Tread lightly or stomp heavily? 2

February 9, 2007

Regarding Christopher Bearman's attack on contemporary feminist scholars of the suffragist movement ("Row erupts over suffragette tale", January 26), certainly anyone has the right to challenge the facts and conclusions of critics. But when someone enters a field where he/she does not have established credentials that person should walk softly.

Bearman's dogmatic proclamations that the militant suffragists were akin to al-Qaeda and the Taleban, that the Women's Social and Political Union newspapers "lied shamelessly" and that recognised feminist scholars such as June Purvis perpetuate a mythology by not exposing WSPU "propaganda lies, exaggerations and suppressions" are not helpful to the cause of intelligent, reasoned, dispassionate scholarly discourse and debate.

My interest stems in part from my collection of suffrage ephemera and memorabilia, among them many postcards. More than 3,000 postcards dealing with woman suffrage were issued in England, many produced for profit, reflecting large-scale public response to the suffrage movement.

This reaction was often hostile, with violence covered with a comedic cloak. The anti-suffragist anger was not necessarily directed against the more militant actions of the WSPU, as Bearman's articles appear to suggest, but rather against the basic right of suffragists to speak out. In one card, a woman's jaws are clamped with a vice with the caption, "What I would do with the suffragists", in another a woman is muzzled, with the comment that this is "a solution to the suffragette question" and in a third, the tongue of a carping suffragette is nailed through with a large spike to shut her up.

When legitimate speech is suppressed, another form of speech - violent action - often emerges. While there is nothing admirable in the bombing and setting ablaze by some suffragists of empty churches and buildings, there is nothing admirable either in the physical repression that was the catalyst for such actions. Most feminist scholars understand this. It is to be hoped that one day Bearman will also.

Kenneth Florey
Southern Connecticut State University, US

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