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The Lesbian Conspiracy

John Simkin

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In 1907 some leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan were having too much influence over the organisation. In the autumn of 1907, about seventy members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL).




After women’s suffrage was achieved, some members of the breakaway group began to argue that there were other factors in this decision. For example, Teresa Billington-Greig, spoke of how some leaders of the WSPU had unhealthy emotional attachments with other members. She named Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenny as members who suffered from this tendency. It is assumed that Billington-Greig was referring to the fact that these three women were lesbians. Although she does not mention it, the other two main financial supporters of the WSPU, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan, were also lesbians.



Emmeline Pankhurst was also involved in a lesbian relationship with Ethel Smythe, at the time of the breakaway (her husband had died in 1898). Throughout her life Christabel Pankhurst never had a sexual relationship with a man. According to her biographer, Martin Pugh, Christabel first became involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage after becoming very close to the lesbian lovers, Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, while studying at Manchester University in 1901.




The WSPU was not formed until 1903. Two years later Annie Kenney, a factory worker from Oldham, heard Christabel Pankhurst speak on the subject of women's rights. They fell in love almost immediately and Christabel arranged for Annie to live with her in London. Over the next couple of years they were inseparable. In 1905 they became the first members of the WSPU to go to prison.


Annie Kenney appears to have an amazing impact on other women. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Blathwayt and Clare Mordan all spoke of falling in love with her the first time they met her. Teresa Billington-Greig claimed that Annie was "emotionally possessed by Christabel". However, Mary Blathwayt, who spent a lot of time with Annie during this period argued that it was Annie who was the dominating personality as she had a "wonderful influence over people".


Teresa Billington-Greig has argued that Annie was also very close to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. "It is true that there was an immediate and strong emotional attraction between Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney... indeed so emotional and so openly paraded that it frightened me. I saw it as something unbalanced and primitive and possibly dangerous to the movement."

Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003), has argued that Annie Kenney had a series of romantic attachments with other suffragettes: "The relationship (with Christabel Pankhurst) would be mirrored, though never matched in its intensity, by a number of later relationships between Annie and other suffragettes. The extent of their physical nature has never been revealed, but it is certain that in some sense these were romantic attachments. One historian who argues that Annie must have had sexual feelings for other women adds that lesbianism was barely recognised at the time. Such relationships, even when they involved sharing beds, excited little comment."

However, a recently discovered diary has shown that these were sexual relationship. This unpublished diary belonged to Mary Blathwayt, a leading financial backer of the WSPU and up to now, someone who has been virtually ignored by historians. Blathwayt, used her home, Eagle House near Batheaston, as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from being in prison.

Mary Blathwayt recorded in her diary that Annie Kenney had intimate relationships with at least ten members of the WSPU. Blathwayt records in her diary that she slept with Annie in July 1908. Soon afterwards she exhibits jealousy with the comments that "Miss Browne is sleeping in Annie's room now." The diary suggests that Annie was sexually involved with both Christabel Pankhurst and Clara Codd. Blathwayt wrote on 7th September 1910 that "Miss Codd has come to stay, she is sleeping with Annie." Codd's autobiography, So Rich a Life (1951) confirms this account. The historian, Martin Pugh, points out that "In the diary Kenney appears frequently and with different women. Almost day by day Mary says she is sleeping with someone else."


Clare Mordan, who never went to prison, but who was one of the WSPU main financial backers, also spent a lot of time at Eagle House. It seems that some women could buy themselves into what appears to have become a “love nest”. Mary’s father, Colonel Linley Blathwayt, a retired army officer, motivation for allowing these women to live in his house, also raises interesting questions. He built a summer-house in the grounds of the estate that was called the "Suffragette Rest". He was an amateur photographer and took portrait photographs of the women. These were then signed and sold at WSPU bazaars. Maybe he also took some other kinds of photographs. According to historians of pornography, photographs of women together were in great demand and could be sold at a very high price.


Annie Kenney admitted in her autobiography that suffragettes developed a different set of values to other women at the time: "The changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no one to say what we should do or what we should not do, no family ties, we were free and alone in a great brilliant city, scores of young women scarcely out of their teens met together in a revolutionary movement, outlaws or breakers of laws, independent of everything and everybody, fearless and self-confident."

The reason why Teresa Billington-Greig complained about these lesbian relationships was that she felt it was damaging the movement. It was argued that women were promoted to the leadership of the WSPU because of their lesbianism. For example, when Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, Annie Kenney was put in charge of operations in England. When Kenney was imprisoned the post went to her lover and flat-mate, Rachael Barrett. She was replaced by Grace Roe, who had been the lover of both Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney.



