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.