‘The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family’ by Martin Pugh

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We are fighting for a time when every little girl born into the world will have an equal chance with her brothers.

Emmeline Pankhurst in ‘The Suffragette’, 27 Feb 1914, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family by Martin Pugh, Pg.261

As Martin Pugh states in the introduction of The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family, there has been a surprising lack of thoroughly written and objective accounts of this extraordinary family. Heralded as the leaders of the militant suffragette movement in the early twentieth century – which saw partial gains in the long, arduous fight for women’s suffrage – it is surprising, indeed, that there hasn’t been more accounts written by historians. Spanning from the beginning of Emmeline Pankhurst’s childhood to the death of her last remaining daughter in 1961, Pugh’s biography attempts to encapsulate as much information about the Pankhursts’ as can be gleaned and interpreted from historical sources.

It is surprising that there isn’t a wealth of information about this fascinating family. However, as I read more and more of Pugh’s biography, it became apparent just how difficult and complicated the subject of the Pankhursts’ were (and still are). They were definitely not a cohesive or predictable family and this may have something to do with the many contradictions, fractures and personality clashes that eventually foreshadowed the break-up of the WSPU in 1917 – just a year before women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote.

Inevitably there has been some reaction to the Pankhursts’ dramatic ideological shifts, especially the pronounced move to the right by Emmeline and Christabel, which appears eccentric from the perspective of the modern women’s movement. This helps to explain why Sylvia has received much more attention in recent years; not only her feminism and her consistently left-wing views, but her opposition to racism, remarkable for someone born in 1882, marks her out as a much more recognisably modern figure than other members of her family.

The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family by Martin Pugh, Pg.xv

It does seem a difficult task to reconcile the extreme views Emmeline and Christabel took, particularly after the First World War, with the initial ideology of the WSPU. Not only did they dismantle the organisation towards the end of the war, but they also washed their hands of the suffrage cause – completely shocking for two women who sacrificed so much for it (Emmeline more so than Christabel). Although Emmeline and Christabel were instrumental in implementing a new form of militant suffragism that rose the profile of votes for women in an unprecedented way never seen before – and they deserve to be honoured and remembered in British history – it is hard to see them as inspiring or relevant to the feminist causes of today.

Sylvia, on the other hand, and to a lesser degree Adela, stayed true to the suffrage cause and the socialist leanings of their father. Despite Adela being banished to Australia by her mother for fear of joining Sylvia to form an even more influential pair than herself and Christabel, Adela joined the Australian Women’s Peace Army during the war and established the first Communist party in Australia. However, as she became increasingly disillusioned with the Second World war she also gravitated towards the right, like Emmeline and Christabel before her. Sylvia continued to work within the East End of London as she unceasingly fought for women’s suffrage on equal terms as men. However, once this was achieved in 1928 she diverted her attentions to the increasing fascism she saw gaining prominence in other western European countries – particularly the actions of Italy in present-day Ethiopia. This was a cause that would dominate her life up until her death in 1960.

Although a relatively nuanced account of a very influential family and thoroughly researched, I couldn’t help but feel irritated by Pugh’s underhand comments about the sexuality of Emmeline and Christabel in particular. More often than not, Pugh would hint at their ‘unusually close’ friendships with women as if this were a crucial factor in their prominence as suffragettes (who cares!). I also found that he downplayed Emmeline Pankhurst’s early influences, which shaped the woman she eventually became. Whether or not we agree with or understand her eventual shift to the right, it is undeniable that she had a huge impact on shaping a more equal society for women in Britain.

‘I say with no fear of contradiction that whatever view posterity may take, Mrs Pankhurst has won for herself a niche in the temple of fame which will last for all time… if Mrs Pankhurst did not make the movement [for women’s suffrage] it was she who set the heather on fire …[Women’s] rights have been vindicated. The harder part of life is before them; and that is to perform and discharge their duties; and in the attempt to discharge those duties no woman in the years to come, as she passes by this place, will fail to draw inspiration from the example and the courage of the heroic woman whose statue we today unveil and whose memory we are here to honour’.

Stanley Baldwin on the unveiling of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family by Martin Pugh, Pg. 410-11

The Suffragettes London Tour
Portraits of Christabel and Emmeline, The National Portrait Gallery, London. Emmeline Pankhurst Statue, Victoria Tower Gardens, London.

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3 Replies to “‘The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family’ by Martin Pugh”

  1. Sounds fascinating, if flawed in places. Perhaps it needs a woman to write this kind of book so there isn’t schoolboy sniggering about possible lesbianism. As you say, who cares? It doesn’t have anything to do with their politics or achievement.

  2. I agree, I think it would be interesting for a woman to channel the voice of one of the main characters to really dig deep and understand the pressures on these woman and what was going on in their minds when they made the different choices they did.

  3. Those portraits are fascinating as well, for the way that they slot the women into pre-existing ways of being seen: the sort of sylph-like figure of Christabel, and the “elder statesman/member of the Establishment” stance of Emmeline. I wonder how much of that is to do with their class status.

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