Throughoutthis historiographical essay, the case study I shall be focusing on is how the suffragettes helped womenwin the vote. Historiography is the study of how different historians havestudied an area of academic discipline, and then comparing the different typesof historical research each historian has used to gain their overallunderstanding on the topic1. This helps to see biases and ideologies abouthistorical topics.
The titles I have chosen show how women in the suffragettes campaigneddifferently for the vote and follow a chronological order of publication, to helpsee the order of events towards equality. The titles explore significant pointsin the history of how women gained the vote, from when Mary Smith presented thefirst petition to parliament in 1832, to 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst formedthe Women’s social and political union (WSPU), later known as the suffragettes,the impact of world war 1 starting in 1913, to 1917 when the vote was given towomen over 30 and finally when the amendment of the representation of thepeople act was passed in 1928 which gave all women and men the vote over theage of 21. No Surrender2 waswritten by Constance Maud, who was a pioneering author for the WSPU. The bookwas written at the pinnacle of the fight for the women’s vote, therefore theauthenticity of the novel for the reader is guaranteed. The accuracy of thenovel was also reaffirmed in 1912 when Emily Davison, another significant womanin the fight for the vote stated, – ‘it is a book which breathes the veryspirit of our women’s movement.’ The Novel is based on Fictional characters,but follows real women’s stories in major turning points in their fight to thevote. The lead protagonist, Jenny Clegg is a mill worker, with a life ofdrudgery due to male expectation of her retrospective role as a woman. Howeverdue to a great passion in the Votes for women’s league, her life becomes fullof political activism when she encounters Mary O’Neil, the Mill owner’sdaughter.
The book follows the women’s journey through their fight, with thedreary courtyards where the women await their sentencing, the campaigns wit andbraveness against the working class and men, the planning of protests in cityhigh streets, and finally being ‘political prisoners.’ However, the most distressingsection which shows the reader the truly harrowing extent of what thesuffragettes went through is the brutal details of violence they encountered. Thechapter follows how Mary refused to eat in prison, which led her to be force-fedby prison guards.
The book sensitively portrays the campaigns of thesuffragettes in gaining the vote and gives insights to how women were treatedat the time. However, due to being written before the vote was granted it doesnot give an overview picture of how the vote was won in the end, thereforegives the idea, ‘the end is yet to come,’ and more up to date information isnow available. Similarly, to No Surrender, Sylvia Pankhurst’s partbibliography and part history novel ‘The Suffragette Movement,’3 followsher tormenting experiences of imprisonment, hunger strikes, force feeding andthe cat and mouse act and chronicles of how the suffragettes won the vote againstthe liberal government of the day. It reveals how the advocates of the women’ssuffrage became ‘polarized into mutually antagonistic factions,’ fromconservatives to Sylvia finally becoming a far left political participant. SylviaPankhurst was a revolutionary, feminist, communist and political activist atthe time of women gaining the vote and the book was written just 3 years afterthe Vote was won, concluding it to be a true account of what happened withbroad details. The past memoir and historical novel depicts the strugglesSylvia and her sisters faced when founding the militant organization, theWomen’s social and political union from 1906 to 1914 and when Sylvia broke offfrom this to form the East London Federation of suffragettes in 1914. It showsthe personality clashes within the family and other leaders and groups whofought for the vote- such as the suffragists, who used less forceful methods togain the vote such as peaceful protests.
It explains how the Suffragettemovement gained the phrase ‘Deeds not Words,’ by explaining their radical approachof stone throwing, tying themselves to parliamentary fences, arson and physicalconfrontation with authorities. At the end of the book, she explains how thegovernment finally granted women the vote, however the fight for equality wasstill not won shown through the words, ‘Great is the work which remains to beaccomplished.’ The book is usefulfor the historiographical insight into how the two political parties foughtvery differently to gain the vote as it covers a range of one hundred years andincludes a range of sources such as; letters, News articles and quotations fromspeeches given by the women 4. However,it is bias towards the Pankhurst’s fight and not others that adjoined thestruggle in the suffragettes. An exceptional primary source to gain insight into howthe suffragettes gained the women’s vote is an audio archive published in 1953,of Sylvia Pankhurst talking about her mother’s fight5.The archive describes Emmeline’s first encounter into her strive into gaining asocialist society, was when she joined her husband Richard Pankhurst (anotherleading suffragette supporter) in his bill to gain women the right to ownproperty and widowed Mothers the right to be the legal guardians to theirchildren. After joining the independent labour party, 9 years later, she formedthe Women’s social and political union in 1903, which was then named thesuffragettes, which ‘took whatever steps which might prove necessary, Legal orillegal, to obtain the parliamentary vote for women.” The tape explains of theextreme frustrated efforts Emmeline experiences for half a century, including83 by-elections and contested 90 constituencies in the 1910 elections.
