Emmeline and Ethel became very close friends, and they continued to stay in touch after 1913, when Ethel's self-appointed term of service expired and she returned to the world of music. In 1914, Ethel rendezvoused with Emmeline in France during one of Mrs. Pankhurst's periodic flights from arrest in order to recover from the debilitating effects of another hunger strike--this time her tenth! Under the infamous "Cat-and-Mouse Act," she would have been subject to immediate re-arrest, even though bed-ridden, had she remained in England.
It was during this period that Ethel published a volume of her early memoirs, a large portion of which was devoted to her first lesbian passion, a relationship with one Lisl Herzogenberg. Lisl, a married woman, had come to Ethel's rescue during her student days in Germany, when she was experiencing a nervous breakdown. Lisl moved into Ethel's rooms and cared for her during the crisis, bathing her and feeding her. Later, she "adopted" Ethel into her home.
Reading this narrative reminded me of my own experience with heterosexual radical activists. There was always this "gulf fixed." For these women, there was a sharp dividing line between their personal lives--usually petrified into social routines associated with long-standing marriages, and their political lives, teeming with activity. They looked down on us lesbians, whose personal lives were very much in the forefront of our experience-- and inextricable from our commitment to women's causes.
Ethel Smyth was working out the most basic algebra of her liberation with Lisl. Wildly unmothered, she had needed to detach from her mother, a woman whose brilliant youth had been cut short by seven more-or-less consecutive pregnancies, and whose subsequent behaviors towards her children--not surprisingly--were indicative of serious emotional disturbances. Ethel, through her own form of "hunger strike," had finally obtained permission to study music in Germany, and here she was confronted with the suffocating social strictures for "unattached" females, as well as the brutal misogyny of the music world.
When I think of Mrs. Pankhurst's hunger strikes, her violence against her own body, and her total capitulation to the worst extremes of patriarchy--namely war, I am called to reconsider the definition of militancy, of radicalism. It was Ethel's fearless quest to feed herself, to feast on the love of another woman, even in the heart of their respective heterosexual prisons, which inspires me with hope for a revolution.