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The reader of June PurvisEmmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (2002) – today’s most authoritative account of the Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU] figurehead – may frequently wonder whether they are reading a hagiography or a dark tragedy. Mrs. Pankhurst was both a campaigner of extraordinary idealism, determination, and self-sacrifice and a thoroughly cranky human being, whose personal unkindness and increasingly harebrained rhetoric alienated family members, close friends, and political allies alike. One may conclude Purvis’ biography not knowing whether Mrs. Pankhurst was heroic or repulsive – and whether she achieved her objectives or fell wholly short of the mark – but one may nevertheless enjoy the sense of having been privilege to some of the most stirring drama in British history.

Purvis writes perceptively about the usefulness of biography, and she admits that, “ultimately, as with all biographers, my interpretation of Emmeline Pankhurst’s life will be based on my “feeling” about her,” but her subsequent book turns out to be commendably straightforward and its ambitions may strike one as worthy and agreeable:

…it is time to reclaim Emmeline Pankhurst from the denigration of [her daughter] Sylvia and of historians who have marginalised her as a middle-class opportunist, ruthless, patriotic and right wing, a woman driven by her eldest daughter, Christabel, the autocratic leader of a militant movement that was bourgeois, reactionary and narrow in its aims, a movement that failed to mobilise the working classes and address their economic, social and political needs. It is time to represent Emmeline Pankhurst as she was seen in her time, a “Champion of Womanhood”…

Purvis’ biography reaffirms that feminist movements will be always plagued by highly inappropriate and deliciously acrimonious in-fighting, but in 2002 Purvis became as warlike as Mrs. Pankhurst herself when creating something of a scene with her fellow suffragist historian, Martin Pugh, in Times Higher Education. Pugh had echoed some of the criticisms which Purvis cites above, along with the suspicion that Emmeline’s lieutenant Annie Kenney was a lesbian, and Purvis condemned his “prurient, masculinist manner” and asked, “would a men’s political movement be approached by speculation about the sexual orientation of its activists?” Pugh complained that Purvis was bullying him because he was a man, not least by trying to censor his writing, and he warned that, “the idea that men cannot write about women’s history would lead one to question whether whites should write black history.”

There was more to this than merely a spat between bigots. Purvis’ ambition to “reclaim” Mrs. Pankhurst from what she sees as “masculinist” history raises the danger that perfectly reasonable criticisms of the WSPU leader are thrown out along with the bathwater, particularly because, in Purvis’ own version of the historical debate, a “masculinist” bias has slipped in amongst the insights of socialism, anti-imperialism, and postmodernity. And Purvis’ interest in the “primacy of putting women rather than considerations of say, social class, political affiliation or socialism, first,” leaves any reading which puts women second being potentially dismissible as “masculinist.”

For all its feminism, however, the WSPU was recognisably a socialist movement, and one which was informed by both the disappointment associated with the existing “moral force” Suffragism and the previous failures of “physical force” Chartism, as well as a continual pragmatic engagement with perceived injustices. Under the Pankhursts the WSPU achieved a synthesis of idealism and discipline lacking in most, if not all, comparable subsequent movements. Emmeline was commonly described as an “autocrat” – she herself argued that “when going into battle a general does not take a vote of his soldiers to see whether they approve his plans” – but  Purvis demonstrates that the WSPU was led by a single idea – that of procuring the Vote – rather than by any autocrat, and that Mrs. Pankhurst ended up as leader by virtue of her power and eloquence in communicating this idea. Spontaneity was the order of the day – Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney claimed that they were acting without premeditation when first heckling a Liberal meeting and soliciting arrest – whilst Marion Wallace Dunlop took a similar initiative when commencing the first hunger strike – and Mrs. Pankhurst was like an itinerant preacher, preferring oratory over writing because “the immediate response of an audience was what she thrived on.”

Although Mrs. Pankhurst was intolerant of anything which did not put the Vote first – leaving many, including her daughter Sylvia, who favoured Labourist socialism, being left behind – the WSPU put its name to virtually anything which demanded the Vote, from grand displays of pageantry to slashing paintings in the National Gallery, so that the leadership ended up ultimately following the members. When Helen Craggs was apprehended plotting to burn down Nuneham House, Mrs. Pankhurst admitted that Helen had acted “solely on her own responsibility,” but she added that “I will… never repudiate or disown any woman who is fighting in this cause.”  Whilst Mrs. Pankhurst was the movement’s eloquently reasoning ego, those shadowy window-smashing and fire-starting agents, whose names are often forgotten by history, were its destructive id.

