Tuesday, 22 December 2015

What would Sylvia Pankhurst make of the Suffragette film? Part One

In England, at the end of the nineteenth century, women, in legal terms, barely existed. Under a system known as ‘coverture’, they were the property of their father until they passed, when they married, to being the property of their husband. Their own property immediately became than of their husband and they were not allowed to enter into contracts. Until 1891, a husband had the legal right to kidnap and imprison his wife. Most careers were automatically disbarred to women. They also could not vote.

In short, society was so thoroughly patriarchical and sexist to a degree scarcely believable today.

It in this context that the rise of the female suffrage movement must be understood. Getting the vote was seen as symbolising and facilitating many other changes, such as legal independence, the right to divorce, to be educated and pursue a career. Sarah Gavron’s film, Suffragette, is about one strand of the women’s suffrage movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), aka the Suffragettes. In particular, it is about the campaign of violence they resorted to, comprising arson, setting post boxes ablaze and window-breaking, when legal means of extending the vote were frustrated. It is also about the state repression they endured in response; the mass imprisonment and force-feeding. The films ends in 1913, when one suffragette, Emily Davison, ran out in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and was killed.


But British society just before the First World War was not just patriarchical, it was also riven by class. About 80% of society was working class, and the lower element of that stratum, the unskilled working class lived in appalling conditions (In 1914, British army conscripts were on average five inches shorter than their officers). They undertook arduous and dangerous jobs without any unemployment benefits, old age pensions or compensation for industrial injuries which were a perennial hazard. There was no health service. What there was, however, was a distinct working class culture. Working class areas were marked by their own clubs, libraries, choirs and nurseries. And there were also two elements completely absent today: resistance to the way the economy was organised inside factories and solidarity with others in the same boat.

The problem with Suffragette is that its overwhelming concentration on one facet of Edwardian society – its patriarchy – leads it to misrepresent the other element, class. In fact, its treatment of class borders on the dishonest.

Pandering to widespread ignorance, the film gives the strong impression that the Suffragettes wanted the vote for all women and that all men could already vote, neither of which is true. At the time, because of property qualifications, only around 60% of men were allowed to vote, a proportion which dropped to under half in working class areas such as the East End of London where much of Suffragette is set. The WSPU – with the exception of one notable member - never wavered from aspiring to the vote for women ‘on the same terms as men’, meaning that a similar number of women would still have been disenfranchised had the government caved in to its demands. Mary MacArthur of the Women’s Trade Union League claimed in 1913 that less than 5 per cent of her members would have got the vote, had the Suffragettes been successful.

But Suffragette declines to confront this issue which was very real at the time. And in choosing to concentrate on a fictional working class suffragette, Maud Adams, who works in a laundry in the East End of London, the film completely parts company with historical reality. Although the WSPU did attract working class members in its early days, it was always dominated by upper middle class women and, as shown by its opposition to universal suffrage, had a distinct bias against working class activism. “It is not the toiling mother, the sweated worker … who can bear the strain and stress of the battle we are fighting for women’s deliverance today,” wrote one leading Suffragette in 1908.

One stand-out scene in the film has Maud’s husband, Sonny, sneeringly ask her, after she has become deeply immersed in the Suffragette movement, ‘What would you do with the vote if you got it?’

‘The same as you as I suppose,’ she replies.

Come again? That sound you can hear is a needle being abruptly snatched off a record. The problem with this conversation is that it never would have happened in reality. As an unskilled working class male, Sonny himself, in this immensely patriarchical society, would still have been disenfranchised. In turn, Maud, as a fully unpaid-up member of the bottom 40% of society, would have remained voteless even assuming the WSPU’s campaign had swept all before it. ‘What would you do with the vote if you got it?’ was a question they both could have asked themselves.


What is historically much more plausible is that they would have been drawn to the syndicalist-inspired trade union movement which exploded in Britain, and across the world, in the very years – 1912 and 1913 – that Suffragette takes place. In 1912, 41 million days were lost to strikes, compared to less than less than half a million now. In 1920, future foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, described this as “a period which, if the war had not broken out, would have, I believe, seen one of the greatest industrial revolts the world ever had seen.” But this was not just an outbreak of industrial militancy. It was marked, firstly, by solidarity; the organisation of workers irrespective of their occupation - an aspiration, originating with the American Industrial Workers of the World, for ‘one big union’. But also, by the revolutionary belief that work should be organised democratically. “Every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry … leaving to the men themselves to determine under what conditions and how, the work shall be done,” proclaimed a famous document from the Welsh miners’ union.

