It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.
This book isn’t what I expected.
My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.
I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.
Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.
Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.
You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.
This splendid book was sent to me by the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out at the start of October; RRP $49.99 in Australia.
Firstly, this is a hefty tome: it’s 550 pages. But the text itself is only (?) 480 pages, and it must be stressed that this is an immensely readable book with generally short chapters that make the story very readable. So don’t let the size put you off if this is a part of history that appeals to you.
If you know nothing about women achieving the vote in Australia or elsewhere, this is an excellent starting point. If, like me, you’ve read a bit already, this puts it all together in an excellent narrative, explores some of the most important characters, and sets it all in historical context magnificently. I also think you should read it if you’re at all interested in Australia’s early history as a nation.
I have a lot of Opinions on this topic. I think the fight for women’s suffrage in the first part of the 20th century is endlessly intriguing. (In fact my latest zine is on this topic. Do you get my zine?) Wright does a really great job of showing how suffrage was achieved in Australia, and then the influence that had on the rest of the world.
You may have heard that SA women got the right to vote in 1894 – a year after NZ women. But here’s the thing: because of an outrageous attempt by conservatives to be more radical than the progressives, which gloriously backfired, SA women were the first to also have the right to stand for election. Which most women around the world weren’t asking for because they thought it was a step too far. And here’s the other amazing thing: it included the right for Indigenous people of SA to vote. Oh yes. That’s really quite amazing. And because of this, and some smart wrangling from the SA delegates to the Federation conferences, that right eventually got transferred to Australian women, at least for federal elections, in 1902.
Um. Except for Indigenous women. And this is one thing that Wright excels at: pointing out that what’s being celebrated here – and it should be celebrated, certainly – is the right to vote and stand for elections for white women. It was an important step, and indeed was a revolutionary one for the world, but it wasn’t complete enfranchisement. It should be noted that Wright includes in the book some of the arguments about extending the franchise to Indigenous women from the Senate, and… I found it very hard to read that language coming from our politicians, in public. Yes, even though most of them were supporters of the White Australia Policy and I’ve seen Frazer Anning’s words. It was still sickening (so be warned). (The Indigenous population unreservedly got the right to vote in federal elections in 1962.)
Australian women fighting for the right to vote is only half the book. The rest is the way in which Australian women contributed to the struggle in “the Mother Country” (England) (where by comparison there was limited suffrage for women by 1918, and on the same basis as men only in 1928. I say ‘only’ but that’s earlier than France, which was 1944.) I’ve read about Muriel Matters, who was amazing, and about Vida Goldstein (who supported the White Australia Policy and by golly those historical folks are complicated to appreciate). I’ve also read a lot about English women’s activities in fighting for the vote. What I didn’t realise is how influential Australian women specifically were, in working for the various organisations and inspiring particular actions, AND as inspiration in general. Because the other thing that Wright does splendidly is draw out just how much of a ‘social laboratory’ Australia was seen as in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. People in the UK and USA in particular were watching Australia, this new nation, as we tried new things and made them work (first Labour govt in the world, various somewhat socialist things, ladies voting…). Vida Goldstein was the first Australian woman to meet a US president! and so on. It’s quite thrilling to see what Australian women were doing out in the world.
Finally, I also adored the final chapter, wherein Wright destroys the notion that Australia should see its participation at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation, and instead points out just how much it had achieved before then.
This book is amazing.
The short version is that Muriel Matters was an Australian actress and acclaimed elocutionist who went to Britain and ended up participating in the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and went on to work with underprivileged children, among other things. She was also one of the first women in a flying machine, and was – as far as we can tell – the first person to engage in aerial leafletting: she tossed Votes for Women pamphlets over the side of the airship basket. She was amazing and this biography captures her wonderfully.
The longer version… is basically going on about some of the other, remarkable parts of Matters’ life. Like chaining herself to the Grille, part of the screen that stopped MPs from seeing the women who were in the tiny little room where they could watch parliament. Or the things that she endured while on her endless speaking tours, such as constant heckling and having eggs – and other things – thrown at her. The stays in prison. And her magnificent speeches about suffrage – which was not an end in itself, for Matters, but merely the beginning of women coming to full participation in social life and the fabulous consequences that would have for society. At the moment, it’s all too tragic to read some of Matters’ hopes and dreams for how women would be able to participate once they had the vote. Because yes, there were some positive changes made in SA, for example, once women were voting, around labour laws and the like. But we still see the ways in which women are hampered from full participation and the consequences of women’s voices not being taken seriously.
