Sibling rivalries and other tales of sisterhood

Freedom's Cause - Sylvia Pankhurst
July 23, 2004

The Votes for Women campaign never went away. Last October, commemorations marked the suffragette centenary of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Earlier, the 75th anniversary of winning the vote in 1928 for all women over 21 was celebrated. And some two years ago, the pioneering Fawcett Library was magnificently relaunched as the Women's Library.

At that time, The Times Higher featured a bitter spat between rival Pankhurst biographers Martin Pugh and June Purvis. With so many books appearing, writers on the suffragette movement draw liberally on other authors. So much so that they may end up feeling like Jerome K. Jerome's hapless visitors lost in the Hampton Court maze in Three Men in a Boat , forever recognising well-worn passages trodden earlier. For new suffrage evidence may now be harder - though not impossible - to come upon.

Here, Fran Abrams and Shirley Harrison, both journalist-writers synthesising the rich literature, have written for the general reader rather than the academic market. Nothing wrong with popular. But do they offer clear, lively introductions for new Votes for Women readers?

Certainly, Abrams' Freedom's Cause presents a dozen very readable pen-portraits of household names - Emmeline Pankhurst, of course, and suffragette martyr Emily Wilding Davison - and of those less-familiar names, such as the disabled suffragette May Billinghurst. Keir Hardie is there, as is Annie Kenney, though oddly no suffragette from the Women's Freedom League, the important group that broke away from an undemocratic WSPU in 1907.

One chapter, "Millicent Fawcett - pacifist warrior", is a slight misnomer. Fawcett, vigorously supporting both the Boer and First World Wars, was no pacifist; and she was a wily constitutional operator rather than a "warrior". Certainly, Abrams salutes Fawcett's lifetime of patient diplomacy, arguing she "did more than any other individual to win the vote for women". She illuminates how, once WSPU militancy escalated, Fawcett, reluctant to condemn suffragette violence publicly, vented her frustration in private: "There seems very little probability that the militants will cease from outrage. I think they would rather lose Women's Suffrage than give up their own way of demonstrating." Fittingly, Fawcett was in the House of Commons in 1928, the year before she died, to see the full enfranchisement of women enacted.

Many readers will turn to the chapter "Adela Pankhurst - forgotten sister".

Adela remains the unknown Pankhurst - not least because she was "banished" to Australia by her mother in 1914. The only biography of her is out of print, and few researchers have followed Adela's trail out to Australia.

Abrams' clear, perceptive overview tracks Adela from her rather unloved childhood (dismissed, nameless, in her mother's memoirs with her younger brother Harry as "two other children"). Adela believed her patchy education came second to that of Christabel, who studied law, and Sylvia, who studied art. At 18, Adela became a lowly but idealistic pupil-teacher at an elementary school. She later recalled, "I was at last one of the working masses who were to redeem mankind." However, she was present at the founding of the WSPU on October 10, 1903.

Adela gave up teaching and threw herself with passionate ardour into life as a WSPU organiser. In Scotland, after smashing windows, she experienced imprisonment and the new threat of forcible feeding. The examining doctor described her as "a slender under-sized girl", weighing just 7 stone; the medical superintendent of Perth Criminal Lunatic Department pronounced her of a "degenerate type", unfit for forcible feeding. Later, Adela would regale an outdoor audience of 10,000 with tales of her endurance of cold, pain and hunger in prison.

Unsurprisingly, she fell ill. Suspicious WSPU headquarters put her under more scrutiny. Christabel apparently told Sylvia, "I would not care if you were multiplied by a hundred, but one of Adela is too many!" Adela's mother gave her £200 for a horticultural training course and made her promise never to speak on a public platform again. Adela became a gardener, briefly. Then Emmeline gave her enough money for a one-way ticket to Australia.

She sailed in February 1914. "Emigration," Abrams states persuasively, "turned out to be the making of her." Australia welcomed her, she married trade union organiser Tom Walsh, and together they later joined the Australian Communist Party. Subsequently, she drifted to the right and founded the Australian Women's Guild of Empire in 1929. Abrams writes that Adela, happy in her personal life, "always made a rather unconvincing rightwinger".

Sylvia's political trajectory took her from suffragette and socialist, via Moscow and Lenin, anti-fascism and the 1934 Ethiopia crisis, to defence of Emperor Haile Selassie - issues linked by lifelong anti-imperialism.

However, in focusing on Sylvia, Harrison has set herself a trickier task than Abrams. Sylvia remains not only the most powerful writer in the Pankhurst family (I still remember the emotional impact of first reading The Suffragette Movement ), she also has already attracted at least four biographers - Patricia Romero (1987), Barbara Winslow (1996), Mary Davis (1999), plus her son Richard's beautifully illustrated Sylvia Pankhurst, Artist and Crusader: An Intimate Portrait (1979) - not to mention her appearance in BBC Television's unforgettable drama-documentary Shoulder to Shoulder (1974).

So what does Harrison offer that is fresh about Sylvia? Sadly, not much. The narrative, better on a personal than political level, strengthens as Sylvia grows older - when it can draw on memories, including Richard's.

It opens with aplomb. "On a hot summer day in July 1956 an elderly lady sat... waiting for a taxi", surrounded by tea chests overflowing with papers.

Sylvia was leaving her Woodford Green home in Essex. Richard, appointed a professor in Ethiopia, was helping her pack. Selassie "had offered Sylvia a home in Addis Ababa in gratitude for her long, dedicated contribution to Ethiopian Liberation from Italy... It was time to pack away the memories."

But much of what follows is familiar. Sylvia's parents marry in 1879. The WSPU is formed. Sylvia has a daring relationship with Hardie. The childhood chapter will probably feel newer to readers, with its quotation from Adela's "explosively bitter, angry attack on Sylvia" after The Suffragette Movement was published in 1931. Adela claimed that Sylvia had "dominated the family because she had a supreme self-love and a tenacity of purpose".

But it is often unclear how distinct Harrison's book is from Sylvia's previous biographies or where its information comes from.

Once Sylvia moves to Woodford, the book improves. Richard was born in 19 - controversially, as his parents remained unmarried. To pay bills, Sylvia tries to combine motherhood with writing, including The Suffragette Movement . Italy invades Ethiopia: in June 1936 at Victoria Station, Sylvia greets the emperor and his royal family, unusual exiles. Richard recalled how his childhood house "was home to a continual stream of both foreign refugees pouring in from fascist-stricken Europe and elderly Suffragettes". At secondary school, this serious boy, "Pank", kept his head down.

After the move from England, Richard married Rita, librarian of the National Library of Ethiopia. Shortly after Sylvia's death, the emperor's entire Cabinet was murdered. Richard and Rita decided they must get Sylvia's papers to safekeeping. The Dutch embassy was at the end of their road, and speed was essential. All the boxes were flown to Holland, which is why researchers on Sylvia must visit Amsterdam's International Institute of Social History. Rita became librarian at the Fawcett Library. More recently, Richard published new, moving letters from the period 1953-57 between an elderly Sylvia and Christabel, who had been out of contact for almost 40 years. Harrison's narrative ends fittingly with the internationalism of Sylvia's grandchildren.

Both these books should appeal to readers unfamiliar with the Pankhurst story. Abrams' book will probably be of wider interest. Readers wishing to go beyond introductory biographies will want to turn to, say, Women's History Review articles for analysis of how the women's suffrage story was shaped.

Jill Liddington is reader in gender history, Leeds University.

Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes

Author - Fran Abrams
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 283
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 1 86197 425 6

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