Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The WSPU Hierarchy

In the early days of socialism in Britain, several attractive young women, helped their political careers by having affairs with older men who were also senior figures in the Labour Party. It is disturbing that some of my political heroes abused their position by seducing young followers. These women were often extremely talented and in the cases of Barbara Castle, Ellen Wilkinson and Jennie Lee, they would have had no trouble getting to the top if they had been men.




Is it possible that the same thing happened with the women’s movement? In 1907 some leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan were having too much influence over the organisation. In the autumn of 1907, about seventy members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL).




After women’s suffrage was achieved, some members of the breakaway group began to argue that there were other factors in this decision. For example, Teresa Billington-Greig, spoke of how some leaders of the WSPU had unhealthy emotional attachments with other members. She named Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenny as members who suffered from this tendency. It is assumed that Billington-Greig was referring to the fact that these three women were lesbians. Although she does not mention it, the other two main financial supporters of the WSPU, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan, were also lesbians.



Emmeline Pankhurst was also involved in a lesbian relationship with Ethel Smythe, at the time of the breakaway (her husband had died in 1898). Throughout her life Christabel Pankhurst never had a sexual relationship with a man. According to her biographer, Martin Pugh, Christabel first became involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage after becoming very close to the lesbian lovers, Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, while studying at Manchester University in 1901.




The WSPU was not formed until 1903. Two years later Annie Kenney, a factory worker from Oldham, heard Christabel Pankhurst speak on the subject of women's rights. They fell in love almost immediately and Christabel arranged for Annie to live with her in London. Over the next couple of years they were inseparable. In 1905 they became the first members of the WSPU to go to prison.


Annie Kenney appears to have an amazing impact on other women. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan all spoke of falling in love with her the first time they met her. Teresa Billington-Greig claimed that Annie was "emotionally possessed by Christabel". However, Mary Blathwayt, who spent a lot of time with Annie during this period argued that it was Annie who was the dominating personality as she had a "wonderful influence over people".


Teresa Billington-Greig has argued that Annie was also very close to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. "It is true that there was an immediate and strong emotional attraction between Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney... indeed so emotional and so openly paraded that it frightened me. I saw it as something unbalanced and primitive and possibly dangerous to the movement."

Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003), has argued that Annie Kenney had a series of romantic attachments with other suffragettes: "The relationship (with Christabel Pankhurst) would be mirrored, though never matched in its intensity, by a number of later relationships between Annie and other suffragettes. The extent of their physical nature has never been revealed, but it is certain that in some sense these were romantic attachments. One historian who argues that Annie must have had sexual feelings for other women adds that lesbianism was barely recognised at the time. Such relationships, even when they involved sharing beds, excited little comment."

However, a recently discovered diary has shown that these were sexual relationship. This unpublished diary belonged to Mary Blathwayt, a leading financial backer of the WSPU and up to now, someone who has been virtually ignored by historians. Blathwayt, used her home, Eagle House near Batheaston, as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from being in prison.

Mary Blathwayt recorded in her diary that Annie Kenney had intimate relationships with at least ten members of the WSPU. Blathwayt records in her diary that she slept with Annie in July 1908. Soon afterwards she exhibits jealousy with the comments that "Miss Browne is sleeping in Annie's room now." The diary suggests that Annie was sexually involved with both Christabel Pankhurst and Clara Codd. Blathwayt wrote on 7th September 1910 that "Miss Codd has come to stay, she is sleeping with Annie." Codd's autobiography, So Rich a Life (1951) confirms this account. The historian, Martin Pugh, points out that "In the diary Kenney appears frequently and with different women. Almost day by day Mary says she is sleeping with someone else."


Clare Mordan, who never went to prison, but who was one of the WSPU main financial backers, also spent a lot of time at Eagle House. It seems that some women could buy themselves into what appears to have become a “love nest”. Mary’s father, Colonel Linley Blathwayt, a retired army officer, motivation for allowing these women to live in his house, also raises interesting questions. He built a summer-house in the grounds of the estate that was called the "Suffragette Rest". He was an amateur photographer and took portrait photographs of the women. These were then signed and sold at WSPU bazaars. Maybe he also took some other kinds of photographs. According to historians of pornography, photographs of women together were in great demand and could be sold at a very high price.


Annie Kenney admitted in her autobiography that suffragettes developed a different set of values to other women at the time: "The changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no one to say what we should do or what we should not do, no family ties, we were free and alone in a great brilliant city, scores of young women scarcely out of their teens met together in a revolutionary movement, outlaws or breakers of laws, independent of everything and everybody, fearless and self-confident."

The reason why Teresa Billington-Greig complained about these lesbian relationships was that she felt it was damaging the movement. It was argued that women were promoted to the leadership of the WSPU because of their lesbianism. For example, when Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, Annie Kenney was put in charge of operations in England. When Kenney was imprisoned the post went to her lover and flat-mate, Rachael Barrett. She was replaced by Grace Roe, who had been the lover of both Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney.



After the First World War the WSPU women became more open about their sexuality. After the war Rachel Barrett lived with her lover Ida Wylie, a novelist and short story writer. Both women were close friends of Radclyffe Hall and gave her support during the obscenity trial following the publication of her lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall lost the case and all copies of the novel were destroyed.

Two other members of the WSPU, Edith Craig (the daughter of the actress Helen Terry) and Christabel Marshall, had lived together for fifteen years. In 1916 they were joined by Clare Atwood where they formed a permanent ménage à trois. Her biographer, Katharine Cockin, has pointed out that Marshall wrote they "achieved independence within their intimate relationships... working respectively in the theatre, art, and literature, drew creative inspiration and support from each other."