Reviewed: Women of the Right Spirit

One hundred years ago, the British Parliament passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act granting single and married property-owning women over the age of thirty the right to vote. Even though the Act did not include all women, it was the first victory in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom that thousands of British women devoted their lives to. One women’s suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), gained notoriety for their militant tactics, such as smashing windows and bombing vacant buildings. However, less is known about how the WSPU functioned behind the scenes. Krista Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 fills in those gaps and returns agency to the everyday workers of the WSPU.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, Women of the Right Spirit is a reminder that women from all walks of life make history and deserve to have their stories told.

 

REVIEW

 

Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 delivers a fresh take on one of the most exciting moments in women’s history: the British women’s suffrage movement. The work of the WSPU, especially, gains much attention from historians, writers, and filmmakers. While the militant aspect of the WSPU’s campaign is enticing, Krista Cowman dials the excitement back to the mundane moments and members of the organization. She credits the diligent, paid organizers, especially those on the local levels, with the success of the WSPU’s national campaign. By focusing on the women employed by the WSPU, Cowman argues that the Union provided an arena for women to be included into politics at local and national levels, and reciprocally, the paid organizers of the WSPU legitimated the Union as a political organization. Even more strongly, Krista Cowman asserts the female employees of the WSPU’s local chapters rather than the national leaders were the accurate representation of the WSPU because of their elaborate planning for campaigns and their accessibility to Britain’s women.

Cowman’s work in Women of the Right Spirit significantly contributes to the historiography of the WSPU and the British women’s suffrage movement because of its novel focus on the women who worked as paid employees of the WSPU, especially as interest in the subject has waned among researchers within the last decade. While major campaign activities such as window-smashing, arsons, arrests, and forced-feedings have been well-covered by historians, Cowman provides a new look at the WSPU as a political organization that recruited members, set up regulations for membership, and organized the day-to-day details of activism. The WSPU’s deployment of militancy also often took center-stage in its histories, and Cowman fairly addresses it in her study without it overshadowing her concentration on the organizers themselves and the importance of their local activities. Women of the Right Spirit synthesizes some of the newer approaches to the history of the WSPU with the inclusion of local studies in conjunction with the national campaign, and by researching local chapters, Cowman returns the agency to the one hundred fifty paid employees of the WSPU.

Descriptions of the WSPU’s paid organizers’ backgrounds, campaign activities in each district and at the national level, militant actions, and dissension about the course of the Union are the main themes covered within the first six chapters of the book spanning the years 1905-1914. Even though the national chapter of the WSPU gained most of the attention in the press because of its showy demonstrations, Cowman succeeds in presenting the organizational skills of district members as just important to the Union’s efficiency as a whole. As spontaneous as the WSPU’s protests seemed, Cowman provides many examples of the intense planning that the paid organizers executed. Without these women booking rooms, training members, and scheduling protests, the WSPU could not have existed as a proper political organization as Cowman confirms throughout this monograph. She even thoroughly discusses the loneliness many district organizers felt because of their intensity toward their work leaving time for little else in their lives. Cowman describes the disconnect between the national and local levels of the organization further proving the importance of the local chapter and its workers to campaign success because of the local chapter’s availability to members; Cowman labels the district organizer as the “accessible face of the WSPU” (pp. 65). In her chapter on district organizers, she argues that “their [district organizers] collective role in progressing the campaign throughout Britain was thus arguably greater than that of the national leaders” (pp. 86). These organizers lost their influential positions once World War I broke out, but Cowman traces their lives during the war to fully explain the WSPU’s impact on these women. The last chapter discusses the start of World War I in 1914, and its impact on the WSPU as a political suffrage organization as it splintered into smaller factions that continued the suffrage cause while the WSPU suspended its campaign. Cowman continues her attention to the organizers as she follows their lives after women won the right to vote, and she notes how many of these women in political roles credited their experience with the WSPU with helping them gain their positions.

Krista Cowman knows such intimate information about these women because of the numerous new sources she consulted. Many histories of the WSPU include the archival evidence from the Suffragette Fellowship Collection as does this one, but Cowman wanted to analyze these women on a deeper level. She dove into autobiographies, the WSPU’s publications Votes for Women and the Suffragette, national and local newspapers, and personal papers of local organizers. Her connection to the organizers she discusses and her passion for the subject is apparent throughout the book.

While contributing new and essential figures to the historiography of the WSPU with Women of the Right Spirit, Cowman’s argument is emphasizing the local workers sometimes wavers throughout the book. Her choice to highlight local organizers is commendable and worthwhile, but she sometimes loses sight of their importance with her inclusion of the national headquarters, militant campaigns in London, and the dissension among members on the national level. Cowman’s sixth chapter about dissenters is the least engaging and seems misplaced within this book and her broader argument that stresses the unity and success of the WSPU because of its local members. Overall, Cowman’s book proves a compelling read for those interested in the WSPU wishing to learn about the Union as a political organization, and Women of the Right Spirit succeeds in highlighting the local members who maintained the national campaign.

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