Pankhurst: A Biography
London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
£25.00, 448 pages, ISBN 0-415-23978-8 (hardback).
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 1858Bastille Daya
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 viewsthe 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.