Wainwright, who also wrote Sheila, has done a remarkable amount of research here. Matters has never had a biography written before – and I’ve read quite a few books about English women’s fight for suffrage and she has never featured significantly in any of them. Matters died a widow, and with no children, and most of her family gone and overseas, so most of her own papers have been lost. So there’s a huge amount of reconstruction from newspapers, from early accounts of the suffrage movement, and other such sources to find out what can be found out. There are gaps, of course – in particular around Matters’ personal relationships – and Wainwright offers speculation but is clear that that’s what it is.
As to her politics and passions, those seem quite clear from her speeches and from where she devoted her energies. After becoming disillusioned with parts of the suffrage movement, Matters works with striking workers and then eventually becomes one of the first Montessori-trained teachers in Britain, working with children in slum areas. Knowledge of her later life is sketchy because she disappears from public view, which is such a shame because surely this woman didn’t sit at home fuming, after her actions earlier on? It makes me want to encourage everyone to print their emails and keep them in secure vaults so that historians can find them later.
This is an engaging, thoughtful, and generally lovely look at a fascinating and important woman who was part of a historical struggle that most people know far too little about.
This post brought to you courtesy of Parissah and Aoife.
I’ve long had a fascination with the Pankhursts and the suffrage movement; I was reminded recently that I did a research assignment on the Pankhursts in year… 10? 11?; I’ve taught the British suffrage movement for a few years; I loved the biographies of Emmeline and of her daughter Sylvia, such different women; I’ve enjoyed other books on the movement too. I’ve wished that the 1970s tv show Shoulder to Shoulder existed on DVD, and I long to see Up the Women. So it should be no surprise that I was pretty excited to see Suffragette.
The only spoilers below are for which bits of the suffrage movement the film focuses on. If you don’t know the events, then I guess there are spoilers… and you need to go read some history. Here, this will help. If I tell you that the film starts in 1912… well, that’s a bit of a giveaway.
Just go see the film, right?
The basic premise of the film is that life is generally crap for women and maybe getting the vote will help. Which was basically the premise of the Pankhursts’ campaign, and that of Millicent Fawcett and all the campaigners for fifty or so years before the WSPU seriously made headlines. The film manages to show just about every way in which everyday life sucked for British women in 1912: unequal pay, sexual abuse in the workplace, men in control of the house – money, children – and the general notion that women are unfit for politics or anything other than menial work. (The focus is on white women, since the suffrage movement In Britain was generally; of course there was a whole other layer of problems for women of colour.) The response of most of the men to the women’s claims for equality is to be abusive or to laugh, at the very idea of it. Let’s not forget that rapper who thought Hilary Clinton shouldn’t be president because she might nuke someone because women get emotional. In 2015. Cue this:
The focus is on Maud, a 24-year-old woman who’s been a laundress since she was seven. She’s married, she has a son, and she has no time for politics – literally no time, because she works all day at the laundry and then keeps working at home. She gets caught up almost accidentally in a suffrage protest, and things progress from there in an almost textbook case of how to radicalise someone, which is an interesting thought given Australia’s current overblown fears about just that issue.
Most of the cast is fictional, as Maud is. There are a couple of notable exceptions. There’s a scene when Maud is first in prison and she’s introduced to an Emily, who’s on hunger strike. I thought nothing of it, really, until there was a list of names in the police station and suddenly the name Emily Wilding Davison flashed up and if I had been alone watching the film I would have yelped. It had not occurred to me that the film would go there.
Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst only has one significant scene, which surprised me somewhat, although as this review points out the focus on working class women is a fairly radical one and one that I really appreciated. She was appropriately grand, and again, when I saw her, I nearly yelped. They had the costuming down brilliantly, which is to be expected given how many wonderful pictures there are of Pankhurst; no idea whether they got her speech mannerisms or not, because I don’t know of any recordings of her voice.
Of the others – I liked the variety portrayed, within the limited purview of the film (that’s not a criticism; the film deliberately sets itself the task of looking at one group of women). Violet is a long-time campaigner struggling to keep the faith; Edith Ellyn, played by Helena Bonham Carter (who is wonderful AND! I discovered is the great-graddaughter of that bugger Asquith, who rejected women’s suffrage!) is a pharmacist with a loving and supportive husband. There’s a brief appearance from an upper middle-class woman who supports the campaign but whose husband is strongly against, and numerous women around the laundry and Maud’s neighbourhood who do not support it at all because of the difficulties it brings at home.
