'Pugh's book is full of errors'

January 25, 2002

On June 11 2000, The Observer published an article with the headline "Diary reveals lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders". It referred to Martin Pugh's forthcoming book, which the newspaper said would claim that Mary Blathwayt's diaries illustrated how Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel, together with Annie Kenney, led "a promiscuous lesbian lifestyle". Having recently read the Blathwayt diaries, I was astounded.

The following morning I phoned The Observer to lodge a complaint. I also wrote a letter. It was not published, nor were the subsequent two that I penned. Warwick Kenney, the elderly and ill son of Annie, phoned me saying how upset he was. "Can't you do anything about it, June?" I wrote to Penguin in September 2001 (it took me some time to discover who the publisher was), asking for the editing out of any claims about "lesbian promiscuity" since I had found no evidence for this in Blathwayt's diaries and such statements were causing extreme distress to aged relatives. Penguin defended Pugh's book, asserting the author's right of non-censorship.

On October 1, at the request of Miss Bennett, Emmeline's aged and nearly blind adopted daughter, I wrote to Pugh saying that she did not wish any information she had included in a letter sent to him to be used in his book. Further, if he mentioned Emmeline's adopted children, she did not wish to be referred to as Miss Bennett, her current name, in case she attracted any media attention. Pugh never replied to me. In The Pankhursts he refers to correspondence with "Miss Eveline Bennett".

On October 18, a Radio 4 producer phoned me to ask if I would appear on a programme with Pugh to discuss his book. Initially I refused but, after discussion with Warwick Kenney, decided to participate. When Pugh heard, he refused to take part and he duly appeared alone.

Having read The Pankhursts twice, I can understand why he may not have wanted a debate with me about these issues. There has been a long tradition of male historians claiming that the suffragette leaders were lesbians. A key question that never appears to be asked is - would a men's political movement be approached by speculation about the sexual orientation of its acti-vists? In my view, Pugh enters the foray about lesbianism in The Pankhursts in a prurient, masculinist manner that belies his claim that he writes of such relationships in a sympathetic way.

Lesbianism is never defined and there is much hunting around for what is going on under the bed covers. The evidence cited to support the case, however, is circumstantial. Pugh states, for example, that: "In the case of Annie Kenney, she slept so frequently with her female friends and colleagues that it would be surprising if her feelings were not those of a lesbian." What he fails to acknowledge is that it was common for campaigning suffragettes to share beds when they were put up in other people's houses. In particular, the words "sleeping with" did not have the same connotation then as now. But for Pugh, with his heterosexist assumptions, the politics of the suffragettes are suspect, a "substitute for love affairs (ie with men), and hero-worship (ie of women) an alternative to physical passion (ie with men)".

Further, Pugh's discussion about lesbianism appears targeted at certain women, namely separatist feminists such as Emmeline and Christabel, who disassociated themselves from the socialist movement. Ethel Smyth, he claims, "often shared Emmeline's room at the Inns of Court Hotel" and enjoyed a relationship of "unusual intimacy" with the militant suffragette leader. What Pugh does not cite is Ethel's own documented statement that she fled to Egypt in order to escape the power of her feelings for Emmeline. It is highly unlikely that Emmeline and Ethel were lovers in any physical sense. Emmeline was too much the politician to risk scandal and Ethel often developed unreciprocated passions for women (and men). Pugh is forced to conclude that the evidence for Christabel's lesbianism "is inconclusive". So why bother to speculate if not to denigrate separatist feminists?

The point becomes more marked since Pugh does not discuss the intense friendship between Sylvia Pankhurst and Zelie Emerson, which Barbara Winslow claims may have been sexual. But Sylvia, a socialist feminist, is the heroine of Pugh's book. The feminine Sylvia, who cries easily and had an affair with Keir Hardie, founder of the emerging Labour Party, is assumed to be heterosexual.

Pugh largely ignores the extensive literature on women's suffrage that has been published during the past ten years, especially by feminist historians. Further, the range of sources he has consulted is in my view limited and seems biased towards the "official" voices of men such as the police and politicians. And, while he quotes extensively from the private letters and writings of Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, the youngest daughter, also a socialist, he rarely quotes from the personal accounts of Emmeline and Christabel.

The Pankhursts is instead based mainly around the narratives told by Sylvia in her The Suffragette Movement and David Mitchell's 1967 book The Fighting Pankhursts . Sylvia was often at odds with Emmeline and Christabel. From 1903 to 1914, it was Emmeline and Christabel who dominated the suffrage headlines. Yet Sylvia writes herself into the account as the figure who won votes for women, a storyline that too many historians have swallowed. In The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia represents Emmeline not only as a failed leader, who defers to the hated Christabel, but also as a failed mother. Pugh takes the script on board, presenting Emmeline and especially Christabel as the "baddies" and Sylvia and the youngest Pankhurst daughter, Adela, both socialists, as the "goodies". Consequently, he makes at least 58 references to The Suffragette Movement but only 13 to Christabel's Unshackled . And despite his praise for Adela, Pugh is selective in the quotations he takes from her writings, failing to acknowledge that she accuses Sylvia of being overly critical of Emmeline because "in Sylvia's eyes to cease to be a socialist, if one had ever been one, is a moral crime".

Since Pugh seems to have little new to say, possibly floating the "lesbian" angle of the book may have attracted more popular attention.

I have counted 34 errors so far, including misquotes and howlers such as getting Emmeline's date of birth wrong; it was July 15 1858 not the much heralded 14th and there is no standard bibliography. Ultimately, responsibility for the scholarship of any book rests with the publishers. I suspect that the manuscript was not perused by a suffrage scholar.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history at the University of Portsmouth. Her book, Emmeline Pankhurst : A Biography , will be published by Routledge in June.

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