Saturday, June 21, 2008

The suffragette times

Saturday 21 June 1908, one hundred years ago today, 200,000-300,000 supporters of the women’s suffragette movement converged on Hyde Park, London. It must have been an important event for the movement, but online I can find no first hand diary reference to it. Although there are a few suffragette diaries, which do shed some light on the movement (a bit too much perhaps), there seems to be a surprising dearth of them in general.

In her biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the time, June Purvis writes about the 21 June demonstration: ‘There were several bands and 700 banners fluttering in the breeze on this brilliantly sunny day, including a banner with the picture of the WSPU leader declaring her to be a Champion of Womanhood Famed For Deeds of Daring Rectitude’. One of the chief speakers was Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter, Christabel, who claimed the demonstration would convince the government that public opinion was on their side. Another speaker, Annie Kenney, a working-class activist from Oldham, said it showed the movement had the support of men as well as women. (There’s some great postcards reproduced on the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, website.)

That day, a century ago, sounds a genteel affair, but the suffragette movement was nothing of the sort. According to Votes for Women: The Virago Book of Suffragettes, ‘it was a bloody and dangerous war lasting several decades, won finally by sheer will and determination in 1928’. By drawing on diary extracts, as well as newspapers, letters, etc. the book’s editor, Joyce Marlow, allows the women themselves to tell the story.

An alternative view of the movement comes from the diaries of Mary Blathwayt. These have not been published but Vanessa Thorpe wrote an article for The Observer a few years ago based on Professor Martin Pugh’s examination of the diaries. The article was titled Diary reveals lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders, and claimed that ‘the complicated sexual liaisons - involving the Pankhurst family and others at the core of the militant organisation - created rivalries that threatened discord’. Pugh believes, the article says, that Christabel was the most classically beautiful of the Pankhurst daughters and was the focus of a rash of ‘crushes’ across the movement, and that she was briefly involved with Mary Blathwayt herself, but was probably supplanted by Annie Kenney.

Many of these trysts apparently took place at the Blathwayt home, Eagle House, near Bath. There is biographical data about Mary Blathwayt in The Woman’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 by Elizabeth Crawford. And there is some information about Eagle House, and some photographs of the women, on the University of West of England website. Blaythwayt’s diary is held by the Gloucestershire Archives

On the other side of the ‘war’ were the anti-suffrage campaigners, such as Alexander MacCallum Scott. He became a Liberal MP in 1910, and during the First World War was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Winston Churchill. In the 1920s, he switched to the Labour Party. In his diaries (1909-1914), held by the University of Glasgow, he frequently discusses his activities as a member of the anti-suffrage committee in the Liberal Party. There is some useful information about MacCallum Scott and his diaries on the university’s Special Collections website.

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