Monica Webb: Reflections from Portsmouth: Women’s History Network Suffrage Centennial Conference

Nearly a hundred historians of women’s history met in Portsmouth, UK to commemorate and reflect on the British women’s suffrage campaign at its centennial.  The call was for an international conference and this call was met by a good turn out of historians from seventeen different countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Eastern Europe, the Nordic countries, South Africa, Canada and the USA.  The make up of the delegates ranged from well-established academics to independent historians and younger, emerging historians.

The conference was marked by a strong sense of camaraderie and interest in one another’s work.  The word that was heard frequently was ‘networks’, both as a need in the present and as a reflection of the nature of the women’s organizations who agitated for suffrage.  There were numerous papers reflecting on local and regional English and Scottish women’s work for the vote which was a welcomed widening of scope beyond the dominant, popular Pankhurst narrative.  It was impossible, of course, to attend all eighty-five presentations.  Some of the highlights included:

Gillian Murphy, Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship at LSE gave a thought-provoking presentation on letters from suffragette mothers imprisoned in Holloway Prison. The letters were a poignant insight into the sacrifices made by protestors.  East End women faced particular hardship in their communities and their children were not immune from censure either.  The letters made it clear that women had made deliberate plans prior to protesting, to ensure their children had food and a caregiver for what could be a lengthy absence.  June Purvis, chair of the Women’s History Network, added to the Q&A discussion that followed by recounting her early work in the LSE with fragile ‘letters’ smuggled out of prison written in pencil on low-quality toilet paper.

Eric Franklin spoke on his uncle, Hugh Franklin.  Franklin was one of the men who supported the militant campaign and underwent nearly a hundred forced-feedings for the Cause but was subsequently expelled from the organization by Emmeline Pankhurst who wanted only women’s suffering to dominate the headlines.

Tiina Kinnunen of Oulo University, Finland, spoke on the politics of independence that underpinned women’s suffrage in Finland and Birgitta Bader-Zaar of the University of Vienna provided an analysis of recent comparative and transnational work on women’s suffrage.

Sumita Mukherjee, Bristol University, gave a keynote address on the Indian women’s campaign in the interwar years, noting their challenge of working within the international community of women dominated by Anglophone nations and their simultaneous allegiance to the Indian independence movement.

The final paper seemed to summarize the conference:  3 Eastern European historians, Krassimira Daskalova, Katerina Dalakoura and Maria Bucur, presented their initial research on the ‘Little Entente of Women’. This was an association of women drawn from former enemy nations, who, during the interwar years, committed to an ambitious programme of reform, including a proposal for a regional economic cooperative.  This original research reflected another theme that came out of the conference:  a move into inter-war period research that highlights the question of what women did with their enfranchisement.  An inspiring conference that allowed us all to reflect on the past while also considering the future of women’s history research.

The Women’s History Network was established in 1991 for the promotion of women’s history.  It has grown to include an international membership of working historians, researchers, independent scholars, teachers and librarians. It produces the Women’s History Review three times per year and a monthly newsletter to keep its members and interested historians in touch with one another.  More information about the Network and the full 2018 conference program can be found at https://womenshistorynetwork.org/

Monica Webb