Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Votes for Women?

I've just watched Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant, shown on BBC Four last night at the same time that the England football team were taking on Tunisia at the World Cup.

I wasn't expecting much from the programme, but it managed to be even worse than I thought it would be. The Guardian trumpeted it as an "excellent biography" of the suffragette leader, but it was actually a hagiography, the life of a saint, with gushing pieces to camera replacing any critical analysis of her politics, and almost everything about her presented in a misleading or partial way.

That slipperiness started at the beginning of the programme with Pankhurst described as a working mother from Moss Side, Manchester, which, while strictly true, is misleading given that Moss Side was then home to the prosperous merchant class, as was nearby Chorlton-on -Medlock which she moved to, and become a part-time registrar in to supplement her income from the store which she owned, after the death of her husband, a radical barrister whose sudden demise she learnt of while travelling back by train from a holiday in Switzerland.

You would never know from watching the programme that about a third of men, in particular unskilled workers, didn't have the vote in 1914, because of property qualifications - a number that rose as men who had the vote moved into the army or munitions factories in the First World War (other men had more than one vote as business owners or university graduates, a privilege that wasn't abolished until 1948).

Emmeline Pankhurst was in favour of women being enfranchised on the same basis as men, which would have had added about a million upper and upper middle class women like herself to the electoral register; the acts of petty terrorism which she inspired (setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows) to further that modest demand is what gained her the reputation as a militant compared to other women from the same class background, like Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned with marches and petitions, as well as the working-class men and women who campaigned for universal suffrage (I once saw the play "Tea with Mrs Pankhurst" at the old Independent Labour Party hall in Nelson, Lancashire, in which the main character, the millworker and trade unionist Selina Cooper, delivers the immortal line to her, "You don't want votes for women, you want votes for ladies!").

While Pankhurst started out on the left, joining the ILP in the 1890's, she later moved to the right, enthusiastically supporting the First World War, and in the 1920's putting herself forward as a Conservative parliamentary candidate (unlike her daughter Sylvia, who, along with several other of her former supporters, split from what had essentially become a personality cult around her mother and moved to the left).

None of this though has put Manchester's Labour council off from commissioning a statue of her which will soon be erected in the city centre.

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