The rise and fall of the Pankhursts


The rise and fall of the Pankhursts

The Pankhursts
By Martin Pugh
Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2001
537 pages, $49.95 (hb)


What foul crimes did this family commit? Emmeline and her daughters — Christabel, Sylvia and Adela — were repeatedly arrested and incarcerated in Holloway women's prison. These four women were the famous Pankhursts, whose fearless campaigning for women's right to vote in Britain early last century was often punished but ultimately successful.

Martin Pugh's biography of the Pankhurst women opens in Manchester, where the well-to-do but progressive Emmeline brought three daughters into the world (Christabel in 1880, Sylvia in 1882 and Adela in 1885). Catching their mother's impatience with the lack of endeavour on female suffrage from Tory, Liberal and Labour parties, mother and daughters founded the formidable Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.

The Pankhursts spoke tirelessly at rallies, in village greens, on street corners and at factory gates. Christabel relentlessly tracked her favourite quarry, Winston Churchill, heckling and being thrown out of his public meetings. When she provoked police into arresting her after one ejection in 1905, the militant suffrage movement (dubbed the suffragettes in contrast to the “constitutional” movement of suffragists) upped its campaign.

The WSPU organised protests from the public gallery of the House of Commons and outside 10 Downing Street. It led large women's marches to the house of parliament. The number arrested rose to the hundreds, middle-class “ladies” and Lancashire mill workers alike.

Adela hit a police officer's hand and got seven days' jail. The use of mounted police resulted in widespread condemnation of the Liberal government's “Tsarist methods”. Politicians incited their rowdies to violently disrupt WSPU meetings, drowning out speakers and dumping them into ponds (Emmeline's ankle was broken in one incident).

Despite this violent harassment, the WSPU grew (it had 69 branches in 1907) and mobilised masses of women. Two developments conspired to change this.

First, Herbert Asquith, a stubborn and brutally repressive opponent of votes for women, became Liberal prime minister. A Hyde Park suffrage rally of 250,000 men and women in 1908 was ignored. Police punched and kicked women demonstrators, twisted their arms and grabbed their breasts.

Second, in response to Asquith, Emmeline and Christabel threw away their greatest weapon: mass mobilisation. More disposed to dealing with middle-class women, who brought in the money (in its day, the WSPU had a greater income than the Labour Party, thanks to the “fashionable ladies in rustling silks and satins”, Emmeline and Christabel played down links between feminism and the labour movement. They engineered a factional coup in the WSPU which resulted in most of its working class members leaving.

The WSPU resorted to dramatic acts of violence against property carried out by a few. A spate of window-breaking ensued. The British Home Office, treasury, Privy Council and other government buildings were hit. Fashionable retail stores were hit. Golf courses were dug up, the orchid house at Kew Gardens vandalised and the Chancellor's house was bombed.

The government turned even uglier, and tried to suppress the WSPU through imprisonment, police raids on WSPU headquarters, seizure of its funds and the prosecution of the printers of the WSPU's paper, The Suffragette.

In Glasgow, 170 police baton-charged a WSPU public meeting, hitting women indiscriminately. The WSPU was forced at its public meetings to conceal barb-wire behind the flowers which decked the speakers' platforms. Christabel was forced to flee to Paris disguised as a nurse, with the police special branch on her tail, where she ran the organisation for two years.

When WSPU members in jail conducted hunger strikes, Asquith introduced barbarous practice of force-feeding (Sylvia suffered bleeding gums and vomiting during five weeks of such torture). Damaged by the controversy around force-feeding, Asquith introduced the so-called “cat-and-mouse” act which ordered a sadistic cycle of the release of hunger-strikers (the 55-year-old Emmeline was a key target) and their re-arrest when they had sufficiently recovered to serve the rest of their sentence.

The drama of this virtual war obscured the internal decline of the WSPU. In 1914, Emmeline and Christabel expelled the increasingly left-wing Sylvia and Adela, who had opposed the tactics of arson (post boxes were set alight and inflammable materials was sent through the mail), guerilla actions by small bands of women at the expense of mass protests, the party's middle-class focus and its goal of limited suffrage for (wealthier) women.

Adela was banished to Australia, where she was among the founders of the Communist Party of Australia. Sylvia organised the working class in the east-end of London to support universal suffrage and socialism, and for the establishment of clinics for mothers and babies, cost-price restaurants, schools and high-wage paying garment factories.

There were spectacular clashes between the police and her 700-strong People's Army, which provided the self-defence for free speech. Sylvia was also famously at the centre of efforts by Lenin to unite the squabbling British socialists into one Communist Party.

The outbreak of the first world war completed the rout of the WSPU. Emmeline and Christabel declared a truce on the suffrage front and the WSPU supported the war effort in the interests of “national unity”. As quasi-official war recruiters, Emmeline and Christabel toured the country and overseas, attacking strikes as the work of “Bolsheviks” and “traitors”.

Sylvia and Adela, on the other hand, were prominent anti-war activists. Sylvia was a founding member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Adela helped organise the defeat of the conscription referenda in Australia.

In 1918, women aged over 30 won the vote in Britain. This was a result of continuing agitation on suffrage by the feminist and socialist movements, now minus the WSPU which had folded one year earlier.

The government had feared that its proposal to extend the vote to men who had fought in the war but not previously been enfranchised (40% of adult males did not have the vote), would, if women were again overlooked, provoke further damaging confrontation with a renewed militant women's suffrage movement.

Emmeline and Christabel both used this newly won, albeit limited, women's right in ways that set back the feminist cause. Both stood as right-wing, anti-labour candidates. In Emmeline's last year (1928, which was also the year the women's voting age of 30 was abolished) she was a Tory candidate. Christabel (now Dame Christabel) went on to discover Second Adventism (a religious movement that believed the second coming of Christ was imminent) with its conservative resignation in the face of the spread of fascism and dictatorship as harbingers of the coming of Christ.

Adela followed in their tracks, moving from Communist to right-wing anti-unionist, to accommodation with fascism as a bulwark against Communism.

Sylvia swung less wildly on the political compass. Justly criticised by Lenin for her ultra-leftist rejection of parliament, she was criminally expelled by the Stalinist Communist Party before becoming active in the anti-fascist movement. Her sterling work in defence of Ethiopia against Mussolini's fascist invasion, however, slid into uncritical apologetics for the autocratic regime of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie.

By the time of the sisters' deaths (Christabel in 1958, Sylvia in 1960 and Adela in 1961), their end-point, like their mother's, may was some way from their beginning as fighters of bravery, daring and courage for women's right to vote.

Whilst Emmeline and Christabel “betrayed the suffragette movement amidst the shrill clamour of war” (as Sylvia put it), the lessons for the feminist movement from their best years have endured: the necessity of a radical, independent movement for women's rights led by women.

It was Sylvia, and more briefly Adela, who went further, adding red to the suffragette colours of purple, green and white, by making socialism and feminism partners in the struggle for equality.

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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