Sylvia Pankhurst is by far and away my favourite Pankhurst. She has all the fire and belief in her cause of her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and sister Cristobel, but is also so much more sensitive to issues of class and privilege, and much more self-aware along with it.
The site dedicated to her at sylviapankhurst.com, shows that I am not alone in this…
I’ve had this on my kindle for a long time when the new film coming out inspired me to read it. But sadly I hadn’t realised that this particular version of The Suffragette was written in 1911…I had meant to read the one written later, but there is still lots of good stuff in here. It overlaps heavily, however, with her mother’s account of the movement from 1914, and I hate to say it, but Emmeline Pankhurst’s account is both more infuriating and more interesting as tactics had shifted dramatically in these three intervening years as the Liberals continued steadfast in refusing the vote (she dramatically supports violence against property for example, and there are some brilliant stories of stone throwing and banner dropping). I also wanted more about the founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and the more community centred work Sylvia did in the East End. It’s not here.
Here is what is here. An overview of the purpose Sylvia had in writing the book, a piece of how-we-did-it and who-we-are campaign propaganda:
In writing this history of the Militant Women’s Suffrage Movement, I have endeavoured to give a just and accurate account of its progress and happenings, dealing fully with as many of its incidents as space will permit. I have tried to let my readers look behind the scenes in order that they may understand both the steps by which the movement has grown and the motives and ideas that have animated its promoters.
To many of our contemporaries perhaps the most remarkable feature of the militant movement has been the flinging aside by thousand of women of the conventional standards that hedge us so closely round in these days for a right that large numbers of men who possess it scarcely value.
A passionate love of freedom, a strong desire to do social service and an intense sympathy for the unfortunate, together made the movement possible in its present form.
These are some of the opening words by E. Sylvia Pankhurst, dated May 1911 and written from London. It covers the early history, the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the Pankhurst’s home at 62 Nelson Street Manchester on 10 October, 1903… she writes that almost all present were working women, ‘but it was decided from the first that the Union should be entirely independent of Class and Party.’
On class and Annie Kenney
As I say, I found Emmeline Pankhurst quite infuriating around issues of class, but Sylvia was already much more thoughtful about the meaning of struggle and victory for women in different stations. Much of this must be due to the wonderful Annie Kenney, such a pivotal figure in the Pankhurst’s lives. The relationship between Annie and both Christobel and Emmeline made me worry deeply for her after reading Emmeline’s book on the movement, but she seems to have greatly inspired Sylvia with an honest respect for working women. She tells of how Annie went to work in the Oldham cotton factories at the age of ten, fitting bobbins into place full of cotton to be spun, and piecing the threads together when they broke. She lost a finger doing this work. She writes:
The premature launching forth into the world of wage earners had left its mark upon Annie Kenney. Her features had been sharpened by it, and her eager face that flushed so easily was far more deeply lined than are the faces of girls whose childhood has been prolonged. Those wide, wide eyes of hers, so wonderfully blue, though at rare moments they could dance and sparkle like a fountain in the sunshine, were more often filled with pain, anxiety and foreboding, or with a longing restless, searching, unsatisfied and far away.
And here, finally, Annie is also able to speak for herself (she wrote her own book, harder to find but it is now on its way to me). Sylvia quotes her speaking in 1908 to a conference of women in Germany:
I noticed the great difference made in the treatment of men and women in the factory, differences in conditions, differences in wages and differences in status. I realised this difference not in the factory alone but in the home. I saw men, women, boys and girls, all working hard during the day in the same hot, stifling factories. Then when work was over I noticed that it was the mothers who hurried home, who fetched the children that had been put out to nurse, prepared the tea for the husband , did the cleaning, baking, washing, sewing and nursing. I noticed that when the husband came home, his day’s work was over…Why was the mother the drudge of the family, and not the father’s companion and equal?
It is also clear from Sylvia’s account (as it was clear that this was important to Sylvia) that many working women had been part of the driving force of the movement from the beginning. She talks about a protest for the opening of Parliament, February 19th, 1906. A crowd of 300 to 400 women marched, ‘a large proportion of whom were poor workers from the East End.’ They carried banners painted in Canning Town. It was only at the House of Commons that they were joined by women who were strangers to them, there to satisfy their curiosity — ‘amongst the rest were many ladies of wealth and position…’
Later in the year of a similar march as Parliament reassembled, she wrote:
the government had again given orders that only twenty women at a time were to be allowed in the Lobby. All women of the working class were rigorously excluded. My mother and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence were among those who succeeded in gaining an entrance.
Class would continue to be a lever the government would use to drive women apart — as would the lack of respect from the middle and upper classes towards the other. As the government increased its repression, handed out longer prison sentences and imposing larger fines, Sylvia is the one to recognise the way that such a tactics actually made it much harder for working women to play the same roles as middle class women who did not have anyone depending on their labour for survival. She doesn’t quite connect all the dots, about who then gets named, who then gets credit, but the insight is there to grow:
Had the movement for Women’s Enfranchisement been a movement solely of poor women with others dependent upon them, as might have been the case, the new Bill might have proved a serious menace to the movement, but, as it happened, there was fortunately no lack of women who were able and willing to risk imprisonment, therefore this Bill could make no difference to us.
