Skip to content

Response to Review no. 35

It is always a pleasure to receive a review where the reviewer has so thoroughly engaged with what the writer has attempted to do, and conveyed it so successfully. The commencement of Reviews in History is to be welcomed not least because it makes it possible for a writer to reflect afterwards on their own work in the light of such assessments. So, this response takes the form of a report on how Suffrage Days came to be written as it was, and some of the strengths and limitations associated with the writing strategy that I chose for it.

Firstly, then, I should confirm that Krista Cowman has read my aims in this book pretty accurately. These were threefold: to ‘shake-up’ suffrage history; to escape from the existing frameworks and conceptualisation presently organising this field of research; and to retain as much ‘readability’ as I could while pursuing these goals. Such an agenda led me, in turn, to try out a number of approaches to organising the writing up of this research — a synthesis of historical scholarship in this field organised around topics, such as ‘ideas’, ‘organisations’, ‘personal life and feminist politics’, introducing my new findings in the context of existing understandings (this proved tedious to write, and presumably therefore would also be tedious to read); a history of the history-making of the suffrage movement (too dry and technical for a general audience). In the light of these experiences, I decided I needed a form with a strong narrative line, and so next tried out a set of biographical studies of some figures that it was difficult to fit within existing frameworks (this proved too static a form — it did not adequately convey either the ebb and flow, the cross currents of a social movement, or the interconnectedness of a single-issue campaign with other social groups, and with other issues). I decided finally that yes, collective biography would best fit my three aims, but that I had to create a more fluid form for that genre, through the ‘plaiting’ together of several stories. I had then to narrow down my possible ‘cast list’ to a group of lives that had some degree of interconnectedness, if only of a tenuous kind.

Such a structure allowed me the strengths of conventional narrative: to move the main line of the story (the women’s suffrage movement) fairly consistently forward over time, without too much need for recapping, repetition, or looking backwards; to convey something of the pluralities and the particularities that went to make up this social movement; to throw into question the adequacy of existing frameworks and conceptualisation in suffrage history in Britain. This was also a form that allowed me to leave some loose ends as a provocation to further work, and to suggest the larger lives of those I could only here represent in terms of their engagement with women’s suffrage.

It is not, of course, a writing strategy without limitations, and Krista Cowman’s review suggests some of these. There is, for example, the difficulty of ‘placing’ more analytical discussion without disrupting the flow of a narrative. I tried to respond to this problem in two ways. The first was to publish some of my research first in the form of articles for specialist journals. The much shorter length and the probable audience makes the combination of narrative and analysis less of a problem in this genre of history-writing. It was also possible, then, to direct readers of the book who wanted a more extended discussion to those articles.

The second way was in the selection of the individual stories to be brought together within a single narrative. My original possible ‘cast’, as I’ve already suggested, was determined above all by the needs of narrative,and the questions I wanted to raise by that narrative. There was no ‘scientific’ justification for it — or very little. There were, of course,technical considerations: the need to select subjects about whom there was enough biographical material, and preferably subjects who had left some kind of life-writing, be it autobiography, diaries, letters. But otherwise I settled on those whose lives in some sense ‘demonstrated’ the inadequacies of our existing understandings of the suffrage movement, and whose stories could be ‘plaited’ together because of certain congruencies and interconnections to be found within them.

In this book I have tried to produce a hybrid: one that has some of the characteristics of the monograph in terms of a high content of original research; but one also that is accessible and of interest to the non-expert. Above all, I hope that it has suggested some of excitement to be found in the doing of history, and the need that remains for far more work in women’s history, even in a field which otherwise might have seemed exceptional by its very visibility. I hope, too, it might perhaps prompt more discussion about the possible range of ‘genres’ for writing history in a scholarly context.