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A Conservative Revolutionary: Emmeline Pankhurst (1857-1928)

[clock] 18-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2003

“I say with no fear of contradiction that whatever view posterity may take, Mrs. Pankhurst has won for herself a niche in the Temple of Fame which will last for all time.”—Stanley Baldwin speaking on March 6, 1930 to the thousands present at the unveiling of Mrs. Pankhurst’s statue in Victoria Gardens, adjacent to the House of Commons

“There has been no other woman like Emmeline Pankhurst,” reminisced Rebecca West in 1933, five years after the death of England’s most famous suffragette:

She was beautiful. Her pale face, with its delicate square jaw and rounded temples, recalled the pansy by its shape and a kind of velvety bloom on the expression. She dressed her taut little body with a cross between the elegance of a Frenchwoman and the neatness of a nun. She was courageous, small and fragile; and, no longer young, she put herself in the way of horses’ hooves, she stood up on platforms under a rain of missiles, she sat in the darkness of underground jails and hunger-struck, and when they let her out because she had starved herself within touching distance of death, she rested for only a day or two and then clambered back on the platforms, she staggered back under the horses’ hooves. She did this against the grain. What she would have preferred, could her social conscience have been quieted, was to live in a pleasant suburban house and give her cronies tea with very thin bread-and-butter, and sit about in the garden in a deckchair.

West wrote about this world figure remembering the vigor of a 19-year-old who joined other women in heckling the Liberal Party politicians for promising women the vote but then doing nothing to fulfill their pledge. Mrs. Pankhurst’s WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), established in 1903, stood in the forefront of militancy in the years just before the beginning of World War I, when women smashed shop windows in the Strand, slashed paintings in the National Gallery, and swung from ropes in meeting halls, interrupting August persons such as Winston Churchill with cries of “Votes for Women.” Emmeline Pankhurst, West emphasized, was the “embodiment of an idea”: women deserved to be treated as full citizens, which meant not only voting but participating in all the tasks of building and maintaining a free, open, and democratic society— including, when war came, charging to the defense of the very government that had denied women the vote.

By 1933, however, just five years after women had secured the same voting rights as men, Emmeline Pankhurst’s role in that victory had already become obscure and distorted. And since 1933, no historian—until now—has expanded upon West’s effort to restore the centrality of Mrs. Pankhurst’s place in modern history. More is at stake, however, than doing justice to one individual. To understand what happened to Emmeline Pankhurst is to also to understand how figures like her and Rebecca West were marginalized as anti-Communists and relegated to the reactionary bin built by leftist/ Socialist historians who effectively rewrote the story of how women got the vote. Instead The Suffragette Movement (1931), written by Mrs. Pankhurst’s estranged radical daughter, Sylvia, became their foundation narrative.

The extraordinary erasure of Emmeline Pankhurst is superbly documented in Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (Routledge 2002) by June Purvis, the first full-fledged treatment in nearly 70 years of “that weapon of will-power by which British women freed themselves from being classed with children and idiots in the matter of exercising the franchise,” wrote the London Evening Standard, and the “most remarkable political and social agitator of the early part of the twentieth century,” The New York Herald Tribune declared. Purvis not only takes her cue from West, her biography goes well beyond West’s essay by repudiating much of the left-controlled historiography on the votes for women movement. Both in her narrative and in her notes, Purvis shows just how elaborately Mrs. Pankhurst’s trajectory from Labor Party supporter to Conservative candidate for Parliament has been misunderstood and diminished.

Embedded in West’s depiction of Emmeline Pankhurst is the biography Purvis has now extrapolated. Every line in the first paragraph of “A Reed of Steel” is calculated to redeem the suffragette movement and its leader’s role in it. That Emmeline Pankhurst was beautiful—as were many of her female followers—put the lie to the charge that suffragettes tended to be ugly old maids and somehow unfeminine—what the parlance of the day termed “unwomanly women.” Her pale face suggested what West later made explicit: Mrs. Pankhurst was a frail woman, a reed, but a “reed of steel”—the square jaw might be set in a delicate frame but it bespoke an honorable, sturdy, and (this was often not observed) conservative sensibility. Though inspired by the French revolution and enamored of French ideas and fashions (she spent her formative teenage years in Paris absorbing Thomas Carlyle’s heroic vision of historical change), Pankhurst’s revolution and West’s was a conservation of democratic rights for men and women. There was no need of another revolution, except in so far as Englishmen had to be challenged to continue the quest for liberty, equality, and fraternity. As West put it, Emmeline Pankhurst was “the last popular leader to act on inspiration derived from the principles of the French Revolution.” As a result, Mrs. Pankhurst has become the most misconstrued conservative revolutionary—or as Purvis calls her, “patriotic feminist”—in the 20th century.

