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Justifying Their Modern Sisters: History Writing and the British Suffrage Movement Maria DiCenzo On the 25* there was a leading article in "The Nation" which makes one well-nigh despair of the intelligence of its author. Anyone so ignorant of the true history of the Suffrage movement might, one would mink, have had the modesty to refrain from commenting on it. The writer alludes to this "fiveyear -old agitation for securing the Padiamentary vote to some women." Has he, then, never heard of the great agitation started byJohn Stuart Mill, worked for by devoted men and women like Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, Lydia Becker,Jacob Bright, and others; of the petitions, one of them signed by over a quarter of a million; of the innumerable Bills and resolutions! ("How History is Written" 309) The remainder of this article, which expresses "grievous resentfmentj" on the part of members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies at such a "monstrous misrepresentation" which can only do "insidious, poisonous work," helps to clarify that it is the Women's Social and Political Union to which this uninformed commentator has referred and mistaken for the "general body of women Suffragists." Out of context, this brief front-page tirade on "history" might escape notice, but its importance lies in the fact that it signals the increasingly fraught relationship between suffrage organizations in the Edwardian period and the extent to which the history of "the movement" came to represent competitive ground as they worked to legitimate their demands and tactics, in the interests of solidifying and expanding support for the cause. In a roughly ten-year period between 1902 and 1912 there was a proliferation 40volume 31 number 1 Medea at the Fin de Siècle of full-length histories by women claiming to trace the feminist movement, women's suffrage, and more specifically, the militant suffrage movement1 Given the hostility to women's activism in these years, it is clear that these narratives of "women's history" constituted an oppositional discourse — challenging the status quo — but they were not informed by a singular approach. An analysis of the discourse in the context of other types of publications, such as the official organs produced by various leagues, reveals that these narratives were instrumental in constructing different feminist/activist identities which reflected, in turn, the organizational cultures in this period. At issue, particularly between the NUWSS and the WSPU, was the impact and efficacy of the "old suffrage movement" (the activities of nineteenth-century "pioneers") versus the forms of activism initiated by the "new suffrage movement" of the early twentieth-century. It is by now a given in the scholarship that the wave of histories, biographies and autobiographies published in the interwar years must be read as historically situated and politically/personally interested (Corbett, Dodd, Holton, Kean, Mayhall, Swindells). Kathryn Dodd builds a persuasive case forwhy Ray Strachey's highly respected and frequendy referenced The Cause:A ShortHistory of the Women's Movementin Britain (1928) must be read, not as "a transparent medium through which we can locate facts aboutwomen's history, the truth or even the past," but as an account deeply implicated in middle-class progressive liberal politics of the 1920s, the consequences of which are the marginalization of some groups and the vilification of others ("Cultural Politics and Women's Historical Writing" 127). Similarly, Antoinette Burton examines earlier Victorian feminist historiography as a strand or dimension of the traditional narrative of Whig history and demonstrates the ways in which feminists in the period accepted and employed national-imperial ideology in justifying their own emancipationist claims. Sandra Stanley Holton has undertaken the most extensive examination of the historiography of the British suffrage movement. She identifies major tendencies in the founding schools of suffrage history established by women historians and links them to subsequent Victorian Review (2005)41 M. DiCenzo approaches to and interpretations of the campaign right up to the present She oudines the chief characteristics of what she terms "constitutionalist" and "militant" histories.2 The first constitutionalist histories, an important example of which is Helen Blackburn's Women's Suffrage (1902), Holton argues were Whiggish and Anglocentric, taking a long view back (sometimes to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 40-61
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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