A WOMAN HERO WHO DESERVES MORE HONOURS: EMMELINE PANKHURST (AND MERYL STREEP…)

I’ve read back to back Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892) and Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoirs My Own Story (1914), just by chance. The first page of her volume already shows how closely connected both books are, for Pankhurst (1858-1928) was the daughter of British activists and she writes that “Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words slavery and emancipation.” The American Civil War was her childhood school in civic values and she learned from the cause of the slaves what the cause of women needed.

Pankhurst (née Goulden, in Manchester) not only enjoyed the good luck of having illustrated parents that educated her in the struggle to achieve justice for women, but also the good luck of marrying a staunch feminist man, barrister Richard Pankhurst (24 years her senior). He was himself very active in the fight for women’s suffrage. A widow and a mother of five children –two of whom, Christabel and Sylvia became famous suffragettes on her own– Emmeline founded in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Led by Emmeline, suffragettes ran a ten-year campaign in favour of votes for women that today would be described as ‘low intensity terrorism’ (or kale borroka…) and which took many of them to prison (including men). Their hunger strikes were broken by methods that can plainly be described as torture. When WWI broke out, the WSPU stopped its guerrilla warfare (against property, never persons) to support the Government. Women were rewarded in 1918 for their efforts with the vote for those over 30. Those over 21 should have to wait until 1928, the year Pankhurst died, when women finally enjoyed equal franchise rights with men.

Pankhurst was included by Time Magazine in their list Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century (1999). She has been honoured in many other ways. However, as I read My Own Story and found myself appalled by the intensity of the misogynistic policies of the Liberal Party in power and of so many men during the suffragettes’ campaign, I wondered why Pankhurst’s political activism does not have a more prominent public profile. The word ‘suffragette’ does not bring the word ‘heroism’ to mind, but quaint photos of ladies in 1900s hour-glass dresses arrested by moustachioed policemen. In contrast, the IRA hunger strikes, not so different from what Pankhurst’s women endured and perhaps even milder, are regarded as the stuff heroes are made of (see Steve McQueen’s film on Bobby Sands, Hunger [2008]).

Ironically, as I wondered when someone would think of making a biopic of Pankhurst’s life, one had already started filming. According to Screen (February 19), Meryl Streep is to play Mrs. Pankhurst in a film scripted by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011, with Streep as Thatcher). Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) directs. The film is called Suffragette and it is not quite a biopic but a story focused on a young woman in the movement, played by Carey Mulligan.

I was going to write that, happily, Streep did not win an Oscar this year for playing the bitter matriarch of August: Osage Country, as she has better chances for next year. Yet, I’m not quite sure at all that a film with that title and written by someone who simply could not deal adequately with Margaret Thatcher is good news. I read elsewhere, I cannot find where…, that Streep is quite worried about what kind of accent Pankhurst, a Mancunian partly educated in France, spoke with. In the end, Suffragette runs the risk of reducing Pankhurst down to a challenge for brilliant Meryl Streep, which is by no means what Pankhurst deserves.

Also, though I’ll sound quite a misogynistic note here, the film is in the hands of a woman director and a woman screen writer, which means that it will be seen as a woman’s film and will fail, as usual, to attract a large male audience. I still haven’t seen Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and written by herself and Pam Katz, and I don’t want to be unfair really. Yet, how come that already in the 21st century women heroes are still deemed to be women’s concerns?

One of the aspects that I have enjoyed when reading My Own Story is the evidence that many men, beginning with Richard Pankhurst, were active in the women’s suffrage cause. Emmeline describes brutal misogyny resulting in actual verbal and physical assault but she also names many acts of resistance to these shameful policies coming from men. In the end, men also fought their own struggle to give women the vote against other men (the recalcitrant patriarchs). I do hope that Suffragette does not forget to address the descendants of the pro-suffrage men in the audience for we need them (more than Streep needs another Oscar).

As for Emmeline, the best homage you can pay is reading My Own Story (614 downloads from Gutenberg, in contrast to the 15,690 for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).

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