20th century / Humanities / Interviews

An Interview with June Purvis: The Demonisation of the Suffragettes

By Sophie Dowle.

I remember being fascinated by the suffragettes from a young age, devouring the ‘My Story’ book about a girl who joins the movement, and reading as many books as I could get my hands on (that weren’t beyond an eight-year-old’s reading ability). Something struck me about the narratives I was reading; the suffragists, with their peaceful methods of protest, were presented as preferable to the dangerous and violent suffragettes. And Emily Davison, who was dismissed as “crazed” or an outcast, often bore the brunt of the disapproval.

It is clear to me now that many of the writers of the books I was reading were shocked by the notion of women using violent methods of protest, thereby helping to perpetuate the narrative that women should be peaceful and timid.

June Purvis

My interest in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain continues to this day, and it was this that inspired me to talk to June Purvis, Emeritus Professor of Women’s and Gender History at the University of Portsmouth, author of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, and a historical advisor for the feature film Suffragette.

“The history of the suffragette movement has, until recently, mainly been written by men and through a ‘masculinist’ male gaze that assumes that ‘man’ is the universal category and that the suffragette was a deviant even dangerous aberration from the male norm,” June Purvis explained to me. “Thus suffragettes, campaigning for their democratic right for the vote, were usually presented as mannish, hysterical, weak in political understanding and exhibitionist in their tactics.  Some historians have even called them ‘terrorists’.   Although definitions of terrorism tend to be broad and complicated, they usually involve attacks upon/killing of innocent people.”

“It is important to remember that the suffragettes killed no one.  From 1912, after seven years of largely peaceful unsuccessful agitation for the parliamentary vote for women, the suffragettes engaged in attacks upon property, not people.  Both Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel, co-leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), frequently emphasised that no human life was to be endangered.  ‘Human life for us is sacred’, Emmeline told one audience in 1913, a command that was still vividly remembered by one aged suffragette in the 1960s, Mary Leigh.  ‘Mrs. Pankhurst gave us strict instructions … there was not a cat or a canary to be killed: no life.’”

An account frequently expounded by those who disapprove of the suffragettes revolves around the idea that peaceful protest would have been just as effective, and would have put fewer people in danger. They heavily criticise the maxim ‘deeds, not words.’ However, June Purvis argues that deeds were an essential progression in the campaign. “Women had been engaging in peaceful campaigning in Britain from the 1860s for the parliamentary vote for their own sex.   By 1903, when Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel founded the women-only WSPU, the vote had still not been won.  So in 1905, the impatient and disillusioned Christabel, the key strategist and Chief Organiser of the WSPU, decided that women had to be more assertive and adopt ‘unladylike’ methods, such as heckling MPs, going into the streets on deputations to parliament.  Christabel believed that women had to grow their own backbone, stand up for their own democratic rights, not beg or grovel.  This approach – together with eye-catching stunts – made the topic of votes for women discussed in every household in the land.  The suffragette movement helped women to become more independent, more able to stand up for themselves, more self-respecting.”

This buzz was essential in pushing the agenda for women’s votes forwards and into the

Emily Davison

public sphere. Emily Davison’s act of martyrdom was a deed that stood out from the rest. It captured the imagination of people at the time, and continues to be debated to this day.  I asked June Purvis why she’s so often portrayed negatively and whether she achieved anything through her sacrifice.

“It is usually male historians writing from a masculinist perspective who represent her as ‘crazed’.  Yet her first biographer, Gertrude Coleman, writing in 1913 presented no such image.  Nor do present day feminist historians.  The clever Emily Wilding Davison, with a London University degree in classics and mathematics, was not only level-headed, kind and likeable – but also a risk-taker.  When she stepped onto the race course on Derby day, the 4th June 1913, trying to grab the reins of the King’s horse, she knew the consequences could be fatal.  And they were.  She never recovered consciousness and died from her injuries, four days later.  It was not, in my view, a ‘suicide’ in the ordinary meaning of the term since she risked her life to save her hunger-striking comrades in prison from the torture of any further forcible feeding.  Emily was a deeply committed Anglican who always kept a Bible by her bed and said very long prayers each night.  Suicide would have meant that she could not be buried in consecrated ground – something that most present day historians have overlooked.”

Perhaps the changing and developing narrative of the suffragettes – from dangerous and unstable to educated and careful – is an illustration of the changes history is underwent in a wider context. As June Purvis explains: “History has mainly been written by men about men’s activities – in business, politics, war, diplomacy, courts, administration.  It was this bias that feminist historians in both the USA and the UK challenged in the late 1960s.  As they sat in women’s consciousness raising groups that were a key aspect of the Second Wave Feminism they asked – where are our foremothers?  Women were largely invisible in history and, when present, represented as relative to men: as wives, lovers, sisters, daughters.  The task for these Second Wave feminist historians was not only to make women visible, where they had been hidden in history, but to represent women in their own right, as actors in history.”

One thought on “An Interview with June Purvis: The Demonisation of the Suffragettes

  1. Reblogged this on Al Musaafira and commented:
    Today is the 103rd anniversary of Emily Davison’s death. I interviewed June Purvis on Emily Davison’s impact on the Suffragette movement and portrayals of women who protest.

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