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 antifashion, antifeminist - and antisuffrage.
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.
This is the story of the women who set up the RSPB, campaigning against the fashion for feathered hats - an unusual, entertaining and, at times, shocking journey through high Victorian and Edwardian society. This was a world where every women had a hat, and some had hundreds of hats. A world where birds were thought to make pretty trimmings for these hats, and were slaughtered by the thousand for the milinery trade. I'll never look at another picture of a suffragette rally again through the same eyes, now that I know so many of them are wearing 'murderous millinery'. It starts with the feather industry, the poor girls slaving away making plumed ornaments to go on the hats of more fortunate women. Then come the bird-loving women behind the RSPB - I love the name and the character Etta Lemon, why haven't we heard of her before? Moving to the suffrage movement, which was an overlapping women's campaign, sharing methods and many members with the RSPB. Finally, the perplexing contradictions of women fighting each other - over fashion, over the vote, over a woman's place in the world. This is a rich, surprising and gripping story, beautifully delivered. I now want to see the pictures, so will probably get the book.