After the First World War the WSPU women became more open about their sexuality. After the war Rachel Barrett lived with her lover Ida Wylie, a novelist and short story writer. Both women were close friends of Radclyffe Hall and gave her support during the obscenity trial following the publication of her lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall lost the case and all copies of the novel were destroyed.

Two other members of the WSPU, Edith Craig (the daughter of the actress Helen Terry) and Christabel Marshall, had lived together for fifteen years. In 1916 they were joined by Clare Atwood where they formed a permanent ménage à trois. Her biographer, Katharine Cockin, has pointed out that Marshall wrote they "achieved independence within their intimate relationships... working respectively in the theatre, art, and literature, drew creative inspiration and support from each other."



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I guess queen Victoria was wrong . There are queers.

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I guess queen Victoria was wrong . There are queers.

Queen Victoria was not the only one who found it impossible to believe that lesbianism existed. This view was shared by Parliament and that is why they made homosexuality illegal but did not legislate against lesbianism. (Did the same thing happen in other countries?) It was fairly common for unmarried women to pair up and live together in the 19th century, yet there is little evidence that people speculated that they were lesbians. It was after the First World War that women first went public about their sexuality. This included several suffragettes. However, those in power ignored their claims and no legislation was passed against them.

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John over the last couple of years you have started several threads about leftist/progressive British women from the early 2Oth century, what is your specific interest in them?

I started my website in 1997 with the biographies of women who took part in the struggle for the vote in the UK. I then went onto look at other struggle for democracy and trade union rights in the UK and the US. For example, I have a very large section on the civil rights movement in the US. I also have a strong interest in the campaigns against slavery and child labour. Other areas I am interested in is the growth in fascism and communism in the 20th century and the resistance against both movements.














I am also very interested in wars, especially those people who attempted to stop them.







Then there is my interest in football and the American West:



As a result of my work with newspapers I am also interested in the history of journalism in the UK and US:




See also these two main index pages:



I also have a minor interest in political conspiracies:



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  • 4 weeks later...

I have just finished a page on another member of the Eagle House group. Vera Holme was open about her lesbianism. In August 1909, she was appointed as Pankhurst's chauffeur. The author of The Pankhursts (2001): "It is probable that Vera Holme had learnt to drive as a result of touring the provinces with a theatrical company; since driving tests had not been invented the chief requirement was a capacity to cope with the frequent mechanical breakdowns and to deal with horse traffic."

In 1911 Vera Holme began living with Eveline Haverfield. On the outbreak of the First World War, Holme supported the decision by Emmeline Pankhurst, to help Britain's war effort. In 1914 Haverfield founded the Women's Emergency Corps, an organisation which helped organize women to become doctors, nurses and motorcycle messengers. Holme was commissioned as a major in the Women's Emergency Corps and in 1915 she was placed in charge of horses and trucks in the Scottish Women's Hospital Units sent to Serbia.

Eveline Haverfield died of pneumonia in 1920. In her will she left Vera Holme £50 a year for life. She went to live Margaret Greenless and Margaret Ker. She also spent a lot of time with Edith Craig, Clare Atwood and Christabel Marshall, who had formed a permanent ménage à trois at their home at The Priest's House, Tenterden. It was Craig who gave Vera Holme the nickname "Jacko". Other visitors included Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Vera Holme, Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf.

Here is a photograph of Vera Holme with a girlfriend in the 1920s.


post-7-039686700 1285164060_thumb.jpg

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  • 4 weeks later...

Another important lesbian in the Women's Social and Political Union was Margaret Haig Thomas, who later inherited the title Lady Rhondda. She was initially married to Humphrey Mackworth but after their divorce she went to live with fellow WSPU member, Helen Archdale. They broke up after Lady Rhondda moved to the right and from 1933 she with Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary of the International Federation of University Women.



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  • 2 weeks later...

In 1885, the actress, Elizabeth Robins married the actor, George Richmond Parks. Whereas Elizabeth was in great demand, George struggled to get parts. On 31st May 1887, he wrote Elizabeth a note saying that "I will not stand in your light any longer" and signed it "Yours in death". That night he committed suicide by jumped into the Charles River wearing a suit of theatrical armour.

In 1888 Elizabeth travelled to London where she introduced British audiences to the work of Henrik Ibsen. Elizabeth produced and acted in several plays written by Ibsen including Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Nora in A Doll's House and Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder. These plays were a great success and for the next few years Elizabeth Robins was one of the most popular actresses on the West End stage.

