The Pankhurst women

Cranky Ladies logoThis post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

One cranky lady is awesome. Three in one family? That deserves a collective noun.

Let’s call them a Pankhurst.

These were women who went to prison, and on hunger strike, for their beliefs. Who held controversial views and insisted on their right, as humans, to make their views heard. Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia Panhurst were very definitely Cranky Ladies. (Emmeline also had another daughter, Adela, who was probably equally cranky and was certainly involved in politics and the suffrage movement; less seems to be known about her activities than those of the other women in the family, though.) Their primary focus for much of their politicking careers was gaining suffrage for women in Britain (Sylvia went on to do other, also radical, things.)

Emmeline came from a family that had long supported equal suffrage for men and women, and married a radical lawyer named Richard who was a pacifist, republican, anti-imperialist and also a supporter of women’s suffrage. Gloriously, he seems to have genuinely walked the talk, and encouraged his wife to be involved in committees supporting women’s suffrage – even when they had children, which is also remarkable. She did many serious things as a young wife and mother, including hosting political parties for her husband – let’s not forget how important a space this could be for women; salons were not just about cucumber sandwiches and gossip, but often a place where women could genuinely get their views heard, in a society that prevented women from voting at a national level. She also worked as a Poor Law Guardian, including taking issues such as poor diet, clothing and conditions straight to the authorities and arguing for change – some of which was made. And she was in at the outset of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s, forming a close working relationship with Keir Hardie.

All of these things would be enough to make Emmeline an admirable woman, if not one that stood out: there were, after all, many other women doing similar things at the time – you don’t get to have a Manchester National Society for Women’s Society with just one woman involved, and of course there were other societies doing similar things around the entire country. But Emmeline is most well known for the organisation she founded, with her daughters, after her husband’s death: the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU.

You might have heard of them. They’re the ones who were originally called suffragettes by the Daily Mail, in an effort to be disparaging. How’d that work out again?

Emmeline and Christabel, in particular, decided that the so-called ‘constitutional’ methods used so far, especially by groups like the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, headed by the awesome Millicent Fawcett), were just taking too long. Petitions, rallies, and refusal to pay taxes was all well and good, but maybe what was needed was something a bit more… confronting. Christabel later said that the first militant action she ever undertook was simply (‘simply’!) speaking in a political meeting; Emmeline identified the first militant act of the WSPU as when a group of women stood on the steps of the House of Commons to protest against the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill having been deliberately talked out, so that no vote on it could be taken. Things escalated from here, with all three Pankhurst women being arrested at various points for various actions, including deliberately spitting at a policeman in order to get arrested; ‘incitement’, in Emmeline’s case; and sometimes for speaking in public. Members of the WSPU did more and more radical things, up to and including arson and destruction of public property; Emily Davison, she who died after being knocked over by a horse at Epsom Derby, was a member.

When they were put in prison, most of the WSPU were put into the Second Division – where ordinary criminals went – rather than the First Division, for political prisoners. Partly to protest this indignity, many of them – including all three Pankhursts – went on hunger strikes. The authorities responded by force feeding them, which caused outrage, and was later stopped when the government – a Liberal government! – introduced what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act: when a woman got sick from a hunger strike, she was released to recuperate… and then got rearrested. Rinse, repeat. Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia all went on numerous hunger strikes, and Emmeline’s health especially was seriously compromised.

I should note at this point that I do sometimes fall into the trap of talking up the Pankhursts and their militancy and ignoring the long, hard work that women like Fawcett put in for many decades on the suffrage issue, which also contributed enormously to the profile of the women’s suffrage movement, and helped to demonstrate that the vote was not simply desired by a small bunch of waspish spinsters trying to get back at men. I firmly believe that suffragists (as the constitutionals are often remembered) and suffragettes both contributed to the eventual success of the movement.

Throughout its existence, Emmeline and Christabel ran the WSPU fairly undemocratically. Which sounds like an odd temporisation, but the reality – which seems actually quite hard to come at – is that while they ran the WSPU along authoritarian lines (there were no elections; the Pankhurst word was it), members could and did often run their own thing when it came to protesting. All the evidence suggests that they had no idea of what Davison was going to do at Epsom, for instance. And they lost the support of Sylvia, mostly because their politics diverged: Sylvia kept going left (she ended up being involved in the founding of the British Communist Party), while Emmeline and Christabel were starting to tend right. They never reconciled.

Women got the right to vote in Britain in 1917, if they were over 30 and either householders or married to a householder; in the same bill, all men over 21 got the right to vote. Women got the franchise on the same basis as men in 1928. Emmeline and Christabel had not actually been involved much in the struggle since 1914, having chosen to devote their efforts to WW1; Sylvia continued to protest, with her East London Federation of Suffragettes, because she was also protesting against the war itself. Emmeline even went to Russia and got to meet Kerensky, between the February and October Revolutions, although neither was very impressed with the other. After the vote was achieved, if on compromised grounds, Emmeline did not retire to a life of carpet bowls and singalongs: she went on lecturing tours of America and elsewhere, and even stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party. Christabel also went on speaking tours; she was most focussed on the problems of venereal disease, and how to stop this ‘great scourge’. Sylvia went on to have a long and radical life: she was involved in socialist politics, she ran a newspaper that was probably the first British publication to run a black journalist’s article, and she was intensely motivated by anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist ideas. Also, she had a baby without being married, and she wasn’t ashamed of it. In the 1920s.

Emmeline Pankhurst. Christabel Pankhurst. Sylvia Pankhurst. Three very cranky ladies who have had a huge impact on history: the first two mostly in Britain, the last in Britain but also in Ethiopia, where there’s a street named after her in Addis Ababa for the work she did on their behalf. Every time I think that voting is a waste of time because one person can’t change things, I think of their sacrifices – even though in a different country – and I realise just how amazing an opportunity it is.

(I’ve reviewed biographies of Emmeline and Sylvia, as well as other books about suffrage history.)

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