The British campaign for women’s parliamentary suffrage lasted more than 60 years and has increasingly been interpreted as part of a wider questioning of gender roles, as well as a facet of expanding democracy. The Suffragettes – a scornful label from the Daily Mail, re-appropriated by the more militant campaigners – were merely the tip of the suffragist iceberg.
In the years before the First World War women smashed windows, chained themselves to railings, fired pillar boxes and went on hunger strike when imprisoned. However Deeds Not Words (a Pankhurst slogan) may have been more successful in attracting publicity than in winning the vote.
Debate has raged among historians over this issue and many other aspects of the campaign. For contrasting interpretations, it is instructive to consult the writings both of Martin Pugh and of June Purvis.
Martin Pugh’s The March of the Women (OUP, 2000) offers a ‘revisionist analysis’ of the suffrage movement as a whole, combining earlier scholarship with his own trenchant critique of interpretations which over-privilege the role of militancy at the expense of a long-term study of moderate suffragism and evolving parliamentary opinion.
In contrast, June Purvis’s biography of Emmeline Pankhurst (Routledge, 2002) is an admiring monument to “the most brave and inspirational leader in suffrage history”. Fascinating new light is shed on Pankhurst family life, within a study grounded in an empathetic appreciation of Pankhurst’s uncompromising feminism.
A very different suffragette life story is conveyed in Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography, The Hard Way Up (Virago 1977). As a self-educated working class woman, Hannah was both thrilled and repelled by the Pankhurst leadership. Her book movingly conveys her struggle to combine personal fulfilment and public service with the burdens of poverty and family duty.
For a short-cut to other suffrage lives, readers may consult Elizabeth Crawford’s invaluable The Women’s Suffrage Movement. A Reference Guide 1866–1928 (UCL Press, 1999).
Suffrage scholarship has expanded and diversified in many interesting ways over the past 20 years. Antoinette Burton’s Burdens of History (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) paved the way for other studies revealing the interdependence of feminism and imperialism. The transnational roots of feminism, and its development beyond suffragism, are explored in Lucy Delap’s innovatory study of The Feminist Avant-Garde (CUP, 2007).
Julia Bush, senior lecturer in history at the University of Northampton, is author of Women Against the Vote (OUP, 2007)