Monday, 24 March 2008

The Pankhursts: a historiographical problem

How has the history of the women’s suffrage movement been written and why did the Pankhurst point of view dominate historical thinking until the 1970s? The two leading texts are George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1935 and Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffragette Movement, published four years earlier.

Dangerfield saw the suffrage movement as one of several causes in the downfall of the Liberal Party, along with the Irish question, the emerging Labour Party and trade unionism, pacifism and the First World War. He was, however, the first ‘historian’ to treat the movement seriously and consequently invented the narrative and historical plot from which subsequent historians have rarely been able to free themselves. The problem with Dangerfield is that he saw suffrage as merely a part of the broader ‘drama’ of the failure of the Liberal Party. Dangerfield provided the explanatory drama, his suffragette characters as moving stereotypes creating and satisfying a public (essentially male) need to label serious women’s politics as ‘hysterical’. His most successful strategy was labelling the suffrage movement as a light comic diversion in the tragedy of Liberal decline. He defines the suffrage movement as a ‘spectacle’ and slips in ‘unprincipled’. Dangerfield’s rhetorical strategy is very successful in diminishing the militant movement as political on a par with any male political parties or movements. His is the language of belittlement. His characters are one-dimensional.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffrage Movement (1931) was Dangerfield’s major source. She too wanted to show the ‘actors in the drama’. Sylvia Pankhurst is Dangerfield’s heroine and her story, in which she plays Cinderella in a family romance, is the ‘authority’ for Dangerfield’s text. There are several important consequences to his reliance on her text because, with only slight variations, the Sylvia/George version of the suffrage movement had become the standard reading of events, stubbornly held and hardly challenged until recently.  In Sylvia’s version, she is the heroine who keeps the faith while her mother and sister become increasingly hysterical and autocratic. She paints her mother as too busy with the movement to pay attention to the ill health of her son, Harry implying that she was responsible for his death and to the nervous breakdown of her sister Adela who is then unceremoniously shunted off to Australia. The structure of the book records the major events as splits within the movement caused by her mother and sister, while the winning of the vote is claimed at the dramatic dénouement of her arrangement to get Asquith to receive her East End Delegation in June 1914. She claims the victory in the name of socialist feminism, a victory less over the government than over her real enemies, her sister and mother, the separatist feminists who have become increasingly more aristocratic and concerned with personal power. This text is very appealing and Dangerfield was not the only one who fell for it. David Mitchell, for example, in The Fighting Pankhursts and Queen Christabel aimed at a male readership afraid of the new feminism of the 1970s.

The plots of the first historians of suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst’s tragic family romance of the bad mother and George Dangerfield’s comic farce of suffrage as a hysterical side-show, only came under serious consideration in the 1960s with the advent of women’s history. This view of the suffrage movement, however, is only one of several[1]. Sandra Stanley Holton suggests that it is possible to identify four different approaches to the history of the movement.

  • The Constitutionalist approach. Historians who follow this approach tend to be sympathetic to suffragists and are critical of the role played by the WSPU. Ray Strachey The Cause, first published in 1928 is an example of this approach.
  • The militant approach. Historians who follow this approach tend to focus on the Pankhursts at the expense of other campaigners and to dismiss or minimise the nineteenth-century suffrage campaign. Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffrage Movement, published in 1931 and Christabel Pankhurst Unshackled: the Story of How We Won the Vote, published in 1959 are examples of this approach.
  • The masculinist approach. Male historians who criticise the tactics adopted by suffragists or suffragettes or who minimise the impact made by women who campaigned for the vote are described by Holton as ‘masculinists’. These writers, she argues, emphasise “The otherness, the strangeness, the difference and ultimately the ridiculousness of women in pursuit of their own political and personal ends”. George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935 became the model for this approach. Holton also includes Brian Harrison and Martin Pugh (especially in his early work) in this category. Brian Harrison is included because he lets the male electorate and politicians off the hook when he argued that lack of progress between 1880 and 1903 was due to suffragist tactics. Pugh is included because he argues that the women’s movement had little to do with the eventual enfranchisement of women in 1918.
  • The new-feminist approach. New-feminist historians emphasise the achievements of all those involved in the suffrage campaigns (whether constitutionalists or militants) and move away from the ‘great woman’ approach found in both the constitutionalist and militant approaches. The struggle for the vote is seen as part of a broader struggle for female emancipation in which conventional views about the role of women were challenged and overturned and a new feminised approach to politics and protest was developed. The first full new-feminist interpretation was Marian Ramelson The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women’s Rights, published in 1967.

It is possible to make very different assessments of the campaign for women’s suffrage in the period 1880 to 1918 according to which of the four approaches is taken. Constitutionalists and new-feminist historians tend to be positive about developments in this period, while militant and masculinist authors tend to support the view that the suffrage movement went into decline between 1880 and 1903 and achieved little by 1914.


[1] What follows is based on the introduction of Jane Marcus (ed.) Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Routledge, 1987, pages1-17, Maroula Joannou and June Purvis ‘Introduction: the writing of the women’s suffrage movement’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 1-14, Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini ‘Writing Suffrage Histories – the ‘British’ Experience’, in Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini (eds.) A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History, Leicester University Press, 1999, pages 1-19 and Sandra Stanley Holton ‘The making of suffrage history’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000, pages 13-33.

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