Sisters and Sisterhood, by Lyndsey Jenkins

June Purvis enjoys a group biography that offers new insights into the role of British working-class women in the struggle for the vote 

December 27, 2021
Suffragettes
Source: iStock

In her influential 1931 text The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst sneeringly describes the working-class suffragette Annie Kenney as a poor organiser, “essentially a follower” with “intellectual limitations”.

Annie was a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in 1903, and co-led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel, to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain. At a time of crisis in the WSPU, some nine years later, Annie took on the demanding leadership role and was admired for her skills.

Yet most historians have clung to the image Sylvia presented of Annie, as a compliant follower of Christabel, with whom she had a close friendship. Jenkins’ book seeks to rectify this representation by focusing not just on Annie but also on her four sisters – Jessie, Nell, Jane and Caroline – who all supported the WSPU. The aim throughout her engaging group biography is to explore how feminist working-class women became significant suffrage actors and autonomous agents in their own right.

Although the sisters were initially “half-timers” in local factories and mills, combining school and paid work, Jenkins argues that it was the home rather than the workplace that enhanced their intellectual and political development. The Kenneys were a politicised family where reading, debate and the Christian faith were central to their lives, especially the “religion of socialism”. This form of socialism was not primarily about economic organisation but emphasised morality, spirituality and ethics, which shaped their entry into feminist politics. The sisters, growing up acutely aware of the unequal burdens of their sex, believed in the importance of personal transformation through self-improvement, as well as in the collective struggle.

Annie claimed that it was sex rather than class that was the main determinant of working women’s experiences and that all women, regardless of class, shared oppression as women. Such ideas, central to WSPU rhetoric, made her and her sisters unusual among working-class activists. Jessie, the youngest sister, became secretary to the WSPU’s honorary treasurer and, in 1912, played a key role in ferrying copy for the union’s newspaper between France (where Christabel had escaped) and the printers in Edinburgh. She was also a member of the Young Hot Bloods, a group of daring activists.

Although less is known about the other sisters, Jenkins has unearthed some important archival material. Nell became a WSPU local organiser but after her marriage in 1909 took no further part in suffrage politics, emigrating with her spouse to Canada. Jane and Caroline, on the other hand, became reforming schoolteachers, retaining close links with the women’s movement. Jane studied with Maria Montessori, who sent her to establish the progressive Montessori movement in the US. Caroline too, living in Montreal near Nell, became a Montessori devotee. In 1917, however, the two schoolteachers returned to Britain to help Emmeline Pankhurst found a home for “war babies”.

This rich, multi-layered study challenges the frequently made claim that working-class women in the WSPU were marginalised or passive, even alienated by militancy. In emphasising the importance of family rather than friendship networks, it offers a fascinating new angle on suffrage feminism.

June Purvis is emerita professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth.


Sisters and Sisterhood: The Kenney Family, Class, and Suffrage, 1890-1965
By Lyndsey Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 296pp, £65.00
ISBN 9780192848802
Published 19 November 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Leading without limitations

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