Jessie Kenney and the Battalion of Death

Adam Baker, third-year History undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia delves into the 1917 Russian diary of suffragette, Jessie Kenney, and an account of a  military procession on the 13th of July when Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst met the ‘First Women’s Battalion of Death’, a newly formed group, led by the non-commissioned officer Maria Bochkarëva.

During Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1917 Russian expedition, Jessie Kenney met with the First Women’s Battalion of Death. The newly formed group, led by the non-commissioned officer Maria Bochkarëva, participated in a procession on the 13th of July. But why did a country in the grips of a bitter conflict decide to host such an elaborate event, and how did a women’s battalion come to exist in a country where many of its soldiers weren’t even full citizens?

Though Bochkarëva may have formed the first women’s battalion, this was certainly not the first time women had fought for Russia during the First World War. Russian women dug trenches, served as nurses and mechanics, and drove military vehicles. A few became pilots. Not all were satisfied with these roles, however. Some women secretly joined the front lines by enlisting as men. A select few (such as Bochkarëva) became officers, but those who promoted them were usually aware that they were women. Female combatants often outshone their male counterparts. Female soldiers were by definition enthusiastic volunteers, as only men were conscripted. Furthermore, women who had joined disguised as men had to display better discipline in order to avoid discovery. Bochkarëva carried this strictness over to her regiment, leading to 1700 of her original 2000 volunteers quitting. Her battalion was forbidden from showing ‘feminine’ qualities, such as having long hair or giggling.

The patriotism of the Russian women was admired by Kenney. In her unpublished memoir, she went as far as to call it “one of the greatest patriotic demonstrations being held during the revolution”1 – and Kenney had seen plenty of them during her tour. Kenney also noted the presence of a wounded soldier’s battalion, showing that the women were not the only patriots itching to get back to the war. The presence of the wounded battalion shows that the Russian spirit was uplifted by the Women’s Battalion, something that Alexander Kerensky had hoped for when they formed in March 1917. The Provisional Government decided that volunteer groups would reinvigorate front line troops who were becoming tired of the defensive war they were waging. Their patriotism would not have been lost on Emmeline Pankhurst, either. Her mission to Russia was also a patriotic one, encouraging the Russian people not to accept German treaties and to continue to fight alongside Britain. By 20 July 1917, just 7 days after this procession, all Russian women had gained the right to vote.

In October 1917, the Women’s Battalion was called to defend the Winter Palace. The 1000-strong battalion was unable to overcome the 40,000 Bolshevik soldiers, and they surrendered.

Further Reading:

  • Jessie Kenney Archive, Kenney Papers, University of East Anglia: KP/JK/4/1 Russian Diary available at the UEA Archives KP/JK/4/1 [Specific sub-files: KP/JK/4/1/1 Desk diary, 1917; KP/JK/4/1/6 The Price of Liberty, c. 1966 (unpublished memoir)]
  • ‘They fought for Russia: Female Soldiers of the First World War’ by Laurie Stoff. (From: A Soldier and a Woman. Edited by Gerard J. DeGroot and Corinna Peniston-Bird)

This blog is submitted as part of UEA’s Unboxed programme.

Battling for recognition: the suffragettes’ struggle with revolutionary Russia

Helen Williams is a first year undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia, currently studying History and working as a volunteer blogger on the University’s archives.

The events of 1917 forced a total revision of Russian society and governance, including to no small degree the status of women. From the beginning, female initiative had helped drive the revolution, the catalyst for which had been International Women’s Day; amid already heated discontent in Petrograd, women helped streamline protest by organising groups and compelled workers in Putilov to strike. By the next day, it had spread throughout the city. Its female residents continued to play a decisive role – such as swaying the Cossacks to join their forces against the czar[1] – and under the Russian Provisional Government, supported in part by women from both political and military angles, the trend promised to continue.

