Pankhursts and provocations

Emmeline Pankhurst - The Pankhursts - Emmeline Pankhurst

January 31, 2003

In BBC2's recent Great Britons popularity poll for "the greatest Briton ever", a dozen women were listed among the top 100: a few queens, Marie Stopes, Margaret Thatcher - and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Certainly, there can be few Britons who have been so biographised recently. Within the past year or so, Pankhurst has merited not only two books of her very own, but also a family biography. So what made her "great"? A considered answer to this question is all the more urgent now that citizenship is part of the national curriculum. Should pupils learn that it was Pankhurst who won women the vote?

Anyone pondering this question, other than a suffrage historian (and perhaps even some of them), immediately hits a problem. THES readers will recall last January's spat between Pankhurst biographers Martin Pugh and June Purvis. Even by the standards of academic rivalries, this was particularly bitter. The front page announced: "Pankhurst feud: 'lesbian' fracas splits scholars." And inside ran a double-page headline: "The Pankhursts - politics and passion."

The feature reminded readers, with the memory of September 11 2001 still fresh, that while the principles for which suffragettes fought are accepted today, "at the time they were less heroes than terrorists who employed violence". Then Purvis and Pugh locked antlers. Purvis, alleging that Pugh's book was "full of errors", was furious at the suggestion that Emmeline, her eldest daughter Christabel and Anne Kenney were all lesbians.

Pugh retorted that Purvis's criticisms were unfair (for Purvis had "briefed against" him, apparently writing not only to Penguin's managing director, but also to Pugh's vice-chancellor and head of history). For the next four issues, letters flowed.

Of the three biographies, Pugh's remains the most provocative. Drawing on the diaries of Mary Blathwayt, suffrage supporters and friends of Kenney, he alleges that Kenney "slept so frequently with her female friends and colleagues that it would be surprising if her feelings were not that of a lesbian"; and for Kenney and Grace Roe (another of Christabel's "loyal acolytes... a weak personality") politics "was a substitute for love affairs". But I remain unpersuaded by Pugh's evidence and find his substitutionalist argument old-fashioned. (For a far more subtle analysis of sexual radicals, readers should turn to Sandra Holton's magisterial Suffrage Days .)

Pugh's biography is also controversial because of his critical take on the Pankhursts, pronouncing them "a rather dysfunctional family". He may have a point. Yet they were all highly political, and politically active families are not routinely cosy. As the youngest daughter, Adela, put it: "It was the family attitude - Cause First and human relations - nowhere... if (Emmeline) had been tolerant and broadminded, she would not have been the leader of the suffragettes."

Finally, Pugh has been criticised for ignoring feminist historians' recent suffrage research. Here I need to declare an interest. As I sat down to read Pugh's hardback, I noticed that as the Pankhurst narrative moved from early family life to turn-of-the-century Manchester politics, it all began to sound somewhat familiar. For instance, I read of energetic radical suffragists Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth and the female cotton workers' campaign. As Jill Norris and I had written about this in One Hand Tied behind Us (1978), I turned to Pugh's endnotes to check his sources. One Hand is not cited. The more I read, the more I felt I was stepping into footprints planted decades earlier that seemed ghostily familiar - until I recognised them as my own. Turning to Pugh's sources, all became clear: he meticulously cites collections of papers, newspapers and the Pankhursts' own books, but there is no acknowledgement of the work of women suffrage historians upon which he has drawn. For a professional historian, published by a major imprint, this is surely slipshod. This silence is still not rectified in the paperback edition. If pressure to publish is the logic behind such editorial hastiness, then the research assessment exercise has more to answer for than we thought.

Pugh's biography remains controversial, but we now have three books to choose from. How do they compare? Certainly, each has different aims and feels different. Pugh, an experienced political historian, is highly critical of Emmeline, describing her as a "heartless" mother; Purvis, a Pankhurst loyalist, strongly champions Emmeline and Christabel against Sylvia, the second daughter. Paula Bartley, whose book is of more modest ambition, has less of a line on which Pankhursts she supports. (Routledge, when asked why it published two similar biographies simultaneously, said this coincidence was due to publishing mergers.)

Although the Pankhursts' lives extended beyond suffrage, most readers want to know how the books compare on winning votes for women. On Emmeline's early days, all three draw extensively on Sylvia Pankhurst's The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (1931), depicting how radical barrister Richard and his wife moved from Liberalism to the new Independent Labour Party in 1893-94. Richard died in 1898, leaving his 40-year-old widow with four young children to bring up in straitened circumstances. In the five years between this tragic bereavement and the Pankhursts' formation of the Women's Social and Political Union, how did Emmeline cut her political teeth?

