The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928
Martin Pugh reviews three books on female emancipation in Britain.
The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928
By Elizabeth Crawford
UCL Press xiii + 785 pp £110 ISBN 1-84142-031-X
The Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928
By Sophia van Wingerden
Macmillan xxvi + 227 pp £42.50 ISBN 0-312-21853-2
Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics
By Mary Davis
Pluto Press xv + 157 pp £ 10.99 pbk. £40.00 hbk ISBN 0-7453-1518-6 and 1523-2
Every autumn A-Level students all over the country begin to panic over their 'personal studies' which are nowadays a key element in the assessment: have I got enough primary sources, and if not where are they to be found ? Those - and there are many - who opt to research some aspect of the women's movement now have the answer to their needs, if they can afford it or can persuade the library to buy it in time.
It is no exaggeration to describe Elizabeth Crawford's Guide as a landmark in the study of the women's movement. In a fascinating volume she provides a gazetteer comprising more than 400 suffragist campaigners and 800 local societies and national pressure groups. In many cases the entries include a detailed account of their activities backed by a compendium of information including addresses, biblio-graphies, archival deposits and portraits and photographic records. This will be a great encouragement to further work by university scholars and local women's and history groups as well as A-Level students. The book also incorporates lengthy essays on interesting but neglected aspects of the suffrage campaign: for example, on suffrage plays and songs, the growth of suffrage shops and bazaars, plays and novels about the cause or containing allusions to it, badges, jewellery, china and silver produced by or for the movement, and a list of forty-two aliases used by suffragettes to help them evade the police or to maintain their respectability.
The book is at once an invaluable research tool and a source of fascinating information on its subject. Author and publisher are both to be congratulated on its production. Though expensive, the book has been well produced on quality paper; and one hopes that a paperback version will in due course be available to a wider market as it is sure to be in great use for years to come.
One cannot help noticing how few of the archival resources listed in the Guide have been used in the writing of Sophia van Wingerden's book. It offers a readable and lively account of the suffrage campaigns but takes an essentially narrative approach which never engages with the problems of interpretation in any great depth. The author tends to follow uncritically some of the traditional assumptions, for example, that the campaign was in the doldrums during the 1880s and 1890s, and that while the Liberal leaders opposed votes for women the bulk of the party supported it - which was simply not true in the 1860s and 1870s. One is inclined to feel that the book falls between two stools. It is not an original analysis based on the archives; nor is it the synthesis required by students. Those who want a brief, up-to-date survey do better to use H.A.L. Smith, The British Women's Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928 (Longman, 1998) or Paula Bartley, Votes for Women 1860-1928 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998).
One feature of recent work on women's suffrage has been a tendency to raise the profile of Sylvia Pankhurst. Neglected and marginalised in her lifetime, Sylvia now appears a more central figure; this partly reflects the fact that she followed a more consistent political course through her lifetime and espoused left-wing views which are more congenial to the modern women's movement than the erratic and increasingly right wing politics of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. We have had substantial biographies by Patricia Romero (Yale, 1987) and Barbara Winslow (UCL Press, 1996) as well as Kathryn Wood's A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader (Manchester University Press, 1993). Do we need another short one ? To be fair Mary Davis has not written a biography: she sees her book as a study of the relationship between the women's movement and the labour movement. Hence her chapters on the Victorian labour movement, the Women's Social and Political Union, wartime politics, Sylvia's Communist phase in the 1920s, and her anti-fascism in the 1930s. Davis has a perceptive discussion of the extent to which Sylvia maintained her feminism after the war, her views on marriage and sex, and the reasons for her isolation from the mainstream of the women's movement. She also offers a convincing evaluation of her role in Marxist politics after 1918. But her tendency to dismiss the importance of personal factors as not worth consideration results in a one-dimensional, narrowly political view. For example, she criticises Romero and Winslow for suggesting that Sylvia was in search of a father-figure, and that her willingness to undertake hunger strikes and forcible feeding, of which she disapproved, reflected her desire to win love and attention from her mother. But if this is not valid, what is the explanation? Perhaps because she discounts personality Davis is inclined to take Sylvia at her own valuation. There are many examples of this. It was only later in life that Sylvia indicated her dissension from suffragette prison tactics. Her criticism of the movement for failing to adopt full adult suffrage sits oddly with her acceptance of its limited demands at least up to 1913. If Sylvia was as clear as she claimed about the need for labour and women to co-operate, why was she disparaging when the two did so in 1912 ? In 1921 she said that Keir Hardie advised the National Union against its pact with the Labour Party, but this was a misrepresentation since he backed it at the time. Sylvia also described her people's army in the East End of London as rhetorical not military, but this was in 1936 when she found her earlier work embarrassing; in 1913-14 her army was in fact drilled and armed, and she herself declared that it would fight the police, which it did, if ineffectually. While Davis's sympathetic view of Sylvia's politics may be justified as a corrective to Romero's biography which was certainly critical of its subject, she is in danger of giving us the version of Sylvia's political idealism which she herself would have wished for. There is much to admire in Sylvia's work and her opinions, but not as much as this.
Martin Pugh is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Newcastle
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