I have one significant quibble, and it’s one that I’m conflicted over. I liked that the police perspective was given; it highlighted just how anti-suffrage the establishment was, and the lengths that they were willing to go to stop the women. (The scene with the new portable camera – so light it doesn’t need a tripod! – that can be used covertly is hilarious; it’s still a shoebox.) However. However. Why is it that a film about the suffrage movement needed a male perspective? Because that’s exactly what Brendan Gleeson is providing, by being the copper who talks to Maud and is always present when something big is happening on the streets; he’s a male point of view on the proceedings. Could it be that a significant portion of the audience still couldn’t care less about the experiences of a person like Maud – poor, uneducated, female? I’m troubled by this, and it’s the one aspect that made me sad (about the film experience, I mean. There was a lot that made me sad). The film could have shown the police in general, as they prepare to battle the women on the streets; that would have got across the same point without it feeling like Gleeson’s character was an alternate viewpoint on the events.
I’ve also read comments about it being disappointing that there are no people of colour in the film at all, which I think is absolutely a fair call. From the perspective of suffrage history, yes there were women of colour involved but the records about individual members, regardless of race, are pretty sparse so as far as I know it’s not clear what the proportions are. I don’t know what the solution to this could have been (not an excuse, just a comment).
I’ve read a review that suggests Maud is basically a cipher, a stand-in, and not a really person – and to an extent I agree. I mean, basically everything bad that could happen to her, does, and she’s involved in just about everything interesting (well, public anyway) that happens in the suffrage movement in 1912 and 1913. But I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily. The film is called Suffragette. The only way to really convey the experience of ordinary women in the struggle is exactly like this – to show one woman, experiencing it. I think Maud is intended to stand in for white working class women in 1912 who started thinking about politics, and she does it well.
At the end of the film, there’s a potted history of when different countries gave women the vote; the cinema erupted when Switzerland came up as 1971.
It’s also only I think the second time I’ve been in a cinema when there was applause when the film concluded.
Overall I think this a welcome addition to films about women’s history… since the list of films about women’s history, and feminist history, is a pretty short one. Next I would like to order films about Olympe de Gouges, and one about Mary Wollstonecraft kthxbai.
This 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.
Recently I’ve been really getting into the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. There are professional reasons for this, but the reality is it’s been a simmering interest for a very long time. I don’t remember what grade it was, but I know I did a research essay on Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst at school – to my teacher’s complete not-surprise – and was quite inspired. It was probably the first time I had felt that voting was actually something I ought to be interested in. And every now and then when I get discouraged by Australian politics and wonder whether it’s worth voting… well, I remember that although it was easier in Australia, women all over the world fought incredibly hard to get someone like me the opportunity to cast a ballot. Who the heck am I to throw that back in their historical faces?
One of the books I got in a rash of purchasing last year was Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics. I knew Sylvia had fallen out with her mother and sister, and she went on to form her own (somewhat amusingly named) 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 knew, although I don’t remember why, that she was incredibly important to mid-century Ethiopia, of all (seemingly surprising) places. There is, though, a whole lot more to her than these nuggets.
Mary Davis states right out that her intention is not to write a standard biography. Instead, she is aiming to look particularly at feminism and socialism in Britain in the first half of the 20th century via Sylvia. (She calls her Sylvia throughout, and justifies this with pointing that there were four Pankhursts active at the same time as suffragettes, and Sylvia was not the most famous. She also acknowledges that this is a problematic choice, which delighted me for its frankness.) What this book does then is look first at the development of the WSPU (created by Emmeline and Christable Pankhurst, Sylvia also involved); and then how/why Sylvia broke away as her socialist views conflicted with her increasingly right-wing mother and sister. Sylvia worked to meld her feminism and socialism, although this was incredibly difficult – a whole bunch of trade unions wanted nothing to do with feminism or helping oppressed women. As in so many cases, some of the oppressed don’t want to change the system; they want to get to the top of it and take advantage of it. When women eventually got the right to vote (some in 1917, all in 1928) Sylvia was changing her focus to the proletariat – she was a firm supporter, early on, of the Russian Revolution, and was involved in the Communist Party (well, one of).
Socialism and feminism were, if not acceptable causes, at least ones that other people clearly identified with. But Sylvia was also committed to more intriguing causes, which had fewer proponents in Britain at least: like anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-facism. Her newspaper was apparently the first in Britain to have a black journalist write for it. She spoke out on Ethiopia’s behalf when Italy invaded. These things got her some flak, as can be imagined, in Britain. But Ethiopia invited her to live there in the 1950s, and Addis Ababa has a street named after her, and her son still lives there (or did in 1999 when the book was published).
I love a good bio. Sometimes they can wander aimlessly, and sometimes they can focus too much on one aspect of a life. Davis’ approach seems, to me, to be the best of both worlds. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive; it does focus on one aspect, but that’s the whole point. And I really liked that it pointed out some aspects of British history, too, like bits of labour history that don’t often make it into mainstream historical narratives. In fact this is pretty much a checklist for the history of oppression: workers and women and black people are all covered, and all shown to have vital and real histories. Who knew? This book is a really great way into these areas of history, especially the suffrage/socialism aspect (and it’s only 120 pages long!).