The words and stories of these other women, both working class women and women of colour, are being brought to light but still more work needs to happen here — a good source of other places to begin to look is Sarah Jackson’s Guardian article ‘The suffragettes weren’t just white, middle-class women throwing stones‘. That’s what Sylvia’s book is mostly about, of course. There are, however plenty of interesting things to be drawn from it.
Violence in Politics
First, perhaps, is how this highlighted for me (as did her mother’s book) just how good our cultural and political system is at forgetting the levels of protest and violence that once attended relatively unimportant by elections, much less the whirlwinds of destruction that came before we ever won any serious and lasting political change.
So the contest went on — Liberals and Conservatives smashing up each other’s meetings, howling each other down, pelting each other with vegetables from the market and snowballing each other on Dartmoor.
At the most privileged level, there is this story from Lady Mary Montague’s “Memoirs”:
of the way in which the Peeresses of the eighteenth century had frequently disturbed the serenity of the House of Lords debates, and how they had triumphed over the Lord Chancellor Phillip Yorke, First Earl of Hardwicke, who had attempted to exclude them from the House of Lords. Lady Mary describes the “thumping,” “rapping” and “running kicks” at the door of the House of Lords, indulged in by the Duchess of Queensbury and her friends, the strategy by which they finally obtained an entry…
This fairly brilliant and sarcastic letter of support from Mr T.D. Benson, Treasurer of the independent Labour Party:
Of course, when men wanted the franchise, they did not behave in the unruly manner of our feminine friends. They were perfectly constitutional in their agitation. In Bristol I find they only burnt the Mansion House, the Custom House, the Bishop’s Palace, the Excise office, three prisons, four toll houses, and forty-two private dwellings and warehouses, and all in a perfectly constitutional and respectable manner. Numerous constitutional fires took place in the neighbourhood of Bedford, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Devizes. Four men were respectably hanged at Bristol, and three at Nottingham. The Bishop of Lichfield was nearly killed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was insulted, spat upon, and with great difficulty rescued from amidst the yells and execrations of a violent and angry mob. In this and other ways the males set a splendid example of constitutional methods in agitating for the franchise. I think we are all well qualified to advise the suffragettes to follow our example, to be respectable and peaceful in their methods like we were, and then they will have our sympathy and support.
the suffragettes made it their strategy to raise the intensity of their actions, as Sylvia writes:
Votes for Women in those days was regarded by the majority of sober, level-headed men as a ladies fad which would never come to anything and the idea that it could ever be a question upon which governments would stand or fall, or be associated with persecution, rioting and imprisonment had been alike unthinkable to them.
They changed that.
Strategy and Tactics:
The Daily Mail first called the WSPU the suffragettes to
distinguish between us and the members of the older Suffrage Society who had always been called Suffragists, and who strongly objected to our tactics.
It was these tactics that I loved most in Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography, and there are more here (though given the year, Sylvia’s book is much more focused on the fighting of elections and boring lists of results. I still don’t know what I think of that strategy). My favourite?
The Pantechnicon Van Strategem
Which sounds amazing, though really it was just hiring a van to drive a load of suffragettes past police lines to the doors of the House of Commons. I also love how they set flying a great box kite over the Houses of Parliament, and a flag over Holloway Gaol to cheer the prisoners there. And what is lovelier and more supportive of solidarity than the tradition of free ‘public welcome breakfasts, which have since become an institution’, held at Anderton’s Hotel to welcome each suffragette upon her release.
I think even today we’d find it hard to organise such a march to Hyde Park as they did — 7 different marches converging, 20 women to speak on 20 different platforms, they organised 30 special trains to run from different towns. London was divided into districts with an organiser assigned to each one — Sylvia was in charge of organising district of Chelsea, Fulham and Wandsworth. I am all admiration.
I admire too their celebration of the women who had come before, fought before as part of this movement. The march remembered history, celebrated Elizabeth Fry, Lydia Becker and Mary Wollstonecraft. Walking in procession came Miss Emily Davies, Dr Garrett Anderson, Mrs Fawcett, President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. I love too that Sylvia highlights the international nature of the movement, notes contingents of suffragists from many different countries, all with their flags. The spectacle organised must have been wondrous, the flags of many countries were followed by graduates from universities in robes and colours, a contingent of writers — Beatrice Harraden, Elizabeth Robbins and Evelyn Sharpe. Artists and actresses, gardeners, pharmacists, physical trainers, typists and shorthand writers, shop assistants, factory workers, home makers.
For a brief and glorious moment the Royal Mail announced the ability to post “human” letters…crikey. So of course the WSPU posted two suffragettes to Asquith at 10 Downing Street.
It is nice to know that the movement was led by women, but men gave their support. One evening Lloyd George and Mr Sidney Buxton were to speak in Limehouse — twenty men entered into the meeting to champion women’s rights. One climbed up the pillars at the back of the hall and forming a swing for himself with rope, hung there displaying the flag of purple, white and green.
But there are more stories of women doing their own climbing, sneaking, banner dropping. They were awesome.
