Sylvia Pankhurst: The Rebellious Suffragette by Shirley Harrison
29th Oct 2012
Her unwavering, lifelong commitment to social reform testified to her clear revolutionary vision.
Like her mother, Sylvia was a committed suffragette and between 1913 and 1921, she was arrested fifteen times, enduring the evils of force-feeding and embarking on a great number of hunger, sleep and thirst strikes to advocate a better world for women.
Whenever I read anything about the Pankhursts and the women’s suffrage movement, I’m left with a mixture of awe, inspiration and gratitude. Largely, this biography of Sylvia Pankhurst (which has a foreword by her son, the academic Richard Pankhurst) has a similar impact.
Predominantly, biographer Shirley Harrison offers hard facts and the result is that Sylvia Pankhurst: The Rebellious Suffragette often reads like a textbook.
There’s a place for this kind of work, but her portrayal of Sylvia sometimes lacks the human touch. It comes to life when Harrison interweaves her narrative with Sylvia’s own words in the form of letters or poetry, especially those to Sylvia’s beloved Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP.
Harrison’s portrait of Sylvia’s mother Emmeline doesn’t receive the same objective treatment. The book’s premise is that, much to the disappointment of her mother, Sylvia’s fight against oppression ‘was not just limited to the cause of Votes for Women’ – cue the title The Rebellious Suffragette.
It’s true that Sylvia’s commitment to social reform was far-reaching, but Harrison seems to set the two women against each other, slighting Emmeline’s ‘narrower goal’ of Votes for Women and citing it as the main reason for tension between mother and daughter.
Throughout the book, Emmeline is portrayed in an unfavourable light. The publication sales copy states that Emmeline called Sylvia ‘a scarlet woman’ for giving birth out of wedlock.
Don’t take this as read – apparently, a neighbour overheard this – but even if Emmeline wrote this to Sylvia in a letter with her own hand, is it relevant information when we look at the context? We’re talking about a woman whose life’s work won women the vote.
For me, Harrison’s text doesn’t fully recognise the vital nature of Emmeline’s sole dedication to Votes for Women. Harrison states that although Sylvia gave press reports of the poor conditions inside women’s prisons, Emmeline didn’t do so; ‘for her, the suffering of prisoners was an unwelcome distraction’ from the Votes for Women agenda.
Due the general negativity surrounding Harrison’s portrayal of Emmeline, these statements read like a criticism of Emmeline’s decision, depicting a woman who lacked compassion. Some, however, consider Emmeline’s decision to have been a strategic move that recognised the need to retain an undiluted agenda in order to succeed in Parliament. Emmeline’s view was that social change would come from the vote.
I’ve never said this before, but I can understand The Daily Mail’s interpretation of events; in Jane Shilling’s review, she comments that ‘Emmeline seems to have been a ghastly mother.’ Harrison’s agenda does seem to be that she must, at least in part, communicate Emmeline’s apparent failings as a mother and a human being.
Whether this was the case or not, Harrison is unable to fully uphold these claims with credible evidence and this agenda weakens her central aim – that of writing an objective historical account of Sylvia Pankhurst. It’s unfortunate because in the main, Harrison is successful in her work on Sylvia.
The Rebellious Suffragette is a worthy companion for study and for gaining a detailed overview of Sylvia’s life, but like all historical accounts, this book is interpretive. It shouldn’t be considered definitive, but should instead be absorbed as part of a journey to learn more about this incredible woman, her dynamic family and their life’s work.
Recommended for: Historians and students