In 1898 Robins joined with her lover, William Archer, to form the New Century Theatre to sponsor non-profit productions of Ibsen. The company produced several plays including John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. After one production, the actress, Beatrice Patrick Campbell called her performance in "the most intellectually comprehensive piece of work I had seen on the English stage". According to her biographer, Angela V. John: "In the 1890s her incipient feminism had been fuelled by witnessing the exploitation of actresses by actor–managers and by Ibsen's depiction of strong-minded women."

Elizabeth was a strong feminist and initially had been a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. However, disillusioned by the organisation's lack of success, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union. Soon afterwards Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence commissioned Elizabeth to write a series of articles for her journal Votes for Women. She also asked her to write a play on the subject.

Evelyn Sharp saw Elizabeth Robins make a speech on women's suffrage in Tunbridge Wells in 1906: "The impression she made was profound, even on an audience predisposed to be hostile; and on me it was disastrous. From that moment I was not to know again for twelve years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes."

In 1907 Elizabeth Robins became a committee member of the WSPU. When the British government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, Robins used her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, that she shared with Octavia Wilberforce, as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. It was also rumoured that the house was used as a hiding place for suffragettes on the run from the police.

In July 1909, Octavia met Elizabeth Robins, the campaigner for women's rights. Octavia later recalled: "It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield... Elizabeth Robins.... with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden."

The two women became lovers. Octavia was 20 and Elizabeth was 47. Octavia's father, Reginald Wilberforce, had arranged for Octavia to marry Charles Buxton, the eldest son of Lord Buxton, a wealthy businessman and prominent politician. Octavia refused to marry Charles and insisted that she wanted a career in medicine. Her father was so angry at her decision that he cut Octavia out of his will.

Elizabeth Robins offered to help fund her studies. Octavia went to live with Robins her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield. When the British government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, Robins used her house as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. It was also rumoured that the house was used as a hiding place for suffragettes on the run from the police.

In 1913 Octavia Wilberforce was able to start her course at the London School of Medicine for Women. She later recalled she was met by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson "who was white-haired and gracious, and who said something tactful about William Wilberforce's great work for the slaves." She added: "Most of the girls were younger than I was and of varied types. Some of them by doing Medicine were following in a parent's footstep; some had a definite urge, like myself, to be of the use to the community. These were subdivided into those who wished to be medical missionaries and those who had worked in the Suffrage movement."

As her biographer, Pat Jalland, has pointed out: "Only 3 per cent of qualified doctors were female in 1913 and prejudice persisted against women in private practice." During the First World War the student Octavia Wilberforce, gained valuable experience treating British casualties at St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington.

Octavia Wilberforce qualified as a doctor in 1920. After working as a clinical clerk to Dr Wilfred Harris, an outstanding neurologist, and after qualifying became his house physician in 1921 she established her own general medical practice at 24 Montpelier Crescent in 1923. Octavia joined Elizabeth Robins and Louisa Martindale in their campaign for a new fifty-bed, women's hospital in Brighton. After the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton opened, Octavia became one of the three visiting doctors. Later she was appointed as the hospital's head physician.

In 1927 Octavia Wilberforce helped Elizabeth Robins and Marjorie Hubert set up a convalescent home at Backsettown, for overworked professional women. Wilberforce used the convalescent home as a means of exploring the best way of helping people to become fit and healthy. Patients were instructed not to talk about illness. Octavia believed diet was very important and patients were fed on locally produced fresh food. Whenever possible, patients were encouraged to eat their meals in the garden.



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  • 2 weeks later...

In 1913 Christabel Pankhurst published "The Great Scourge and How to End It". She argued that most men had venereal disease and that the prime reason for opposition to women's suffrage came from men concerned that enfranchised women would stop their promiscuity. Until they had the vote, she suggested that women should be wary of any sexual contact with men. Dora Marsden criticised Pankhurst for upholding the values of chastity, marriage and monogamy. She also pointed out in The Egoist on 2nd February 1914 that Pankhurst's statistics on venereal disease were so exaggerated that they made nonsense of her argument. Marsden concluded the article with the claim: "If Miss Pankhurst desires to exploit human boredom and the ravages of dirt she will require to call in the aid of a more subtle intelligence than she herself appears to possess." Other contributors to the journal joined in the attack on Pankhurst. The Canadian feminist, R. B. Kerr argued that "her obvious ignorance of life is a great handicap to Miss Pankhurst" (16th March, 1914) whereas Ezra Pound suggested that she "has as much intellect as a guinea pig" (1st July, 1914).



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