This was not lost on Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in Britain. In June 1917, she and fellow suffragette Jessie Kenney travelled to Petrograd with two objectives: to appeal for Russia’s continuation of the war in the name of the Allied cause and, potentially, further her feminist agenda across Europe. The first was a daunting task. War had brought Russia to the brink of destruction, and advocation of peace at any price was by no means the preserve of her inhabitants. Pacifist Britons such as Labour Party member Ramsay McDonald supported the idea despite the ramifications it would have for the Allies. Pankhurst’s own daughter Sylvia was amongst those campaigning for British and Russian withdrawal.[2] Within Russia itself, the polemic ran deeper still.

Kenney’s diary papers, however, reveal an optimism on the part of both women that they could have an impact. Hindsight might tempt us to imagine this was misplaced; the Provisional Government would prove unable to sustain itself, much less Russia’s already unlikely position in the war. British Ambassador to Russia George Buchanan – with whom Pankhurst dined on the 27th – had earlier that morning voiced fears that this would happen to Prince Georgy Lvov[3], the new government’s Prime Minister. Yet nor was the suffragettes’ hope entirely unfounded, either. The Provisional Government was beginning to cultivate a securer position abroad – the USA had become the first foreign power to officially recognise it on 9th May[4] – and at home, through the person of the still-popular Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky. Indeed, public approval for him was reaching its zenith at this time,[5] fuelled by the initial success of a renewed offensive, just as Kenney was making her entries back in Petrograd. She and Pankhurst thus had little reason to doubt Mr Henderson when he reassured them that the Provisional Government ‘had got a much stronger hand’.

Perhaps the two suffragettes were more successful in their second objective. Kenney’s writing, furthermore, bespeaks a warmth with which those in the government were prepared to welcome them. Lvov himself displays a deep interest in Pankhurst’s work, shared by Minister of Posts and Telegrams Iraki Tsereteli, who Kenney tells us invites her opinions on Russia’s political future. That future saw women’s suffrage achieved less than a month later in July – almost a year before any woman could boast the same in Britain. Pankhurst and Kenney found in the Provisional Government friendly and perhaps genuine support for their cause, if not the guarantee of support for the Allies they had hoped for.

They would have been helped by their movement’s reputation, which preceded their arrival in Russia. While this, too, provoked polarisation, Kenney’s entries focus on the positive, extolling a mutual enthusiasm for female empowerment. She gives particular attention to the workers, and small wonder – June 1917 saw several strikes in Petrograd, initiated by women who were ‘extremely low-paid… principally laundrywomen, catering workers and women dye-workers’.[6] The two suffragettes would have seen all this; that Kenney underscores the issue of wage inequality so – directly repeating what Russian women had to say about it at their factory meeting – demonstrates how deeply it affected her.

Pankhurst herself had been just as – if not more – impressed by another group of women, namely Petrograd’s Women’s Battalion of Death. If Buchanan had disclosed to her his reservations about the Russian war effort during their luncheon on the 27th, they did not deter her from directly reaching out to the unit that same night, speaking at a concert to raise funds for them. The visit to their barracks two days earlier recorded by Kenney must have excited Pankhurst. She saw her own determination for both success in the war and female empowerment replicated in the battalion, for like the suffragettes themselves in Britain, there were women in Russia using voluntary participation in the war effort to work towards female suffrage.[7] Kenney mentions Maria Bochkareva, the battalion’s leader and creator. Of both her and her work, Pankhurst would write ‘glowing reports’[8], and photographs of the pair linked arm-in-arm survive, bespeaking a genuine affinity between them. Bochkareva, for her part, would remember Pankhurst fondly in her autobiography.[9]

Kenney and Pankhurst’s visit to Russia – and all that the former wrote of it – show many parallels between the changing status of women there and in Britain as a result of the First World War. In other ways, they contradicted each other, especially after the two countries’ military interests were no longer aligned. Yet that the two suffragettes could have come away from Russia with some positive memories such as these shows that in another fight, one in which women across nations were uniting, a degree of success had been justly felt.

This blog is part of the Unboxed programme.

Primary source: The Kenney Papers, University of East Anglia, KP/JK/4/1 Russian Diary

[1] Martin Sixsmith, Russia (London: BBC Books, 2012), p.185.