It alsoentails Emmeline’s four imprisonments from six weeks to nine months. The mainadvantage of this source is that it provides memoirs directly from the Pankhurstfamily (an imperative family in the suffragette fight), which will not bedocumented elsewhere, forming its uniqueness. It also portrays the strongemotions in the Pankhurst family, which will stimulate the personal involvementof the reader. However, it also has disadvantages as a primary source, asSylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst were both directly involved in the fight towardswomen’s equality in voting, therefore it is very bias in accounts of whathappened and lacks critical distance. Also, neither Sylvia and Emmeline are nolonger living, thus cannot be referred for authentication on the interspersedfacts involved.
The novel, ‘Unshackled’ by Christabel Pankhurst publishedin 19596 showshow one of the most influential political leaders strode for political andconstitutional liberty by helping win women the vote. It talks of how herfamily set up the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and how shegained a law degree in 1907. It explored the ways in which the militant groupfought for the vote through antagonistic ways which led to her having to fleeto France to avoid arrest until after 1914 when the WSPU agreed to use lessaggressive ways of protest. It then goes on to explore how she founded ‘TheWomen’s Party’ in 1917 which requested; equal pay for work, equal marriage anddivorce laws and a system of maternity benefits amongst many another equalityrights. The difference of this book compared to different historians accountwhich have been explored above, is that it includes information about the Men’sPolitical Union for Women’s Suffrage impact on helping gaining the vote also.It describes of one male participant sliding up a pillar in a politicalconference to display a suffragette banner above two authoritative cabinetministers. The book also uses pictures to show the process of how women won thevote, this can be an advantage as it will engage the reader further and createa visual snapshot of what was happening at the time, leading to further understandingof the topic.
However, it does not allow the reader to see the larger scope ofwhat was happening at the time and different readers may interpret picturesdifferently, so could lead to misleading information. Shoulder to Shoulder, by Midge Mackenzie7, (whowas a well-known film maker and writer during the period of the suffragettesand partnered with the BBC to dramatise the fight for equality through a TVseries and book in 1974), covers the period of the 1890’s to 1919. It particularlyconsiders how the Pankhurst family influenced the suffrage movement such as:Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia and Richard Pankhurst, but does also give abroader view of how the suffragettes helped gain the vote.
Alike the book,Before the vote was won, the book is formed of a range of excerpts fromspeeches, diaries, letters, memoirs, photographs and cartoons from influentialbodies in the political fight. It however strengthens from being full of originalsources that help the reader visualise what happened by documenting pictures ofall the militant protests the suffragettes carried out such as; hunger, thirstand sleep strikes, protests through the streets of downtown London and whenEmily Davison threw herself in front of the Kings horse at the Derby. It haslittle commentary which can be seen as a disadvantage as all readers mayinterpret the events shown in a different way. Before the vote was won: Arguments forand against women’s suffrage by Jane Lewis8 is acollection of articles, papers, speeches and pamphlets which document thearguments of early suffragists in the period of 1864-1896 which is comprisedinto a four-part series.
It follows stories on women in the fight for the votesuch as Lydia Becker, Millicent Garret Fawcett and Elizabeth Wolstoneholme, andportrays their battle against the never-ending hostility from male politicianswho firmly believed a woman’s place was to be at home and raise the childrenthrough a range of sources. The book begins with the first proposal of Women’s enfranchisementin the section, The Womens Journal in 1861, it also includes texts of the 1871House of Commons debate on the Women’s Disabilities Bill and the 1892 Women’sfranchise bill. Another factor which makes this title an outstanding source onhow women won the vote is that it includes sources by those who opposed againstthe suffrage leagues such as Mrs Humphry Ward, John Bright M.
P. and Gladstone. Anotheradvantage of this source is that due to it focusing on the period before theheight of the Pankhurst family, it allows for other perspectives from otherpolitical bodies in the fight for the vote to be heard by the reader, such asMillicent Fawcett who was a political activist in women’s rights for 33 years. However, this book only covers thelast three decades of the nineteenth century and it was another 26 years beforethe vote was won, therefore the book leaves out key information about thebattle for the vote such as the militant, suffragettes and peaceful,suffragists.
The titles in thisessay all use a wide variety of sources to help gain a chronological idea ofhow women in the suffrage parties helped win the vote. The titles includedifferent methods in which women used for equality and even show how men helpedthe suffrage. The titles also allow to see the views of the opposition and whatthe women faced in their battle. However, it can be argued that all the authorsin this historiography essay are female, so therefore may have a sympatheticattitude towards the suffragettes, painting a positive light upon them ingaining the vote, therefore making them the sole reason for gaining the voteand not considering ideas such as the suffragists or World War 1. The Booksincluded in this essay cover the period from when the fight started in 1832 andwhen it was won in 1928- therefore giving the retrospective reader a whole andconclusive historiography of how women won the vote.
Even though as timedevelops and the more historians delve deeper into the struggle of the vote andmore information will come to light, the core information used in these bookswill always be a basis of the topic, Sylvia Pankhurst even wrote in her book that,’successive generations of historians would write and rewrite the story of themovement but her book would, in nature of things, always remain one of theirmajor sources.’9