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Lead book review

When persuasion failed, force seemed the only option for women to get the vote

For bringing passion and publicity to the cause, Mrs Pankhurst also deserves a statue in Parliament Square, alongside the milder Millicent Fawcett

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes Diane Atkinson

Bloomsbury, pp.650, £30

Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote Jane Robinson

Doubleday, pp.370, £20

When Westminster Council granted planning permission for a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square to mark this year’s centenary of women getting the vote, many people were puzzled. Few had heard of this feminist campaigner, and even fewer knew about the suffragist movement which she led. The suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst seemed a far more appropriate candidate for a statue. Not only was she famous, but some feminist historians claimed that her role in gaining the vote was more important. These two books stand on different sides of the debate. Diane Atkinson has written a collective biography celebrating Mrs Pankhurst and the suffragettes, while Jane Robinson makes the case for Millicent Fawcett and the suffragists.

The two leaders were very different. Fawcett was a plump, bespectacled Edwardian matron and her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female doctor. Millicent was a serious-minded woman who was converted to the feminist cause by John Stuart Mill. Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, was slight and charismatic, an electrifying speaker and a fiery Manchester radical.

Mrs Pankhurst was a remarkably modern leader. She understood the power of celebrity, and she exploited it brilliantly. She and her two daughters, Christabel, her favourite, and Sylvia, who was never so close to her mother, enjoyed rock-star fame. Emmeline enlisted a working-class poster girl, the mill worker Annie Kenney, thereby broadening her appeal beyond the middle-class women who traditionally supported the vote. The suffragettes relied on sensationalism not persuasion; their slogan was ‘Deeds not Words’.

For years Millicent Fawcett and her suffragist friends of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had campaigned for the vote, petitioning, holding meetings, passing resolutions and acting in a peaceful, constitutional way. But they got nowhere. When it became clear in 1905 that the incoming Liberal government had no intention of enfranchising women, Mrs Pankhurst decided to up the ante.

Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney sneaked into a political meeting, shouted ‘Votes for Women!’, got themselves arrested and were sent to prison. This was the beginning of the militant campaign. The slogan ‘Votes for Women’ came about by chance: Christabel and Annie snipped off the last three words of a banner inscribed ‘Will the Liberal Government Give Votes for Women?’ because it was too heavy. The Daily Mail jeered that the Pankhursts were suffragettes, a female diminutive of suffragist which was intended as an insult. The name stuck because Mrs Pankhurst cleverly adopted it.


Atkinson describes the campaign as a ‘drama’ which ran for ten years, with stars, chorus and supporting actors. In Rise Up, Women! she salutes the suffragettes, giving an almost day-by-day account of their militant acts, which at times becomes wearisome. Robinson is less impressed by the militants’ glamour, and in Hearts and Minds she gently skewers the suffragettes. Not that they were all bad news. On the contrary, the Pankhursts brought the much-needed oxygen of publicity to the women’s cause, and their militancy was welcomed by Mrs Fawcett at first. But the suffragettes’ headline-grabbing quickly became a liability, making it less, not more, likely that women would get the vote.

Mrs Pankhurst was an autocrat. She had to be. You can’t organise violence by ladylike drawing-room discussion. The WSPU had no constitution. Mrs Pankhurst cancelled all meetings, and ran the organisation through a hand-picked kitchen cabinet. As Robinson points out, the irony here was that the suffragette movement for the extension of the vote was itself supremely undemocratic.

One thing that made it possible for Mrs Pankhurst to do without meetings was the support of a wealthy couple, the Pethick-Lawrences. They paid for organisers and officers, thus releasing Emmeline from the need to raise money through her organisation. When she got fed up with the nice, generous Pethick-Lawrences, she unceremoniously booted them out.

The suffragettes became increasingly radicalised. Emily Davison, who attended St Hugh’s, Oxford, was killed when she jumped out in front of the King’s horse at the Derby. Even if the evidence suggests that she may not have intended to commit suicide, she was as fanatical as many of her fellow hunger-strikers. In prison, the women who refused to eat were force-fed either by mouth or — more horrific — by having tubes stuck up their noses, making them vomit uncontrollably.

My favourite suffragette — I have to declare an interest, she was my great-great-aunt — is Lady Constance Lytton. She was radicalised by Annie Kenney. Noticing that working-class women were savagely abused by the prison authorities when they refused food while, as an earl’s daughter, she was given a speedy discharge, Aunt Con dressed up as a poor woman with an assumed name, and got herself arrested by throwing a stone at a politician’s car. She was brutally treated and force-fed in prison, after which she suffered two heart attacks, becoming a lifelong invalid.

The government’s handling of the issue only made the militants worse. Again and again, the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith offered a Conciliation Bill, granting women the vote, only to withdraw it at the last moment. What exactly he was trying to achieve by this tactic has never been explained. Nor is it clear why this most Liberal of politicians should have been so viscerally opposed to women’s rights. On Black Friday in November 1910 he went back on his third promised Conciliation Bill and Mrs Pankhurst stormed parliament with 300 suffragettes, some of whom were barbarically beaten up by the police. Suffragette bombs, stone-throwing, arson and assaults on cabinet ministers became almost daily occurrences.

To counter the sex war, Mrs Fawcett decided in 1913 to stage a peaceful march, and this often neglected demonstration forms the core of Robinson’s book. The pilgrimage was an extraordinary feat of organisation, with 50,000 women converging on London by six different routes. Wearing the hems of their skirts cut a daring four inches above the ground to prevent them from getting covered in mud, the women marched for 20 miles a day, sleeping in the horse-drawn caravans which accompanied them. It was a gigantic, law-abiding demonstration, the most democratic episode in the entire suffrage campaign, embracing women of all classes. Such was the hostility provoked by the suffragettes, however, that the pilgrims found themselves pelted with stones and mobbed by angry crowds.

With the pilgrimage, the suffragists convincingly distanced themselves from the suffragettes, but they didn’t win the vote. Instead, the first world war intervened. Some people argue that neither the suffragettes not the suffragists can claim the credit for getting the vote, which was granted to women as a reward for their work during the war. This theory, says Atkinson, is misleading. Women were able to work as effectively as they did during the war, running hospitals and soup kitchens, labouring in factories and on the land, because of their training in the suffrage campaign. For many women before 1914 the movement had been a full-time occupation, giving them the confidence and teaching them the skills needed for war work. ‘It was our Eton, our Oxford, our regiment, our ship, our cricket match,’ said one.

When war broke out the government granted an amnesty to suffragettes in prison, and soon after the movement fell apart. The Pankhursts split — Emmeline was a fervent patriot, handing out white feathers to men who didn’t join up, while Sylvia defected and became a pacifist. Mrs Fawcett, by contrast, managed to keep most of her ladies together in support of the war effort. When the government proposed to introduce a new franchise bill, she wrote to Asquith asking for the inclusion of women. The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted universal suffrage to men, but only gave the vote to propertied women over 30. Ever the pragmatist, Mrs Fawcett declared that half a loaf was better than none.

Hearts and Minds makes it very plain why Mrs Fawcett deserves her statue in Parliament Square. Robinson has researched the lives of ordinary suffragists as well as the stars of the movement, and her book is clear-headed, perceptive and thoroughly engaging. From her narrative it’s clear also how important Mrs Pankhurst was in bringing passion, anger and publicity to the women’s cause. I think she deserves a statue too.


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