Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. The group had a single focus: Votes for Women. And they were willing to do whatever they had to to get that vote. They spoke up against those who professed to be political allies if they would not take action for women’s suffrage. They spoke out at political gatherings and sessions of Parliament. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes. When released to recover, they resisted re-arrest while continuing their public protests. They broke windows and set fires. They were a subject of controversy then, and some perhaps would question their methods even today.
Pankhurst wrote this autobiography in 1914, during a time when the women of the WSPU had put their work on pause to concentrate on the war effort. Although she was taking a break from pursuing suffrage, her passion for the cause remained strong. Her belief was that giving women the vote would improve conditions not just for voting women but for all the poor women, children, and elderly who were overlooked by the men in power.
The book functions as a defense of the WSPU’s methods, with Pankhurst explaining at each step why the group members felt they had no other choice but to become more militant and more disruptive. Often, she notes how men taking the same actions for different causes were subject to far less punishment than the women. Men were in charge of deciding what was just and adjudicating accordingly. The result was injustice for women who wanted only what was fair:
Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for men to fight for theirs.
They have decided that for men to remain silently quiescent while tyrannical rulers impose bonds of slavery upon them is cowardly and dishonourable, but that for women to do that same thing is not cowardly and dishonourable, but merely respectable. Well, the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals. If it is right for men to fight for their freedom, and God knows what the human race would be like today if men had not, then it is right for women to fight for their freedom and the freedom of the children they bear. On this declaration of faith the militant women of England rest their case.
When it comes to protest, I have in the past thought that violent protest is rarely productive and best avoided. Better to go through official channels, to protest in times and places set apart for it. To stay within bounds. But those bounds are often set by the very people who are targeted by protestors. At some point, doing things their way means settling for the status quo, letting the powerful stay comfortable. To be heard, the suffragettes had to make the powerful uncomfortable. In their case, peaceful protest wasn’t enough. It took violent action (toward property but not people) to startle people out of their complacency. How effective their actions were is unclear. They raised awareness, but women’s suffrage did not come to the UK until 1918, and even then it was a partial measure. Full suffrage for women was granted in 1928.
I was glad to get this first-person insiders’ perspective, as I’ve read very little about the suffrage movement, either in the U.S. or U.K. I was aware of the hunger strikes, forced feedings, and violence from some of the historical fiction I’ve read, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. There were a few times when I wished I understood the British system a little better so I could more fully comprehend why certain events were and were not to the suffragettes’ advantage. Most of the time, though, that wasn’t a problem. Pankhurst’s focus is on the logic behind the movement and decisions and actions taken. Her passion for the cause shines through, even when the details aren’t clear.
Hesperus Press is releasing a new edition of Pankhurst’s autobiography in connection with the upcoming film Suffragette, in which Meryl Streep is playing Pankhurst. I received a review copy via Netgalley.