It’s rare that I read a book that actually makes me angry. Like, exclaim-out-loud angry.
It’s very rare that this happens with a history book.
This book had that impact on me.
The book bills itself as “A history of the suffragette movement and the ideas behind it,” which sounded perfect for me – I was convinced there was a rich 19th century tradition of ideas and activity in Britain for the women’s suffrage movement to spring out of so, naturally, I was dead keen to read about it. And, truly, the first few chapters do do that. Phillips goes right back to the very awesome Mary Wollstonecraft and her writing around the French Revolution, like A Vindication of the Rights of Women (suck it, Edmund Burke, you got ripped). She discusses women’s involvement in the campaigns against ‘vice’ and other social reforms, and all of that was quite interesting. Middle class, but perhaps that’s where the information is mostly to be found? And, yeh, a lot of this sort of campaigning required free time, which women in the working classes did not have because they were, you know, working. So I could move past that (a bit).
Anyway, well and good. Then she got up to the 20th century and the really focussed suffrage stuff, and then… well, there were gasps and strangled cried and the savage use of pencil to underline unbelievable passages. There may have been mutterings not entirely under the breath. It’s fair to say that my husband expressed concern a few times.
Now, I had just read a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, so that didn’t help matters, because Phillip is really, really anti-Pankhursts – both Emmeline and Christabel (Sylvia seems to get a pass). She makes wild claims about them and provides quite vicious descriptions such that – I’m sorry – I had to go back and check that this was written by a woman. I can’t believe this was written by a woman. They are described as having “pathological self-importance and [the] urge to martyrdom” (p236); Christabel had “histrionics” and was “the queen of melodrama” (p240); their relationship is described as “unhealthily close and introverted” (p254). I just… what? Seriously? In a book that would quite like to be passing itself off as a readable but serious history?
And this is where another of my frustrations came in. Phillips does use a number of primary sources, and has some extensive quotes from them, which is awesome. Tick! However – and this is a really huge problem for me – there is little consideration of the perspective being brought by those sources, and whether they might be problematic. Peeps, this is the sort of thing I teach my students at high school to consider. Consider: Phillips quotes from Teresa Billington-Greig, whose book Phillips herself describes as “coruscating and merciless” (p246). Phillips draws on this book until p250, but nowhere at all does she consider whether Billington-Greig might be bitter after splitting from the WSPU (run by the Pankhursts), or that it might have been intended to discredit the WSPU in favour of the Women’s Freedom League, which she founded after the split. This is poor, poor historical work. I don’t care that she is apparently “wearing her scholarship lightly,” as a review from the Irish Sunday Independent described it; that’s shoddy scholarship.
And then… ah, then. The conclusion. One of the things she’d pointed out throughout the book is the double standard that women were both too inferior to vote, because they’re women, but also too good and pure to be sullied by politics. Nasty. Anyway, in the Epilogue she says this:
The same double standard persists to this day, with women claiming ‘equality’ and yet insisting, for example, that mothers have prior claim over fathers to their children after divorce; or that women must be economically independent of their husbands, unless they separate, in which case men must turn back into breadwinners; or that if a man is violent to a woman or child, he is an irredeemable savage, but if a woman is violent towards a man or a child, she must be suffering from an emotional problem. (p316)
It’s fair to say that I still have trouble believing that paragraph.
So. Yeh. I learnt a few things about the context of the suffrage movement, so that’s good. I was also reminded just how important it is to demand a consideration of why something was written in the first place.
ETA: ooookay… thanks to Niall Harrison on Twitter, I now have a better understanding of Melanie Phillips. He directed me to this post, and I will not read any more on her blog than that for fear of heart and/or brain malfunctions. Right then.