Mrs. Pankhurst was a paradox: a revolutionary, she was also the cosmopolitan owner of a woman’s shop called Emerson’s; she was also a woman who proposed that Richard Pankhurst become her lover, not her husband, but a moral purist, a mother who disowned her daughter Sylvia both for her Socialist/Communist politics and for having born a child out of wedlock; an intensely domestic woman, she was always leaving home, nerving herself up not only to confront policemen who pummeled women petitioning prime ministers, but also to address crowds of thousands, many of whom had never heard a woman speak in public outside of a theatre. Her own daughter Sylvia and other critics inside and outside of the Votes for Women movement accused her of grandstanding and liking nothing better than a fight. She stood for democracy, yet ran her own organization like an autocrat.

A word about the “Mrs.”—the term Rebecca West employs throughout her essay and the way nearly everyone referred to Emmeline Pankhurst. “Not the bitterest critic of Mrs. Pankhurst ever suggested that her husband did not find her, from beginning to end of the nineteen years of their marriage, a perfect wife,” West insisted. It was as the wife of Richard Pankhurst (1833—1898) that Emmeline entered public life, supporting his unsuccessful parliamentary campaigns, which were based on a radical platform advocating, in June Purvis’s words, “abolition of the House of Lords, disestablishment of the Church of England, nationalization of the land, adult suffrage for men and women, free compulsory secular education, and Home Rule for Ireland.” Active in her husband’s causes, she managed to raise five children and remain a homemaker. When he died in 1898, a heartbroken wife vowed to carry on his ideals. Eventually two of her daughters, Sylvia and Adela, would accuse their mother of betraying their father’s principles.

Between 1898 and 1905, Mrs. Pankhurst focused ever more intently on the Votes for Women issue, following the lead of the “constitutionalists”—men and women who had peacefully petitioned Parliament for a suffrage bill that granted women the right to vote on the same basis as men. On more than one occasion during the previous 50 years Parliamentary majorities had been mustered for the enfranchisement of women, but parliamentary maneuvers plus the opposition of Liberal leaders such as Gladstone and Asquith had thwarted progress along constitutionalist lines. On May 12, 1905, hopes rose again as Parliament convened to consider the first woman’s suffrage bill in eight years. As had happened on previous occasions the bill was “talked out”—amid much laughter provoked by coarse jokes about women and cheers at the end of the day when it was certain the bill would not even come to a vote. In the waiting room outside the Commons, Mrs. Pankhurst called upon the women to follow her “outside for a meeting of protest against the government.” As Purvis tells the story, the police then attempted to foil this mild but first step toward militancy by jostling the women down the steps. But Mrs. Pankhurst held her ground and demanded to know where the women could hold such a meeting. A police inspector relented and took them to Broad Sanctuary, near the gates of Westminster Abbey, where she could address the crowd, flanked by Keir Hardie, Labor MP and staunch supporter of Votes for Women.

By the autumn of 1906, Mrs. Pankhurst and her suffragettes (a term of derision coined by the Daily Mail but adopted with pride by the militants) had galvanized all of the Votes for Women movement. Thus Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a constitutionalist and president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), supported the WSPU activists:

Every kind of insult and abuse is hurled at the women who have adopted these methods. . . . But I hope the more old-fashioned suffragists will stand by them. . . . in my opinion, far from having injured the movement, they have done more during the last 12 months to bring it within the region of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.

Even Liberal cabinet ministers conceded that asking politely for the vote is not how men had become enfranchised. On Feb. 18, 1908, Home Secretary Herbert Asquith acknowledged:

There comes a time when political dynamics are far more important than political argument. . . .Men have learned this lesson, and know the necessity for demonstrating the greatness of their movements, and for establishing that force majeure which actuates and arms a Government for effective work. . . . Looking back at the great political crises in the “thirties”, the “sixties” and the “eighties” it will be found that people . . . assembled in their tens of thousands all over the country. . . .Of course, it cannot be expected that women can assemble in such masses, but power belongs to the masses, and through this power a Government can be influenced into more effective action than a Government will be likely to take under present conditions.

Emmeline Pankhurst, and her brilliant daughter Christabel, would make use of this statement to mobilize the very masses of women Gladstone could not even dream of in his philosophy.

