'Purvis's claims damage herself'

January 25, 2002

It is good policy not to criticise books on the basis of newspaper articles written 18 months before publication. In The Pankhursts I do not say that Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst were lesbians; indeed, I was at pains to put their social life and relationships into a true perspective.

June Purvis's criticisms of my book are unfair. That is underlined by the fact that none of the many reviewers of the book have mentioned the subject apart from one - Susan Flockhart in the Sunday Herald - and she made a point of praising me for treating the issue "with caution" and for keeping the story to what could be ascertained from source material. The truth is that in The Pankhursts I discuss the subject of close friendships between Victorian and Edwardian women in a sympathetic and positive way. They were, after all, an important strategy for helping women to establish themselves in careers in the face of family or public disapproval and in sustaining the early women's pressure groups. As such, they should not be hidden from history.

But THES readers will wonder why this cannot be discussed in the usual reviews without going to the lengths of publishing a special article. Over a long period, Purvis has made a practice of complaining to editors about anything I write on women's history, although she has yet to publish a book on women's suffrage. Inevitably the discovery that I was to publish The Pankhursts upset her own plans for a biography. This happens a good deal in publishing, but Purvis's anger may be judged from some of her actions.

On finding that I had consul-ted one elderly lady for information, Purvis sent letters demanding the removal of all the information and claimed that I had no permission to use it. In fact I have the lady's letter expressly hoping that her information will be helpful in writing the book. As all this happened shortly before publication it could have held it up. In an angry correspondence with the publishers, Purvis rebuked the managing director of Penguin on the grounds that as a "woman" herself, she should not support publication of the book.

She also sent her letter to the vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University and to the head of history there suggesting that I had been unprofessional. As the university was in no way responsible, the only motive for this was, presumably, to try to damage my reputation with my employer. The university consul-ted their solicitors who advised that Purvis's claims were baseless.

The book has been published, has been widely reviewed in the national press and has been extensively praised for its handling of the personal and the political side of the Pankhursts' lives. To this, Purvis has respon-ded by writing further angry complaining letters to editors and publishers who have any connection with me or the book. Her insistence on making these criticisms, which I can only conclude must be based on personal jealousy, is surely going to damage her own reputation.

The THES piece is, thus, in my view the latest effusion in a line of attacks and misrepresentations by Purvis, who, as her article shows, likes to discredit people by hanging labels on them. This appears to be reflected in a belief that men should not be writing on women's history. She attemp-ted to undermine my position with Penguin by claiming that another publisher, Oxford University Press, was unhappy about my book, The March of the Women : A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women's Suffrage 1866-1914 . In fact they are publishing a paperback version. As the book had been praised in a review by Brian Harrison, Purvis claimed that he had ceased to work on women's hist-ory and was, by implication, not qualified to comment. Thus a distinguished scholar who has written several major books on women's history and a host of original articles, and recorded innumerable interviews with surviving suffragists in the I970s, is to be dismissed.

It is surely unnecessary to point out how totally alien this logic is to virtually all historians and academics in general. The idea that men cannot write about women's history would lead one to question whether whites should write black his-tory, whether a Frenchman or an Italian should work on the history of Britain, or whether medievalists should tackle the history of the papacy unless they are Catholics.

It would be understandable if THES readers regarded all this as typical academic squabbling. This is why in the past I have ignored Purvis's attacks. In my view, The THES is mistaken in indulging Purvis by publishing her material when what she really needs is some appreciation of how far her behaviour damages herself. But recently I have felt obliged to consider whether I have been a bit too relaxed. It is true that so far I have not been prevented from publishing three books on aspects of women's history, though I would have to think carefully before doing so again. But there are younger scholars trying to establish themselves who are more vulnerable to this kind of thing. The academic profession has enough problems at the present time without having to cope with insidious internal threats of this sort.

Martin Pugh is research professor in history at Liverpool John Moores University. The Pankhursts was published by Allen Lane in November, and The March of the Women , Oxford University Press, is available in paperback.

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