Verna Coleman, Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961

Sarah Gregson

Verna Coleman, Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961, Melbourne University Press, 1996. $19.95 (paper).

In 1978 Anne Summers wrote of her rueful suspicion that a biography of Adela Pankhurst Walsh would never be written, arguing that Pankhurst’s dramatic political shifts had made her a pariah to contemporaries and historians alike. Vema Coleman’s book, Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961 goes a long way to rectifying this ‘cone of silence’. Importantly, it offers some compelling explanations for the transformation from socialist to sycophant of empire that condemned Pankhurst Walsh to relative obscurity.

The book begins with a powerful picture of Adela’s tempestuous family life. Of Emmeline Pankhurst, one observer remarked: “she did not neglect her children, she organised them.” Shocked by Victorian poverty, inspired by movements for reform and angry that the Independent Labour Party would not take women’s issues seriously, the Pankhursts pushed for independent political organisation to gain ‘votes for women’.

In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed. Undertaking lengthy speaking tours to advocate women’s suffrage, eighteen year old Adela climbed onto many a soap box. However the W.S.P.U., under the direction of Emmeline and Christabel, became increasingly middle class and more exclusively feminist. Eventually estranged from her mother, socialist Adela was ‘banished’ to Australia.

Here, she was warmly welcomed by feminist activists. She campaigned around women’s issues and was a major figure in the 1916 struggle to defeat Billy Hughes’ conscription plans. However, as Coleman points out, there was always a fairly strong conservative current in Adela’s radicalism. She was prone to making anti-war statements that railed against men, Jews and ‘coloured’ troops. She defended the White Australia Policy and opposed contraception. Adela’s 1917 marriage to Tom Walsh of the Seamen’s Union coincided with her most ‘radical’ phase, and she actively supported the many workers in struggle at the time. However Coleman argues that it was trenchant industrial disputation in these years up to 1925 that eventually committed the Walshes to reformism. The ‘prosperity’ of the I 920s had dampened their militancy and the Bruce government’s attempt to deport Tom Walsh in 1925 had an enormous personal effect on the family.

Whereas Adela had once blamed capitalism for working class poverty, she now argued that strikes themselves caused family hardship. Always supporters of arbitration, the Walshes’ political creed became industrial peace and cohabitation between employers and workers. Adela lobbied support for the Industrial Peace Union amid howls of protest about her “conversion to the abominable capitalist system”.

While Coleman’s book is extremely readable, there are a couple of jarring notes. She sympathises with ‘poor’ Adela when rejected by her former socialist allies: ‘she was paying the price for her determination ~o go her own way, to have her own ideas’. However, she was certainly not alone in these ‘new’ ideas. Employers were writing to the ‘Women’s Guild of Empire, Adela’s new political home, when industrial disputes flared up. Guild members would stand at factory gates, handing out leaflets that decried strike action. Indeed, as the book recognises, the Guild could not have survived without business donations.

Moreover Coleman paints 1930s politics as an inexorable shift to the right, perhaps as a justification of the Walshes’ own political shift. However these years also saw eviction struggles, unemployed worker protests (which Adela fought to contain) and growing support for the Communist Party.

In this polarised atmosphere, the Walshes chose a side. When the Waterside Workers were holding up shipments of pig iron to Japan, the Walshes opposed them by claiming that Japan was simply “putting China in order”. When opponents of state censorship were fighting for the right of anti-fascist speaker, Egon Kisch, to be h-eard, Adela dismissed his visit as a Soviet-inspired propaganda exercise. These confrontations conflict with Coleman’s often annoying stereotypes about all Australians – sometimes deemed conservative and, at other times, not taking easily to oppressive rule.

Nitpicking aside, it is not often that the shifts and turns of class society are represented in the form of one person. Adela Pankhurst Walsh, a difficult subject for any biographer, has been sympathetically treated by Verna Coleman and the book forms a welcome addition to our understanding of the person and the period.