But not only does Suffragette fail to make even the faintest nod to this movement (the non-suffragette working class are portrayed as either boorish, abusive or in hoc to monarchism), it elides the splits within the suffragette movement itself. There is one cursory reference to Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s (Meryl Steep in the film) daughter who undertook a political and economic journey the WSPU never dared to. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the WSPU’s most passionate members, imprisoned and force fed numerous times, but she was nonetheless expelled in 1914 for not taking instructions and ‘walking in step.’

East London Suffragettes

Sylvia Pankhurst had by that time formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), which intentionally organised among working class women in the East End of the capital. In fact, her real crime, in the eyes of her mother and sister, was to oppose the WSPU’s campaign of small-scale violence in favour of working with working class women. Thus Maud Adams, an East End laundry worker was, contrary to Suffragette, far more likely to have been in the ELFS than the mainstream WSPU. The ELFS, unlike the WSPU, was committed to universal suffrage, not votes for women ‘on the same terms as men’. But it was coming of the First World War that really exposed the chasm that existed with the conservative WSPU. The WSPU instantly backed the war, demanded conscription and changed the name of its newspaper to Britannia. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst contributed to the war effort by handing out white feathers to men who they thought should have been fighting at the front (irony alert – many of the soldiers who did volunteer and were later drafted, were not entitled to vote).

Sylvia Pankhurst’s ELFS, by contrast, was opposed to war, which in the midst of an outbreak of mass jingoism took some bravery, and represented the interests of working class women whose lives were turned upside. Their husbands were frequently whisked away in a matter of hours leaving them with several children to feed and they were exploited in official sweat shop factories. The ELFS opposed rent and food price hikes and evictions and arranged deputations of women to put their case to the Prime Minister. It also set up cut price restaurants and a toy factory, which would nowadays be called a social enterprise. In March 1916, the ELFS, tellingly (and democratically), changed its name to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation and explicitly backed ‘human suffrage’.

But they were alone in that stance. When in 1916 the government indicated it was finally willing to extend the franchise after the war was over, women’s suffrage societies met to consider their response. Most were still in favour of a limited franchise for women based on a property qualification. Sylvia Pankhurst berated them as ‘comfortable middle class women’.

Human Suffrage

In the ELFS newspaper, The Women’s Dreadnought, Sylvia Pankhurst, criticised suffragists and suffragettes alike for refusing “to set themselves free to say that universal suffrage must be introduced for all, and hold, instead, to the merely negative course of opposing universal suffrage for men until women are enfranchised. “The suffrage question,” she went on “can never be disposed of until the entire adult population is enfranchised.” This eventually happened in 1928.

Here is a trailer for a recent documentary about Sylvia Pankhurst:


Meanwhile, the WSPU, transformed itself, at the end of 1917 into the short-lived Women’s Party. The party proclaimed itself in favour of “equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits.” It also campaigned for a fight to the finish with Germany, the expulsion of those with “enemy blood” from government departments and the abolition of trade unions no less.

If one family embodied the Suffragettes it was the Pankhursts. But while Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst gravitated to the Conservative party, Sylvia eventually became a council communist, an anti-Leninist political current similar to syndicalism. The contrast could not have been starker.

Here is part two

1 comment:

  1. The more you dig into the historical record, you more you realise that the central contention of the film Suffragette - that working class women played a big role in the WSPU and were made welcome - is grossly wrong. In 1906 a group of unemployed women formed the Canning Town branch of the WSPU. According to Shirley Harrison, author of 'Sylvia Pankhurst, The Rebellious Suffragette', 'from the beginning they were ignored by Christabel and Emmeline [Pankhurst]'. At WSPU demonstrations, they were told #to keep in the back ground' - Katherine Connelly, 'Sylvia Pankhurst, Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire'. In the same book, we learn that when the Great Unrest hit and men and women went on strike in their thousands, the women joined the National Federation of Women Workers. The WSPU made not attempt to recruit them and maintained that they militancy was vastly superior to 'male' industrial unrest.