The role of the ladies…
One thing that is fascinating is the way that Sylvia mobilises gender here — first noting the change in women’s roles within a movement in quite stirring ways that I heartily approve of:
The time was gone when she must always play a minor part, applauding, ministering, comforting, performing useful functions if you will, incurring risks too, and making sacrifices, but always being treated and always thinking of herself as a mere incident of the struggle outside the wide main stream of life. Today this battle of theirs seemed to the women to be the greatest in the world…
But there are also long passages that ring quite strangely to my modern ear, but also represent I think a strategic claiming of the essential and the feminine (which bothers me, though sometimes it reads a bit like a lesbian romance novel, which might make it okay). Here is just one example describing Mrs Cobden Sanderson as she spoke before the magistrate:
You must not picture her to yourself as being either big boned, plain looking and aggressive and wearing “mannish” clothes, or as emotional and overstrung. On the contrary, she is just what Reynolds, Hoppner, Sir Henry Raeburn, or Romney with his softest and tenderest touch, would have loved to paint… She is always dressed in low toned greys and lilacs, and her clothes are gracefully and delicately wrought, with all sorts of tiny tuckings and finishings which give a suggestion of daintiest detail without any loss of sympathy or breadth. She has a shower of hair like spun silver…then she quoted in her defense the words of Mr John Burns…”I am a rebel because I am an outlaw. I am law breaker because I desire to become a law maker.”
There is more on soft and downy cheeks flushed like roses, and dainty dresses and such things — perhaps to set in stronger contrast suffragette actions and resolve. Their attempts to address meetings of Liberals, and their stands on street corners (like the corner of Peter St and South Street — I love this book’s concrete geographies), until arrested and dragged away. The detailed descriptions of prison life, the clothing and rations and cold, and the beginnings of the horrifying forcible feedings of those women on hunger strike.
That indeed required an immense and indomitable courage of the kind that I don’t know I possess.
There is another letter quoted from the Daily Mail that follows this pattern, though perhaps not in quite as troubling a manner:
Three happy girls, eyes laughter lit, breezy, buoyant, joyous, arm in arm, talking like three cascades, are making a royal progress down the lane that leads to Rye. Such is the head of the comet…
They were off to disrupt the elections there. A controversial strategy that caused splits in the radical wing of the women’s movement, trying to ensure the Liberals lost every seat until they fully supported women’s right to the vote.
Connected to both gender and class, I think, there is an interesting aside describing Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, and how she entered the movement as a recruit — what were her early inspirations that had led her to the suffragettes? The story of Hetty Sorrell in Adam Bede…I have just read that, found the treatment of Hetty Sorrell quite appalling so this fascinates (and oh, it definitely appalls) me. Other influences? Marguerite in her prison cell in Faust (I’ll give her that one maybe, I haven’t read it), Besant’s Children of Gideon. God, Sir Walter fucking Besant. I have vented some spleen on him and his horrific prejudices against poor people…but it troubles me sorely that these books helped her decide, like so many others, to go to the East End to spend her life in striving to alter these conditions.
I’m slowly reading more about these middle class women who moved to or served in the East End and all that has been written about them. I’m not quite sure what interests me about them, perhaps the clash of class and gendered oppression, or the glimpses they offer into the way some of the women of my family perhaps once lived. Sylvia was in fact one of them, though I find her one of the better ones, but there isn’t much of any of that in this text. And I’m almost done with this text, I promise.
A few key figures of the time as you have never seen them
Meeting with G.K. Chesterton! Sylvia attended a meeting addressed by him at Morriss Hall, Clapham. He was eulogizing the French revolution, and sketching people in the audience during the question and critique session that followed, he did not answer Sylvia’s point on the women’s movement — so he actually came up afterwards and apologised, and even signed her petition. He would later became an active anti-suffragist.
Mr Winston Churchill! After losing his parliamentary election because of the suffragettes, he bursting into tears apparently, and in his mother’s arms no less, and the suffragettes there felt so sorry for him they tried to comfort him.
It didn’t work.
There are also some choice insulting descriptions of Lloyd George, ‘a plain little man, with a pale face…’ His hair was most disappointing apparently.
Coming to an end, finally…
Given this is a text of propaganda, it has a good, if overly optimistic ending:
So the gallant struggle for a great reform draws to its close. Full of stern fighting and bitter hardship as it has been, it has brought much to the women of our time — a courage, a self-reliance, a comradeship, and above all a spiritual growth, a conscious dwelling in company with the ideal, which has tended to strip the littleness from life and to give to it the character of an heroic mission.
May we prize and cherish the great selfless spirit that has been engendered and, applying it to the purposes of our Government — the nation’s housekeeping — the management of our collective affairs, may we, men and women together, not in antagonism, but in comradeship, strive on till we have built up a better civilisation than any the world has known.
But I thought it best to end on this, a song I have yet to hear: the Women’s Marseillaise (by Miss F.E.M. Macaulay):
Arise! Though pain or loss betide
Grudge naught of Freedom’s toll,
For what they loved the martyrs died
Are we of meaner soul?
Are we of meaner soul?
2 thoughts on “Sylvia Pankhurst: The Suffragette”