Although these early feminists were campaigning against coverture and what Alice Scatcherd had termed “the complete self-effacement… the complete abnegation of self” within patriarchal society, Emmeline believed strongly in being swallowed up in a Cause – Purvis notes that she had been devoted to her husband, the crusading socialist Dr. Richard Pankhurst until she was “more ambitious for him than for herself.” Purvis demonstrates that an extraordinary number and range of women sacrificed almost everything for the Cause, but she is not wholly successful in overcoming the customary sticking-point of the WSPU’s alleged bourgeois predisposition.

After her widowhood, Mrs. Pankhurst was, of course, a working woman, and an incredibly hard working one, taking her oratory from the Highlands of Scotland to the wilds of Canada, arriving in town after town like a circus and generating almost as much excitement. Moreover, she had insisted that even as a bourgeois capitalist, she was exploited by virtue of being a woman: “Here I am a householder, an employer of labour, and heavily taxed, yet I am refused the vote which my porter may enjoy.” But Sylvia had objected that the WSPU needed “not more serious militancy by the few, but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join the struggle,” whilst her ally Charlotte Drake had observed that “Except when it came to the hunger-strike… the lot of even the most hard-worked of the Suffrage leaders was lighter than that of the working-class mother of a large family.” Yet Drake’s criticism had echoed the language of an earlier speech by Emmeline herself, in which she had defended the bourgeois custodianship of the struggle:

…if there is any distinction of class at all, it is because the privileged women… are doing the hardest and most unpleasant parts of the work. They think it is their duty to relieve their sisters from that. If you see a woman selling papers in the streets, or practising the hunger strike, in most cases it is the woman who has never had to face the struggle for existence.

But if one imagines that the majority of exploited women were not as radical as the Suffragettes who claimed to represent them – or even that they may have disapproved of the Suffragettes’ antics – then Purvis can offer nothing to refute this suspicion. She cites evidence that many working women campaigned alongside “great ladies” for the vote, but the crucial question of the numbers remains unaddressed, not least because she often relies upon the WSPU’s own literature for the figures of those attending public meetings or donating money to the movement [in fairness, there may be no independent verification]. Although Purvis anticipates the criticism that “the spotlight on a “key figure” as an agent of change in history may represent what Susan Grogan has termed the last gasp of modernism…,” her own biography is particularly vulnerable on this point and Purvis’ more broader defence of the WSPU is frustrated by its limitation to Mrs. Pankhurst’s perspective.

Purvis offers a fascinating analysis of Mrs. Pankhurst’s WW1 transformation from radical agitator to rabid jingoist, and she insists that Emmeline’s “patriotic feminism” (which may sound to many like patriarchal-ism) was informed not only by an interest in “earning” the Vote through demonstrative patriotism, but by the broader awareness that a masculinist German aggression, or even a masculinist Communism and Trades Unionism, had now usurped the Liberal government as feminism’s leading foe.

With hindsight it is easy to recognise that Mrs. Pankhurst’s message that, “…to give one’s life for one’s country, for a great cause, is a splendid thing,” was anti-masculinist in the sense that she was sending countless men to their deaths. Yet there had always been a naivety to Mrs. Pankhurst’s way of thinking, which regarded the solidarity and activism of socialism as merely a means to the end of seizing government, so that great social evils such as poverty, prostitution, and paedophilia could be defeated by legislators. She believed, for example, that poverty “which was removable… was due to many causes, chiefly bad government.” Just as Gladstone had assumed that the unpleasant business of government should be left to the men, Mrs. Pankhurst believed that women should redeem the government from masculine misuse. In effect, she hankered after government as a good housekeeper eyes a new broom – an essentially feminine appliance, inevitably misused by men, which should be properly used to sweep the nation spick and span – and after 1914 she fought relentlessly to keep, as she saw it, dirty German hands off a broom which they would only use to beat women.

Purvis relates that when Mrs. Pankhurst was standing for parliament at the end of her life, she expressed a scepticism of the State and she distinguished the Tories as the “key political force that would uphold the British Constitution and Empire, support democracy, advance the cause of women and resist communism.” She had equally regarded Canada as a potential home because the prospects for Bolshevism looked less favourable in this provincial backwater. Whilst Mrs. Pankhurst’s activism could be both utopian and authoritarian, the oddly masculine flavour of her feminism – its uncompromising determination and undaunted ambition – was redeemed by her faith in democracy, and her conviction that the working class was simultaneously conservative and progressive in its capacity to resist injustice. Purvis is ultimately right to insist that Mrs. Pankhurst was a far more complex and fascinating character than history has acknowledged, and whilst one may wince at some of her later behaviour, Emmeline’s sheer idealism and her ambitions for social democracy never flagged and they remain inspirational.

[Tychy has previously discussed related themes in a review of Roy Douglas’ history of the Liberal Party and a study of Margaret Mitchell. Ed.]