Books: Sisters Who Did It for All Women; the Ascent of Woman - A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It. by Melanie Phillips (Little Brown, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Monica Foot
Byline: Monica Foot
Most of us have a cursory and highly dramatic image of the suffragettes.
Rabid hordes of enraged women breaking windows in Oxford Street with hammers hidden in smart muffs. Fragile Mrs Pankhurst, beautiful and haunted in a dark veil being bodily lifted by a burly and, no doubt, simple, copper. Devoted working class acolytes. Composer Dame Ethel Smyth conducting her fellow prisoners in the suffragette anthem, through the bars of her cell, using her toothbrush. All building to a momentum, halted by the First World War, which, post-war, led to a grateful nation, mindful of all the patriotic war work of women, finally conceding the franchise, leading to the forward march for women's rights.
The reality is different, as outlined in this study by journalist Melanie Phillips, who brings to her work a breadth of knowledge and a depth of understanding which illuminates the infinitely complex and intermittent road to votes for women in this country.
Her study begins in the second half of the 18th century when women began to agitate for education and to resent the 'angel in the home/sunbeam in the house' role which they were expected to fill.
'Once women began to look outside their own drawing rooms, they were bound to revolt against their own decorative futility. Limited though this may seem today, in the context of the times it had radical potential . . . even women who were devout Christians and believed women were naturally subordinate to men wanted to be better educated in order to become better companions to their husbands'.
The struggle for the vote began as a search for a voice that must be heard. And, argued some, it was a fight for 'the restoration of civic rights enjoyed in earlier times . . . women had been burgesses in ancient boroughs and the female burgesses of Tamworth were recorded in the Domesday Book. It was the 17th-century Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke who had denied women the right to the parliamentary franchise . . . only unmarried women could vote . . . a married woman was not a person in the eyes of the law'.
Clearly, such a situation could not hold. But the struggle was to be hard and long and to involve many sung and unsung heroines and a handful of heroes.
As women began to leave the drawing room they became involved, first of all, in their local church. This in turn led on to good works - philanthropy - which of its nature brought them into contact with hardship, poverty, injustices and such.
Mrs Pankhurst herself was much influenced by becoming a Poor Law Guardian in Charlton, where she showed 'statesman-like powers of analysis and exposed corruption and incompetence among the workhouse staff'. …