Inventing the Suffragettes

Anachronism, Gnosticism and Corporeality in Contemporary Fiction

in Volume 16 (2004): Issue 3 (Dec 2004)
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The longevity of the ‘suffragette’ as a sign of rebellion and dissidence in contemporary British culture is significant.1 Anachronistic citations of the ‘suffragettes’, in novels such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999), My Life on a Plate (2000), Kingdom Swann (1990), Suffragette City (1999), the film Mary Poppins (1964) and the performance art of Leslie Hill, invite closer inspection. For the female political subject, the body was a site of ideological conflict during the British campaigns for women’s suffrage in the early years of the twentieth century and it continues to haunt feminist subjectivities and gender transgressors. Ever since members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903 and led by Emmeline Pankhurst, became known as the ‘suffragettes’ they have been mythologised and reinvented for different purposes. The suffragettes have persisted in popular culture, but perversely reduced to a name and a fatal action: Pankhurst, and that woman who threw herself under the horse. In her investigation of the representation and memorialisation of Emmeline Pankhurst in the period 1930–93, Laura E. Nym Mayhall (1999) has established that the ‘suffragette’ became a ‘symbol of modernity’, a ‘symbol of women’s political activism more generally’, privileging a particular understanding of militancy: ‘militant action, defined narrowly as violence against property, through arrest to incarceration and, eventually, the hunger-strike and forcible feeding’. Mayhall rightly emphasises the constructedness of these representations, and demonstrates the pre-eminence of Emmeline Pankhurst as a signifier of the ‘suffragette’.

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