Emmeline Pankhurst: a niche in history

I have always been a bit of a fan of Pankhurst. I can remember years back doing an assignment on her, which may have been at the very outset of my interest in feminism and is the reason why I am passionately devoted to the idea of women voting any time they can. So I was pretty happy to, finally, get around to reading this bio of a remarkable woman.

Purvis begins her account with a historiographical examination of the treatment Pankhurst has received over the last seventy years or so, which is illuminating – especially as it all really began with her daughter Sylvia’s account, which was rather bitter and very much tainted by the feud between the two, thanks both to family issues and a fundamental difference in opinion about politics (Sylvia moved/stayed quite far left and was heavily into socialist politics, Emmeline moved away from many of her socialist tendencies for various reasons). Many subsequent accounts have leaned too heavily (in Purvis’ view) on Sylvia’s story, while others have come from a decidedly ‘masculinist’ perspective and thus denigrated Emmeline’s achievements and intentions. Modern feminist historians have often been troubled by her at least partly because she moved towards a more conservative, imperial point of view during and after WW1, but Purvis is insistent that we take Emmeline on her own terms.

I really enjoyed this as a book and as a history. Purvis writes very engagingly and paints a captivating picture of an extraordinary time, an amazing woman, and the politics of the suffrage campaign especially. It appears to be a very well-researched history, with copious endnotes to back up her points that include reference to many, many letters to and from Emmeline and others in her circle, as well as newspaper accounts, court proceedings, diary entries and the like. It really makes me wish I could find The Suffragette, the WSPU’s newspaper, online somewhere. Someone get on that!

A potted bio of Emmeline’s life: interested in politics very early on, married at about 22 to the 40-something Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer who was a strong socialist and campaigner for women’s rights, among other things. She had five children, one of whom died very young, but/and she was always and still involved in campaigns and political work. Richard died when Emmeline was 40, leaving her with little money and four children to support – financial trouble continued to dog her until her death at 69. What she is most famous for, of course, is the setting up of the Women’s Social and Political Union, with her daughters but especially the eldest, Christabel – and that it eventually took the step into militancy in order to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. Window smashing, arson, destruction of paintings… all of these things were seen as much worse when committed by women. Purvis points out the success that various Irish politicians and agitators were having with similar tactics, and the fact that this got them an audience with English politicians and even the king. Not so much the women. The WSPU began in 1903; women gained limited suffrage in 1918, at the same time as men gained it with no property qualification (and women had to be 30, men 21). This was not, of course, the end of Emmeline’s life – she had started campaigning for women’s war work with WW1, and also expressing her concerns about sexual double standards and morality with the increase of VD. After the war she lectured around America and Canada on topics like public hygiene, avoiding VD, and the necessity of the British Empire. She died back in England not long after discovering Sylvia had had a son without getting married, pretty much destitute.

Just writing that down makes me exhausted. Emmeline comes across, in this book, as an amazingly energetic and passionate woman. She’s one of the reasons the Cat and Mouse Act was introduced: imprisoned suffragettes would hunger strike; be let out to recover; then get re-imprisoned. She went on hunger strike 13 times. She never wrote her speeches down but always spoke extempore; she travelled around Britain campaigning for and against political candidates, speaking at rallies, and trying to convince people about the necessity of women’s suffrage. She never wanted the vote just for its own sake; she was driven by the idea that women being able to vote would bring about the incredibly necessary changes to society that would prevent the exploitation of women, the horrors of poverty, and alleviate other social problems that she saw in her work as a Poor Law Guardian and on an education board. She worked as a registrar for births and deaths and was always shocked and saddened by teen girls coming to register the birth – and sometimes death – of their illegitimate children, often the result of incest.

This was not a woman driven by a desire to be a man, as so much of the anti-suffrage press claimed; she did not regard herself as better than men but as deserving of equal citizenship. Not least because working women had to pay taxes but could not influence how they were spent, and because she abhorred double standards and thought women’s influence could help solve many problems. (She was quite the optimist.) People at the time, and even her daughter Sylvia, often seemed to think that the cause had become almost more important than the object. It’s not hard to see how this could happen, to be honest, when you’re fighting for something that frequently gets you attacked – verbally, physically – and condemned by large sections of society. I’m personally torn on the notion of militancy, but I’m not torn on what I think of this woman. She’s a hero. I wish I’d known she has a statue near Westminster when we were in London, because I would absolutely have gone on pilgrimage.

This is highly recommended as a way of understanding the English suffrage movement – the militant side at least, because yes Millicent Fawcett and other ‘constitutional’ suffragettes are largely ignored, except as they interacted with Emmeline – as well as how late Victorian/Edwardian England society functioned. Plus, this is a woman who deserves to get as much recognition as possible. She devoted her life, her health, and even – arguably – her family and friendships to public service.

3 responses

  1. [...] I had just read a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, so that didn’t help matters, because Phillip is really, really anti-Pankhursts – both [...]

  2. […] suffrage organisation, ELFS (East London Federation of Suffragettes). Thanks to a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst I knew a bit more about her politics, and her daring/disgraceful child out of wedlock. I also […]

  3. […] reviewed biographies of Emmeline and Sylvia, as well as other books about suffrage […]

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