The history woman

May 31, 2002

Anna Thomson meets June Purvis, a champion of the study of feminism trying to foster a 'collective voice'.

June Purvis, professor of women's and gender history at the University of Portsmouth, is an authority on militant suffragettes. So I could not help laughing to myself when she phoned to cancel our meeting on May Day, because she had heard from the police that the streets of London could be dangerous. When we met two days later, she herself was amused at the irony, and also saddened by the announcement of the death of Barbara Castle, the Labour politician responsible for securing equal pay for women.

There is none of the stridency of Castle or Germaine Greer in Purvis. Born in the Falkland Islands, she often strikes her friends as "more English than the English" - at first glance a conventional, rather feminine figure. But she declares herself to be "a feminist women's historian".

She describes a seamless progression from "studious, sickly child, always reading" to active feminist historian. After schooling in England in the 1950s, she studied sociology at Leeds, took an MA in education and became a lecturer at Manchester Polytechnic. An Open University PhD on the "Education of Working-class Women in 19th-century England", undertaken just as second-wave feminism was taking off, set Purvis on her current path. She discovered she preferred history to sociology. The publication in 1973 of socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham's seminal work, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight against It , was, she says, the catalyst for the development of women's history into a serious academic subject. The 1960s and 1970s were "heady times" for the women's movement, and Purvis laments the loss of that vibrancy.

Of the 14 books she has written, many are textbooks born of collaborative work with other prominent feminist women's historians, such as Mary Maynard and Sandra Stanley Holton, and compiled from conference papers given at the annual Women's Studies Network (UK) Association conference. Purvis agrees that she has formed close writing partnerships with women, but she avoids drawing conclusions from this about innate differences between the sexes. She does, however, feel strongly that women today need to find a "collective voice" against surviving inequalities and to counteract a current "backlash against feminism".

Purvis's bestselling textbook is Women's History : Britain, 1850-1945 - "although it hasn't been reviewed in the mainstream history journals, which tend to ignore women's history books", she notes wryly. But perhaps her most important textbook is Researching Women's Lives from a Feminist Perspective (1994), edited with Maynard and reprinted for the fifth time this year. Here she advocates that feminist women's historians should focus on the "material forces" in women's lives and steer away from post-structuralism, which tends to focus on the nature of gender rather than on women in particular. By emphasising gender, she thinks, "we run the risk of women being subsumed once again", and of ignoring the multiplicity of female perspectives, such as those of lesbian and black women's history, that are still in their infancy. Purvis is extremely concerned that the history profession is not attracting enough black women.

When I ask her why she has not explored these avenues herself, she replies simply: "I got hooked on the suffragette movement." But this is clearly a key area of controversy for writers of women's history. Does one have to be a lesbian to write lesbian women's history? A black woman to write black women's history? Indeed, must one be a woman to write women's history?

Purvis is not easily drawn, though she has recently had a public dispute with Martin Pugh, who has published a book on the Pankhursts, on this subject. Men can certainly make an important contribution to women's history, she says, but they are often "gender blind", assuming that they are writing objectively when there is a need to "problematise their masculinity". The real difficulty, she thinks, is not gender so much as that professional historians insist they are objective. "I don't think that historians are objective. This is a fallacy. We all have a subjective position, but only women feminist historians tend to make theirs explicit."

She has focused more and more on the lives of the suffragettes, in particular Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. New Frontiers in Women's Studies (1996), again co-edited with Maynard, and Votes for Women (2000), co-edited with Holton, contain chapters reassessing the Pankhurst legacy and reclaiming them as forerunners of second-wave feminism.

This line of inquiry will culminate in June with the publication of a major biography of Emmeline Pankhurst. The original intention was to do one of Christabel, but Purvis changed her mind when she discovered that no full-length biography of Emmeline existed. (Christabel will be her next project.) The book is a timely reassessment of a woman who devoted her life to the suffragette cause but has been much maligned in the prevailing liberal ethos of the 20th century and mauled by male socialist historians drawn to Sylvia Pankhurst's contradictory account of her mother's suffragette role. Indeed, Purvis sounds almost evangelical when she speaks of having been "drawn to Emmeline as a feminist commitment".

The controversy stems from Emmeline's use of militant tactics, her alleged U-turn to patriotism away from feminism during the first world war, and the gradual relinquishing of her Labour Party roots, which culminated in her campaign for election as a Conservative MP. Purvis argues that the militant tactics were essential in making the campaign visible, and that "without the suffragette movement the vote would not have been won as soon as it was" (in 1918, although equal suffrage was not granted until 1928). She also contends that while Emmeline's views certainly changed, the change was a logical progression. Her early experience as a Poor Law Guardian engendered a lifelong desire for a fairer society, for men and women alike. However, believing this could be achieved only if women had a share in law-making, Emmeline always put gender first, even during the first world war, when she campaigned for women to take over the jobs of enlisted men and agitated for equal pay. But such single-issue politics finally drove her away from the Labour Party, in which the fundamental concern was for the working-class bread-winning male; in the final analysis, she did not think that equality could be achieved through state socialism.

Purvis notes the similarity of Emmeline's stance to that of new Labour. Indeed, she thinks that the current political climate enabled her to write her revisionist biography. And she believes that Pankhurst would not have stayed in the Conservative Party, because it could never have supported long term the reform issues she was interested in.

The conflict between class and gender is one that Purvis is all too familiar with. She cheerfully admits that, like Emmeline, she has resigned from the Labour Party several times. But she always returns to the fold. She thinks none of the political parties is feminist enough, with women's issues sidelined; she actively supports women-only parliamentary lists and other forms of positive discrimination in favour of minorities; and she supports increased civic education about the struggle for the vote for women and men, as a way of combating voter apathy. But unlike the Pankhursts, she has never considered a career in politics. Instead, she passionately believes in the "power of the written word". She writes letters to newspapers, and as the founding editor of the Women's History Review is concerned that other feminist perspectives get an airing.

Purvis is positive that one day women will achieve full equality with men, and believes that "there is more that unites women in a patriarchal society than divides us". But she is far from being a man hater - she has been married for years and has a grown-up daughter - and she scoffs at my cheeky suggestion that men might one day become surplus to requirements. She may not be as radical as Emmeline, but neither is she so autocratic. Seemingly conventional and feminine, yet plainly tenacious and determined, she is in many ways like the women she so much admires.

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