There were two things that did not work for me in this book; one substantive, the other a niggle. The first is that I don’t know the area, and that definitely had an impact on my enjoyment. This is not really a reflection on the book itself, although a map would have gone some way to alleviating that issue and made it more accessible for non-Bucks readers, and especially non-UK readers. Instead it’s a reflection that probably, this history wasn’t imagined to have a general readership outside of the locality, and an academic one a bit more broadly. So I lived with that; I skimmed over the bits where Cartwright goes into detail about the actually location of various meetings – which is probably a delight to those people who know High Wycombe or Wendover or Aylesbury. The second, the niggle, is a style thing. There were a lot of commas that I felt were misused.
Those things aside, this volume has a lot going for it. Cartwright has clearly undertaken a monumental task in sifting through local newspapers to find references to suffrage (and anti-suffrage) activities in his area, as well as digging up minutes from meetings and some correspondence as well. This in itself I find fascinating: the suffragettes and suffragists (the terms, sometimes interchangeable, were often used to differentiate between militant and constitutional approaches) were often holding important enough meetings that they did feature in the media – despite not always getting big numbers to those meetings, and perhaps sometimes because of the opposition they met.
What this history does is set the national women’s suffrage campaign in a local context. So much of this story that gets popularly talked about is London, or perhaps Manchester, based – which is unsurprising because it’s where the Big Names (Pankhursts, Fawcett) were, and where a lot of the eye-catching activities (pilgrimages to Hyde Park, chaining to gates) occurred. But as I’m increasingly realising, this doesn’t cover the entire campaign. And how could it? Of course it is important to convince non-capital city residents of the righteousness of your cause! The leaders of the WSPU and other organisations all travelled around the country, drumming up support. They corresponded with the women (and men) organising local branches in small towns. Sometimes, they retreated to the countryside to recover from hunger strikes and force feeding. So this book should help Buckinghamshire people to understand their contribution to an important national movement, and it should make everyone else realise that history does occur in small towns, too. It should also be seen as a spur to people who are running similar campaigns at the moment. There is no doubt that many of the people (especially the women, I would suggest) who were involved in Buckinghamshire probably got quite disheartened over time; their numbers were never huge, the number of supporters was varied, there was active dislike and vitriol from the community… and it took a really long time. Cartwright believes that the first 20th century women’s suffrage meeting in the county was held in 1904 – although there was some action in the nineteenth century too; women got limited rights to vote in 1918 (over 30, married to a householder) and then voting rights on the same terms as men in 1928.
I liked that Cartwright went to some lengths to find out details about many of the women involved, which often involved finding their obituaries. I appreciated the extensive quotes – from newspapers largely – from the speeches made, and in debates with anti-suffrage campaigners. (The notion that the newspaper would quote so extensively from speakers is awesome.) And I also liked that he included a chapter on those anti-suffrage activities, to demonstrate the arguments that were being made and to show that the suffragists weren’t just battling indifference but serious opposition.
This book is not for the general reader – unless you’re from central Buckinghamshire, in which case definitely read it since you might be living in a house that was used for meetings! But it’s great if you want to see how local history can and should be interesting, or if you’re interested in suffrage history more generally. There is also a bonus for Australian readers: Muriel Matters, an Australian suffrage campaigner, worked quite a lot in the area and is mentioned several times.
In fourteen fairly short articles, this survey covers a wide range of generally lesser-known topics of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. It covers things like the drama, poetry and fiction that came out in support of the suffrage movement; some of the lesser known societies, especially during WW1; the actions outside of London, and those undertaken by working-class women; and the continuing work after 1918 to get the franchise on the same terms as men had it (women over 30 who were householders could vote after 1918; men over 21 could vote). The only chapter that covered things I already basically knew was one on Christabel Pankhurst, who along with her mother Emmeline is probably the most well-known of all suffrage activists.
I learnt an enormous amount about the activities undertaken as well as people’s attitudes. I had always assumed there was a basic oppositional dichotomy between the suffragists (constitutional activists) and the suffragettes (militant activists); not so. Friendships networks were at least if not more important for many women than their ‘official’ societal associations. I also really appreciated reading about some of the literary men who contributed towards the movement; it’s salutary to be reminded that the women weren’t fighting against the entirety of the male population, and that those who opposed women’s suffrage were, eventually, quite a minority.
The depressing part of the story overall is that so many of the issues raised against women voting, and having any position in public life, are frighteningly recognisable in contemporary discourse. A hundred years ago. Seriously.
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.