[2] June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (Psychology Press, 2002), p.292.

[3] George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, Vol. II (London: Cassell & Co. Ltd, 1923), p.147.

[4] Roy Bainton, 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution (London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005), p.91.

[5] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (USA: Penguin Books), p.410.

[6] S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918. (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.118.

[7] Linda Harriet Edmondson. Feminism in Russia 1900-1917. (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1984), p.167.

[8] Rex A. Wade, Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches to the Russian Revolution of 1917. (New York: Routledge, 2004), p.122.

[9] Maria Bochkareva, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile, (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1919), p.168.

Bibliography

Bainton, Roy. 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005.

Bochkareva, Maria. Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1919.

Buchanan, George. My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, Vol. II London: Cassell & Co. Ltd, 1923.

Edmondson, Linda Harriet. Feminism in Russia 1900-1917. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1984.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. Rpt. Pimlico, London, 1997.

Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. Psychology Press, 2002.

Sixsmith, Martin. Russia. London: BBC Books, 2012.

Smith, S. A. Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Stockdale, Melissa K. ‘”My Death for the Motherland Is Happiness”: Women, Patriotism, and Soldiering in Russia’s Great War, 1914-1917’, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 1, February 2004.

Wade, Rex A. Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches to the Russian Revolution of 1917. New York: Routledge, 2004.

 

Archive Exhibition: Identity, Memory and Legacy in Suffragette History

 

The archives of leading working class suffragettes, Annie Kenney and Jessie Kenney, are held at the University of East Anglia (UEA) as ‘The Kenney Papers’ and include diaries, memorabilia and original correspondence from leading political figures, including Lady Constance Lytton, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. To celebrate the lives of these extraordinary women and the centenary of partial suffrage in 1918, a small display is on show during 2018 at UEA Library’s Archives Foyer (Floor 02), and available to the public. The archive itself is publicly accessible Mon-Fri by prior appointment e: archives@uea.ac.uk p: 01603 59 3491.

A project to digitise material from the archive as part of an online exhibition is also underway and material is being loaned to the Kenney sisters’ home town in Oldham as part of an exhibition at Oldham Gallery.

About the Kenney sisters

Annie Kenney (1879-1953) worked in a cotton mill from the age of 10. In 1905 she was recruited to the cause of women’s suffrage after hearing Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters addressing an open-air meeting in Manchester. On the 13th October 1905 she carried out what is now recognised as the first militant act of the suffrage movement when she accompanied Christabel Pankhurst to an election meeting in Manchester Free Trade Hall and heckled the speakers, Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill. She and Christabel were arrested and imprisoned. Thereafter Annie Kenney was a leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903.

Jessie Kenney (1887-1985) was Annie’s younger sister. She was Secretary of the WSPU and worked alongside Christabel Pankhurst in Paris from 1912, assisting in the long-range operations of WSPU. In 1917, she accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst to Russia, on behalf of the British government to promote the mobilisation of Russian women in the war effort. Jessie was in Russia for some three months and made a detailed record of events. Unpublished memoirs within the archive reveal fascinating insights into the movement and the legacy of the Kenney sisters.

Link to the Kenney Papers’ Archive page

The Suffragettes and two World Wars: Letters from Christabel Pankhurst to Annie Kenney

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst,_c_1905-1912__(22525796328)

Annie Kenney (left); Christabel Pankhurst – c1905-1912 Source: The Women’s Library collection, London School of Economics

An Unboxed blog from Yaiza Canopoli, undergraduate of the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing.

Related blog, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, arrested at the Free Trade Hall on October 13, 1905.

Christabel Pankhurst was born into a family of fighters for women’s rights. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was the leader of the suffragette movement, and she taught her daughter from early on to fight for her rights. Christabel wrote many letters to fellow suffragettes after 1918, asking for opinions on their legacy and treatment and voicing her own; two particularly interesting letters are addressed to Annie Kenney, with whom she maintained a strong friendship long after the suffragette movement had quieted down and the two world wars were over. The letters are held at the University of East Anglia’s Archives as part of the Kenney Papers.