Certainly the suffragettes aroused a hostile press and public when they stepped up their campaign of destruction against private property. But no loss of life and virtually no human injury occurred because of suffragette activism, except for the excruciating pain they themselves suffered in prison during hunger strikes when their noses and throats and rectums were brutally violated by the forcible feeding tubes, often causing internal injuries leading to permanent disabilities and deaths.

It is important to understand that during this crucial period— between 1908 and the outbreak of war in 1914—Emmeline became increasingly disenchanted with the Labor Party and with the trades unions, even as her daughter Sylvia intensified her commitment to socialism and saw Votes for Women as a Socialist issue. Emmeline, on the other hand, observed that Socialist men no less than their capitalist counterparts worried about losing jobs to women if women had equal rights. A Socialist, no less than a capitalist disliked the idea of giving his woman property rights. Mrs. Pankhurst did not attack men per se, but to her it was an inescapable fact that only organizations like her WSPU, composed exclusively of women, could agitate effectively for the vote. Votes for Women always became subordinated to a broader agenda in male-dominated organizations.

It was precisely this desire to maintain a militant organization composed entirely of women that provoked Emmeline Pankhurst in 1912 to expel Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence from the WSPU. The couple had been Mrs. Pankhurst’s mainstays and one of her important sources of funding. To many WSPU members, including Sylvia Pankhurst, the Pethick-Lawrences seemed indispensable. But Mrs. Pankhurst found Frederick’s participation problematic, especially on public platforms when he seemed to put himself forward and talk too long. The Pethick-Lawrences seemed too ready to collaborate with other men’s and women’s organizations, thus diluting the WSPU’s role. Mrs. Pankhurst found her leadership and the focus of her enterprise in jeopardy. Other personal and political factors undoubtedly contributed to this split, but the main point is that Mrs. Pankhurst’s reputation as an autocrat began to burgeon, and her abrupt jettisoning of two revered WSPU leaders sent shock waves through her movement.

There is no doubt that in the two years leading up to World War I, the WSPU lost members and became somewhat isolated, although Mrs. Pankhurst retained a strong cadre of followers, and her influence did not diminish as precipitously as her opponents and later historians have assumed. They have taken the Socialist line of Sylvia Pankhurst at face value—in part because British historians as a rule have wished to claim Votes for Women as a Socialist cause; in part because of the apparently breathtaking turnabout Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel performed when they supported the British government immediately after war broke out; in part because neither Emmeline nor Christabel had the persuasive literary and political genius that Sylvia showed later on.

So influential has Sylvia’s narrative become that when former Labor Party cabinet minister Barbara Castle published a short study of the Pankhursts she blithely relied on Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement without noting any of its numerous inconsistencies and biases, flaws that June Purvis identifies. Jill Craigie (1911—1999), a lifelong student of the suffragettes, and wife of former Labor Party leader Michael Foot, was so outraged at Castle’s ignorance that she called her up and threatened to “flatten her.” Craigie, a staunch Socialist and Labor Party loyalist, nevertheless knew from firsthand experience how brutal Sylvia had been in her quest to superimpose her narrative of Votes for Women on the memory of her mother. In 1940, Craigie had read Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement and had been captivated by its “rich” writing. Sylvia saw history, Craigie commented, with the “eyes of an artist.” But in 1943, when Craigie decided to write and direct a documentary on the suffragettes, she found herself pitted against Sylvia and other suffragettes who fought over who would act as advisor to the film and thus control the master narrative of their story. The film never got made because of this internecine warfare, and Craigie spent the next several decades of her life assembling a massive collection of material and writing a book (left incomplete at her death) that exposes how Sylvia distorted her mother’s legacy. As I will show in a forthcoming biography of Craigie, she is the missing link between West and Purvis. Craigie is partly responsible for the rediscovery and reprinting of West’s work in the 1970’s and is the key transitional figure who leads to Purvis’ brilliant demonstration that during and after the war Emmeline Pankhurst not only did not abandon her principles, but saw the war and its aftermath as a way to implement them. Although there are many reasons why Craigie did not complete her epic work (a substantial manuscript of over 200,000 well-polished words), one consideration surely is the massive criticism she would have endured in her own party for putting one of Britain’s Socialist icons on the rack.

Like Rebecca West, who never doubted the Russian Revolution was wrong, Emmeline Pankhurst never doubted it was wrong of Socialists not to defend their country against German militarism, wrong of workers to put up obstacles to the war effort, wrong of unions to allow Communist organizers to infiltrate their ranks, and wrong to speak in terms of class war in a time of a national crisis. Curiously, West does not do justice to the post World War I Mrs. Pankhurst when she abruptly announces that Mrs. Pankhurst “came out of the war a high Tory.” As Purvis demonstrates, Mrs. Pankhurst’s transformation was not quite so sudden as that.

