Photograph of the book Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather by Tessa Boase

Ruffling some feathers

A review of Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism—Women’s Fight for Change by Tessa Boase


Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a double biography of two very different women: famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and animal rights activist Etta Lemon, a forgotten heroine. The book shows how the animal rights and suffragette movements learnt from each other, even when they were—at times—radically opposed.

Author Tessa Boase successfully weaves together the stories of feminists, anti-feminists and animal rights activism, as well as the exploitation of women in the feather trade. She has a novelist’s feel for dramatic tension and engaging the senses. Boase takes us into the drawing rooms of privileged Edwardian ladies discussing legislation over tea, but also into the backrooms where women and children cleaned feathers, trimmed hats and glued boxes for starvation wages. Along the way, we meet women who were undercover investigative journalists, founders of trade unionism, sweatshop workers, and duchesses. Tessa Boase’s Britain bristles with life, high and low, like a novel by Dickens or Balzac.

The similarities and antagonism between suffragettes and animal rights campaigners were extraordinary. Some women who campaigned for the protection of birds took up non-traditional roles outside the home to defend their cause, yet were opposed to women getting the vote and actually joined anti-suffrage campaigns. Those campaigning to save birds from extinction were appalled that a particular type of suffragette, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, defended themselves against accusations of ‘unfeminine’ behaviour by being devotees of fashion, even when that meant wearing whole dead birds on their hats, as was the fashion of the time.

There are so many contradictions within the behaviours and motivations of the bird protectionists, suffragettes and anti-suffrage campaigners. On the one hand, many strong, intelligent, capable, outspoken women were fighting to stop women from getting the vote. On the other, there were feminine, fashionable, vulnerable women committing violent acts to win the right to do just that.

Strangely, some forthright and determined women instigated anti-suffrage and bird-protection societies, but being conservative and anti-feminist, chose to defer to the men within their groups. These women were then taken aback when the men took over their organisations and marginalised or even ousted the women altogether.

Men who criticised women for slaughtering birds indirectly by wearing feathers and bird limbs saw no contradiction in their own scientific ‘appreciation’ of birds, which involved shooting, trapping and stuffing birds for ‘study’, as well as draining their eggs for scientific collection. Similarly, members of the landed gentry joined bird-protection and animal welfare societies and campaigned for bird-protection laws, but continued to host weekend parties for bird shooting, game and fox hunting.

Unwilling or unable to shame the hunting-and-shooting aristocracy into saving birds and other animals, male and female activists berated lower and middle-class women for keeping caged birds, working in the feather trade or wearing feathers and bird corpses.

The story of the suffragettes is more dramatic than that of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and as Tessa Boase admits, their leader Etta Lemon is not easy to warm to. For all her faults—including a ruthless, autocratic streak—it is easier to maintain an interest in Mrs Pankhurst. This unevenness is the only shortcoming of the book.

Tessa Boase has resurrected women from history who deserve to share the spotlight with the Pankhursts and militant suffragettes, showing how different social movements can inform and change each other—even when it is against their will.

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