The real Mrs Pankhurst

Author Frances Pugh marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette

2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the grant of a parliamentary vote to women over thirty and the 80th anniversary of equal franchise in 1928 which made women 52-53 per cent of the electorate.

It is easy for us to take all this for granted. But for a measure of the mountain of prejudice suffragists faced consider the way the historian, A.J.P.Taylor, chose to mark the fortieth anniversary of the 1918 reforms in 1958.

In an article in the Sunday Mirror he said Britain would have been a better country if it had stuck to male voters and that it would not have lost the empire if women had not been given the vote!

In 1958 Taylor was still saying what many people had devoutly believed in the 1880s and 1890s. Up to 1914 anti-suffragists saw female enfranchisement as calculated to have destructive effects on society, notably in undermining marriage and motherhood and thereby weakening Britain as a great industrial and military power.

However, it is often forgotten that among politicians many of these prejudices had been overcome by 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union. But while a majority of MPs were nominally suffragists they did not see it as a political priority, nor had they resolved the complicated question of how many women were to get the vote and on what terms; this was inevitably awkward since many men were still without a vote and the electoral fate of the parties hung on the details of the measure.

This was the log-jam that Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, sought to break by adopting militant tactics. Emmeline and Christabel did this partly because they were furious with the Labour Party which they had expected to promote women’s suffrage after its breakthrough in the 1906 general election. But Labour was a party for male trade unionists and, apart from Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, remained alienated from the Pankhursts and their methods.

This antagonism is a reminder that the life and opinions of Emmeline Pankhurst are less well-known than one would suppose; she is commonly referred to as ‘Emily’ in the media. She and Christabel were brilliant orators in a period when unscripted public speaking was still a vital political weapon. They also engaged in a fascinating struggle with the politicians designed to deprive them of the moral high ground by drawing them into an embarrassing cycle of hunger strikes, forcible feeding, release and re-arrest under the Cat and Mouse Act.

But it is not usually appreciated that one of the Pankhursts’ greatest contributions to the cause was to transform it by attracting huge resources into the movement. This was not just a matter of recruiting wealthy Holland Park ladies who dropped rings and broaches into suffragette collecting boxes at Albert Hall rallies.

It involved a major commercial organisation to market suffragette china, jewellery, soap, handkerchiefs, board games and even Christmas cards. The Pankhursts also developed a remarkable relationship with the big West End stores – Debenham and Freebody, Derry and Toms, Marshall and Snellgrove, Peter Robinson, Swan and Edgar.

Many shops marketed coats, shoes and even underwear in suffragette colours – purple, white and green – and advertised generously in the suffragette journals. Even when their windows were being broken by suffragette bricks the West End shops continued to support them and, in return, the editors advised readers to patronise them.

This commercial activity enabled the W.S.P.U. to create a machine staffed by fulltime organisers in London and the provinces on a par with those of the political parties. At by-elections, which occurred frequently, they could swamp constituencies with propaganda in their efforts to rouse voters against the government of the day.

Their fraught relationship with politicians left feminists with an enduring lesson. With the enfranchisement of 8.4 million women in 1918 it was tempting to think that women should work through the parties to win further reforms. Some did so, but many concluded that they were being used by the parties who now wanted their votes but evaded major concessions to female equality. As a result many inter-war feminists followed Edwardian experience by maintaining independent pressure groups for women. Some still survive, notably the Fawcett Society.

However, despite becoming an iconic figure as a result of her suffering for the cause in the Edwardian period, Emmeline Pankhurst showed little interest in this independent women’s movement after 1918. She and Christabel drifted away to other issues and Emmeline actually declined an invitation to lead the next stage of the campaign to win equal franchise in the 1920s. Nor were militant tactics much taken up in the aftermath of 1918. Struggling against an anti-feminist reaction, many campaigners sought to distance themselves from the Edwardian suffragettes.

Despite this, the militant tradition has never entirely died. It lives, for example, among animal rights activists who are prepared to weather public and political condemnation as the suffragettes once did. Even a more mainstream pressure group such as Greenpeace can be seen as part of the militant tradition.

Ironically, the current men’s movement copies militancy. Those protesters who appear on the roof-top at Harriet Harman’s house are modern echoes of the Edwardian suffragettes who knocked on Mr Asquith’s door and chained themselves to the railings. And although these tactics rarely succeed, they do have knock-on effects in stimulating sympathisers to take up non-militant action and thereby advance the cause just as happened during the Edwardian period.

Martin Pugh’s book, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family has been re-issued as a Vintage paperback. He was formerly Professor of Modern British History at Newcastle University. His latest book, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars, is published by The Bodley Head.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood