Review of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, by June Purvis

Eras Journal – Millar, C.: Review of “Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography”, Purvis, June

June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography,
Routledge, London and New York, 2003
Isbn 0 415 23978 8

June Purvis’ biography of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the first full-length study of the English suffragette leader for nearly seventy years, makes a welcome addition to suffrage history and feminist biography alike. Topping recent polls in the Observer and Daily Mirror as the “woman of the twentieth century” (p.1), Emmeline Pankhurst’s hold upon the popular imagination as a champion of women remains firm.

Pankhurst and her three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, courted both notoriety and the adulation of Edwardian society in their direction of the militant suffragette campaigns of 1905-1914. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester in 1903, in response to the perceived lethargy of the women’s movement on the suffrage question. Although only one of a whole range of societies promoting women’s enfranchisement, the WSPU was the first suffrage organisation to employ militant tactics to draw attention to ‘the Cause'(including window-breaking, stone-throwing, the disruption of public meetings and parliamentary session time, arson and bomb attacks, and hunger strikes when imprisoned). Casting themselves as revolutionaries, the Pankhurst women exploited their genius for publicity and spectacle, effectively dramatising feminist demands, where larger, more established women’s organisations had failed to make headway.

Emmeline Pankhurst possessed tremendous skill as an orator and her unrivalled ability to mobilise her ‘troops’ attracted new devotees to the WSPU. A bold, charismatic leader with a queenly, dignified bearing, she was by turns warm and aloof in her personal friendships, dismissing old allies from her court with little warning. She also made no secret of her devotion to her eldest and favourite child, ‘clever’ Christabel, sparking rivalry, jealousy and bitterness amongst her daughters. Much to the astonishment of many of their followers, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst called a halt to militant activities on the outbreak of World War One, disbanding the WSPU to become dedicated patriots in support of the British war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928 while standing as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, estranged from daughters Sylvia and Adela and an array of erstwhile friends.

The time would seem ripe for a new account of the Pankhurst story and, as a leading historian of the suffrage movement, Purvis is certainly well placed to give her revisionist version. Detailed, thoroughly researched and meticulously documented, this is an overwhelmingly sympathetic account of Emmeline Pankhurst, for which Purvis makes no apology. Her agenda is explicit from the outset: to rehabilitate her subject’s reputation as a ‘failed leader,”bad mother’ and traitor to her loyal allies and socialist values. Her main purpose is to challenge the misrepresentation of Pankhurst established by the writings of daughter Sylvia. As Purvis rightly maintains, suffrage historiography has been heavily influenced by Sylvia Pankhurst’s two biased memoirs, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (1931) and The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst: The Suffragette Struggle for Women’s Citizenship (1935). Summarising the task at hand, Purvis writes that:

it is time to reclaim Emmeline Pankhurst from the denigration of Sylvia and of historians who have marginalised her as a middle class opportunist, ruthless, patriotic and right wing, a woman driven by her eldest daughter, Christabel, the autocratic leader of a militant movement that was bourgeois, reactionary and narrow in its aims…It is time to represent Emmeline as she was seen in her time, a ‘Champion of Womanhood’, to give to her that ‘honoured niche’ in history (p.360).

Purvis contests Emmeline Pankhurst’s popular image as a ‘leisured’ woman of the upper-middle class who “spent endless hours in unpaid political work on public platforms and committees” (p.317): she was in fact paid for her many years as a lecturer for the WSPU, Women’s Party, and the Social Hygiene Committee. Instead, Purvis portrays Pankhurst as a woman plagued by financial worries since the early death of her husband, Richard. This continual struggle to scrape together enough money to support herself and both her ‘families’, is underscored repeatedly. Purvis is also keen to recover Emmeline Pankhurst’s socialist beginnings, contending that throughout her chequered political career, she never “los[t] her links with the socialist movement” (p.111) and that her sympathies were firmly with the working class. Yet, in demanding the vote on the same terms as men, Pankhurst’s campaign for a limited franchise excluded working class women by entailing a property qualification.