Purvis quotes historian Joan Beaumont as pointing out that “recent feminist writers have projected their own alignment with anti-imperialism and anti-militarism onto the past, seeing imperialism and militarism as incompatible with feminism when this was not so for many women in the First World War.” Sylvia and many of her socialist allies took a pacifist line and were horrified when Mrs. Pankhurst, like Rebecca West, believed that her country and British culture came first, especially in war. While it is true that the WSPU ceased all agitation for the vote during the war, its leader hardly reneged on fighting for a greater role for women in society. She wanted them working in the munitions factories, for example, saying in late January 1915: “I’m not nursing soldiers. There are so many others to do that. . .it’s no more to be expected that our organisers should now necessarily take to knitting and nursing than that Mr. Asquith should set his Ministers to making Army boots and uniforms.” Yet she found it was the trade unionists who objected to women in the factories, fearing their lower pay for females would deprive the male breadwinner of his job.

The turning point for Mrs. Pankhurst came when Lloyd George, on behalf of the British government, asked her to organize a massive demonstration in favor of employing women in the factories and other crucial areas of war work. This was the very man who had helped thwart so many of her suffrage campaigns, and it pained her to oblige him—but she did. Thus began an extraordinary alliance between former opponents who tacitly understood that the price of Mrs. Pankhurst’s cooperation would be Lloyd George’s postwar support for enfranchising women. No one close to or sympathetic toward Mrs. Pankhurst doubted the power she still commanded. As one of her loyal followers told Jill Craigie in 1943, the WSPU slogan during the war became “We have buried the hatchet, but we know where to find it.”

By the end of the war, Emmeline Pankhurst had emerged as a stout supporter of her government while retaining her prominence as a leader of women. But as June Purvis explains, Mrs. Pankhurst confronted a women’s movement now leaning heavily toward the pacifist left. To achieve more for women, Mrs. Pankhurst had to abandon the terms of her prewar activism. As she told a Daily News reporter in January 1926: “It was always a great grief to me to have to put aside all my wider interests for the sake of a single object—to break down the sex barrier. Now I think I deserve to be allowed to work for the general questions affecting women and the country generally.” Conservative MP Nancy Astor, the first women to take a seat in Parliament, actually offered to resign in favor of Mrs. Pankhurst in acknowledgment of all that the latter had done for women and the country. Not yet ready to declare herself a Conservative, Mrs. Pankhurst declined. But the general strike declared on 1 May 1926, in which 2,500,000 striking workers forced the government to plan for a state of emergency, drove her to declare an interest. On May 3, 1926, she wrote to Nancy Astor: “How I wish that I could do what I did at the outbreak of war . . . set a whole organization to work. . . .Do use me if you can.”

Emmeline Pankhurst understood power, and in England she could not wield power without a party. She no longer believed in the dream of her youth—the State Socialism she and her husband championed. Trade unionists, militant socialists, and pacifists seemed to her to threaten the very foundation of a just, peaceful, and defensible society. First in the Socialist journal Forward, then in The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst pronounced an anathema on her mother as one who had “deserted the cause of progress” and repudiated the work of Karl Marx, William Morris, Keir Hardie, and, of course, her father. In view of her mother’s “defection” Sylvia felt called upon, she said, to “reaffirm my faith in the cause of social and international fraternity, and to utter a word of sorrow that one who in the past has rendered such service should now, with that sad pessimism which sometimes comes with advancing years, and may result from too strenuous effort, join the reaction.”

Contempt and pity and rage ring out in Sylvia’s repudiation of her mother—not to mention a psychological attack on an old woman now presumed to be too tired to think. Mrs. Pankhurst was physically worn out from the beatings she had suffered on the way to prison and the hunger strikes and forcible feedings while incarcerated, but she remained alert, perceptive, and critical—just as intolerant of sexism among Conservatives as she had been of it among Labor Party members and trade unionists. She died before she was able to campaign as a Conservative candidate for parliament.

Rebecca West cautioned her readers not to regard Mrs. Pankhurst as a zealot and fanatic. Hysterics cannot general their troops and enforce discipline and make the hard choices she did. Mrs. Pankhurst and her followers were “stone-cold” realists, West concluded. Yet in spite of West’s efforts, Mrs. Pankhurst’s legacy has been lost. Or, as West wrote at her prophetic best: “It is all forgotten. We forget everything now. We have forgotten what came before the war. We have forgotten the war.”


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