The Pankhursts - politics and passion

January 25, 2002

The women's suffrage movement provoked strong reactions and emotions at the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century, debate about the topic is just as heated, says Harriet Swain. Academics Martin Pugh and June Purvis, who have both written books about the Pankhurst family, give their sides of an ongoing dispute.

The first generation of women to vote died out years ago. More than a decade has passed since Britain's first female prime minister left office; some young female voters in last year's general election will barely remember her. The struggle to secure votes for women is now a subject for museums and archives - indeed London Guildhall University's new women's library building, launched next week, has a range of suffragette material on show. Yet, somehow the Pankhursts - the family most associated with the issue - refuse to retreat to the realms of purely intellectual study.

Rows between academics who have books out on similar themes at similar times are not unknown, but this hardly explains the vehemence of the dispute between June Purvis and Martin Pugh. Nor are they alone. Recently, female trade unionists, supported by Michael Heseltine, have been lobbying for a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst outside the Palace of Westminster, and although granted planning approval last year, pressure from MPs, English Heritage and the National Art Collections Fund could lead to Rodin's The Burghers of Calais being erected in its place. The dispute rumbles on, and behind it, Heseltine's involvement notwithstanding, is an unmistakable divide between women and people on the one hand and men and institutions on the other.

Mary Davis, a Labour historian, author of a book about Sylvia Pankhurst and a member of the Pankhurst Memorial Committee, suggests that one reason why the family continues to spark such strong emotions is that many of the issues they represent remain unresolved. "The Pankhurst family is a microcosm not only of suffrage history but of how current debates take place," she says. "For example, the role of individuals versus the role of the masses, whether you can have single-issue politics, the relationship between movements and individuals, the relationships between class and gender."

Few people have neutral views about the fundamental areas Davis cites - politics, gender, class - because everybody feels personally affected by them.

"You cannot discuss the history of women in the past without it having a present-day resonance because people feel so strongly," says Brian Harrison, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and author of two books on women's suffrage.

Moreover, the story of the Pankhursts prompts important - and divisive - questions about the writing of history. It involves the traditionally dominant topic of politics but from the non-traditional viewpoint of the public rather than MPs. It involves leaders with strong personalities but leaders who are female, from outside the establishment and leading a single-issue movement. Furthermore, while the principles for which the suffragettes fought are uniformly accepted today, at the time they were less heroes than terrorists who employed violence. To make matters even more complicated, during the first world war Emmeline and Christabel moved from radicals to devoted patriots and supporters of the political establishment. All this makes for treacherous terrain for historians forced to use non-traditional frames of reference that are themselves the subject of debate.

Deborah Thom, a lecturer in history and the social sciences at Robinson College, Cambridge, says that one problem in writing about women's suffrage comes from a failure to understand how leadership in women's movements often operates more consensually. Indeed, the continuing high profile of the Pankhursts, who were more dominating than many other female campaigners, could be because they fit more easily into traditional leadership models.

Davis, who believes the history of women's suffrage should be more about issues than personality, goes further: "I won't say that men should never write about women's history but they have so manyother things to write aboutI If you look at black history the best stuff written is by people who have got some kind of link," she says. "An uninvolved male is going to write about it (women's politics) with not quite the same sensitivity and therefore concentrate necessarily on what is trivia."

Strong words, rejected instantly by Harrison, who suggests that such an attitude would disqualify women from writing about kings and wars and destroy the whole professionalism of historians.

In any case, his interest in the Pankhursts is less to do with women's politics than political violence - another reason, he argues, for the intense reactions provoked by their story. "Political violence evokes strong feeling, and quite rightly so because bodies get hurt," he says. "A reason why I am interested in this is not because of any feminist views, but because I do care a great deal about whether I'm going to be blown up in a street outside Harrods." For him, the story has important resonance for the IRA.

For others, the appeal is the extreme political divisions that it touches on. After 1914, Emmeline and Christabel became attached to fascism, while Sylvia became dedicated to communism and anti-fascism. Still others see the story as being about class politics. The middle-class Pankhursts were leading other middle-class women at the same time as the working-class Labour movement was developing in Britain.

But there is another, and in some ways more contemporary reason for the Pankhursts' ability to inspire. They were geniuses at publicity. Thom says she often uses the Pankhursts, and their ability to exploit photography and the media to manipulate their own images, when talking about the contemporary and historical role of charisma.

Angela John, professor of history at the University of Greenwich, describes Emmeline and Christabel as "brilliant propagandists" who combined "cultivated femininity, organisational ability and determination" to devastating effect. Emmeline in particular had phenomenal energy and flamboyance, while Christabel, a lawyer, was an unusually powerful speaker.

Nevertheless, she warns against being swept away by the spin. "They raise fascinating issues about the use of gender, and power and leadership, and the name of Mrs Pankhurst has become shorthand for the strong, dedicated woman. But to focus on the Pankhursts to the exclusion of the wider culture of women's suffrage is distorting," she says.

In fact, recent studies have highlighted splits in the Pankhursts' organisation. Some have suggested that the Pankhursts may not have been as integral to securing votes for women as is usually thought. Their ability to incite passions may, after all, have been their main achievement.

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