Review: Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather: A Scandalous History of Birds, Hats and Votes‘Shocking and entertaining. The surprising story of the campaigning women who changed Britain.’ Virginia Nicholson

‘Full of fascinating historical detail and colourful characters… A great story, beautifully told.’ Kate Humble

When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather.

Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage.

Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament.

This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation.

This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.

My family and friends have generally given up on getting me suffrage/suffragette books for Christmas, usually because I’ve probably already read it, so it was lovely to receive such a fascinating book on Christmas Day. MRS PANKHURST’S PURPLE FEATHER examines the complex relationship between the feather trade, the formation of the RSPB, and feminism in a highly engaging and readable way.

I have to confess, although I’m a suffrage geek, I know almost next to nothing about birds or the history of the feather trade, so reading about the women’s movement from such a different perspective that I usually do was so much fun and highly informative. Tessa Boase explained the  highly complex and often contradictory industry of plumage in a way that was easily accessible and infinitely interesting.

Although in the summary, this book is presented as a dual narrative tale of Mrs Pankhurst, leading suffragette, and Etta Lemon, one of the stalwarts of the early RSPB, in reality it approaches the feather industry from multiple points of view; from Alice Battershall (a feather washer from London), to various social reformers, a milliner and small business owner, to anti-suffrage campaigners. This only adds to its strength–it provides a complex and multi-layered look at this industry, from those who fought against it, to consumers, to the workers often exploited by manufacturers, to business owners who benefited. Because of this, readers get a fuller, multi-dimensional picture.

Despite Mrs Pankhurst’s name being in the title it is Etta Lemon, tireless campaigner for birds and leading member of the Anti-Suffrage League, that takes centre stage in this book. I can see why–she comes across as such an intriguing woman, and it is fascinating to trace her life, and her work throughout this story. Forgotten today, Mrs Lemon represents that classic Victorian middle-class do-gooder. The parallels and tension between her pioneering work for bird protection, her obvious exceptional organisation abilities, and her commitment to causes is contrasted expertly with her conservatism and dislike of the women’s movement.

This book is VERY well researched, but also really readable–which is sometimes a difficult balance to strike in popular history. This is a fresh twist on the campaign for women’s suffrage, one that is fascinating, for bird-lovers and those with scant prior knowledge of birds alike. I thoroughly recommend this riveting read, and I will definitely be looking out for more of Tessa’s books in the future. And the next time I visit my local RSPB lodge, I’ll think of Etta Lemon and her fellow women who helped to shape the early days of such an important British institution.

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