Pankhurst’s postwar politics – comprising extreme patriotism, pro-imperialism, anti-communism, anti-Bolshevism, and Toryism – has proved very problematic for feminist historians. Purvis endeavours to combat Pankhurst’s unfashionable status as a ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’, by describing Pankhurst’s swing to the right as a natural progression of both her ‘patriotic feminism’ and her disillusionment with the Independent Labour Party and socialism. According to Purvis, Pankhurst increasingly found herself “torn between competing loyalties of gender and class. As the feminist leader of the women-only WSPU she put women first” (p.90). Purvis depicts Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘woman-centred’ feminism as prescient in its “struggle against an oppressive male state” (p.251), and though this is partly true, her contention that Pankhurst’s Toryism maintains continuity with her earlier political career is unconvincing.

While Purvis is mostly successful in her mission to ‘rescue’ Pankhurst, the author’s keen identification with and admiration for her subject allows her to avoid detailed examination of some of the more unpleasant aspects of Pankhurst. Many of her haughty and high-handed actions, particularly the expulsion of the Pethick Lawrences from the WSPU and the sudden cessation of her close friendship with Ethel Smyth seem glossed over for the sake of expediency. Purvis emphasises Pankhurst’s concern and love for her children throughout her commitment to women’s suffrage. She does not, however, deny her blatant favouritism of Christabel, nor her ruthless treatment of her younger daughters. Moreover, her adoption of a ‘second family’ of four war orphans was obviously a responsibility she was ill-equipped to undertake due to her financial predicament and the constraints on her time that her various ’causes’ imposed. Purvis’ simple explanation that, for Pankhurst, “the women’s cause was above family relationships” (p.249), does not seem entirely satisfactory.

The real strength of Purvis’ book lies in her exploration of the personal side of Emmeline Pankhurst. The least well-known aspects of Pankhurst’s life, as a young wife, socialist, political hostess, and the coverage of Pankhurst’s little known career as a Poor Law Guardian, the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester, and a shopkeeper, are the most successful sections of the biography and make compelling reading. The details of her role as emissary to Russia and the years she spent as a lecturer for ‘social hygiene’ in Canada add new dimensions to Pankhurst’s long and varied career.

Considering Purvis’ radical feminist viewpoint, her discussion of lesbianism within the WSPU is strange to say the least. Masculinist historians’ intimations have, indeed, been both misogynistic and puerile, particularly Martin Pugh’s conjecture upon the supposed ‘lesbian love trysts’ of several prominent suffragettes. However, such curiosity about the sexual orientations of well-known feminists is hardly new, and this does not explain why Purvis is so upset and indignant about these speculations: is it because Pugh and others have got the story wrong, or because they are discussing the possibility of homosexuality within the suffragette ranks?

In her analysis of the years of WSPU militancy, Emmeline Pankhurst emerges as a defiant and heroic leader. We are reminded that the WSPU brought a much-needed boost of energy to the foundering constitutional suffrage campaign. Purvis claims that women’s partial enfranchisement in 1918 would not have been achieved without Pankhurst’s leadership of the WSPU and the pressure that militancy placed on the British government: “What is frequently overlooked,” she asserts, “is that Emmeline and her militants changed the way in which women wereperceived by people generally, including politicians” (p.308), “militant tactics shook the complacency of the British government, making it most unlikely…that without it women’s suffrage would have been granted” (p.361).

Historical interest in the Pankhurst family is little diminished, and Purvis’ book will surely stimulate discussion and debate among feminists and suffrage historians. This is an accomplished biography that offers some fascinating insights, and the author handles her subject and source material with skilled assurance. This new addition to suffrage literature may well prove to be the definitive account of the Emmeline Pankhurst’s life for many years to come.

Carly Millar
School of Historical Studies, Monash University