal line.

“It’s funny, because although I was obviously aware of who she was it was only when I began researching her story for the book that I realised just how brutal the fight for votes had been. There is a temptation to think that it was all about peaceful marches and waving banners, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“Some of these women were ostracised from their families, they went on hunger strike and many didn’t live to see the law changed.”

The book was born out of illustrations Kate did for another publication and contains various other famous names like Jane Austen, Coco Chanel and Amelia Earhart.

“I wanted to find a real cross-section of women whose stories show that it’s possible to excel at anything if you put your mind to it,” she says. “Someone like Jane Austen was an obvious choice, but what was really lovely was digging out the stories of women whose names are far less well known, but whose achievements are no less extraordinary.”

That’s the reason for the inclusion of Gertrude Ederle, who set out to prove that a woman could complete a swimming challenge which was as difficult and dangerous as climbing Mount Everest. In 1925 her first attempt to swim The Channel ended because of bad weather, but the following year she was back and completed the 35-mile crossing in 14 hours and 31 minutes.

“Not only was she not put off by the initial setback, but she also set a new record and was two hours faster than any of the men who had previously completed the swim.

“One of my other favourite stories is of Christine Chilver, otherwise known as Agent Fifi. She was recruited as a Government spy during the Second World War after successfully escaping from a German prison camp. Her mission was to work undercover putting trainee spies to the test to ensure they wouldn’t spill state secrets when they were working out in the field.

“I was going to include Mata Hari, who was a First World War spy, but given she was also an exotic dancer I thought it might not be entirely suitable for a children’s book. It’s funny because growing up my favourite book was Fungus the Bogeyman. It’s still wonderful, but it contains a lot of adult jokes that you just wouldn’t get away with now.”

Originally from Liverpool, Kate, who moved to Leeds 10 years ago and she will officially launch her latest book at Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley tomorrow with various children’s activities planned for Saturday.

“This is my first non-fiction book and the first where I have done the words and the illustrations,” she says. “I’ve loved seeing it through from that first blank page to the finish, although I do worry that it may have turned me into a bit of a control freak.

“I’ve always worked closely with the Leeds Library Service and local schools and I think this would be the perfect book to get children inspired about just what is possible if they work hard and follow their dreams.”

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, Sunny Bank Mills, Saturday, 1-3.30pm.