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Seven books about suffragettes

I’m not above shilling the movie tie-in book, especially when the movie is “Suffragette,” which opened on Friday. Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter star as foot soldiers in the fight for women’s right to vote, with Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the movement’s militant wing. The film is inspired by Pankhurst’s 1914 memoir, “My Own Story” (Vintage, 2015). Ghosted by American muckraker Rheta Childe Dorr (she took dictation from Pankhurst, who hated writing, while they crossed the Atlantic by steamer), it offers a riveting — if airbrushed — portrait of the icon and the cause. Mulligan stands staunch on the cover. Behind her glow the suffragette tricolors: purple for dignity, white for purity, green for hope.

How hard it was to keep hope green. “We have been ridiculed, battered, and ignored,” as Pankhurst thunders in the movie. “I incite women in Britain to rebellion!” There seemed no other choice but incitement. Every year since 1867, suffragists had brought Parliament a petition to extend votes to women, and each time, MPs stalled, misled, and lied. The full vote wouldn’t be won until 1928. “Suffragette” is the first film ever allowed to shoot on location at Parliament. I’m glad, but that doesn’t even the score.


Oh, how we take for granted our modern privileges! At the time, a woman couldn’t own any property of her own or keep her children if she divorced; half the world’s citizens had no legislative chance to change their fate. As Pankhurst declared in Glasgow in 1914: “Women have ample justification, nay, have greater justification, for revolution and rebellion, than ever men have had in the whole history of the human race.”

The daughter of abolitionists and a suffragist since age 12, Pankhurst’s life drastically changed when she was widowed in 1898, left to raise four children in Manchester. She took a job as a poor law guardian, one of the few positions open to women; they oversaw inspection of homes where illegitimate babies were sent when their mothers were forced to the work houses. If the birth father paid less than a lump sum of 20 pounds, the house needn’t be inspected, and many of the children died from negligence. Wrote Pankhurst: “I thought I had been a suffragist before I became a Poor Law Guardian, but now I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity.”


In 1902, she heard Susan B. Anthony speak. Galvanized, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Other suffragist organizations had long existed, but Pankhurst felt they were naïve, spread too thin. The WSPU would be single-minded, “an army in the field,” she said. To join you only had to pay a shilling — and pledge not to work for any other political party. Meanwhile, she modeled her tactics after Charles Stewart Parnell’s for Irish Home Rule; namely, you mercilessly sabotage the party in power until they’re voted out. Then you help them regain power — if they help you. As the movie shows, this involves disruption of parliamentary debate and campaign rallies (a young Winston Churchill was a prime target), vandalism, imprisonment, bombings, arson, and, most infamously, hunger strikes.

Meryl Streep, as Pankhurst, seems so unimpeachable. But “The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family” (Allen Lane, 2001) tells a grittier story. Author Martin Pugh focuses especially on the estrangement between mother and two of her three activist daughters; Emmeline favors Christabel (who runs the WSPU newspaper “Votes for Women”), but marginalizes Sylvia, who founded the socialist East London Federation, and Adela, who joins the cause in Scotland and then Australia. Adela comes to believe militancy alienates in the provinces, and is thus ineffective. This does not go over well. “[I]t was the family attitude — Cause First and human relations — nowhere . . . if (Emmeline) had been tolerant and broadminded, she would not have been the leader of the suffragettes.”


In the movie, Carter’s character is named Edith, an homage to the WSPU’s Edith Garrud, an expert on ju-jitsu who formed a club-wielding bodyguard to protect Pankhurst and taught self-defense to the ranks. Thus “Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons” (Jet City Comics, 2015), a sharply original graphic novel trilogy by Tony Wolf and Joao Vieira. Like the movie, it features fictional composites. And it gives an electrifying treatment to various pivotal events, i.e., that 1914 Pankhurst speech in Glasgow. The bodyguards had hidden barbed wire in the flower bouquets on stage, which snagged the police when they tried to stop Pankhurst from speaking. In front of 4,000 people, 30 suffragettes and 50 policemen brawled upon the stage. Talk about graphic. And novel.

It’s a mistake, however, to subsume the movement to the Pankhursts. A broader account unfurls in Frank Meeres’s “Suffragettes: How Britain’s Women Fought & Died for the Right to Vote” (Amberley, 2013). Here we meet many other players, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (she is depicted, harrowingly, in the movie). Then there’s Millicent Fawcett, president of the more moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). One of Fawcett’s own early radicalizing moments came when her handbag was stolen at Waterloo Station. Down at the precinct, the crime was recorded as theft of property of Henry Fawcett (her husband!). Only getting the vote could get women rights. As some said, they were SuffraGETtes, with a hard g. More wordplay: Politically supportive men were called “suffragents.” I also learned that, without representation, some suffragettes refused to pay taxes or be listed in the census (one photo shows many sequestered in a house away from the counters).


In America, the movement moved in all sorts of unpredictable ways — women first got the vote in the Wyoming Territory in 1869, though not fully, nationally, until 1920 — and so here’s an unpredictable pair of books. The first is Margot McMillen’s “The Golden Lane: How Missouri Women Gained the Vote and Changed History’’ (History Press, 2011) Just as Anthony inspired Pankhurst, so Pankhurst inspired Florence Usher, the founder of the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis; after Pankhurst speechifies in the city, Usher too wants to “kick up a row.” The Brits had purple, green, and white; over here it was all golden yellow, a vestige of the Kansas suffrage campaign (the hue alluded to its state flower, the sunflower). Thus the golden lane, where thousands of women, adorned with yellow sashes and yellow parasols, lined the St. Louis streets outside the 1916 Democratic presidential convention. And so they pressured the men inside to get women’s suffrage on their platform.


Now I’ll turn to Sally G. McMillen’s “Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life” (Oxford, 2015), partly because Stone has gotten less press than Anthony, and I admire her refusal to decry post-Civil War black suffrage as less worthy than female suffrage. (Anthony, alas, comes off racist on this front). Stone was also against temperance, partly for realpolitik reasons; brewers and publicans vehemently fought women’s suffrage; they thought if women got the vote, women would push Prohibition. Finally, with personal attacks arrowing her daily life, Stone’s steadfastness amazes: “It is because I have this quiet faith in the certain triumph of the right, that I am entirely undisturbed by anything which venom and ill nature can do.”

That “certain triumph of the right” has been fitful, as I discerned from “Women & the Vote: A World History” (Oxford, 2014) by Jad Adams. The first country to gain women’s suffrage was New Zealand in 1893, and a hundred nations only got it after World War II — shockingly, it took until 1990 for the last canton in Switzerland to allow women to vote. More revelations: After Wyoming, the Utah Territory gave women the franchise, though cynics think it was because polygamous husbands could tell their wives how to vote. And how counterintuitive that many radicals were anti-suffrage; they feared homebody females would vote conservative.

All modern feminists know that the vote, tremendous as it is, and was, is only the start of winning our rights. So I’ll end by quoting Pankhurst again, in words that work for life and movies: “We must act, and go on acting.”

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.