Purvis draws a moving picture of the whole household shrouded in deep grief, quoting at length from Emmeline's impassioned letters to an administrator of the fund established to educate the fatherless children. Emmeline only gradually returned to her interest in politics, with the election of Keir Hardie in 1900. Purvis does have the courtesy to acknowledge her secondary sources (even when taking them to task for any criticism of her heroines, Emmeline and Christabel), otherwise relying upon fairly well-known sources here - particularly The Suffragette Movement by Sylvia, a socialist and so, along with "masculinist" historians such as Pugh, among Purvis' bêtes noires .

Pugh also relies on fairly standard sources. The exception is his evidence about the youngest and least-known daughter, Adela. His consultation of Adela's papers in the National Library of Australia allows Pugh to escape from the Manichean dichotomy of Emmeline-Christabel versus Sylvia. The family's scarce educational resources had to be concentrated on "clever" Christabel and Sylvia; neglected, Adela had to leave school early and become an ill-paid pupil-teacher. Pugh also writes well on the reliance of the early Labour Representation Committee on the pennies of the unenfranchised female cotton workers of Lancashire - a logic not lost on Roper and Gore-Booth. Yet Pugh, referring to the Pankhursts' "leftwing bias", seems to underestimate their commitment to ILP idealism: it was not just a strategic alliance but a hope for the future.

However, it is Bartley who has significant new material to help conjure up "the ILP years". In 1900, Emmeline was elected to the Manchester School Board. Enterprisingly, Bartley consulted the school board's minutes. These boards were abolished under the 1902 Education Act, and women were not eligible for election to the local education committee, so Emmeline was co-opted on - along with Gore-Booth. What Bartley makes clear is that Emmeline and Eva worked closely together: both women supported equal pay for boy and girl pupil teachers. This throws new contextual light: in mid-1903, Gore-Booth helped form the Lancashire Women Textile Workers'

Representation Committee, and in October Emmeline formed the WSPU. Both were energetic, charismatic women, both actively involved in Manchester's labour movement. Had their collaboration continued, might the suffrage campaign have taken a rather different turn?

Bartley provides clear, often perceptive summaries, helpful for the student readership: Emmeline fought "for her cherished principles with the idealism of a fundamentalist... Emmeline's style gave very little room for negotiation". Certainly, neither Christabel nor her mother brooked dissent - from 1907 when some suffragettes split away over the lack of internal WSPU democracy to form the Women's Freedom League, right through to 1914 when Adela was sent (Pugh says "banished") to Australia and Sylvia's East London Federation of Suffragettes was expelled from the WSPU.

From October 1905, suffragette militancy triggered arrests and imprisonments. Emmeline gave herself unstintingly to her movement. Prison, or the threat of it, dominated her life between 1908 and 1914. And once the Liberal government introduced its Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-health (or "Cat and Mouse") Act, the battle with the state intensified.

On May 21 1914, a photographer captured this vividly: Emmeline's arrest on a deputation to Buckingham Palace attempting to deliver a petition to the king. Pugh's hardback edition has the picture on its back cover but says little about it. Purvis uses the identical photograph on her front cover (though in my copy it is mistakenly captioned as 19); Purvis does describe the photograph, noting that burly Inspector Rolfe actually lifted the frail, elegant widow off the ground. Finally, Pugh's paperback also uses the identical photograph (though bizarrely captioned "the suffragette attack on Buckingham Palace") on its front cover.

The lives of each member of the extraordinary Pankhurst family were wonderfully dramatic. This in itself presents challenges. It is hard for biographers to remember, as suffragette "mice" scurried away from the "cat", the broader suffrage backdrop: the giant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, in alliance with the now pro-suffrage Labour Party, fought by-elections around the country, helped by its new Election Fighting Fund. (Readers wanting evidence of the rich variety of "suffrage everywhere" should turn to Elizabeth Crawford's recent excellent The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 .) And with so much already written about the Pankhursts, biographies read sometimes like a palimpsest (Pugh and Bartley keep noting "some historians say", while Purvis does at least provide references). One reviewer has already referred to "'the Pankhurst curse' that seems to afflict any biographer trying to write about the first family of feminism... the results are almost always dull as ditchwater". This is an exaggeration, and certainly Bartley's sketches of the broader picture for newer readers are lively. While hers is an accessible introduction, Pugh and Purvis provide for historians needing to compare iconoclast and loyalist accounts. Certainly, no one should teach modern British political history or citizenship without understanding Emmeline Pankhurst's charisma, why she is popularly seen as a "great Briton" - and how she fits into wider suffrage history.

Jill Liddington is reader in gender history, University of Leeds.

Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography

Author - June Purvis
ISBN - 0 415 23978 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 448

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