Emmeline Pankhurst and the White Feather

I was travelling back from a truly wonderful holiday in West Cork – which included a boat trip to Cape Clear, a swim in Lough Ine, a meeting with Elizabeth and her hubby, and the reading of many, many books – when I heard presenter George Hook on his Newstalk radio programme declare himself “a feminist after Emmeline Pankhurst”. I also noticed her name in my twitter feed. Apparently today is the anniversary of her birthday in 1858 and she is celebrated as an icon of feminism.

Given all the hoop-la about Mrs Pankhurst, I am surprised more people aren’t aware of her volte face on woman’s suffrage on the eve of World War I, and that she was a rabidly enthusiastic advocate of handing out the white feather of cowardice to men not in uniform to publicly shame them into joining up.

In my novel White Feathers, Eva, the protagonist, becomes attracted to the nascent feminist movement in London after illicitly attending a mass boycott of the 1911 Census in Wimbledon Common. (The rationale behind this was that if they were not persons under the law, why should women be counted on the census?) She is particularly inspired by one girl who gives a rousing speech and urges Eva not to be a bystander when history moves on. So one can imagine Eva’s shock when, three years later, she is dragged to a meeting of the newly convened Order of the White Feather only to see, among the cheering women, the very girl who had made the speech, now urging her to take a feather or two! and praising Mrs Pankhurst for her encouragement!

So, what happened to change Emmeline Pankhurst’s mind?

In the novel, the internal politics of the feminist movement is played out as a conflict between stepsiblings, Eva and Grace. For the Pankhursts, the origin of the split in the suffragette movement is also a sibling estrangement, between Emmeline’s elder daughter Christabel and the younger, Sylvia.

Of the two sisters (there was another sister and a brother also) Christabel was by far the more violent and extreme in her methods. The eldest, and most domineering, she got herself arrested, went on hunger strike and advocated arson as a means of getting the government’s attention. She also had the ear of her mother in a way the gentler Sylvia did not. Sylvia Pankhurst protested against the focus of the suffragette movement on well-to-do women and wanted more attention given to the plight of those in the working class. Perhaps to Emmeline, who at the age of 53 had courageously endured force-feeding while on hunger strike, Sylvia seemed namby-pamby and bloodless. (And, if her mother knew of Sylvia’s attachment to married politician Keir Hardie, downright immoral.) Either way, when they met in Paris in 1912, Christabel effectively took charge and bullied Sylvia out of any further participation in their suffragette movement, with Emmeline’s approval. In retaliation, Sylvia founded a rival organisation.

The estrangement was to deepen further on the outbreak of war.

The moment war with Germany was declared, Emmeline and Christabel brought all women’s suffrage campaigns to a screeching halt, renamed their magazine The Suffragette to Britannia and became enthusiastic supporters of the White Feather movement, putting themselves in unlikely allegiance with the anti-suffragist Mrs Humphrey Ward, one of the co-founders. Outside the Opera House on September 8, 1914, they handed out white feathers to men out of uniform. Emmeline was vehement, but Christabel was hardcore:

[Christabel Pankhurst] called also for the internment of all people of enemy race, men and women, young and old, found on these shores, and for a more complete and ruthless enforcement of the blockade of enemy and neutral nations. She insisted that this must be “a war of attrition”. She demanded the resignation of Sir Edward Grey, Lord Robert Cecil, General Sir William Robertson and Sir Eyre Crowe, whom she considered too mild and dilatory in method. (from the Wikipedia entry)

To Sylvia, a committed pacifist, Christabel’s rhetoric must have horrified. In a similar manner, Emmeline was offended and disgusted by Sylvia’s opposition to conscription and wrote to her daughter in Australia to tell her she was ashamed of her. The final nail in the coffin for any chance of reconciliation came with Sylvia’s having a child out of wedlock in 1927. According to that child, oops, someone has kindly pointed out to me that Sylvia’s child was called Richard, so according to Emmeline‘s adopted daughter Mary, on the brief meeting between mother and daughter, “Emmeline set her teacup down and walked silently out of the room, leaving Sylvia in tears.” (and me scarlet at my mistaking Emmeline’s daughter for Sylvia’s son, but anyway, moving on!)

Christabel never married and became an evangelist with the Plymouth Brethren.

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