Row erupts over suffragette tale

January 26, 2007

Historians attack an independent scholar's 'crude' claims that they repeat 'mythology'. Phil Baty reports

A furious row has broken out over claims that historians are failing in their professional duty to tell both sides of the suffragette story.

The attack comes in a forthcoming paper by an independent researcher comparing modern Islamic terrorists to the militant suffragette movement that secured British women the vote.

Christopher Bearman, who does not have a university post but has published in several refereed academic journals, argues in next month's issue of BBC History Magazine : "Terrorists do not perceive themselves as aggressors; they invariably claim to be acting defensively in response to wrongs done to them. The suffragettes are a case in point..."

The article develops a theory that Dr Bearman first presented in a 2005 paper on "suffragette violence", which was published in Oxford University's English Historical Review .

In BBC History Magazine , he writes that today's historians have swallowed the suffragettes' own "lies, exaggerations and suppressions". He says historians have ignored the public revulsion at the campaign of arson conducted by the Women's Social and Political Union in the run-up to the First World War.

He claims that historians' failure to tell "both sides of the story" has allowed an "extraordinary mythology" to persist that perpetuates the suffragettes' "own heroic self-image as the victims of violence and injustice".

Hilda Kean, a history tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, said this week that Dr Bearman's argument was "crude" and "absolutely simplistic".

She said that it was "nonsense" to suggest that historians had ignored sources and swallowed WSPU propaganda. "Simply because historians have a different perspective to him does not mean that they have not done the detailed work on this," she said. "The feminist historians I know are very thorough historians committed to scholarship."

June Purvis, Portsmouth University's professor of women's and gender history, was one of Dr Bearman's targets. She described his comparison of suffragettes to modern Islamic terrorists as "ahistorical and sensationalist". She accused Dr Bearman of ignoring facts and of being too reliant on contemporary "establishment" newspaper reports that were all "filtered through a male gaze that thought women were irrational, were crazy".

Most provocatively, Professor Purvis questioned whether Dr Bearman was being motivated by sexism. "Is it Bearman's dislike of feminists today that compels him to denigrate feminists of the past?" she asked.

Dr Bearman, who obtained his PhD from Hull University and who has contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , argues that "for every person who protests about Guantanamo Bay, there are probably ten who think Taleban and al-Qaeda operatives deserve all they get. But notoriously, one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighterI," he says.

Attacking Professor Purvis directly, he writes: "The reason so much of the suffragette mythology has survived to become the accepted version for the present day is that the WSPU propaganda has been repeated by such works as June Purvis's book Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography , while the other sources that contradict it are ignored."

Professor Purvis, in a rebuttal published in the same February issue of BBC History , reveals that Dr Bearman wrote a letter to a "third party" in the past in which he questioned her suitability for a university post "if she chooses to ignore her duty to be a responsible historian to pursue a feminist agenda". She said her biography of Pankhurst was based on ten years' research and consultation with a wide range of sources.

"The suffragettes were not terrorists but radical fighters in a just cause," she said.

Antonia Byatt, director of the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University, was also critical of Dr Bearman's thesis.

"Women's militancy during the suffrage campaigns needs to be seen in context: by the time the WSPU turned to direct action, women had been campaigning for equal franchise peacefully for more than half a century.

"In any case, how do we define militancy? Female militancy often consisted of demanding an answer in a public meeting, shouting or unfurling banners in public places, throwing a stone at a window or, at its worst, slashing paintings in the National Gallery or arson attacks on empty buildings and postboxes... "There was, at the time, as there is now, debate about militant tactics.

Constitutional campaigners such as Mrs Fawcett and the National Union of Suffrage Societies worked alongside the WSPU for many years, though in 1912 she did protest that a small number of women had 'temporarily lost all faith in human honour, in human sense of justice, and are attempting to grasp by violence what should be yielded to growing conviction that our demand is based on common sense'.

"Suffrage militant campaigning was not 'ladylike', but it did not have the same aims as some terrorist actions, which are deliberately designed to inspire fear and indiscriminately put the lives of the general public at risk."

Elizabeth Crawford, author of The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide , offered support for Dr Bearman's contention that there is another "side of the story". She catalogued acts of violence by the suffragettes and presented an alternative to the "suffragette mythology".

But she said this demonstrated that Dr Bearman was incorrect to suggest that there were no accounts available to "set the record straight".

Dr Bearman repeatedly declined to discuss any of the criticisms of his theory or the quality of his scholarship. But he took exception to Professor Purvis's use of a letter he had written in 2002 to a third party - a journal editor - without his permission. He said The Times Higher was "unscrupulous" for allowing Professor Purvis to quote the letter.

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