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Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography
June Purvis
London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
£25.00, 448 pages, ISBN 0-415-23978-8 (hardback).

Alain Lauzanne
Université de Rouen

Emmeline Pankhurst is remembered mostly as a single-minded suffragette who was ready to go on hunger strike in order to obtain the suffrage for women. But she was a far more complex person, whose life is thoroughly captivating, especially as presented by June Purvis. Her biography of Emmeline Pankhurst provides a detailed and remarkably researched presentation not only of her life but also of the long and difficult fight for women's enfranchisement. One of the great qualities of Purvis's book is the balance she has achieved between the study of Mrs. Pankhurst both as a woman and as the leader of a major feminist movement.

Emmeline Goulden was born on 14 July 1858—Bastille Day—a highly symbolic date for that Francophile who was to spend so much time in France. As a child, she learnt the meaning of slavery and emancipation, as her mother took part in fund-raising events in favour of newly emancipated slaves. It was at a political meeting which she attended with her parents at the age of 21 that she met Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer nicknamed 'our learned Doctor' or 'the red Doctor' (15). A few months later she married this idealist who "struggled to make the world a better place by fighting for unpopular causes, such as education for the working classes and women's rights" (16). Her marriage in 1879 marked her entry into political life.

The thirty pages devoted to her married life (Richard died in 1898) are particularly interesting since they present the genesis of Emmeline's involvement both in politics and in the cause of women as well as her private life in the context of the 1880s and 1890s. Although, like a large number of feminists of her generation, she belonged to the middle classes, she knew what poverty could entail. Since she wanted to help (financially) her husband, who dreamed of becoming an MP, she decided to open a shop and as a consequence the family moved to a dismal area where Emmeline had found a shop with accommodation above. When she realised that the defective drainage at the back of her house was at the origin of the diphtheria that killed her young son, Frank, "it aroused in her 'a bitter revolt' against the deprivations of poverty" (27). Furthermore, she was convinced that the doctors would have treated him differently had they known that she was not only a shopkeeper but also the wife of a distinguished lawyer (27). Her activities as a Poor Law guardian also enabled her to see the horrifying conditions in which workhouse inmates lived, conditions which Purvis presents convincingly. In a few months, Emmeline Pankhurst managed to bring improvements.

Purvis never forgets the woman, wife and mother in Mrs. Pankhurst, whose behaviour and views—the way she combined "her duties as a wife and mother with running a shop, organising political meetings in her home, campaigning for her husband's political career, and carving out time for her own political interests"—, made her, according to the author, typical of a new stereotype of middle-class femininity" (30). Purvis makes sure, however, that the reader should remember that Emmeline Pankhurst was also "a woman of her class and period," to quote her daughter Sylvia. For instance, she never went outdoors without her veil (28).

In 1889, she took part in the foundation of the Women's Franchise League, which sought the vote for women and the eradication of women's civil disabilities. Emmeline and Richard often invited ILP speakers, such as Keir Hardie, who came to Manchester. The sudden death of her husband upset the family's life. Not only was Emmeline heartbroken, she also had to find a job in order to provide for her children. She accepted the salaried post of Registrar of Births and Deaths, which assured her a steady income, and she opened a shop. When, in 1903, Emmeline and her eldest daughter realised that the ILP was not interested in the condition of women they decided to set up the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) along with other women socialist suffragists.

It is no doubt the period between the creation of the WSPU and the passing of women's suffrage in 1918 that made Mrs. Pankhurst famous. Purvis studies Emmeline Pankhurst's relations with politicians in her single-minded struggle as well as her attitude within the WSPU. But she does not forget the more personal aspect of Emmeline's life, in particular the tumultuous relationships with her daughters. Her struggle was made all the more difficult as for most of the period she could not expect strong support from the Labour Party and none from the other parties. What makes the chapters devoted to the years 1903-1918 gripping is the confrontation between the suffragists and politicians, the opposition between those women's determination and the Prime Minister's obduracy, which led to the shocking violence of policemen during demonstrations, the prison sentences, the hunger strikes, the force-feeding, the Cat and Mouse Act, the resort to violent action such as window smashing. Under such circumstances, Emmeline Pankurst's decision to call off all militant operations at the beginning of the First World War was doubtless a bold one, but she was convinced that women's participation in the war effort would pay off, and it did. In 1917 Lloyd George, who had replaced Asquith the previous year, introduced a Women's Suffrage Bill, fifty years after John Stuart Mill's, as the WSPU leader pointed out. Although the proposed bill would not enfranchise women on the same terms as men, Emmeline Pankhurst, unlike other suffragists, accepted the limitations. As she had become distinctly critical of the Labour Party on account of its attitude at the beginning of the war and of its neglect of the women's cause, she founded the short-lived Women's Party, which was dissolved after Christabel's failure to be elected at the general election.

At the personal level, it was also a difficult period, both physically and psychologically. Her numerous hunger strikes had repercussions on her health and the stress and distress caused by her stays in prison or the prospect of an imminent return to jail was often hard to bear. During that period she also lost her second son and her relationships with her younger daughters became strained. Adela, who was tired of the policy of her mother, left the WSPU and settled in Australia, and Christabel expelled Sylvia from the Union. In 1915, Emmeline adopted four unwanted and homeless female babies. The rest of Pankhurst's life is somewhat of an anticlimax. After eight years in North America, where she gave numerous lectures, she returned to Britain and agreed to stand as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, a 'conversion' that surprised a great many people and grieved Sylvia, a staunch socialist. Emmeline, who was taken ill during her campaign, died before the election.

Purvis's book is no doubt a remarkable work. The abundant and precise notes and the index are particularly useful. It is regrettable, however, that she did not include a chronology of Pankhurst's life and activities as well as short biographies of some of the women mentioned in the book that have played a role in the history of the women's cause such as Anne Kenney, Dora Montefiore or Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Surprisingly, a number of misprints have not been corrected (pp. 44, 223, 302, 318). These are minor criticisms, however, and anyone interested in Mrs. Pankhurst or in the struggle for women's suffrage ought to read June Purvis's book, they are unlikely to put it back on its shelf before they have finished it.


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