In a letter from January 1949, Christabel commemorates the death of Flora Drummond, nicknamed ‘the General’ for her habit of leading marches for women’s rights wearing a military uniform. This woman had been a grand figure in the movement, and her death caused sorrow for a lot of women who had been involved at the time.

The idea that the movement is over, that ‘[a] chapter has closed’, and that there is nothing more to be done, seems to be a recurring thought in Christabel’s letters. In 1946 she writes

[t]he vote is ours, and that is what matters,

and then in 1949 she repeats herself, adding that:

it is for the younger women to use it wisely

This is in response to multiple requests for publications focusing on the suffragette movement; in 1946 she was asked to participate in the making of a movie recounting the women’s struggle for the vote, and then in 1949 a similar request was put forward regarding the writing of a book. In both cases, she refused to take part, saying that with the world in such a fragile state as it was left in after the Second World War, showing the way the British government had responded to the women’s rights movement would only put more pressure on Britain and create further tensions:

for foreigners who see the film may get an erroneous impression of what England is today and judge her present case by that blotted page in our history

This awareness of more than just women’s rights is very present throughout most of the suffragettes’ correspondence with one another. When the First World War broke out, the suffragette movement was put on hold to help the government with this international struggle, and even after both wars were over, the women who had been part of the movement were still careful about putting the national and international situation before their own fight. Another example of this is a book that Christabel had written before these requests were voiced; she had already put it in the hands of a publisher when she decided to call off the deal because of the upcoming Second World War.

Ultimately, both letters are about war and memory. As much as they talk about writing books and making movies, the theme of the two world wars is present throughout the correspondence, and the weight these experiences have put on Christabel is palpable. The suffragettes fought for their own rights, but first and foremost they fought for equality and freedom, and the wars of the 20th Century brought these two concepts to their limits, uniting the militant women and the government in what was ultimately a fight for human rights.

The letters exchanged between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney can be accessed at UEA, alongside other fascinating correspondence between various suffragettes.

[KP/AK/1-2: correspondence with Christabel Pankhurst. Letter from 25/01/1949 + letter from 19/11/1946]

Kenney Papers at UEA Archives

How to access the Archives at UEA: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/library/archives

Suffragette sisters Annie and Jessie Kenney

This week sees the release of the British historical period drama film Suffragette. An opportunity then to highlight the papers held in the Archives of two suffragette sisters, Annie (1879-1953) and Jessie Kenney (1887-1985).

Annie Kenney (1879-1953) Copyright Kenney Papers

Annie Kenney (1879-1953) Copyright Kenney Papers

This is an extensive collection which includes correspondence with Lady Constance Lytton and the Pankhursts. (In the film, Emmeline Pankhurst is played by Meryl Streep).

Annie and Jessie were sisters in a family of 12 children. Born in Springhead, Yorkshire they both started their working life as cotton-mill operatives.

In 1905 Annie was recruited to the cause of women’s suffrage after hearing Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters addressing an open-air meeting in Manchester, and on 13th October 1905 she accompanied Christabel Pankhurst to an election meeting in Manchester Free Trade Hall. The pair heckled the speaker, Sir Edward Grey, were evicted, and conducted an impromptu meeting in the street. They were arrested and imprisoned, Annie for three days, and Christabel for seven. Thereafter Annie Kenney was a leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903.

Memorabilia from the Kenney Papers

Memorabilia from the Kenney Papers

Jessie Kenney worked alongside Christabel Pankhurst in Paris from 1912, assisting Christabel in the long-range direction of WSPU operations. In 1917 she accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst to Russia, on behalf of the British government. Their particular objective was to promote the mobilisation of Russian women in the war effort. Jessie was in Russia for some three months and made a detailed record of events which she later prepared for publication under the title The Price of Liberty. The unpublished manuscript and diary records are contained in the Kenney Papers.

Further information and a detailed listing of the Kenney Papers.

The Kenney Papers were consulted widely for the book Lady Constance Lytton by Lyndsey Jenkins (2015).