Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Take heart for Mrs Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!"

I never understood that line from Mary Poppins when I was a kid. I didn't know the history or who Mrs Pankhurst was. That film did ensure that I remembered the name though, even if I didn't know why. I found this postcard yesterday (at Ark in Cambrige, which is a shop I love but where I virtually never buy has lots of things I'd love to own but which are ultimately useless). It was probably the prompt for the last post, but I felt it deserved something of its own.

I realised that while I know the basic story - that Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes fought violently for the right of women to vote - I know very little about the woman herself. I found this picture intriguing. Doesn't she look proud? And direct? And elegant and somehow modern? She's looking straight at you, and it's a demanding look. I imagine she must have been a terrible woman to meet. A bit like Margaret Thatcher but if possible even more driven. Her wikipedia article shows how single-minded she was and how much she expected of the people around her, her family and by no means least of herself.

The status quo at the turn of the century was that women were inferior to men, incapable of performing the same tasks as men and fundamentally endowed with fewer mental facilities in the same way that they were physically weaker. Pankhurst's own parents didn't educate their daughters to be more than home-makers - they learnt needlework and music while the boys had the academic education. And from this, she rebelled. Rebelled such that she was arrested and went on hunger strike on numerous occasions. Some suffragettes were force fed, though the wiki article doesn't suggest conclusively that Pankhurst herself was. All around her, people decried both her cause and her methods. And they WERE extreme, but given how many times the women's suffrage bill was presented in Parliament didn't they have to be? And what other ways were there for her to fight? They didn't HAVE the vote, so they couldn't choose to vote for parties that supported their cause, much as black people in America couldn't vote to change things over there. At least people fighting for gay rights can actually use their votes to express their opinions.

It must have seemed an impossible project, to change the minds of those confirmed in a belief that women were second. I would have looked at it, been sad, but not seen anywhere to start with changing it. She, and others like her, did a very great thing. Every woman should be profoundly grateful to all she achieved...we would not be where we are now without them.

I'm going to try and do more reading...talking to Elaine last night, I found out she had *taught* a *course* on British history at the turn of the I have a Queens Belfast approved reading list. I will be breaking into the History and English Faculties as soon as I establish when they're open in the holidays. I might even look in to whether I can get readers' rights in the UL.


  1. Give me a shout if you want me to get something out of the UL for you


  2. Good post. You're right, we have a lot to thank her, and others like her, for. Being a rebel is easy. Being a useful rebel is a serious achievement.

    Love the post cards too. Especially the "cute" one and the well behaved women one.