The Gladstones and the Pankhursts by Rachel Holmes

The Gladstones and the Pankhursts by Rachel Holmes

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18/11/2015: Gladstone Library.

RH notebook entry:

Glads and Panks - Family affairs (British political).

GOM on women’s suffrage? Militant Suffragette uprising – force-feeding – torture – cat&mouse - Herb Glad Jnr Home Sec. Individualism & communalism. Radical liberalism & feminism. Ism schism. 

I’ve spent the day dusting off the historical connections between the Gladstones and the Pankhursts. These legendary British political families didn’t exactly have reciprocal dinner parties or exchange Christmas cards, but for the best part of two generations, they catalyzed each other’s lives. 

Unexpectedly, William Ewart Gladstone may have been the spark that lit the flame between Emmeline Goulden and ‘Dr’ Richard Pankhurst.  Like many Radical Liberals in Manchester, Emmeline’s family enthusiastically supported Gladstone’s campaign against the ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, the motor for his bid to return to the leadership. In 1878 Emmeline went with her father Robert to hear Richard Pankhurst promote Gladstone’s cause and vehemently oppose Disraeli’s pro-Ottoman imperialism.  “I was charmed with him; he was so eloquent,” said smitten 20 year old Emmeline of Richard, a 44 year old resolute bachelor.  

Richard Pankhurst passionately supported Gladstone’s moral cause for Bulgarian nationalism; but Gladstone did not support Pankhurst’s political priority: women’s suffrage. Pankhurst sat on the executive committee of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, and worked as legal advisor to its leaders Lydia Becker and Emily Davis. For three decades through the 1860s to the 1880s he drafted key amendments and bills for the women’s movement, including the draft legislation that formed the basis for the landmark Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882. 

Gladstone’s evolution from High Tory to Peelite to Liberal was based on his championing of vital electoral reform and the essential introduction of the secret ballot. However all heroes have imperfections and whilst ‘the People’s William’ spoke often of the importance of the ‘Woman Suffrage’ issue, and “the need for extended thoughtful debate” on the subject, he never supported a single proposal for legislative reform for females. Indeed, he worked assiduously against them.  Gladstone opposed the women’s suffrage amendment to the 1884 Franchise Bill proposed by leader of the gender equality party in the House of Commons, William Woodall MP, with more miles of flannel than had ever been produced in the Manchester Mills. And it seems Gladstone bequeathed his prevarications on the rights of women to his youngest and most politically successful son, Herbert.    

Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst had three girls, firstborn Christabel (1880), Sylvia (1882) and Adela (1885). There were also two boys, Frank and Harry.  But it was the Pankhurst women – mother and daughters -- who locked in political battle with the youngest Gladstone son. 

We can however thank Herbert Gladstone for Sylvia Pankhurst’s innovative sketches of Holloway Prison.  During her first imprisonment, which began in October 1906, Home Secretary Gladstone Jnr took away Sylvia’s crayons --- and then returned them.  Government policy was to commit the militant women prisoners to the ‘second division’, subject to the restrictions on food, clothing, exercise and liberty meted out to common criminals.  They weren’t allowed books, paper, ink or pencils.  Sylvia, an artist, was forbidden to draw. 

The Suffragettes demanded to be treated as political prisoners.  Following cross party complaints from politicians including Keir Hardie and Lord Robert Cecil about the severity of their punishment, Herbert Gladstone relented and all the Suffrage prisoners were removed to the first division. Consulting the rules, Sylvia found that she was allowed drawing paper, pen, ink and pencils.  Following her release, her prison scenes of daily life in Holloway appeared in various publications, including The Pall Mall Magazine and the Suffragette journal Votes for Women. 

This was only the beginning of the struggle between militant political prisoner Sylvia Pankhurst and Home Secretary Gladstone.  In July 1909 Gladstone wrote his letter to the King informing him of the proposals to give the Home Secretary “in and out” powers for the Suffragette prisoners – the infamous Prisoners’ (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act. Known as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’, this piece of torture legislation is one of the most illiberal and disgraceful abuses of parliamentary powers in British history. Between 1913 and 1921 Sylvia was arrested fifteen times and braved more hunger, sleep and thirst strikes than any other Suffragette.  This decade of systematic physical and mental torture by the state was to have deep and troubling consequences for her personality; yet, always a reluctant militant, Sylvia became, and remained, a committed pacifist. Enraged at the way men treated women, her father used to say to his daughters, “Why don’t you scratch our eyes out?” Incited to violence both by patriarchs at home and in parliament, Sylvia nevertheless throughout her life steadfastly maintained her belief in democratic and non-violent methods of campaigning and protest.

Whilst prisons and street protests were the scenes of Herbert Gladstone’s clashes with Sylvia, his battle with her charismatic elder sister Christabel took place in the courtroom. Trailblazing Christabel studied law at Manchester University when women were barred from the profession at all levels. She achieved honours on her LLB exams but was not allowed to practice. At the 1908 'Rush the House of Commons' handbill trial, Christabel insisted on conducting her own defence, seizing the chance to practice on two unwilling witnesses who she’d subpoenaed – Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George and Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone.   

The young female Pankhurst’s cross questioning of these prominent cabinet ministers transfixed the court and press, who gave widespread coverage to the unprecedented trial. Christabel was found guilty as charged and got ten weeks inside, but the highly publicized case established her public reputation. Christabel quoted Herbert Gladstone back at him in the witness box, as well as statements by his father, the former Prime Minister, opposing the emancipation of women.  Earlier that year, Herbert Gladstone had responded to Liberal MP Henry York Stanger’s women’s suffrage bill:

'On the question of Women’s Suffrage, experience shows that predominance of argument done…is not enough to win the political day…Men have learned this lesson, and know the             necessity for demonstrating the greatness of their movements, and for establishing that force majeure which actuates and arms a Government for effective work.'

Reading his words to him, Christabel asked Gladstone why, if he was of the stated opinion that mere argument was insufficient to win the vote for men, it should be sufficient for women, who he and his father consistently said should restrict their suffrage campaigning to rational argument. 

I’ve written up these few examples of the historical connections between the two families in Mr Gladstone’s wonderful residential library, the only Prime Ministerial library in Britain.  You’ll find some of this material riffling through the archives; but you won’t find any of it in the leading biographies of Gladstone.  I started this with an exercise: a search for ‘Pankhurst’, ‘Women’s Suffrage’, ‘Suffragettes’ in the indexes of all the biographies of Gladstone, housed in one of the many cozy and comfortable nooks of the library. Here I drew a blank, in sharp contrast to the numerous references to the Gladstones in books about the Pankhurst family. The airbrushing of history does no favours to any of its protagonists, even the greatest ones. Note the latest Department of Education A-level syllabus which features no feminist philosophers after Mary Wollstonecraft and erases struggles for race equality and gay rights from our complex but no less proud modern history.  

Thus Gladstone's Library may prove the ultimate triumph of the visionary Statesman's radical liberal values. He may not have championed the Pankursts' cause in his lifetime but in his death, he gives the refuge of time, space, reading and expression to Sylvia's twenty-first century biographer. Where she was once the son's prisoner, I am now the father's guest. That is a liberal legacy indeed.

Rachel Holmes

Rachel is currently writing a book on Sylvia Pankhurst which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2018.

Her latest book, Eleanor Marx: A Life, is published by Bloomsbury and is out now.