The suffragettes are largely remembered not as firestarters and bombers but as pale martyrs to patriarchy. The hunger artists refusing the rubber tube; Emily Wilding Davison dying under the King’s horse. We forget their destructive acts aimed at men and property; we remember the more sex-appropriate self-destruction.
Fern Riddell’s flawed book is intended as a corrective. Its subject, Kitty Marion (born Katherine Marie Schäfer in 1871 in Germany), was one of the suffragettes’ most prolific and dedicated practitioners of political violence: possibly a member of Christabel Pankhurst’s elite terror cell the Young Hot Bloods, undoubtedly an arsonist and a very effective one, the veteran of multiple imprisonments and force-feedings.
Marion’s radicalisation started with her abusive father (her mother died when she was two). On one occasion he threatened to break her legs if she behaved in an ‘unladylike manner’; another time he beat her puppy to death in order to show it ‘who was master’. An aunt in London offered an escape. Marion arrived in the city aged 15 and with no English, but within a few years was fluent enough to look for work in the theatre, with a newly anglicised name.
This was when the second act of her radicalisation occurred. Where her father had demanded her total obedience, and punished her with violence, the managers and agents of the music halls demanded her body, and punished her, Weinstein-wise, with career death when she resisted their assaults and spoke out.
This is a compelling tale, most of all when told in the words of Marion’s unpublished autobiography. But for some reason, Riddell has decided that the overarching story of Marion’s life is not the battle of early 20th-century women for the vote, but the contemporary contest between two schools of feminism: the ‘sex-positive’ strand that embraces pornography and prostitution, and the other one, variously described by Riddell as ‘conservative’ and ‘prudish’. She claims a lineage of sex positivity that stretches back to Mary Wollstonecraft. However, when she gripes about ‘early feminist narratives of victimhood’, she sounds more like a Camille Paglia knock-off than anything in the spirit of Vindication.
Riddell wants to convince us that Victorian women parlaying sex into advantage were often exercising their own agency and sometimes having a very nice time with it. That’s fair up to a point, but she commits to the idea beyond plausibility — for example, claiming that the performer Belle Bilton was ‘a fierce example of female independence’. But Bilton was not famous for her independence: she was famous for her marriage (she sensationally snagged a nobleman). You might says she was resilient, defiant or exceptionally canny; but calling her independent wilfully ignores the nature of the male-dominated world she had to negotiate.
After the suffragette movement had won its case, Marion transferred her fervour to birth control advocacy — not a universally popular cause among her political comrades (Christabel Pankhurst is chewed out by Riddell for arguing that ‘birth control would not help women, but rather only allow men to continue to abuse them’). Working alongside Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, Marion distributed material that educated women about avoiding pregnancy, and fell foul of the obscenity law, landing her once again in prison.
For Riddell, this affiliation proves decisively that Marion belongs to the angels’ side of sex positivity. Such determined Manicheanism (good sex positive feminists, bad other ones) creates peculiar omissions and strange interpretations. There is much here about the clay feet of the Pankhursts, but no mention of Sanger’s and Stopes’s promotion of (then accepted, now discredited) eugenics. Riddell claims that Marion nurtured an unspoken opposition to Christabel Pankhurst’s fiery anti-prostitution text, The Great Scourge; but when Marion objected to those who placed the burden of propriety (and the blame for STDs) on women, she critiqued the exact same sexual double standard around ‘chastity’ that Pankhurst attacked.
Even where the divisions are real — as on the birth control question — Riddell is too dismissive to be interesting. Christabel Pankhurst’s resistance to contraception is a dead end from this side of history, but before the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, syphilis and gonorrhoea were incurable diseases against which barrier methods were only partly effective. It’s worth acknowledging, too, that many women’s experience of the 1960s sexual revolution bore out Pankhurst’s fears to some degree. Women don’t have to get pregnant to be thoroughly screwed by men.
And there’s another problem with giving Marion the modern brand of ‘sex positive’: as Riddell acknowledges, there’s no evidence she actually had any. The right to say no to pregnancy, and to men entirely, may well have been at least as animating for Marion as the right to say yes. Riddell asks: ‘Why did early feminists forget about sex?’ A better question is why do so many still believe that (hetero) sex can be held apart from the un-equal conditions it happens in. By downplaying the everyday violence of being female under male control, Death in Ten Minutes ultimately downplays the justice of the suffragettes’ cause. The title, incidentally, refers to a message left on one of the suffragettes’ bombs.